Here’s what Julie (@jkercher6) wrote about her experience on eclipse day:
We woke with a flexible plan. We would go to St. Clair unless the weather indicated clearer skies in Chesterfield. We would go early, 3-4 hours, in case we needed to move somewhere else, likely south. We had already filled the hotel room refrigerator with lunch food, drinks, and sparkling wine. We had a Styrofoam cooler to keep it in, necessary with the temperatures in the 90s. Kevin was anxious, worried that we would miss it again, but I thought we were doing everything we could and, beyond that, it was fate.
The sky was clear when we woke. We ate the free breakfast at the hotel. I had granola with yogurt, sliced almonds, and dried cranberries. I also had some skyr (my new favorite breakfast food from our Iceland trip) that he bought at the store the day before. The breakfast room was packed with people, lots of families, significantly different from the next day which was 6 or 7 business people. After double checking the weather report, we packed up and headed down the highway. Traffic was light, surprisingly.
We drove to the old airport because it was recommended in the St. Clair website, but when we got there, a sign said no public parking and a man confirmed that it was no longer an option due to a decision by the FAA. So we turned around and headed toward town, looking for another possibility but trying to avoid going all the way into town because we had not reserved a parking space. We stopped at Burger King, just before the highway to use the bathroom, but soon realized that this was a good option. People were already parking with their eclipse glasses, there was no charge, easy access to bathrooms, and it would be easy to get back on the highway. Except for a sign reserving employee parking, there seemed to be no restrictions and the employees were so busy with all the customers they didn’t care if we didn’t buy anything (although we would have if necessary). After the lot filled up, people started parking on the dirt next door.
After first contact (when the shadow becomes visible), we found a spot in the grass. It was right next to the entrance but it didn’t matter. We had a good view of the area as the traffic died down and more and more cars parked in every spot that was legal and some that were not. We ate some of our lunch and kept checking the shadow as it got bigger and bigger. As the light diminished, the automatic lights came on at Burger King and the neighboring gas station. As it got cooler, the temperature display on one of the signs went down from several degrees. The sun was high enough that it hurt my neck to look for too long. Kevin told us to watch for Bailey’s beads and the diamond. We didn’t see the beads but the diamond flash was huge and bright. Then Kev said “glasses off!” and I took mine of a little hesitantly. There were gasps from the crowd. It was a beautiful circle of light (even better after I removed my sunglasses, which I forgot I had on). My eyes teared up as I looked at it, not from the light but from the emotions I was feeling. It was so amazing. The only light was the corona, white wisps flaring off from the dark moon circle. The cicadas started chirping. We saw one star and then another. The sky was so much bluer than I expected and there was no color from the sun or moon. But the color was all around us, like a 360-degree sunset. It went on for 2 minutes and 39 seconds. Then it was time for the glasses again and we saw another bright diamond.
As the moon moved on, we went to the car and opened the sparking wine. The cork flew across the parking lot. The crowd dispersed quickly and the road for backed up with all the traffic. By the time we left, the highway was backed up too but we didn’t have anywhere else to go. We got what we came for, and more.
It started with a letter in the mail in the summer of 2008, and ended Monday in a Burger King parking lot in St. Clair, Missouri.
We got what seemed like just another solicitation from our alma mater. The Harvey Mudd College Alumni Association was sponsoring a trip to China and Tibet to see the total eclipse of July 2009. I remember looking at the letter and telling Julie something like, “Ha ha! We should do this.” and then, upon further consideration, “No, really, we should do this!” We signed up and paid our deposit. Then Julie got laid off.
We considered backing out of the trip, sacrificing our deposit. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the trip might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So we decided to go anyway, regardless of the finances. We are fortunate and privileged to be able to make that choice.
The trip to China was fantastic. We met up with some friends we had known in college, and met other alumni we had not known before. We flew to Beijing and stayed for a few days. From there it was on to Xian, then Chengdu, then up to Emei Shan, where we were to see the eclipse. This location had been chosen by Sirius Travel, who specializes in eclipse tours and was conducting our trip. It was supposed to have a very good chance of good weather.
