MAKANDA, Ill. • The neon orange stripe runs from the railroad tracks, across the parking lot, to the front door, and up the brick facade of Dave Dardis’ eclectic Rainmaker art studio, shop and gardens.
And on Aug. 21, starting at 1:21 p.m., he predicts everyone will want to stand on it.
“Here, we got the line. We got the liiine,” said Dardis, who doesn’t really consider himself a hippie but doesn’t get offended if you ask if he is one. “We have everybody beat.”
A can of Keystone Light in hand and a blond-gray ponytail falling down his back, Dardis points out the oversized metal bug sculpture he created that’s perched high on the building’s facade, next to the orange stripe. The bug glints in the sun. “We put it up for the eclipse,” he explains.
Why a bug?
“What else do you think it should be?” Dardis asks, a twinkle in his eye.
So shines the sun above Makanda, which NASA calculates will get 2 minutes, 40.2 seconds of darkness during the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 — more than anywhere else in the United States.
If you take the irregularities on the moon’s surface into account, that time is officially 2 minutes, 41.6 seconds.
Either way, Dardis will take it. The orange line represents the center of the moon’s shadow, which is roughly 70 miles wide. The shadow’s path will cross America, from Oregon to Makanda to South Carolina. The closer you get to the edge of the circular shadow, the less totality you’ll get. Outside the shadow, you simply get a partial eclipse — no darkness.
Dardis said a couple of years ago, somebody sent him a Google map showing him the center of the shadow going through his studio door. “I thought, how can I keep it a secret? I was gonna get rich,” he said, standing by a display of dozens of nickel silver and bronze eclipse pendants, which he crafted and sells for $40 and $50.
Now, he and local organizers field inquiries from all over the world. They’re not sure what to expect come eclipse day.
Assuming clear skies, the viewing experience in Makanda won’t be noticeably different than the experience 50 miles in either direction along the path, and especially in nearby Carbondale, which is filling Saluki stadium with eclipse gawkers.
“A blink of an eye,” points out Joe McFarland.
McFarland is the unofficial eclipse organizer for Makanda, and he’s overwhelmed. He’s a mycologist — a studier of mushrooms — and is used to looking at the ground, not the sky.
“It’s like a village of 600 people is going to host the Olympics,” he said. “It can’t be done, but we’re going to do it anyway.”
There’s not much more to the village than the boardwalk area that’s Dardis’ studio and a handful of other shops. One is the Eclipse Kitchen, which McFarland and some partners opened last Aug. 21 to feed visitors food and eclipse information as well as sell them “Let there be dark” T-shirts and postcards that can be stamped with a special Makanda eclipse postmark.
“I feel like the Walmart greeter sometimes,” says the affable McFarland, sitting at a table in front of the register. “I like to talk.”
For two years, an eclipse committee has met in the tiny village hall to work out what McFarland calls the “glamorous stuff.” Where to put the portable toilets? How to distribute ice water? Where can a helicopter to land in case of emergency?
They want people to visit Makanda, but perhaps another day. They purposely did not plan an eclipse festival or event in the town, not wanting to lure more people that could get just as good a look elsewhere.
Long known as a hippie and artist community, partly since Dardis landed there 45 years ago, Makanda takes pride in its quirk. Every fall, it hosts Vulture Fest, a celebration of vultures returning to the area. In homage to the bowtie-loving politician Paul Simon, who lived here and is buried here, the yellow Makanda water tower is painted with a smiley face wearing a bow tie. A memorial to a three-legged hero dog named Boomer who died when he crashed into a wall after extinguishing a train fire by urinating on it, sits along the railroad tracks. And town lore says a group of drunken Confederate sympathizers met at a Makanda hotel and plotted to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, but the plan fizzled.
Dardis points out there’s no memorial to that plot.
