How long did I know about this week’s solar eclipse? I don’t know. It wasn’t because of the recent media buzz. The better part of a decade ago, probably. Sometime back then, I filed away the notion: I am going to see the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. In the path of totality.
So I did yesterday, along with my immediate family. And some unspecified millions of other people. It was an event among events. During totality, we were in Paducah, Kentucky, which occurred there for a bit more than two minutes beginning at 1:22:15 pm CDT. All my remaining days, I will remember where I was at that moment, and what I saw, and so will the other members of my family.
I’d like to report that I overcame various trials and adversity to arrive at that place at that time, like an intrepid 19th-century scientist off to see eclipses over remote parts of the globe, but all it really took was a modest amount of planning, plus a bit of time and money. Back in October, for instance, I booked a room at a limited-service motel in Paducah for the night of August 20. I mentioned this to the clerk.
“That’s why you paid the regular rate,” she said. “People who booked this month had to pay twice as much.” Surge pricing among motels. She also claimed that nearby motels, only a bit better than the one we were staying in, charged $400 a night for some rooms. “And they’re getting it.”
We left on Saturday and drove from the northwest suburbs via Champaign-Urbana to Terre Haute, Indiana, where we spent the night of the 19th. On the way, we stopped at Shades State Park in Montgomery County, Ind.
The next day we went from Terre Haute to Paducah, spending a few hours in between in Vincennes, Indiana, on the Wabash River. We saw three things there: Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison as governor of the Indiana Territory; the splendid Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, and the monumental yet obscure George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.
The thinking behind these stopovers was that seeing the eclipse at totality was no certain thing. Clouds don’t care about your peak-life-affirming-you-are-a-child-of-the-Universe experience, or even if you’re a scientist (or citizen scientist) looking to add to mankind’s body of total knowledge. It’s just another day to the atmosphere. So in case that happened — and the prospect kept me antsy for days — the trip wouldn’t be a total bust.
All together, the trip from our house to Paducah, using the most direct roads, is nearly 400 miles. St Louis is closer, about 300 miles, but I wanted to stay away from a large city for the event, which would mean adding crowds to crowds. Also, I’d acquainted myself with much smaller Paducah in 2009 at the same time as Metropolis, Ill. (misspelling Paducah in my posting), and found it pleasant enough.
Why see the eclipse at all? Because of the astronomy books I had as a kid that explained and illustrated the phenomenon, especially with maps of where total eclipses would be in far-off future years like 1979. Because of the eclipse of March 7, 1970, which was partial in Texas. My eight-year-old self made a pinhole box but, finding that unsatisfying — and this was before widespread eclipse glasses — I stole an instant’s look at it the thing itself in partly cloudy skies, very clearly seeing the black disk on the bright one. Because the subject came up at the planetarium I visited almost monthly in elementary school. Because men were going to the Moon at the same time. Because of the lyric in “You’re So Vain” that seems to reference the ’70 eclipse. The idea of winging off to Nova Scotia just to see an eclipse seemed (seems) impossibly intoxicating. Because of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and “Nightfall” and other stories and movies using an eclipse as a plot point. Because I read Isaac Asimov writing about the Eclipse of Thales, and later read Herodotus on that event, which probably was on May 28, 585 BC, and if so history’s first exact date. Because I read about the eclipse of May 29, 1919, which helped confirm general relativity. Because of the annular eclipse I experienced in Nashville (as a partial) on May 30, 1984, which dimmed the sky in a strange way. Because it’s a cool thing to see not before I die, but while I’m still alive, just like the Transit of Venus. Because, to paraphrase George Mallory, it’s up there.