If you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors for just a moment, Gail and I chased what was looking more and more like the proverbial wild goose early this week, hoping we would not end up being skunked. But we considered it a goose worth chasing, and, gratefully, the skunk didn’t show. Besides, it was only 700 miles out of our way, and it occurred to us both (since we had the time) that some things were just worth trying: and so, from responsibilities in northern Iowa on Sunday, we headed south to see if we could be lucky enough to find clear skies in the path of totality of Monday afternoon’s Great American Eclipse 2017. Crazy? Maybe. But I don’t know, how often does one get to do anything associated with the word totality?
We knew it would require the better part of two days, including a night sleeping in the car -- since every hotel room for miles around had been booked for months. We also knew the forecast was not favorable to our hopes. We’d followed the weather for days, hoping to know if we might take the chance and go down. But the appointed day’s weather predictions, expected the week before to be sunny all across the Midwest’s path, became murkier and murkier (read: cloudier and wetter) the closer the time came. But even the chance to see a possible once-in-a-lifetime event made the effort worth it.
Now, there were a lot of places we could go from northeast Iowa. The path, after all, had huge dimensions – a whole continent wide on the one hand, from sea to shining sea, and a seventy-mile wide north/south swath all along the way. But rain systems were building from both the west (in Kansas) and the southeast (in Kentucky), squeezing the middle states of Missouri and Illinois, and there were limits to how far we thought we’d be willing to travel. Wyoming? Their western skies were typically clear, but no. A friend was going there, and I wished him well. Not Nebraska either, both of these just too far given our other plans. So we played the percentages. Northwest Missouri? No, we had already ruled that out by Saturday, seeing that rain was very likely there on Monday. (That ended up a good decision. Have you heard that Kansas City got flooded?) It left us with southeast or central Missouri and southern Illinois, any of which were south of where we were in Iowa, so we headed that way after church, checking the weather percentages throughout the afternoon to see which way we would eventually turn. By Sunday evening as we approached St. Louis, southern Illinois held the better percentages – still iffy, but better than Missouri – so we pointed the car in a southeast direction.
We felt like storm chasers, but we were actually chasing the sun.
We felt like storm chasers, but we
were actually chasing the sun…
We arrived not long before midnight in Marion, Illinois, our goal for the overnight. Having heard that Walmarts generally allow campers to pass a night in their parking lots, we thought it a likely and safe place to flop. So, apparently, did hundreds of others, also spending the night in their assorted cars, vans, pickups and motorhomes, with more showing up by the minute. Some shared a party atmosphere with friends, most were quiet. After one final weather check (yes, it still said mostly cloudy with 20% chance of rain), we hunkered down and tried to get some sleep. About 4:30am, after various commotions of barking dogs, inadvertent car alarms, slamming doors and growling diesel engines, a young man mercifully knocked on our window and said the manager had asked us all to move along. Since the sun was not yet up, we looked for a parking spot at a nearby truck stop but didn’t find one, then grabbed one we found at a McDonald’s next door and dozed some more. Still, we couldn’t help but look up along the way and notice that the sky at least looked promising; the main event was nearly nine hours off, however, so no use in getting our hopes up…
By six the sun had risen, the doze was over and the adrenaline started kicking in. The packed McDonald’s offered the pleasure of hot coffee, and it was finally time to hit the nearby county roads to find a good viewing spot with a trillion other tree-hugging Americans. The sky was blue and the sun shone brightly through a high cirrus ceiling. Cloud cover maps showed us that our afternoon chances were better the further south and east we went so we headed that way. By 7:30 we had found our place – out in the country in the parking lot of the Cana Baptist Church, corner of Canaville Road and Illinois 166, near Creal Springs, Illinois. Hey, it’s a church and I’m a pastor; nobody’s going to ask us to leave. And nobody did. A huge maple tree gave shade, which was nice because we knew it was going to be over 90 degrees in that shade within minutes. Gail climbed into the backseat again to sleep some more, and I settled down in a lawn chair with a book, too buzzed to rest. It was nearing the reckoning.
The first words out of Gail’s mouth a couple hours later: “Uh-oh, puffy clouds are building in the west.” I knew. I had seen that the clouds were moving almost due east and told her that was why I wanted to park at a crossroads with room to go in every direction. If the sky hadn’t completely clouded over by the time of the big show, we could jump in the car at the moment of truth and backrun it. Yes, a man makes plans. For better or worse, often the latter.
