For the two minutes and 38 seconds that the moon completely blocked the sun Monday afternoon, a big cloud blocked my view.
That wispy jerk parked directly over me and a pretty big crowd in downtown Carbondale at just the perfect time for us to miss seeing the corona, the diamond ring, Bailey’s beads, or any of the other incredible phenomena that the rest of Southern Illinois saw in, for the most part, perfect clarity.
I had been looking forward to seeing my first total solar eclipse — and in my own town! — for years (I got my eclipse shades nearly three years ago at a partial solar eclipse viewing on the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus; written in pen on the inside of the paper goggles was “save for Aug. 21, 2017,” and I did, stashed in a dresser drawer).
In the days leading up to the big moment, I walked around with that eerie feeling that I truly ended up in the right place at the right time — living in Carbondale, near the point where totality lasted the longest, on this particular day, when something spectacular would happen. I was emotional just thinking about it. I read accounts from people who had witnessed full totality, and I believed it would be unlike anything I had ever seen. People say it’s life-changing, it’s overwhelming. I fully expected to weep looking up at it.
I stood on the sidewalk near the intersection of Washington and Main streets in downtown Carbondale. I was close enough to the Shadow Fest area on Washington that I could hear the music — the Homegrown Stage featured local acts Monday. The mood was lively, our visitors were excited, people joked, lounged in the grass, shared fun facts, and explained solar eclipse science to children.
Some smoky-looking clouds had been rushing across the sun’s surface from the time the sun was about 25 percent covered. Looking through my shades, or through an eclipse viewer that a man from Tecumseh, Michigan, had set up on the grassy patch of East Main Street across from Veterans Memorial Plaza, the clouds looked sultry and spooky over the partially eclipsed sun. But when that big gray one moved in like a giant slug, my heart started to sink. The crowd around me booed. As those two minutes and 38 seconds ticked by — who knew they could go by so quickly? — it became obvious that we weren’t going to see the sun. Everyone was just quiet.
I tore my eyes away from that stupid cloud, trying to accept that my eclipse experience just wasn’t going to include a view of the sun. I looked at the pink band surrounding us on all sides as the sky became like a 360-degree sunset. I felt the air get cooler. I watched the faces of everyone around me in the dark. I listened to the crickets and cicadas. An otherworldly silver light was cast on the clouds that surrounded the sun and moon. Planets and stars were visible in the sky. It was almost as dark as night in the middle of the day. My view of downtown Carbondale — a view I’ve seen a million times in the daylight and the darkness — had never looked quite like that. The cloud cleared as soon as totality ended, and shadows through the trees looked like crescents.
That cloud broke my heart, but the experience was in no way a loss.
The real silver lining was in the spirit of Carbondale. This town was bustling on Monday and in the days leading up to the eclipse. I took my wooden PKs mug outside on the street, sipped my cold beer, and watched the people go by. Musicians and artists showed our out-of-town visitors the talent and creativity that blooms here. Bartenders, servers and cooks worked overtime to feed and imbibe the hungry and thirsty masses. Crews had finished a makeover of part of The Strip just in time, and our downtown looked clean, welcoming and quaint. Volunteers kept trash picked up. Many locals took full advantage of the full slate of fun.
After totality ended, I walked around downtown chatting with people. One man from Wisconsin had driven down just to see a total eclipse and saw a cloud. But his spirits were remarkably high.
“It’s about the people,” he said, draping praise on how smoothly he thought the weekend had gone, at how much he’d enjoyed our town. He promised to come back in seven years, when the next total solar eclipse again puts Carbondale in the path of totality. And I think he — and many others — will.
ALEE QUICK is digital editor of The Southern. Her columns include her own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-351-5807. Follow her on Twitter: @the_quickness