It didn’t. The eclipse was supposed to happen about 8:00 in the morning. About 4:00, I woke up in our hotel room to a pounding rainstorm. This was before the widespread availability of smartphones; all I had was a Nokia flip-phone. I called my mother in Missouri and asked her to get on her computer and look at the weather in China. She responded that it did not look good. I really didn’t need her to tell me that.
The tour group assembled on the lawn where we were to view the eclipse, but all we saw were grey clouds. We started making our own fun, creating rock sculptures and offerings to the eclipse gods. Apparently they were not satisfactory, as the eclipse came and went without us seeing any of it. It got dark under the clouds, then got (slightly) lighter again. We had missed it.
Eclipse veterans told us that it still “counted”, as time in totality. I didn’t listen; it didn’t count as far as I cared, because I hadn’t seen it. (The rest of the China / Tibet trip was amazing, by the way. The lack of eclipse didn’t diminish what we experienced on the rest of the trip, especially given that China closed off travel to Tibet shortly after our visit.) (Not that it was our fault, I think.) (I mean, I can’t be sure, but it’s not like we did anything egregious.) (Okay, Eric’s dad did take a picture of Chinese soldiers from the tour bus after we were told not to, but I really don’t think…)
I don’t remember when I started looking for the next eclipse opportunity, but I think it was still on that trip. I found that an eclipse was to go across the United States in August 2017, going just south of St. Louis. My parents still lived in St. Louis at that time, so I told them to put it on their calendars, because I was going to be there.
Fast-forward to early 2017. My parents had since retired to Texas, and I had literally no family remaining in St. Louis. Still, it seemed like a good location to view the eclipse. We made hotel reservations in Chesterfield, a suburb to the west of St. Louis. Our hotel was in the path of totality, but if we went south a bit, we could get a longer time in totality. We decided to try to get to St. Clair, very near the centerline of the umbral path (meaning maximum time in totality).
My parents joined us in Chesterfield. I worried about crowds and clouds. News reports predicted horrific traffic jams as people tried to get to the path of totality. My big concern, after our experience in China, was getting stuck underneath clouds. To address this, I had studied the map extensively, ready to drive in any direction that seemed to have clear skies.
In fact, on Monday the 21st it wasn’t clouds or crowds that frustrated us, but bureaucrats. The St. Clair website had recommended an abandoned airport north of town as a good parking and observing location for day-trippers from St. Louis. When we got there, however, two official cars blocked the road. The St. Clair official told us that the FAA wouldn’t allow them to use the airport. We had to go someplace else.
I drove back down the road about a half-mile, to a Burger King, so we could use their restrooms. As we sat in the parking lot, we noticed that the cars around us were waiting for the eclipse. We decided to wait there until someone made us move. In the event, no one ever did. Kudos to the Burger King management for not kicking us out. They were busy making money from all the people coming from out of town. The lines for food were literally out the door.
We had been smart enough to arrive about an hour before first contact. As we waited, more and more cars filled up the lot, and the dirt/weeds/gravel patch next to it. By the time of first contact, there were probably 75-100 people in this immediate vicinity, with more watching from lots across the street, or the gas station next door.
As the eclipse deepened, I watched with awe and anticipation. I reflected on how much of the Sun could be blocked before we would even notice. With only a small sliver of the Sun still visible, the light around us seemed like a slightly cloudy day.
Then came totality.
I have no words.
No one can describe for you what totality is like, if you haven’t seen it for yourself. Pictures do not convey the experience. Videos do not capture the feeling.
I yelled, “Glasses off!” when I was sure that it was safe to view totality. We saw the solar corona; we saw some bright stars; we saw a “sunset” glow on the horizon all around us. I thought it might be darker, but I think there was enough light pollution from the businesses around us that the sky only got a deep blue, not ever black. We saw a nice “diamond ring” effect on both second contact and third contact, but we did not see Bailey’s beads.
I took some pictures with my cell phone because why not, but they did not come out at all. Some of our friends, however, in different locations, took much better pictures. Here are some of Kyle Roesler’s.
We watched for the full 2 minutes and 39 seconds, and then the real world returned, slowly. I might have giggled a little bit. (OK, a lot.) Cheers arose. We popped some champagne to celebrate the Sun’s return.
On Tuesday the 22nd, we woke up to overcast skies and rain.