Makanda takes pride in its gumption. Tornadoes damaged the town three times, and fires nearly wiped it out four. Floods, train wrecks and a cholera outbreak dot its timeline. Going back even more, about 150,000 years, a glacier moving across the land flattened everything in its path, creating the smooth prairies you might normally associate with Illinois. But about a mile north of Makanda, it stopped.
That’s where Giant City State Park just outside Makanda comes in. It’s a hidden gem of the region, home to unusual rock formations and sandstone bluffs that would have been otherwise flattened by the glacier.
Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger is a natural resources coordinator with the park. She and a team of staff and volunteers aren’t sure how many thousands will visit Giant City that day. They’re working with a shoestring budget and coming up with maps and signage for the park’s several clover and wildflower fields, which they’ll mow down to accommodate cars and RVs. The rock formations that usually draw people to the park are in the woods, which aren’t great for viewing the skies.
Randolph-Bollinger is a plant person, and the idea of mowing the fields makes her cringe. “What about the monarch caterpillars that need all that milkweed?” she half-jokes, dropping her face in her hands.
But it will grow back, she says. People will enjoy themselves, and staffers and volunteers will work to make sure visitors are cool and comfortable. “I am excited,” she says. “It’s going to be interesting. I just want to make sure it’s safe.”
Near the state park sits Blue Sky Vineyards, part of the Shawnee Hill Wine Trail dotted by wineries on rolling land also missed by the glacier. Blue Sky is special because it claims the spot designated by NASA as the point of longest duration, though several points along the line in and near Makanda will experience peak totality. The point at Blue Sky happens to be in the center of those points.
The red dot on the map is on the edge of winery property. A metal sculpture called “Flying Too Close to the Sun” by Alto Pass, Ill., artist Dan Johnson sits there now. It looks vaguely like the frame of a vintage airplane.
A few years ago, before the sculpture was tossed into the air and damaged by a tornado on Johnson’s property, it was called “And They Said It Couldn’t Fly.”
Like Dardis, when General Manager Jim Ewers first learned his winery was in the path, he wondered how long he could keep the secret. “It was like, how do I keep it under my hat and get it all?” he said. “I don’t want it all, for one.”
He and his staff will host a four-day party on the site, where they’ll welcome whoever can fit — even a group of 50 astronomy enthusiasts from Spain. He plans to cut a path through the woods so guests can take the short walk to the spot of longest duration. He’ll shut the doors to the restaurant and bar during the eclipse so his staffers can go outside to enjoy it, too.
Like many wineries in the path, they developed an eclipse wine. Theirs is a smooth, inky, dry red. While it tastes good now, it might taste even better in seven years, Ewers says.
Because on April 8, 2024, another solar eclipse will cross America.
And, once again, the moon will line up right above Makanda.
Yes, chances are — and they were slim chances, because the odds of any one place on Earth experiencing a total solar eclipse works out to about three times every 1,000 years — Makanda will do this again.
“The first one is practice,” said Dardis.
That path, stretching from Texas to Makanda to Maine, will be about 115 miles wide, and the eclipse will be more than 4 minutes long. Darkness will fall that day at 1:59 p.m.
And if you draw the imaginary, central orange line of the 2024 eclipse over the imaginary, central orange line of the 2017 eclipse, the crossroads falls in McFarland’s back yard near Cedar Lake, in a patch of black trumpet mushrooms, his favorite kind to eat.
“It’s much more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said McFarland. “Having two in seven years?
“Ah, we’re living right.”
Eclipse images: Shining the light on a long history of solar eclipses
A total solar eclipse happens about every 18 months somewhere on the earth. But many times, those eclipses aren't visible in places that are populated. The August 21, 2017 eclipse will be the first total solar eclipse visible from anywhere in the mainland U.S. since 1979. So it's kind of a big deal. Here's a look back at how the world as looked at previous solar eclipses.
Find everything you want to know about the eclipse in a special section Aug. 13. Search 100-plus events on our interactive map at stltoday.com/eclipse.
Valerie Schremp Hahn • 314-340-8246
@valeriehahn on Twitter