Yes, The Eclipse WAS Worth Driving Through Several Circles of Hell

OK, can you all deal with my whining for just a little bit before I get to how ethereal and magical and [insert your favorite superlative here] the eclipse was if you made it somewhere in the Path of Totality and didn't have cloud cover? Because it was all of those things, and I don't know anybody who didn't think so. 

Even stops on the road were otherworldly. Who actually runs into somebody they know at the Lake Forest Oasis? We did! Tom Tiedjens and wife Vicki were there, returning home from Indy after (tears) dropping their daughter off for her first semester of college. If that wasn't weird enough, the next rest stop we hit, there was Tim Taylor and wife JoAnne Stroud at the I57 southbound Paxton rest stop! Who runs into people they know at an interstate rest stop? We do!

Saturday during my regular grocery run we picked up road snacks and drinks and food, and Stella and I realized we spent more on road trip crap than we spent on the week's groceries. (Well, we did pack deli and bread and other sandwich fixins for actual nourishment, too). I tanked up the car, topped off the tires, cleaned out the crap, and left town around noonish on Sunday.

We have friends in Champaign (yes, the same Cynthia and Ernie that Sammy and I stay with whenever he has a downstate TaeKwonDo tournament) and they were warm and welcoming as always. They ordered us a Papa Del's pizza (an UIUC undergrad staple that thankfully is still in business thirty years later) upon our arrival in Champaign before we retired for the night. I knew weeks ago I wouldn't be able to do Milwaukee to Carbondale in one fell swoop; I just didn't realize that even Champaign to Carbondale and back would be the cluster it turned out to be. I was expecting heavy traffic; I wasn't expecting the Sixth Circle of Hell. 

View from the rest stop.
Those are brake lights, not taillights. 
According to the Chicago Tribune, IDOT spokespeople said that"lane closures for major state projects in southern Illinois were temporarily lifted during the weekend before the eclipse and the following day." Bullshit. Not only were the lanes still closed on Sunday afternoon/evening,  even if they had "lifted" those lane closures, it wouldn't have done any good because the lane was closed for a reason, that reason being that the closed lane was undrivable because it was torn up. Check out this sign.  You know where it is? It's in the MIDDLE of the traffic jam south of the Buckley/Roberts exit. It's not warning us there's a problem. You couldn't see the ferocious backup from the Buckley exit, three miles north of the rest stop where we decided we'd better take a bio break before entering the parking lot that was I 57 for 15 miles. 
No, to warn us, this mobile sign would have done some good NORTH (as in BEFORE) the Buckley/Roberts exit so that people could consider an alternate route instead of being stuck for 15 miles of parking lot. No, this sign was admitting there was a problem. Yeah, suckers, there's 15 miles of this shit that's going to take you almost two hours to get through. Oh, and this wasn't even eclipse day. But we got through, and devoured that Papa Del's pizza after barreling down Highway 45 into Urbana.

But anyway, Sunday night we looked at maps, and Cynthia and Ernie determined that taking I70 across to Decatur and then Highway 51 was the way to go, and we concurred. They were headed to Murphysboro; we had "reserved" parking at SIU-Carbondale. Our choices worked out well for us, as Cynthia wrote in her blog, she wanted something more quieter as opposed to the "event" that Carbondale would be. I was up for an event so it was perfect for both of us. We all got out of the house at 6 am ish. Normally I would have stopped more often to take in the rural decay and beauty but I didn't want to risk being late for the show. There were spots on Highway 51 that looked like they were out of a movie set in the midcentury deep South, and I normally would have stopped to photograph them, but traffic was getting heavier as we got closer, and I didn't drive through the Sixth Circle of Hell the previous night to miss the eclipse. Cynthia had the same thought, and if you read her blog there's a humorous anecdote around that worry that has to do with making sure your google settings are up to date. And speaking of Cynthia, guess who we ran into at a rest stop! All the omens were good ones for us.

The first born and her beau
After a long wait in parking line, we were directed to a parking place in a grassy field, and although the eclipse had started, we learned that it wasn't something that we'd watch constantly all the way through. It was more of a thing where you'd put on your glasses, and see what looked like a tiny bite out of a cookie. Then you'd look down and have a conversation, and check back in. That's why we weren't completely upset that we were still in parking line when it started. The kids put on the glasses, leaned out the window, and checked back in.
The boy
After we were parked, we checked to see that there was a bigger bite out of the sun cookie, and we unloaded the car and made some sandwiches, and found the port-o-lets, and settled in for Totality.

