On August 21st, 2017, Andrew and I sat beside a ruined French fortress in the middle of Illinois farmland, waiting for the sun to disappear.
We’d found Fort de Chartres by accident. A couple days prior to the Great American Eclipse, we had driven from Madison to St. Louis to spend the weekend with family. This put us barely outside the path of totality. I was content to view the historic eclipse from St. Louis; I have a self-defeating habit of accepting things as they are, even when minor one-time expenditures of effort stand to significantly multiply my enjoyment. Sometimes serene acceptance is a virtue, but I haven’t yet found the wisdom to know the difference.
Thankfully Andrew was having none of it. “We drove all the way down here to see the eclipse,” he said. “We’re seeing the eclipse.”
So the sunny morning of the 21st, we headed south, onto winding two-lane highways, through woods and through verdant fields, with Andrew making navigation adjustments based on the path of totality shadowing his maps app. Left here, right there—oops, no, not there; that’s the Mississippi. Is that a public road? I don’t see a gate anywhere…
Until a sprawling stone fort sprouted from a field beside us, unapologetically anachronistic, utterly incongruous, and essentially smack-dab in the center of the path of totality.
“What is that? Is that a castle?” I demanded as we pulled into a swath of wild grass off the highway, following a waving orange-vested traffic guard and parking beside the previous car of many.
“I don’t know,” Andrew said. “It’s not on my map.”
“What’s it doing here?”
“Let’s find out.”
We gathered a picnic blanket, our snacks, the novel we were currently reading (Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer, if you’re curious), and our all-important eclipse glasses, and set off for the stoneworks.
On the way, I searched for clouds. The sun was nearly cresting—it was 11:30am, and the eclipse wouldn’t begin until close to noon. Our two minutes and forty seconds of totality would peak at 1:17pm. I imagined the moon, invisible in the patch of bright summer sky, yet lurking, gaining, just beside the sun. At this moment, the sky was wide and blue and clear, with only occasional clouds on the horizon.
Forecasts leading up to this day had not been optimistic, and the closer the day had come, the more I’d worried. During the eclipse, the sky over the St. Louis region was due for cloud cover. Not rain—just pale grey clouds blocking off the entire sky.
But perhaps—I hoped—the forecasts had been wrong.
The ground was soggy beneath our sneakers, the wild grasses heavy with seeds and rowdy with grasshoppers. Other folks were heading the same way we were, some laden with telescopes and slung with expensive camera bags, others carting wheeled coolers and camp chairs. The day was hot and humid, and perfumed with crushed grass and sun-warmed earth.
“I’ll set up; you explore?” I said to Andrew as we claimed the ground beneath an oak, nodding curiously at the aged fortifications nearby. He smiled and jogged off through the grass and I flung the picnic blanket open, anxious, in spite of our early arrival, to be sure everything was ready, to be sure I stood no chance of missing the eclipse. Before I could wrap my head around the mystery of the Midwestern keep, I needed to be sure I was thoroughly and neurotically settled.
Nobody can settle the clouds.
I stretched out on the blanket, opening a water bottle. My skin was already damp with sweat, the muggy air pressing laziness upon me. Across a length of grass, a mother was kneeling under a different tree, slathering her children with sunscreen while their father pulled sodas from a cooler. To my left, a woman was assembling a telescope, affixing a camera to the eyepiece, double-checking each step, every motion weighty and deliberate. Beyond her, several high schoolers tossed a frisbee while portable speakers thrummed, only bass making its way to my ears. The mysterious ruins behind me were crisscrossed by more visitors, in whose expressions and gestures I recognized my own bewilderment.
And to my right—was Andrew, chatting with a group of laughing shirtless men lounging in camp chairs several trees away. I pushed myself up and headed over to join them.
“I haven’t see you guys around here,” one of them said, after Andrew introduced me.
“We came down from Madison for the eclipse,” Andrew said.
“Madison! In Wisconsin?” We nodded. Another of the group laughed, holding up a bottle from their cooler. “We’re drinking your beer, man!”
So they were. New Glarus Spotted Cow, specifically, a craft brew only available in Wisconsin. One of the men had brought it down after a visit to northern relatives, and he’d saved it for a special occasion. We laughed at the synchronicity and complimented them on their good taste.
