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Eclipse Chasing in Southern Illinois

One day in early spring, my husband said to me, "Hey, this summer, do you want to go on an adventure to Southern Illinois to see a solar eclipse?"

Naturally, I said, "heck yes!"

I didn't know much about the upcoming eclipse at that point, but it wasn't long before I caught "eclipse fever" like everyone else.

On the Friday before the big event, we packed up the car and made the 8 hour drive from Madison to the Shawnee National Forest. We left a bit later than planned and hit some construction around Champaign, so we arrived in the evening--later than we wanted. All camping at Shawnee National Forest is first-come, first-serve, and we had hoped to beat the crowds. But the first four campgrounds we tried--including Garden of the Gods, our top choice--were already full. It was getting dark, so we decided to go with plan B: find a hotel room for the night and look for a campsite in the morning.

We laughed when we saw the decor in our Super 8 room: a huge photo of Garden of the Gods. Exactly where we wanted to be.

The next morning, we found a campsite! The Forest Service created extra campsites just for the eclipse, and we found a great spot one in a wide open field by a pretty little pond. There was no shade, but we brought our own. And a great view for the eclipse!

Campsite secured, we did some sightseeing. First stop: Garden of the Gods.

Then I spotted this Yeti. I made Justin pull over and take a photo of me with my new friend.

Finally, we enjoyed the natural air conditioning and sheer beauty of Cave in Rock along the lovely Ohio River.

But our most exotic adventure by far was braving a Walmart in Kentucky.

Despite months of planning, we still didn't have eclipse glasses. I knew Walmart sold them, and figured at least ONE of them in the area would still have some in stock. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But we also needed a few other things, so we decided we'd make a stop. And the closest one was over in Kentucky.

I asked the first person I found if they still had eclipse glasses. She informed me that they were all sold out. BUT! I was in luck--Pepsi was having a special promotion, and if you bought a 24-pack of Pepsi products, you could get a free pair of eclipse glasses!

I don't drink soda, but it looked like they wouldn't let me beg, borrow, or steal to get them any other way, so I ended up shelling out $6.50 for more Pepsi than I've consumed in the past decade. I took it to the customer service desk, and they handed me this styling pair of Mountain Dew branded eclipse glasses.

On the way out, we noticed a couple of boy scouts selling popcorn, sweating in the hot sun as they peddled their wares. Justin, a former Eagle Scout, had an idea. He walked up to the troop leader and said, "Hey, we're not going to buy popcorn, but I was wondering...we bought this soda just so we could get these eclipse glasses, but we won't drink it...maybe you and your boys want it?" She said "sure!" And one of the boys pumped his fist in the air with great enthusiasm.

It was the fist pump that really did it for me. It erased every shred of regret I had about buying that dang soda.

We came back to our site to find this note in the cup holder of one of our camp chairs. Later, a friendly, grizzled man in overalls stopped by to remind us of his services, saying, "I'm just trying to make a buck from this whole thing." I admire his business acumen and hope he did, indeed, make a buck or two.

Saturday was pretty darn hot, but Sunday was crazy hot (92 with a heat index over 100 and a heat advisory). Though we had hoped to do more sightseeing, we decided to find some indoor activities instead. We hung out at a Target Starbucks, basked in movie theater AC while watching Dunkirk, and opted to skip firing up our campstove in favor of checking out a yummy local diner.

It cooled down a bit in the evening, so we stopped to walk around Heron Pond, a beautiful cypress swamp. We even spotted a couple of snakes from up on the boardwalk!

Bald cypress trees at heron pond. Those stumps in the water aren't beaver-chewed trees--they're the trees' knees! Part of their root system.

Monday: eclipse day! And still baking hot, even in the shade of our pop-up tent. We tried to cool off with some makeshift AC: wet sheets hung around our shade tent for evaporative cooling. It helped a little bit.

Justin set up two cameras to take photos of the eclipse: one equipped with welding glass to capture the moments of partial coverage, and a second one ready to go for the totality.

And Brigitte's camera makes three. While Justin was snapping photos of the eclipse, I was recording a video of the darkening sky, the backlit clouds, the crowds around us cheering, and a little girl saying, "it's like a lightbulb!"

The eclipse was truly amazing. Words cannot describe it. Here is a view of the partial eclipse through the welding glass.

A sliver of sun still shines through the clouds.

Fellow eclipse-chasers taking a peek.

And bam! Just like that, the moon covered the sun, everything went dark, and everyone around us starting cheering and hooting. The sky was a beautiful sunset in every direction. The air became noticably cooler, the birds stopped singing, the crickets started chirping, and Venus shone in the sky. A truly amazing experience--well worth the long drive and everything else!

Note: all photos of the eclipse itself were taken by Justin Weier; all other photos were taken by me.

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