CARBONDALE, Ill. — At first, Bob Baer thought it had to be a hoax.
A man identifying himself as an astronomer had emailed to let him know about two eclipses that would cross the United States — one in 2017, the next in 2024. Carbondale, the small southern Illinois city where Baer was a physics professor, would be the only city at the center of both.
Disbelieving, Baer pulled up a NASA projection of future paths of totality — the places where the moon completely covers the sun during an eclipse. The lines crossed right over his city, like an X on a treasure map, marked by the shadow of the moon.
Three years later, Carbondale residents are still incredulous at their cosmic good fortune. The city has been badly in need of a break, ever since the recession and state budget crises cut enrollment at the local campus of Southern Illinois University nearly in half. With the region’s biggest employer in a tailspin, businesses shuttered and buildings fell into disrepair. The apartment vacancy rate was 35 percent. “This place was depressed,” Baer said.
But now, to be twice blessed by the movements of the heavens — that’s not a coincidence that comes along every millennium. And Carbondale is determined to make the most of it.
On Saturday, at T-minus 48 hours to totality, the city was in a carnival mood. Hotel rooms were booked solid, restaurants were packed, and the line at the Dairy Queen extended far out the door. Laws banning open containers of alcohol had been temporarily suspended for an eight-block stretch of the main drag. Kids got their faces painted with pictures of the sun, then smeared the images by running through the cooling sprinklers set up all over town. The owners of the local tattoo parlor said they’d fielded 20 calls from people wanting to get an eclipse image inked into their skin.
No one was having more fun than Valeri Bleyer and Cheryl Bovee, who sat sipping ice water in camp chairs they set up outside their favorite local greasy spoon, Mary Lou’s Grill. The two old friends and longtime Carbondale residents had been recruited by Mary Lou’s owner, Marilynn Martin, to hawk T-shirts bearing the phrase “I’ve got my bacon and two egg-clipses.”
“Hi, girl,” Bovee called to a woman walking by. The woman smiled back. “Those shirts are real cute.”
“Oh no, we don't know them,” Bovee explained later, after exchanging pleasantries and familiar smiles with several more passersby. “Everyone’s just friendly today. We’re all happy.”
“It reminds me of how it used to be,” Bleyer agreed.
Bovee and Bleyer were in college the same year at SIU, though they didn’t meet until after graduation. Back then, in the 1980s, the university was so big that you could spend four years there and still not meet a fraction of the people on campus. The students would throw wild parties that overwhelmed the downtown and ended only when police were called.
These days, enrollment is about 15,000 — down from 25,000 when Bovee and Bleyer attended.
Few people mourned the celebrations so raucous that they got SIU a mention in Playboy magazine. But they desperately miss the absent students, and the millions of dollars they spent on food, rent, school supplies and plastic cups each year.
“We’ve been struggling,” Bleyer said soberly. She jerked her head at the restaurant behind her. “She’s been having a hard time keeping her doors open.”
Not today. Martin hadn’t taken a break since 5 a.m., when she turned on the grill to cook triple the amount of food she makes on a normal Saturday. Finally she found a lull and came out to say hello.
“Hey! You busy in there?”
Martin gave her friends a wry look. “Are you kidding?”
“This is just unbelievable,” she continued. “How can you plan for something like this? You know, when I first heard about it, I asked, is there a town that I can call them and ask what they did? But nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Over at SIU, the atmosphere was equally frenzied. At Saluki Stadium, where 14,000 people will watch totality on Monday, cameramen unloaded trucks of equipment, and students tested out the instruments they will use to study the event. People dressed as video game characters and well versed in the rules of “Magic: The Gathering” converged on a Comic-Con being held at the student center.
Two additional cell towers had been set up to handle the influx of visitors, who will inevitably want to text and Snapchat about their experience. And one of the residence halls — no longer needed for students — was converted into housing for eclipse-goers. The accommodations were spare, even by the low standards of a college dorm, but all 208 rooms were booked in a matter of weeks.
Baer, the co-chair of SIU’s eclipse committee, had the haggard but happy look of someone who hasn’t stopped moving in days and was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“It’s completely awesome,” he said, then blushed. “I almost said totally, but I’m trying to avoid puns.”
“The attitude of campus, the morale was low,” he continued. “But it’s turned around. It’s turned the culture around.”
That’s true in town, as well. Baer pointed to the restoration of several main blocks that residents call “the strip.” Buildings have been repainted, decrepit storefronts torn down. Sidewalks were repaved. Old, tangled power lines were removed.
People had been talking about downtown revitalization for decades. But it didn’t get done until they had the eclipse for a deadline.
“That is so improved I can’t believe it,” Baer said. “Stuff that was the same for 50 years is now different.”
Many residents said the eclipse has given Carbondale its old energy back. “It reminds me of how homecoming used to be,” said Susan Mann, who grew up here but now lives in Chicago. She returned this weekend with her 15-year-old son, Joshua, to volunteer with the visitors bureau.
Wearing matching neon-green T-shirts, mother and son distributed pamphlets to tourists and let a weary-looking father know where his kids could find a bathroom.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Mann said.
“Uh, sure,” was Joshua’s response.
His mother laughed and grabbed him around the shoulder. “He hugged me when I told him we were going,” she said.
Mann still has family in Carbondale and comes back often. But this visit feels different, she said.
“We’re excited. We’re putting Carbondale on the map.”
An estimated 50,000 people will be in Carbondale to watch Monday’s celestial spectacle. That’s roughly an $8 million boost to the city’s economy, said Mayor Mike Henry — all for two minutes and 48 seconds of darkness.
The weather in Carbondale was beautiful over the weekend — clear blue skies, brilliant sunshine, and barely any of the humid haze that’s typical for Illinois in August.
But Mike Kentrianakis, a veteran eclipse chaser who was in Carbondale for the big event, warned against “complacency.”
“I predict we may have partly cloudy skies on Monday,” he said. “First-timers won’t know the gravity of that. But it’s a high-risk situation.” Meteorologists say that about half the country will probably experience clouds on Monday.
Kentrianakis has witnessed 20 solar eclipses, from every continent except Antarctica. “It’s a magical moment, an impenetrable happiness,” he said.
If the moon is obscured when it passes in front of the sun, watchers here in Carbondale will still feel the temperature drop and darkness fall around them. But they will miss the stunning light show of the corona.
Henry is determined not to let the excitement end when the sun returns. The city has rebranded itself as the “Solar Eclipse Crossroads of America” — and the folks at the visitors bureau can tell you where to buy any number of T-shirts proclaiming that fact. The three-day “Shadow Fest” music festival that is blocking off Main Street is planned to be held every summer between now and 2024.
The hope is that some of the people who have come for the eclipse will like it so much that they decide to return.
“This is the kind of coverage you beg for and can’t get,” Henry said. “In a year, in 10 years, we couldn’t do all the marketing that Mother Nature has given us for free.”
Is it working? Just ask Mary Smith of Tuttle, Okla., who booked her eclipse trip to Carbondale after reading about the city’s eclipse plans in a newspaper.
“I saw it and thought, that sounds like fun,” Smith said, as she checked into one of the SIU dorm rooms.
This will be Smith’s first total solar eclipse. But, “good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, as they say in Oklahoma,” she’d like to come back for the one in 2024.
Carbondale will be waiting for her.