Solar Eclipse 2024: the Band of Totality Tour!

Nancy Eisenhauer of Herrin, Illinois, checks on the sun a few minutes before totality in the Great American Eclipse of 2024. Photo by John Griswold


Strong feelings shaded yesterday’s total solar eclipse in North America, ranging from worries about terrorism against big crowds gathered in rural areas, where first responders would be overwhelmed, to fervent hopes for the rapture.

Maybe it was because I was living farther away from the ominously-named band of totality in the eclipse of 2017, but the response this year seems to have been heightened, a kind of late post-millennium, post-January 6th, pre-November 5th fervor. The Paper of Record this morning spoke of goosebumps, “scribbled prayers on scraps of paper…burned…in drums beneath the old empty grain silos of Buffalo,” of “breath held in awe,” reverence, marvel, “hushed respect,” freakouts, time’s stoppage, and magic.

My hometown, Herrin, in Southern Illinois, was at the center of both length and width of the totality path from Mexico to Canada this year. It was in the path of the 2017 eclipse as well. This “cross” of two paths was apparently meaningful to rapture-wishers, as were the years between them: seven, a number that has power, I am told.

Local social media made the most of eclipse interest, from reminders to put Southern Illinois’ charms on display in hopes of luring back tourists, to faked photos purporting to show Tobey Maguire shopping for milk in Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University. As with all things viral, the fervor created its own reality. The Washington Post warned there could be 15-hour gridlocks in places like this, when out-of-towners fled for highway ramps after the eclipse’s four minutes of totality were up.

Yesterday morning I left St. Louis’ Metro East for Southern Illinois later than I had planned, but the drive to Herrin was to be only two hours. Nothing suggested a space rock was about to blot out our sun, but if you were looking for portents, a great cross made by two contrails (chemtrails?) was sprawled out against the sky in a way I have not seen since last week. In 20 years of visiting then living in this town, I had never noticed until yesterday morning the Eclipse Car Wash by the Planet Fitness.

Traffic on I-64 East was crawling at 15 mph. The double lines of cars reminded me of a hurricane exodus in the south. The physical world can still drive us out of our homes, but here there was no stress of departure, just a look of anticipation on the faces of those with plates from Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Some of the cars were unusually full, and their occupants looked happiest.

GPS wanted me on the highway, but I was afraid I would not make it on time, so I got off at Okawville and dead-reckoned by the sun down through Nashville (IL) and beyond. These are pretty little places that still have well-maintained Victorian homes and real businesses in their old-school downtowns, from farming and oil money, I guess. Purple clover bloomed in the fields on the road to Tamaroa and Sesser. Trees along the creek bottoms were greening up, and I felt bad for those on I-64 and I-57, because they did not know the landscape and felt they had to follow the crowd.

Thousands were headed to Saluki Stadium in Carbondale and Rent One Park in Marion. I was invited to smaller parties, including one on a farm out past the National Wildlife Refuge, on a road still named for my grandfather, who died in the 1950s. When I saw I could not make it, I thought of where I wanted to watch the eclipse in town. Where was my emotional center now after being gone 40 years? Certainly not where people gather at the Phillips 66/Kate’s Place Video Gaming, which replaced the historic Herrin Motel, or the statue of the Doughboy near city hall. Not the post office, the library (tempting), my grandparents’ house (now a bed and breakfast), Thornton’s Market, the defunct Norge plant, or even my childhood home. I wanted to be in a quiet place with only a couple of dear people, who are my “other parents.” They live now across from the cemetery where my mother and her family are buried. They served Louie’s P&R sandwiches I have enjoyed since high school and fresh-baked cookies, and we caught up as we waited.

The most surprising thing about the eclipse was how normal things looked for how long. Even with the sun 90 percent occluded the backyard looked as it would any other day with a light cirrus cover. The light fooled my phone, too. I took selfies with the sun over my shoulder, and it never stopped looking like a bright disc to the camera lens. Another few minutes passed, and I realized my eyes were having trouble focusing, a feeling like pre-carsickness, though it was sunny and shadows were normal. A minute later birds began to swoop and call, and the temperature dropped a good 15 degrees. It never got midnight-black, as some had said, since the horizons glowed like sunset at dusk.

I watched the sun get eaten through eclipse glasses until I could not see light through them. Then I stole a couple of naked glimpses at totality. The moon was bigger and corona wider than in the photos, and the diamond ring shined in the void. A bright, blood-red ruby appeared on the bottom of the moon briefly. The sight was cold, stellar, crisp, violent, beautiful.

People in subdivisions began to set off fireworks. It is America. On the TV inside, reporters and scientists talked about getting tearful, getting chills, getting their spirits changed. I did not really want to hear any of that, for the same reason I had not wanted the stadium experience.

On the way back, every stop sign on every county or state road within 90 miles became a traffic delay. The lines of perhaps thousands of cars stretched back for miles through the fields. Spring was almost a month ahead due to climate change. It took me four hours, not two, to get home, but other drivers were polite, considerate, and in good moods. I thought about how dinosaurs must have felt when the shadow of that rock interceded in their normal lives on the savannah.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.