My kids both wanted to see the eclipse and I said “that sounds fun but it’s too far” and I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, Saturday night, I looked inward and asked myself is there really a reason we can’t do this? And the answer was no. Or rather the answer was “it might be the case that it’s totally impossible to find a place to sleep in the totality zone within 24 hours for a non-insane amount of money, and that would be a reason” so I said, if I can get a room, we’re going. Hotel Tonight did the rest. (Not the first time this last-minute hotel app has saved my bacon, by the way. I don’t use it a lot, but when I need it, it gets the job done.)
Notes on the trip:
- We got to St. Louis Sunday night; the only sight still open was my favorite one, the Gateway Arch. The arch is one of those things whose size and physical strangeness a photo really doesn’t capture, like Mt. Rushmore. It works for me in the same way a Richard Serra sculpture works; it cuts the sky up in a way that doesn’t quite make sense.
- I thought I was doing this to be a good dad, but in fact the total eclipse was more spectacular than I’d imagined, worth it in its own right. From the photos I imagined the whole sky going nighttime dark. But no, it’s more like twilight. That makes it better. A dark blue sky with a flaming hole in it.
- Underrated aspect: the communality of it all. An experience now rare in everyday life. You’re in a field with thousands of other people there for the same reason as you, watching the same thing you’re watching. Like a baseball game! No radio call can compare with the feeling of jumping up with the crowd for a home run. You’re just one in an array of sensors, all focused on a sphere briefly suspended in the sky.
- People thought it was going to be cloudy. I never read so many weather blogs as I did Monday morning. Our Hotel Tonight room was in O’Fallon, MO, right at the edge of the totality. Our original plan was to meet Patrick LaVictoire in Hermann, west of where we were. But the weather blogs said south, go south, as far as you can. That was a problem, because at the end of the day we had to drive back north. We got as far as Festus. There were still three hours to totality and we thought it might be smart to drive further, maybe even all the way to southern Illinois. But a guy outside the Comfort Inn with a telescope, who seemed to know what he was doing, told us not to bother, it was a crapshoot either way and we weren’t any better off there than here. I always trust a man with a telescope.
- Google Maps (or the Waze buried within Google Maps) not really adequate to handle the surge of traffic after a one-time event. Its estimates for how long it would take us to traverse I-55 through southern Illinois were … unduly optimistic. Google sent us off the highway onto back roads, but here’s the thing — it sent the same suggestion to everyone else, which meant that instead of being in a traffic jam on the interstate we were in a traffic jam on a gravel road in the middle of a cornfield. When Google says “switch to this road, it’ll save you ten minutes,” does it take into account the effect of its own suggestion, broadcast to thousands of cars in the same jam? My optimization friends tell me this kind of secondary prediction is really hard. It would have been much better, in retrospect, for us to have chosen a back road at random; if everybody injected stochasticity that way, the traffic would have been better-distributed, you have to figure. Should Google build that stochasticity into its route suggestions?
- It became clear around Springfield we weren’t going to get home until well after midnight, so we stopped for the night in David Foster Wallace’s hometown, Normal, IL, fitting, considering we did a supposedly fun thing that turned out to be an actual fun thing which we will hardly ever have the chance to, and thus may never, do again.