SIU-Carbondale was a center of attention, since Carbondale was going to have the longest totality time. So, all the geeky NASA science guys flew in, and they had a big ol event in the SIU football stadium, and they would have experts talking it all through and that's where the national TV guys were and...... what a bust! In Parking Lot A we were actually afraid it might be a bust for us too, since about five minutes before totality, we saw a big ol cloud moving in. But almost on cue, the cloud moved over (and presumably over to the stadium) and we got a clear sky for Totality. 

I'll try to describe totality, for those of you not there. It felt like sunrise. No, it didn't. It was almost eerie. Birds were freaking out. The color of the air around was ..... off. An announcement came over that it was safe to look without protection and it was that marvelous ring.

 People around us (OK, us too) gasped over how amazing it was; reactions were strong.  I want to say it felt like sunrise, but that wouldn't have captured it.  Even my camera freaked out for one shot. Honestly, I didn't spend too much time and energy photographing it. It seemed like one of those things I wasn't going to be able to capture and I just enjoyed the moment. Instead, I got everybody else's reactions.

One of my favorites was this guy, who'd used the DVD of the Dr Who episode that took place during an eclipse as his pinhole projector. When he explained this to me, I squealed, "OHMYGOD you're such a geek!" He took it as the compliment that I meant it as. This was a big part why I wanted to be at an event, I wanted to meet people and chat with them and share a common humanity. Like the punk festival I was at a couple of days ago, I needed random community to ease the pain of national events of the past couple of weeks. 

Afterwards, I found a nice older gentleman at an information booth who'd lived in the area for some 40 years, and inquired about where we could find some kind of swimming hole, as it was beastly hot and we were all wet with sweat. He directed us to Poplar Camp Beach, which was clear driving after getting out of the grassy lot, and was a great example of how chill and beautiful Southern Illinois can be. Some really nice local girls allowed us to use their floaty rafts and both of them talked to me about how they're in high school and can't wait to graduate and go to New York, because living in a small town is really getting to them. After a couple of hours (and decreased body temperatures) we figured that some traffic had probably died down. Highway 51 didn't look good, so we tried some backroads, which was a huge mistake. Not only was the Illinois DOT unprepared, so were all these small towns. Seven cops on a corner, not a one doing ANYTHING, not even directing traffic. At least a couple of towns had cops directing traffic and waving people through stop signs. But I say pshaw to anybody who said, "Oh! Use an alternate route! That's the smart thing to do!" Yeah, ten thousand people had the same idea. Even by 10 pm, which is when we arrived at Effingham on Hwy 45 (about halfway between Carbondale and Champaign, normally a two hour drive that took us five hours) there was backed up traffic for miles.  People at rest stops were tired and cranky (though I have to give props to the folks who worked at these places for putting up with all this). We finally rolled into Champaign at Cynthia and Ernie's house near midnight. They were crashed and we said a good bye early in the morning. We slept in, and then had an excellent breakfast at The Original Pancake House in Champaign. 
path to the gardens
And this is where I have to complain again, because afterwards, because of the poor planning on the part of the Illinois DOT, we didn't have the time or energy to really be tourists and take in what Central and Southern Illinois had to offer. I was prepared to make lots of stops, but all I wanted to do was be home. We stopped in at UIUC's Japan House, as I do whenever I'm in Urbana, because those gardens have a way of chilling you out (as Japanese gardens in general are meant to do). Also to say a proper goodbye to Cynthia and thank her for her usual generous hospitality. We also took a ritual visit to a most excellent tree that Sammy knows well and Stella and Beau were impressed with.

On a positive note, I knew I wanted nothing to do with I-57 south of Kankakee, so after all these years, I took US 45 all the way up to Kankakee. All those years of driving down, and just seeing the names of those towns on those green expressway signs... Rantoul, Paxton, Buckley, Onarga, Gilman.... all signs I knew from making that run so many times as an undergraduate, now I saw all these towns. Gorgeous road,  and lots of shade, too, unlike the expressway. 

I wasn't the only one who appreciated it: again, that sudden community kicked in in Onarga. Onarga has a gorgeous old city sign and I was waiting for these other two photographers to finish, and instead I started up a conversation with them. Turns out they were driving back to their home in Ontario, Canada and were doing the back roads all the way. I just felt better about having a wonderful conversation with two strangers, instead of resenting them for being in my shot. In fact, I think it's a better shot with them in it, because now it's a story. And that's why you go on road trips, for the stories. 

And that's when I realized that maybe going through several circles of traffic hell was a blessing in disguise: because maybe it's the only way to tell people who weren't in totality that despite the worst traffic I've ever been in, it was definitely worth it for those two minutes of otherworldliness. Had it been easy, maybe I wouldn't have appreciated it so much. So here's the whole photo album of the trip. 



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