When traveling I often wonder what matters most – where I go or whom I go with. Two weeks before the solar eclipse I still had no plan. I wanted to see the solar eclipse in totality with someone I knew. I had procrastinated over the three-day, $800 dorm rooms offered at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. When I found someone who would do that, the rooms were no longer available. Then my lifelong friend Joan said she’d take Sunday off from her job at a casino in Joliet and drive down to southern Illinois with me.
It was my former neighbor and friend Dennis who convinced me that I must see the total eclipse. “It’s life changing,” he said. “Everything you thought you knew is put into question.” Okay, he had been drinking when he said that but he is not one to sensationalize.
Joan didn’t care if I had a plan. “We can always sleep in the car at a truck stop if we have to,” she suggested. While she’s on a tight budget, Joan was the right person to go with. She’s a lot of fun and easygoing. I found a tent in my basement and called the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds to see if they had space available. “Yes, we have lots of space. Just come. No need for reservations,” the woman on the phone said. This would be an ideal place within the path of totality. Du Quoin is about 20 miles north of Carbondale. We would avoid the anticipated traffic congestion and crowds being reported by news outlets. I had attended a rodeo at the fairgrounds so was somewhat familiar with it.
I live by the traveler’s 10-minute rule. It works 95 percent of the time. Go ten minutes outside of the center of attraction and you will enjoy a place for what it really is. That’s what we did. After traveling south on Interstate 57, west on Highway 14 and north on Highway 51 we followed a gravel road into the fairgrounds, past the barns. We rolled down the car window to ask where the campgrounds were. A couple with a slight twang in their voices directed us to follow the road. We saw some RVs and tents near a pond and checked in.
“Welcome. Are you here for the fair too or just the eclipse?” a curly haired blond woman asked.
“Just the eclipse,” Joan said.
Pointing to a hill beyond the pond the woman replied, “Okay, we will walk people up there tomorrow if you care to join us.” We paid $25 for a space to camp.
It was hot and humid in southern Illinois with a temperature still hovering in the low 90’s at 5:00pm when we arrived. Our first action was to put the tent up. The night before I made sure all the parts and directions were intact. A short while after starting to push poles through colored sleeves I got confused. We were both sweating in the heat. A man with tattooed arms not wearing a shirt appeared. He asked if we needed some help.
“Sure,” Joan answered. “We haven’t put this tent up in quite a while.” It was the first time Joan had seen the tent.
The man said, “I’ve been living in a tent for the past 20 years. That’s mine right there next to my mother’s RV.” He pointed across the gravel road and asked, “This is a standard dome tent, right?”
“Yes.” Joan said. “Are you with the fair?”
He nodded. His face was wrinkled and his skin tanned. He picked up the poles and crisscrossed them at the top sliding them through the sleeves. Within minutes the tent was up.
“What do you do at the fair?” Joan asked.
“Manage a ball toss game.”
“That sounds fun.”
“Not really,” he said. “Doesn’t pay much.”
“What’s your name?” Joan asked.
“Critter. They call me Critter.”
We thanked Critter profusely for his help. I reached for my wallet to give him some money.
“No problem. Tents are easy. It’s my good deed for the day.” He smiled and walked back to his tent across the road.
Our camping neighbors beside us were a couple in their sixties from Wisconsin. They sat in chairs with Nascar emblems on them. Their vehicle had a long back end that was big enough for them to sleep in.
Joan and I walked over to one of the barns where a band was setting up. We had a beer and left after a few songs. An old man whose voice may have sounded okay if he was singing the blues, fell flat on the songs Barbra Ann and Wonderful Tonight. A few couples danced anyway.
We laid our blankets in the tent and fell asleep. Joan woke up around 1:00am and decided to sleep in the car because her back hurt. I found her there in the morning. The sun was already shining brightly. The sky was a beautiful pale blue with no clouds. We drove into town to eat breakfast at Kalin’s Café where every table was full. The waitress apologized in advance for the wait in getting our food. Seated next to us were four local people. In response to Joan’s startup conversation a middle aged man wearing a billed cap said: “We come here three days a week. Usually there are maybe three tables with people in them. Where you from?”