Huge dark clouds started forming by 11, but the sun shone brighter and brighter in between them. It was going to be close, a crapshoot. We both got a bit giddy and I told Gail I already really loved this adventure whether we got to see the eclipse or not. She agreed. Several other cars joined us, appreciating our good taste in spot-picking. It included a car full of middle-aged women from Champaign (appropriate) who quickly spread a quilt and brought out the wine glasses. They asked if I’d take a photo of them all with their ‘silly’ eclipse glasses on, then another holding their wine glasses irreverently in front of the Cana Baptist Church sign. I obliged, and told them that Jesus had often been a bit irreverent himself.
First contact, 11:53am, the sun begins its end run around the moon’s backside. Clouds are thick, but small breaks still separate them. It is going to be almost an hour and a half to totality, maybe things will change by then. Clouds, clouds and more clouds. I begin timing them, seeing how long a cloud the size of my spanned hand at arm’s length blocks out the sun; I’m testing for that possible backrun. A man makes plans, you know. And every time the sun breaks through between clouds, we of course find more of it moon-blocked. Finally, we see a huge stretch of blue sky coming beyond just several more large clouds. Hope. By 12:45 that large stretch of open sky reaches the sun. Since we know totality will last from 1:20:45 to 1:23:08, could that sky possibly hold for just 38 more minutes? Please?
By now, the light is eerie, actually darkening in a strange way, almost like when the full sun begins to slide behind a fierce mountain crag, but different. With each passing minute, the weird grayness increases. 1pm. Twenty minutes to go. The open sky still graciously yawns, and our jaws begin to ache from the smiles plastered on our faces. We’re going to see it after all! Celebration. Lump in the throat. A high cirrus cloud passes over the sun, barely making an impact. Gail notices that though it is still fairly bright and it is 91 degrees, the sun’s heat is no longer felt on the skin. We observe different things, trying to take it all in. I see a strange shadowy glow in the sky to the west. She sees a raptor acting strangely, then points out her first view of Venus to the west of the sun. I had told her to watch for it. But it’s not totality yet. By about 1:16 I hear dogs barking oddly, and by 1:18 crickets start to chirp. Taking as broad a view as possible, one can actually see the darkness advance, not as if by a shadow approaching, but by a light dimming, which of course it is. 1:20, it’s just seconds away now. Our unprotected eyes are not yet watching the sun but the earth, and we finally look up to see the sights we’d only ever seen in photos – first the diamond ring effect, that last moment before totality when the tiniest bit of sun still shines from around the moon’s far eastern flank, and then, finally, what we longed to see with naked eye, second contact and the corona glow. We’re in totality, the main event. The corona is star of the show. The moon’s shadow is upon us for the next two minutes plus. I struggle a bit with the camera and Gail, wise woman, says to forget it, just watch. So we do.
It’s not as dark as I expected it to be. The only ‘star’ we can see is the brilliant Venus, though there is a large ring of darkness around the eclipse. Perhaps that area of the ecliptic is presently devoid of bright stars, or else the further than average proximity of the moon from the earth is allowing a larger corona than some eclipses, making the sky too bright to see many stars. Perhaps both. I don’t think too long, though, there’s more to experience. We look around. It is very dusky. The Champaign ladies are whooping it up, maybe a little too much wine. Me? I find myself barely breathing, breath taken away by the spectacle. And I notice the day’s winds have died down, too, earth’s breath stolen also from it. Gail points out a sort of soft sunset glow on a horizon, and I turn around to see it on every horizon I can see, the four corners of the earth at the same time. Amazing. But we are taking fast looks at everything because our eyes keep drawing back like magnets to the shining corona, the star of the show. It is mesmerizing, nothing like it in our life experience. The plasma glow is radiant, luminous. The view… One can almost feel its three-dimensionality. I think to myself, “Will Jesus’ return be something like this?” Time seems strangely suspended. We are in another world than our own.
And then just like that, as we stare up, the sun again peeks out, third contact, this time from behind the moon’s western flank, and we see the second diamond ring effect. But we quickly avert our eyes to protect them. Totality is over, the corona gone. Within less than two seconds it is too bright to safely watch. The moon’s shadow has passed us, heading now to South Carolina’s eastern seaboard. There’s a lot of bad weather between here and there, though, yet we’re hopeful along the way that many will be as blessed as us to see it.
Now, with an apology for the length of this post, I need to cut you loose. I’ve more to say, actually, especially regarding just why this experience was so special, have even remembered something St. Augustine said I’d like to share. But I want to think more on that before writing any further. As a result, I’ve just decided to make this post “Our Eclipse Adventure, Part 1!” I’ll try to get to Part 2 in the next several days.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others of you who were able to either be in or get yourselves into totality.
~~ Standing Amazed,
RGM, August 25, 2017