Our completely serendipitous journey to totality was amazing in every respect. Our last minute plans to drive to southern IL, the closest spot to us within the totality path, earned us a hotel no closer than Decatur Sunday night, which left about 3 hours of driving to get to the middle of the totality swath on Monday (2.5 hr to be anywhere in the zone). We got up on weekday time with enough time to stop for coffee, but that was about it.
We hit traffic in a few places, but I breathed a sigh of relief when we got to the edge of the totality zone in Benton before the eclipse started. I looked at hi-res maps of the totality path on my phone in the car to pick the perfect place, content to watch roadside if we needed to, which we saw several people setting up to do. With more help from Google, I learned that the absolute longest totality time near us was going to be at a small town vineyard in southern IL! I had already heard of “every party in town” being sold out and booked for months in advance, so I had little hope, but I figured we might as well try. Their website said they weren’t taking reservations, and it was a first-come-first-serve basis to get parking. As we kept hitting traffic, we ended up at the right latitude as the eclipse was starting, but still about 12 min from the vineyard. In other words, we were far from “first come” so I started scouting spots to pull over. We got to the vineyard to see people parked all the way along the entrance drive, and Paul’s car doesn’t have the ground clearance mine does, so off-road driving wasn’t an option. We were surprised to be flagged onward and to a grassy parking spot. If we had to sit there and watch from near the car, our day was already made.
We made our way toward the winery, and along the way we saw a generous amateur astronomer with a telescope and a solar filter. He offered me a look at the sunspots that were still visible despite the moon shadow closing in. After I got home, I looked up heliographic coordinates and it looks most likely that from my viewing location and time of day that I was looking at sunspot group 2671, since we could only see the western hemisphere of the sun.
As we got to the building, we found something I never expected: a plastic chair up for grabs? We moved it to the deck in the shade since there was a heat advisory. A group soon gave up their seats, so I scored one for Paul as well. Paul was meanwhile inside getting us glasses of wine in commemorative glasses (i.e. the coolest souvenirs we never hoped for). How could it be that we had the best seats in the house to wait for the total eclipse, showing up late with no reservations? He came out and we sipped our wine in disbelief at our great fortune.
We kept taking peeks at the moving moon shadow through our eclipse glasses as we waited for the big moment. As the eclipse progressed, we eventually noticed the light dimming. The best adjective I can use for it is “eerie.” The whole setting became more and more surreal, with our surroundings looking like we were in a dramatic TV show. I moved my chair to the lawn to bask in the weird light. I wondered if the visible light spectrum was disproportionately altered as the moon was eclipsing the sun. Paul and I kept glancing at the sun (with eye protection) and marveled at how small the sliver was, but how relatively bright it still was outside. Perhaps that was the weirdest part of the lighting aspect, because when the totality hit, it somewhat suddenly looked like night. That was a surprise, too: when totality happened, it was clear, because darkness descended all around. We knew it was time to take off the glasses when we couldn’t see the sun through them.
It was shocking to see how large the corona of the sun spanned away from the rest of the star, and the visible definition with the naked eye. Unsurprisingly, everyone cheered and made the various sounds of sheer awe. I scrambled to put the sun in my scope and we were able to see dynamic areas of prominence coming and going off the solar limb. Paul got a great look too, and then I hustled the Southern Illinois students sitting next to me over to take a look. The delight of sharing it with others was truly one of the best joys of the day. The totality went so fast and was so shocking that I did little more than marvel at it and try to get as many people as possible to look through the scope.
The diamond ring phenomenon that warned me to look away was way more beautiful than I had imagined. The first total eclipse experience was so awe inspiring that it was hard to think straight during the relatively brief time. Paul and I laughed that it seemed to only last seconds, amidst our shock. In all of the corporate excitement, I forgot to look for Mercury until it was too late! I remembered just as totality was ending and didn’t want to look at my phone. I looked where it should have been but didn’t see it, and wanted to avert my eyes when the sun became visible again. This planet remains one I’ve never seen! It leaves me already thinking onward to 2024!