I'm sure it’s bordering on insufferable hearing all the eyewitnesses describe their mind-bendingly-awesome experiences at last week's total solar eclipse. As someone who has found it impossible to stop talking about it for the last seven days, I can only imagine I’m beginning to come off as that friend who won't stop yammering on about his recent cruise or tropical vacation. Yes, we get it, Matt. The eclipse was great. Let's move along. But if you can stand yet another first-person account, I feel compelled to share what I saw last week, not necessarily of the eclipse itself, but of its impact on me and those I was with.
If you knew where to look, the Internet was crammed with Eclipse Hype Men all summer. In describing totality, they promised a near-spiritual, once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event stretching between both coasts. We were told that the simple act of basking in the shadow of the moon for two and half minutes is enough to bring grown men to tears, a spectacle unparalleled in shear awe and splendor.
In other words, they sold the eclipse hard.
And I bought it.
Carbondale, Illinois, seemed like the place to be last week. The city had transformed itself into an eclipse-Mecca after being deemed the “Solar Eclipse Crossroads of America”. They earned this title not just because they would experience the longest totality of any other city, but because they’re one of the few cities within the line of totality again on April 8, 2024. (To grasp the significance of this, consider how, on average, any given point on earth usually waits 375 years between total eclipses. Carbondale will wait only seven.)
NASA, Planetary Radio, and Chicago’s Adler Planetarium would all be descending upon Southern Illinois University’s campus to host a massive event inside Saluki Stadium. The national media would certainly be recording every second of it, and I knew there was no place else I wanted to be. As a casual astronomy nerd who once forced his kids to watch every episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos reboot, I couldn’t resist the opportunity that such a special event would take place just four hours south of my home in Bloomington-Normal.
I made arrangements to take off work and pull my three boys out of school. My wife, unfortunately, was unable to join us due to prior obligations (though, if you ask her now, she’ll tell you she regrets not doing more to get out of those obligations).
It draws a pretty big crowd when your small city is declared the capital of the most jaw-dropping celestial spectacle of the 21st Century. Rumors abounded that traffic on Monday morning would be nearly impossible to navigate. So, with just a week before the eclipse, I decided to book a hotel room, embarrassed that I hadn’t thought to do it sooner. Everything was sold out, and the closest I could find was about two hours north of Carbondale.
The morning of the eclipse, the boys and I were up and ready for our complimentary continental breakfast at 6am along with about 30 other eclipse-goers, all of whom I can only assume also booked their rooms at the last minute. By 6:30am we were on the road. The interstate was noticeably crowded, but passable nonetheless.
Our destination was a grass field which served as overflow parking about a mile away from the event. SIU had dispatched a large fleet of school buses to shuttle people to and from the stadium. I had remembered reading that people travel bafflingly inconvenient distances just to witness totality. Case in point: sitting beside us on the bus was a tour group from, of all places, Scotland.
Later, inside the stadium, we made casual conversation with a family that had driven from San Antonio.
Like I said. Baffling.
I won’t go into all the details of the event itself. But I will say that it was beyond hot and it was beyond crowded. In the three hours leading up to totality, just as often as they warned us not to gaze upon the sun without our complimentary safety glasses, they warned us of heat exhaustion. Prior to the sharp temperature decrease that accompanies totality, the heat index was well above 100. The boys and I spent much of that time seeking refuge in the stadium’s shaded underbelly.
During totality itself, I made a conscious decision not to point my camera at the sky. In a media-saturated event like this, I knew there would be no shortage of footage that I could watch for decades to come, all of which would be superior in quality to anything I could capture on my phone.
I did, however, decide to record the audio around me. I figured that holding a microphone would be minimally distracting, yet still allow me to capture the moment from our seats. Here’s a clip of that recording, starting about 30 seconds before the moment of totality:
Things got weird.
I got weird.
We all got weird, okay?
People crying, people laughing and gasping, whooping and hollering.
Remember the Double Rainbow Guy? It was like that, but even more intense. This was 15,000 men, women, and children losing all composure (presumably) without the assistance of psychedelic hallucinogens.
I didn't cry. I was, however, overcome with raw elation and sheer, guttural giddiness, the depths of which I’ve rarely, if ever, felt before. At some point I had started trembling. Some combination of heat exhaustion with a surge of eclipse-directed dopamine and adrenaline caused my hands to shake so violently that when one of the kids asked me for a drink after totality was over, I tried and failed repeatedly to open a water bottle for them.
Seven days later, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that. It seems, on paper, the height of silliness to tell you that the total eclipse had such a visceral, raw impact on my emotions and body. But it really did. And I can tell you, I was not alone. It seemed to have a deeply profound effect on everyone in attendance.
In the spirit of the Double Rainbow Guy, I’ve been thinking a lot these last few days about what it all means. I don't want to read too much into it, but on the other hand, I don't think something like that causes such primal reactions in people without having any meaning at all. And while I have any number of things swirling in my head about the eclipse, I do keep landing on three lessons from witnessing totality.
First, I think I have a better understanding of the significance of moments now.
Consider all the massive life events that can happen in a moment so fleeting. A first kiss. Conception. Birth. Death. Even a conversation that has lasting impact or a kind word spoken at just the right moment; all are things that are here one minute and gone the next. The eclipse was like that. I feel I understand better now how the brevity of a thing doesn’t determine (or undermine) its value. In fact, sometimes, the fact that something doesn’t last is why it is so cherished to begin with. I heard this point best articulated in a recent TED talk, and I find myself wholeheartedly endorsing its sentiments.
Second, sometimes the moment won’t happen if you don’t work for it. It requires sacrifice. It cost me to see the eclipse. I drove four hours to Carbondale, and eight to get back home (that's right, twice as long). I paid for the stadium tickets, paid for food, and paid for gas. Many people paid much, much more and traveled across the world for that moment.
In the scheme of things, it seems like it was a stupid amount of effort for something that lasted less than the length of most pop songs. But I have zero regrets. The moment was worth the disparate cost to experience it, and I made memories with my kids that I don't think any of us will ever forget. A fleeting moment can be a life-changing event, but sometimes it'll never happen if you don't put in the work to make it happen.
Third, I think the eclipse really does have a spiritual meaning, one for which words fail, but I’ll spend the rest of this post trying to articulate as best as I can. In doing so, I’m going to go basic with you. As basic as it gets. Ready? Here it is:
We live on a planet.
Yes, yes, I know you know that. But let it sink in, for real.
We live on a planet. Our home is a planet.
We all know this. We’ve known it since grade school. But now I’ve seen it. Witnessing the perfect alignment of three celestial bodies, you can’t deny our place in this solar system, a system which goes on without any regard for us. People are small and insignificant by comparison. Our lives are breath in the wind, tiny specks on a planet hurtling through a cold, vast, seemingly-indifferent universe. We are here one moment and gone another, with lives that are just as fleeting as totality itself.
AND YET, we are deeply loved on a scale surpassing the expanse of that universe. I crack open the Scriptures to passages like Psalm 8 now, and I don’t think I can ever quite read them the same way ever again:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?”
The God who formed the heavens has favor and regard on us dumb, little dust specks, even to the point of putting on our likeness through the incarnation of Christ Jesus. That’s an infinitely empowering, yet infinitely humbling cosmic proposition. I already knew that before. But I think I know it better now.
These are my favorite Carbondale eclipse clips from YouTube.