Starry, Starry Day
by Larry King
On August 21, a small, but dedicated contingent of contributors to “The Almanac of Arlington Heights” will descend upon the tiny hamlet of Sparta, Illinois, to view the Great American Solar Eclipse. Not normally a tourist mecca, Southern Illinois and other areas of the country where the eclipse will be total, have totally figured out that it could be a short-term gold mine for them and are cashing in. Somehow we got sucked in. But it’ll be worth it… right?
It should be. More unique than a winning Chicago Bears quarterback, a total eclipse of the sun is one of nature’s most topsy-turvy and spectacular events. Full sunlight fades until day becomes night, while stars and planets appear. Birds, insects, and animals freak out. For a lightning-fast minute or two, those lucky enough to be in the path of the moon’s shadow see the sun’s usually invisible corona— our star’s fiery, glowing, dancing, atmosphere. Seeing it has been on my bucket list since I heard I was supposed to have such a list.
The Almanac’s crack research team (not yet a research team on crack) includes:
- The resident artist and scientific expert, “The Professor”;
- The co-publisher and walker of dogs;
- A longtime friend of the above, who religiously clips and uses the Almanac’s coupons; and
- Your intrepid reporter.
Full disclosure requires admitting that my early and mid-teen years were partially spent as the definition of a geek, before that term was coined. My best friend and I had matching telescopes, were in the county’s astronomical society, and launched many model rockets. Some of them vertically. As high school progressed, I turned into more of an “everything bagel”, and my desire to become an astronomer dimmed. It may have been the realization that most jobs were in teaching. More likely, it was that the math was getting really hard.
Decades later, I still find myself looking up at the clear night sky. Except these days, craning my head back too long gives me a pain in the neck. When I read that an eclipse would be visible relatively nearby in 2017, I vowed to see it.
It would require planning, which with this group would be like herding ants. But the Professor and I were determined, so anticipating the hype and demand, we began plotting our strategy early last fall. By mid-January we decided to get serious and narrowed our focus to three states, considering a number of variables for each possible location:
- Length of totality as the 60-mile wide shadow races across the continent;
- Expected weather in August;
- Ability to bug out if the weather forecast looks bad; and
- Available lodging. We wanted to avoid the inevitable region-wide traffic jam the day of and just make it a relaxing couple of days.
Being over a half-year away, we were confident lodging would be easy to procure. Wrong. We quickly discovered any kind of reasonably-priced accommodations in the eclipse zone were taken. Unreasonably-priced accommodations also. Outrageously-priced ones were going fast and ticking us off, as we realized the lodging lords created a price-boost bonanza. The same rooms a week before the eclipse were priced at half, or even a third.
After nearly burning out the coffee shop’s wifi, we stumbled upon an available room at an incredibly low price. Sure, it only had 1.3 of 5 stars, but how bad could it be? We pounced, thrilled our online hunt resulted in the prized and elusive legal lodging. High fives were exchanged.
The next morning I dove deeper into the 1.3 star rating. After reading a few reviews, the rating seemed generous by a full point. I swear these are actual comments:
- Never stayed in a room as filthy as this.
- Most horrible motel ever.
- There were cockroaches and it should be bulldozed.
- Looked like a fire trap.
- I wouldn’t rent one of these rooms for an animal to sleep in.
- Mold in the shower and around the toilet which caused me to have an ambulance ride and ER visit.
I did take comfort in, “It’s a safe place to stay.” I think it’s best to share this intelligence with the guys later. Like 10 minutes before we pull up to the joint.
Will the Astronomy Gods smile upon us with clear skies? Will I see something I’ve longed to see for most of my life? Will the Health Department inspect our room before we arrive? I’m hoping so on all counts. If not, there’s actually another eclipse in 2024. Maybe I should start booking a room now.
(read part 2 here)
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