Wednesday, August 23, 2017

So Close

I took the kids down to Illinois to see the eclipse on Monday.  Ian's off doing Army things so I was on my own with all the driving.  (We left Milwaukee at 5 in the morning and got home at about 9:30 at night.)

We had our NASA approved viewing glasses that we picked up from American Science and Surplus a week ago before they were sold out.  We had a bag of car snacks the kids had picked out at Target the day before (grapes, carrots, granola, pop tarts...) and we filled up our bottles with familiar Milwaukee water.  I had an iPod of podcasts to listen to if radio had nothing to offer.  The kids had some multi-player game that they could coordinate on their little devices.  We had the GPS and the iPass and everyone settled into their respective seats in the minivan as we hit the road while it was still dark.

My kids love a road trip.  They had been looking forward to it for weeks.  They are good travelers and undaunted by long stretches in the car.  They never whine.  They never ask to stop unless they need to use the bathroom, and even then they give as much warning as possible in case it will take time to find an exit.  They don't get carsick.  They can sleep when they need to as we roll along.  They sing sometimes, although they tend to amuse themselves quietly.  When they were younger and their heads didn't pop above the seats it was possible to forget they were even back there.

I had planned to get us to Carbondale, Illinois where big eclipse festivities were going on and where totality viewing would be one of the longest in the country.  I plugged a random restaurant with a Carbondale address into the GPS and gave us a cushion of well over an hour to reach it.

The problem is it doesn't always matter how much you prepare or plan.  Life doesn't work that way.

We hit a bit of a slowdown in the Chicago area which we assumed would happen, but then we hit traffic jam after traffic jam on I-57 and watched our time slip away.  A couple of the slowdowns were associated with accidents, which I could understand, but most of them were because of merging lanes due to construction work.  Honestly, I was really annoyed, because it wasn't the level of roadwork where they couldn't have moved the barrels to accommodate the increased amount of traffic they should have expected because of the eclipse.  When we traveled back we could see that they had finished for the day and moved the barrels back over, so I think they should have just put off that morning's work and let us all through.

But whatever.  The real problem was I didn't have my navigator because Ian was leading Army training and I didn't know what my options were in the moment.  We pressed on, passing through rainstorms, slowing to a crawl at another merge, stopping for gas in Kankakee.

Before we left I had asked Quinn to look up the towns in the path of totality and tell me which one was the farthest north of Carbondale.  It was a town called Benton.  All we needed to do was reach Benton by 1:20.

We drove very fast in the last hour (along with everyone around us--driving the speed limit would have actually been a hazard).  My kids put on their glasses and watched through the windows of the car.  Aden told me when there was a bit of a bump covering the sun, then more and more, until they said the sun was nearly covered and the light around us started to look strange.

At 1:08 we arrived at an exit for someplace called Ina, and I decided to stop so we we'd have a minute to park and I could actually watch the eclipse happen.  It wasn't going to be totality, but I wasn't sure what opportunities lay ahead and I didn't want to risk missing everything.

Near total eclipse with a regular camera lens
We ended up in a dusty parking lot of a barbeque place with dozens of other people looking up at the sky as the light around us grew dimmer and dimmer.  One family drove all the way down from the upper peninsula of Michigan to see the eclipse but they didn't have viewing glasses, so we let them borrow ours for a moment.  And you needed the glasses--not just because, you know, burning your retinas is bad--but because without them the sun still just looked liked the sun.  It got dim on the ground, but even a sliver of sun is intensely bright.

We watched the sliver get smaller and smaller until it was just a dot.  Then it began to grow again.  The kids were thrilled and kept saying "Wow!"  Mona hugged me from behind unexpectedly and thanked me for a wonderful day and for doing so much driving to make it happen.

We got a little something to eat at the barbeque place, refilled our water bottles, and hit the road again.

The drive back was pretty smooth with only one minor slowdown (which was good but slightly irritating since now it didn't matter).  

When we stopped to refill the tank and eat some dinner I walked around the aisles of the typical truck stop offerings and found a road atlas.  I decided to look up Ina.  It was 11 miles from Benton.

We were so close!  I got mad at myself for not just plowing ahead a little farther so we could have been in the totality.  We had traveled so far, it seemed unfair.  If I had it to do again I think I would have risked whatever was ahead and tried to make it those eleven miles in as many minutes, even if we'd had to pull off along the freeway to see.  But I just didn't know at that moment what was best.  You work with what you have in real time and hope it's enough.

The beautiful part is that I discovered my children seemed to have learned a lesson I'd taught them better than I had.  I always wanted my children to understand that it's the journey--not the destination--that counts.  Goals are important, but only in that they provide you a path to enjoy along the way.  Life is in the journey.  My kids had one of the best days of their lives because they really do know that.

When I said to Aden, "I'm so sorry, I should have chanced it and gone a little farther..." she just waved me off and said, "It was wonderful!  We saw so much more than we could have at home!  Thank you!"

Because for them the joy was the time together in the minivan.  Aden was curled up in the back with her stuffed animals and her laptop which played music.  Her sister was next to her, munching grapes and laughing.  The two of them negotiate positions to slump against each other as they rest.  Quinn always takes the middle seat so he can alternate between joining in whatever activities or conversations his sisters are having and leaning forward to hang out with me.  He asks questions about stories on the radio and happily participates in our particular car games like Memory Alphabet, Crambo, and Preacher's Cat.  He's lovely funny company on a long drive.  They all are.

The single greatest joy of my life is that my kids love and support each other and get along.  That's not a given, or something you can create for your kids by yourself.  That's just a wonderful thing that happened and I am grateful for above all else.  They love each other.  They loved that long car ride.  They were sad to see it end.

When people ask them about it they can say they got to see the moon pass in front of the sun in real time, and it will sound like that was the moment that mattered.  But if we'd simply gone all that way to eat a little barbeque and come home they would have had as good a time, just less to report that sounds interesting to anyone.

We are already planning ahead for the next eclipse, which luckily for us should pass over Ohio where we have lots of options for staying with family and friends and making a real gathering of the event.  That will be in seven years.  By then we only expect Quinn to be living at home with us, but at least he should be able to help drive.  I hope we are all able to be together then to see the totality.  I hope we are all as close.


  1. Your kids have a great attitude. I'm glad you got to see at least part.

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