Cheering Light's Triumph on the Path of Totality

 08/23/2017 - 22:39
The sun's corona streams form the central disk. The bright star Regulus is visible to the left

With government turmoil, hate marches and a recent nuclear scare, why did so many Americans get excited about seeing an eclipse? The percentage of those making plans to see the “Great American Eclipse” was only a little higher for Democrats vs Republicans and in the vicinity of 50 percent for both.

My own plans to witness the eclipse of 2017 were unexpectedly undone a week before the event. Scrambling to find an alternative plan, I identified a location, found a willing travelling companion and checked for hotels nearby. The closest I could find was nearly 200 miles from the path of totality!

We left Sunday afternoon, spent the night in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (my alma mater), and arose a bit after five a.m. to head south. Traffic congestion and construction slowed progress, but we arrived at Ferne Clyffe State Park in Illinois around 11:30 CDT, about two hours before totality.

I had last visited Ferne Clyffe decades ago on a backpacking trip across Southern Illinois. It is known for attractive cliffs and an abundance of ferns and is located well within the eclipse path.

The last time I was there I was alone. This time the place was packed and we were allowed entry just minutes before park officials closed the entrance.

In the last ten miles from the Interstate 57 to the park, various open areas along the road were being used by local entrepreneurs for eclipse parking. Typically, it was $10 or $20 to park and business was booming. It was very reminiscent of Ann Arbor on a game day.

Like on game day, people were tailgating, playing bocce ball and corn hole, and demonstrating the conviviality of people participating in a shared love. Unlike game day, nearly everyone was either carrying or wearing funny dark glasses.

Word quickly spread as the moon began to take a bite out of the sun a bit after noon. More people donned their glasses to check it out.

Camera enthusiasts started fiddling in earnest. One man had 5 different cameras set out to record the event. Another had a camera seemingly without a solar filter mounted and pointing up at the nearly full sun and I pitied the camera that was likely melting inside.

As the moon’s bite grew the sun was reduced to a crescent. A toddler wearing eclipse glasses danced with excitement announcing that the sun looked like the moon!

Ominous clouds to the north threatened to rain on this party, but they stayed north.

The crescent grew narrower until, at about 1:20 p.m. CDT, the light of the sun was extinguished.

People gasped with awe then stood in quiet wonder watching the dramatic celestial event.

Bright stars and planets became visible in the darkened sky. Bats began to emerge from the trees and dart around hunting for insects. The bright white corona streamed out from the hidden sun. Smaller but brighter red solar flares were visible around the black lunar disk.

After about two and a half minutes the blindingly bright sun began to emerge from behind the moon. The “diamond ring” effect was briefly seen. This time the gasps of awe were combined with cheers and applause.

Presumably people were cheering the spectacle, but I think there was something more. It’s a bit unnerving to see the midday sun disappear, to see the bright world abruptly wrapped in blackness. Applause for the sun was partly the welcoming back of a faithful and heroic sun who had conquered the darkness.

As the solar crescent flipped around and moved towards fullness, people began to pack up and leave. The long trip home would be a trial.

We departed around 2 p.m. It would be 6 a.m. EDT before we arrived home in the north.

The cell phone Maps application shows red lines along parts of the road where traffic is bogged down. Those red lines moved with us almost to Chicago (around 3 a.m.)

Those ominous clouds to the north also fulfilled their destiny and added to our stress with periodic torrents of rain. They also rewarded us with a bright and beautiful double rainbow.

Despite the travel frustration there was very little evidence of road rage. Most people just accepted the inconvenience. Also, at highway overpasses, local citizens stood and offered friendly waves and conversation to the drivers of seemingly endless lines of cars creeping underneath.

It was good to see people caring about one another and to see them united in mutual admiration of our place in the universe. If only for a brief time, the eclipse unified Americans in mutual wonder and goodwill.

 

Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Reach him at bobcphotography@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.