Some college students’ camping trip for the 2024 solar eclipse

| Staff Writer

About three weeks ago, a friend of mine texted in our group chat: “Who wants to go camping for the solar eclipse?” Responses ranged from “Wait, there’s an eclipse? When?” to “Can’t we just get an Airbnb?” to “I’m down.” While I won’t say which side I was initially on, I am happy to report that “I’m down” was the majority answer. 

Around this time last year, I had been doom scrolling (as usual), when I came across a post about major celestial events. As someone who has lived in and around Chicago my whole life, it’s rare that I see the stars, so I almost scrolled past it. But curiosity got the best of me. A quick Google search revealed that the zone of totality — or the region where one can see the moon completely covering the sun for a couple of minutes — was only a quick drive from WashU. Since the zone stretched across most of southeast Missouri, many of the state parks and forests south of St. Louis were prime eclipse-viewing sites (including those within the Mark Twain National Forest, which was our location of choice). My friends and I agreed that for the 2024 eclipse, we would rent cars and drive down that day. In all honesty, I never really thought the plan would come to fruition. Besides, I had seen a partial view of the 2017 solar eclipse from my front yard; what was the big deal? What made a total eclipse so special?

Fast forward to April of this year — as the eclipse date approached, content about the event skyrocketed across various media forms, reminding me of the haphazard plans we had made last year. I mentioned it to some of my friends, and we all agreed we would miss class on Monday to see this celestial phenomenon. A week later, my friend presented his plan to camp-out near the zone of totality with the help of his parents, who were driving down from Iowa. 

At this point, I have to admit that I was hesitant to go. Although I had heard that seeing the total eclipse was different from seeing it partially, I wasn’t sure whether it would be worth the trip. Additionally, I had never been camping before, and the idea of nine college students camping in the middle of rural Missouri felt like a bit of a rough undertaking (especially since none of us had camping equipment lying around in our dorm rooms). However, given everyone’s excitement, I reluctantly and nervously agreed.

In an email sent just 10 days before the eclipse, my friend outlined the plan he had made in conjunction with his parents. The subject line read, “Eclipse Itinerary (my best understanding)” and closed with “This is gonna be really fun everyone. Get hyped.” Reading this email over my lunch break between classes, it finally set in that this trip was happening. 

A few hours before we were set to leave on Sunday, my three suitemates and I were running around the suite, frantically asking each other what to bring. Although our itinerary email had a packing list, our inexperience and the varying weather forecast had us spiraling over what clothes to pack. The 80-degree eclipse-day forecast had me packing shorts and a tank top, but the 50-degree nighttime weather had my suitemate from LA debating the thickness of the coat she should bring along. We spent the last two hours before leaving packing items, taking them out, and repacking them until it was time to go, hoping for the best. It turns out we were not the only ones doing this, as minutes before we left a friend texted the groupchat asking “Should I bring my guitar?” (the answer was a resounding yes). 

And so we were off: two cars filled with college students hurrying down Missouri Highway 21 towards Washington State Park (the location of our campsite), fueled by excitement and a 2000s-hits playlist blasting in the car. As we made the trek deeper and deeper into rural Missouri, we hoped to catch the last remaining daylight for our tent setup. As remote as it was, the backroads leading into the national forest were beautiful, with lush trees and mossy rocks jutting out of the sides of the highway, shining green and gold in the evening light. With the sun setting, we arrived at the campsite and drove around in circles until we found our reserved site.  

As soon as the second car arrived, our tent setup commenced, made possible with the materials from our friend’s parents in a camper trailer nearby. It took over an hour, nine college students, and all of the remaining daylight we had to set up our three tents. With darkness falling quickly, we quickly set up sleeping bags and mats, after a debate on which formation to sleep in (star formation was a top contender). After this, my LA suitemate finished running around with a hatchet, cutting up sticks for the fire. 

Our food that evening consisted of vegan sloppy joes and a variety of snacks, but our main sustenance rightfully came from s’mores. On the edge of the woods, with the stars overhead, we listened to the crackle of fire and the soft guitar music, courtesy of our friend’s last-minute packing addition. In the complete darkness, the stars were numerous and bright above our three-tent complex. That night did not remain peaceful, disturbed by a very loud garbage truck at 3 a.m., many bugs, plummeting temperatures, and my tent’s late-night hair braiding experiment. Nevertheless, with a couple hours of sleep under our belts and some morning coffee, we set out early in the morning to claim our eclipse-watching spot. 

Our eclipse-watching site of choice was a public park on the outskirts of Farmington, Missouri, a small town directly south of St. Louis in the path of totality. As seen by the heavy amounts of traffic on the highway and backroads, small communities like these were overrun with out-of-towners like us trying to catch a glimpse of totality. Over the next couple of hours, we guarded a small corner of the park as the area began to fill up. Well before the eclipse started, the parking lot was packed, and families set up their picnics all across the park under the nearly cloudless sky. 

At around 1:30 p.m., the outer edge of the moon was visibly blocking part of the sun. For the next half hour, it would appear as though nothing changed, unless you were looking directly at the sun. But, in the last few minutes before 1:58 p.m., the shadows in the area lengthened, and within moments, the light in the area seemed to dissipate. My friend remarked it was as if her eyes had increased their grayscale. The sky went from light blue to cyan to deep indigo in a matter of seconds, as cheers and screams began to erupt from across the park. The temperature dropped several degrees within a minute, as if dusk had set in spontaneously despite the sun being clearly visible and the sky remaining blue above us. Other spectators started a countdown, and in those final few seconds, the world went silent as we reached the period of totality. The entire area went dark, and the edges of the sun flared white around the dark void that was the moon. A mere two minutes later, a bright speck appeared at the edge of the corona, signaling the end of totality and the reemergence of the sun from behind the moon. And as suddenly as it had started, the world went back to normal, and the sky brightened again. 

After packing up the last of our picnic and saying our thank you’s and goodbyes to our friend’s parents, who had graciously taken us along with them for the past day, we trudged alongside the many cars clogging up the streets, trying to return to St. Louis. Our return to campus took almost twice the amount of time it did on the drive down, and in the blistering heat of traffic gridlock, our car was quiet, overcome with a sudden tiredness and the reality of classes the next day. After hours in traffic and making some friends with another WashU car along the way, we made it back to campus. Almost exactly 24 hours later, we were back in our packing-ransacked suite. 

Against all odds, our eclipse camping trip became a reality, allowing us to see this once-in-a-lifetime celestial phenomenon. Lying out in the grass with my friends, it felt like the world stopped. For a brief moment, as two chunks of rock and a ball of plasma randomly aligned, I felt like I understood the scale of the universe. 

As for camping: While I don’t think I gained a new hobby, the novice camper in me would definitely go again. With the right supplies, it is an accessible and enjoyable option for college-student travel. I will be forever grateful that my friends and I got to experience this event, especially since the next eclipse visible in North America won’t be until 2044. Nine college students, three tents, two cars, and one celestial phenomenon later, our camping trip was a resounding success.

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