“How’d you find the fort?” they asked us. We told them how we’d stumbled upon it, and they laughed, delighted. “We grew up with the fort,” they said. “Never seen so many people here at once before. Weird luck it’s in such a perfect place, right?”
“Now we just have to hope the clouds don’t mess it up,” one of them said, glancing over his shoulder. The few clouds from before had gathered together on the horizon and grown, pushing towards us.
I checked the time as Andrew and I headed back to our blanket. Noon. “It’s started,” I said. A few people had risen, eclipse glasses pressed to their upturned faces. I hurried the last few paces to the blanket, snatching up my eclipse glasses, moving to get a clear view.
Through the thick lining, only the orange circle of the sun was visible, and it had a very slim chunk missing from the top right side. “The moon!” I cheered. “Hi, moon!” Andrew laughed and stood beside me, looking through his own glasses.
I let my gaze veer away from the sun and moon, lowering my glasses, glancing around at the bright sky, the sunbathed grass, the fluttering trees. “It hasn’t really impacted the light yet,” I observed. Andrew agreed. “What did you learn about the ruins?” I asked.
“It’s a real French fort,” he said. “Built on the Mississippi.”
“French? Way up here?” I said, my Louisianian past coming through in my incredulity.
“The Louisiana Purchase was huge,” he reminded me.
“Oooh. Right,” I said. “Trading all up and down the Mississippi. Canada. Trapping and all that. Yeah. You got me.” I turned and smiled at the stoneworks. “Well, cool!” Andrew asked if I wanted to explore the ruins while we waited for the eclipse to progress. I didn’t. “I’m afraid I’ll miss something. The fort’s been here forever—it’ll still be here after the eclipse, right?”
I’d spotted more clouds billowing behind those already in the sky. The wind was picking up ever so slightly, cooling my sweaty arms and neck, hurrying the clouds along with it. Others around the fort had noticed as well, tension and dread flickering over us all, our hands clasped around our eclipse glasses.
“Well,” I said, taking one more quick look through my glasses, trying to memorize the orange disc being slowly overwhelmed. “At least we saw some of it. If the clouds come. We saw some, anyway.”
Back on the blanket, we opened up our snacks and watched the clouds approach. “It’s funny,” I said, staring at them. “We drove all this way to watch something get in the way of the sun. And now we’re all hoping and praying that nothing gets in the way of the something getting in the way of the sun.”
When the clouds got too close, around 12:45, I jumped up for one last look, gazing up through my glasses at the much more sizable chunk missing from the orange disc—somewhere between a quarter and a third of the whole. “Go, moon, go!” I shouted. “You can do it!” And the clouds swept over the sun, and there was nothing but blackness before my eyes.
The first clouds only covered the eclipse for brief moments, the wind sweeping them aside as swiftly as they’d come. But they were coming more and more thickly, and each new cloud was larger than the last. People in the field around us reacted as the clouds parted, everyone jumping up to get another look while they could. Tension mounted with each passing moment.
“I mean, it’ll be a good story either way, right?” I said to Andrew, preemptively comforting myself. “If we came all this way and then clouds got in the way? Right?”
“I’m going to be really disappointed,” Andrew said. I wasn’t ready to be so honest as that.
Now the lighting was hazy, even when uncovered by the clouds. Off. Wrong in a way that made me understand how such events made ancient people panic—the sun, after all, is simply the sun. Its light is as it is, with its own brightness, color, and texture. How must it have been in days long past to be a shepherd seeing sunlight dim at noon on a clear, bright day? To feel a twilit quality to the midday light? To look up, perhaps, and see the sun half-blackened, half-gone?
This level of light called for long shadows. The shadows of the trees, the shadows of the ruins, the shadow spreading from my own two feet—all of these shadows were short and misplaced. The effect was unsettling, like stepping into a party to find all the guests somber, or realizing on a hike that all the birds have gone silent.
Around 1pm, a window between clouds opened. Everyone leapt up. The orange disc was now a crescent, and I grinned up at the reversal, the shape usually reserved for the moon alone. Short moments later, wisps of clouds darkened my view until again I saw nothing.
