Dispatch from the dark side


The City Museum in downtown St. Louis, located in the former International Shoe building, is a playhouse museum, where everything is designed to be played with, crawled through or climbed on. Each room and floor is different and you never know where you may end up at the other end of a tunnel.

The City Museum in downtown St. Louis features rooftop attractions with a beautiful view of St. Louis.

The mound behind us, known as Monks Mound, from the Trappist monks who lived there a short time, is 100 feet tall. It was the home of Cahokia’s chief and was also where public rituals and games were played.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, located east of downtown St. Louis, marks the site of the largest pre-Columbian Native American city north of Mexico.

Our home away from home during our solar eclipse camping trip.

Carl gazed up at the sun with his eclipse glasses, anxiously awaiting the two minutes when the sun was completely covered by the moon.

While we weren’t able to see the two minutes of totality due to a cloud, experiencing the eclipse and sharing it with family was well worth the drive and the heat.

The path of totality, where the moon completely covers the sun, traveled directly over St. Louis, Missouri on Aug. 21. We camped at Pere Marquette State Park, an hour north of St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Thomas Bonneville/Review

A pilgrimage to view the total solar eclipse

 

About a year ago I remember a friend sharing an article about the Aug. 21 total eclipse and immediately marking it on my phone’s calendar, setting it up so I’d receive a notification each month so as to not forget. 

I was determined to see the eclipse, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a space nerd like me, to see the moon passing before the sun, blotting it out so that only our star’s atmosphere is visible, making day into night.

To see the event in it’s full glory, though, I’d have to leave Minnesota, which was to only see the sun partially covered, and head south towards the eclipse’s path of totality.

 

Careful planning

By January of this year, I was researching the path of totality and campsites in it, or near it. By April, my cousins and I booked a site. We were going to St. Louis to see the eclipse.

The 500-mile trip seemed like a formality. The last time the U.S. experienced a total solar eclipse was in 1979, when it passed over the northwestern part of the country. 

The last time we had a coast-to-coast experience, similar to this month’s eclipse, was a century ago, in 1918. I was not alive for either of those celestial events.

We got our glasses and our camera filters, listened to podcasts and read online about the heavenly movements involved in the eclipse, building up excitement for the trip.

My boyfriend Carl and I left Aug. 18, driving about 10 hours to arrive at our campsite at 10 p.m. that night. We were exhausted from driving and from passing the miles and miles of corn and soybean fields. 

We camped at Pere Marquette State Park, which is about an hour north of St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River at its confluence with the Illinois River.

We were just outside of NASA’s predicted path of totality, as the state park was one of the few left with open campsites the weekend of the eclipse. 

 

St. Louis sights

As we waited for Monday to come, we spent some time visiting downtown St. Louis, as this had been my first time visiting.

We checked out the City Museum, which seemed to be geared towards kids, but as two 23-year-olds, I think we were almost having more fun than the 10-year-olds who would run past us. It’s a must-see stop, both for families and those without children, and one of the reasons I was able to convince Carl, who’d been there before, to come on the trip.

The museum, located in the former International Shoe building in downtown St. Louis is a playhouse museum, where everything is designed to be played with, crawled through or climbed on. 

It made us wonder what kinds of pains it caused the St. Louis zoning authorities as we ran through old buses and airplanes dangling hundreds of feet above the museum’s parking lot.

The museum’s website, under its “Pro Tips” section, states their are no maps, flashlights are helpful, and that it’s advised to write your phone number on your child’s wristband — a hint of what to expect.

We finished the day sharing some ice cream on the rooftop watching the sunset, thinking that in two days that very same sun would be covered by the moon. 

That evening my cousin Kyle, his wife Bekka and their 6-month-old daughter, Thea, arrived from Wisconsin at our campsite, and we relaxed by the fire. 

 

Forces of nature

St. Louis’ heat and humidity scuttled much of our other plans for the city, but we made the best of it. 

We managed to make it to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that marks the site of the largest, pre-Columbian Native American city north of Mexico. The city originally contained about 120 mounds; today about 80 remain. The site is directly east of downtown St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.

In the back of my mind I wondered about another weather phenomena that could ruin our eclipse-viewing plans: cloud cover.

On Monday, though, we woke up to bright blue skies, not a cloud in sight, a promising sign.

We took the day slow, eating a big breakfast, enjoying our time together. It warmed up quickly, to the point where even just sitting, sweat rolled down our faces. The cicadas were exceptionally loud and larger than those we hear in Minnesota. 

The heat and insects were great markers for the eclipse later — we expected the totality to happen around 1:15 p.m.

As we unpacked our eclipse glasses and camera filters at about 11:45 a.m., we tested them out and realized the eclipse was already starting — a bite-sized chunk of the sun was being bitten out by the moon.

Thankfully, due to the generosity of many of our family members, we had double the number of glasses needed, which worked out perfectly. 

Our camping neighbors, an older couple from Lincoln, Illinois, hadn’t realized when they booked their site that it was the eclipse weekend. While they had put together a viewing box, which uses a pinhole to project the sun on a piece of paper in the box, they didn’t have glasses, so we were able to share with them. 

 

Unnatural darkness

The whole eclipse happened so quickly. I lost count of how many times we all said, “Wow, this is so cool.”

We were surprised at how long it stayed bright out, despite the sun’s covering. Even when it was half-covered we didn’t notice much of a change. 

When just a sliver of the sun was left, the shadows around us began to disappear and the sky changed to a bluish-grey color. 

Off towards the west, we noticed some dark rain clouds heading our way. They looked far enough away that we hoped they would not interrupt the show in the sky.

Of course, once the totality started, the clouds covered the sun, but they left parts of the sky visible. 

We could see Venus in the southwest during the darkest part of the eclipse, which looked like dusk. While my eyes could be tricked, the rest of the senses reminded us the darkness wasn’t natural. 

During the totality it got dark enough for the overnight lights on the campground bathroom to come on, and the mosquitos came out to feast during those two minutes of totality. 

The cicadas, which had quieted as the eclipse’s “dusk” fell, chirped in full force during those darkest moments. The birds, which seemed to frantically fly around and chirp as it darkened, quieted as the moon fully spread its shadow.

The one blessing of the oppressive heat was how noticeable the temperature drop was when we went into totality — it must have cooled by 10 degrees.

The strangest part was watching the sky darken, dispersing the midday shadows until they were almost gone, kept in place by only the faintest light, still high overhead.

Suddenly, the clouds moved away, showing a bright sliver growing on the opposite side of the sun. We had experienced the shadow of the moon, and before the sun wholly returned, it began to rain.

As we drove the 10 hours home that evening, I thought back to the magical, surreal experience, which was worth everything involved.

The next solar eclipse is April 8, 2024, and it will travel from Texas up through Maine — you bet it’s already on my calendar.

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto


 

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