“Chicago area,” Joan said.
“We won’t hold that against you,” he said jokingly.
These local people doubted whether solar glasses would truly protect the eyes during a solar eclipse. They hadn’t planned on viewing it at all. I expressed a thought about spending the morning at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge but our table mates said we’d have to go through Carbondale to get there. The woman with short brown hair drew street directions with a black marker on a white napkin. My $7.95 breakfast of coffee, eggs, bacon, biscuit and hash browns kept my stomach full throughout the day.
Back at the fairgrounds we sought relief from the heat under a tree. Watching the people in their makeshift homes prepare coffee on burners and food on grills created a picnic atmosphere. Children played with balls and a few men were fishing in the pond. Hours passed.
As the moon started creeping over the sun’s surface a few seniors held colanders against a white board catching the sun’s altered rays. Positioning their solar glasses with cocked elbows, they periodically looked up to check on the progress being made toward the earth, moon, and sun alignment. A woman shared eclipse cookies from a clear plastic bowl. They were sugar cookies with chocolate icing smeared on the surface depicting the different phases of the moon across the sun.
At around 1:15pm the bright light quickly changed to gray, like a storm rolling towards us. I felt confused and a bit anxious. What was happening? I looked for Joan who had stepped a few feet away. Others beside me were a college girl with short brunette hair, a young boy and a man with a camera. Minutes later, people started to cheer. Darkness surrounded us. I could hear oooh’s and aaaah’s, and “This is it.” Some people raised their arms into the air. Others crossed their chests. All necks bent upward. In the sky I saw a perfect black circle blocking the sun’s light. It was elegant, stunning, like a jewel. Beyond its beauty I thought of mathematics and geometry for some reason. A star appeared east of the sun.
“Listen to the cicada’s” the college girl exclaimed. “They’ve changed into their night rhythm.” I listened and the cicada sound had changed becoming stronger and quicker. The air was cooler, with less humidity. Hints of a sunrise to the east and sunset to the north confused me more. Around the black circle was a glow of light. Everyone at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds was looking up. The sun’s corona ringed and radiated beyond the moon’s shadow. I felt as though I was looking into the eye of the universe. Joy and exultation filled me as I watched our magnificently orchestrated universe in action. A flash of light, brilliant, dazzling caused me to pull my eyes away. The moon was moving on.
I interpreted the flash of light as a wink from the universe relaying, “Everything’s okay. This is just a glimpse of the wonder and beauty.” The darkness lifted and the sun’s light returned. I stretched my arms to see if they still worked and secured my footing on the ground. It was if I’d been tossed into a Tilt a Whirl carnival ride. I heard the young boy say, “I can see my shadow again.” He looked to the ground in awe. The shadows from tree leaves were crescent shaped.
Joan stepped towards me wide eyed, “Oh my God. That was amazing. Let there be light!” During those two minutes in the path of totality we basked in the dark center of the moon’s shadow as it hit the earth. The sun, moon and earth were aligned.
For the two days we were in southern Illinois no one mentioned politics or a country divided. We were all amazed by the one celestial body that sustains us, the sun. Even while the moon blocked the sun’s light, it’s corona signaled hope. Our life on earth is an instant in the grandness of time and space. In just over an hour and a half the eclipse crossed twelve states.
People warned me before going and asked me upon returning about the traffic. I don’t remember much about the traffic. Going home we headed north on Highway 51 and got on Interstate 57 at Effingham. There were some stops and starts due to road construction but nothing like the delays I’ve heard from people who were in Carbondale. I was with my friend listening to country music on the radio reflecting on one of the most marvelous moments of my life. Why would I care about the traffic?
On this trip Joan trusted me, not a plan. Being with her certainly mattered. We’d shared many life experiences together beginning in the first grade, but this was special and we both knew it. I’m still perplexed over my question of what matters most. Maybe it’s illusive, like night happening during the day.
I had another hour and a half drive after dropping Joan off. She texted me when I got home: “Mary, Let’s go back on April 8, 2024 for the next eclipse. It will be going through southern Illinois again.” Maybe we will stay for the fair too.