Glasses down, I stared at the grey wall of clouds sliding across the sky. Any other day this hot, I’d welcome cloud cover like this. These clouds must be bewildered, I thought, crossing so much countryside and being cursed by people all the way. Crowds of people never pay clouds such attention. People never look so intently at the sky in such numbers. Such a strange, strange day. I watched the clouds morphing. Sweat trickled down my back.
The time was 1:10. Roughly five minutes until totality, which would last only two minutes and forty seconds. No other total solar eclipse would be visible in the United States until 2024. And the clouds were solid, directly in the way of the sun, with blue sky enragingly visible on either horizon.
“Move, clouds!” I shouted. “Move!” Andrew was waving his arms as though to push the clouds aside.
Suspense had gripped everyone in the field now, the exact time being thrown back and forth between groups, all faces turned towards the clouds.
“I wanted to see it so much,” I moaned, knowing I was speaking for everybody. “Come onnnn!”
At 1:13, some stray gust of wind pulled at the mass of clouds above. Someone yelled and pointed it out, the way the clouds seemed to be drifting open just a bit. We stared upwards at the seam between the clouds. We didn’t need all two minutes and forty seconds, I thought. Maybe only one minute. Maybe thirty seconds. Ten. A glimpse.
The light was eerily dim, though not as dim as I’d expected so close to totality. Even with only the barest sliver of sunlight shining down upon us, even through the clouds, even with its strange dark texture, it still felt like daylight. Sunlight is brighter than we realize. Wind fluttered through the trees above us, skimming over my sweaty arms, chilling my upper lip.
The cloud tore at 1:14:30. Everyone yelled out in shock at first, rushing for our glasses as the cloud split open. Everyone gazed up together in disbelief—more amazed, for these thirty seconds, about the cloud than about the last rays of pure sunlight glaring past the moon.
And then the sunlight vanished. We pulled away our eclipse glasses, staring up at the dark moon dazzling in the sun’s corona. There was the barest instant of quiet before the field erupted in cheers, suspense and despair breaking into jubilant exultation. Andrew and I jumped up and down, whooping; my muscles had braced for disaster and had suddenly been freed; now I might leap too far off the ground and never come back down.
Losing the final sun-sliver had plunged us into true twilight. Wherever clear sky was visible, stars twinkled faintly in the dusky violet. Cars moving by turned on their headlights. Still the light level was otherworldly: pale, like light glowing beneath a door, but ambient and soft. This eclipse-world was separate from the rest of reality. Nothing that existed in the world of the sun existed here in the same way. How could it? In this fairy realm, the moon reigned, the moon wore the sun’s crown, the moon parted clouds and lit stars in summer afternoons. The wind had hushed. The air had cooled. Insects had begun singing. All felt reverent in spite of the celebratory clamor. Perhaps because of it.
Clouds framed the moon and sun on either side, linings aglow. The moon was a perfect circle of blackness, as though the sky opened into nothingness. Around this darkness, heavenly light stretched unevenly into the purple sky, entrancing, ethereal, enthralling. Andrew and I clasped each other, unwilling to tear our eyes from the moon and the sun and the corona, but eager to share the moment with each other.
“Woo!” Andrew bellowed. “Yes!”
At 1:17:30, sunlight threatened to peer beyond the moon again. We looked away, lifting our eclipse glasses. Our dim misaligned daylight returned. The insects quieted. A breeze kicked up. And the clouds swallowed the sun again at 1:18.
“Hey, Wisconsin! Come’ere!” Andrew turned towards our New Glarus friends, who were beckoning him over, and he bounded joyously away to embrace them each in turn, all of them laughing with something pure and raw in their voices.
“Woo!” I shouted, waving at them. They shouted it back to me.
Somehow I found myself arriving back in the world of daylight after what felt like an eternity. There were trees here, and thick wild grass, and moist soil underfoot. And the ruins of a French fort perched implausibly in the center of Midwestern farmland. How did I get here, to this precise place? I had never been here before today. I’d never imagined this place existed. And yet here I was. I blinked up at the cloudy sky.
Andrew was coming back, still laughing and waving at his new friends. “So what now?” he asked. “Want to explore the fort?”
I grinned. “Yeah,” I said. “Let’s see what this fort’s all about.”
Were you able to watch the Great American Eclipse? Or have you seen another total solar eclipse? Tell us about it in the comments!