Since my last blog, a truly spectacular event has occurred that you, the reader, will have likely heard about—The Great American Solar Eclipse. As we all know, in August, much of the United States of America had the pleasure and astronomical luck of witnessing a total solar eclipse. For mere moments, those in the path of totality basked in dusk-like surrealism that many who witnessed it can only describe as awe-inspiring. The period leading up to the big event was something else. Businesses across the board sold eclipse glasses (my brother purchased his from Dunkin Donuts), and end-of-world conspiracy theories ran rampant. For the most part, the path of totality crossed through rural America and her heartland; one of these places being the Shawnee National Forest, where the period of totality was the longest.
Every year on the Shawnee, like many other forests, there are annual events that bring in higher numbers of visitors. For example, in the fall, we have more hunters in the area from all over to squirrel hunt or bag that trophy Southern Illinois whitetail. We also have a group of visitors that I like to call “leafers”, who come to observe the rich fall foliage. So increased visitor preparation is something our forest is akin to. For the eclipse however, preparation began last year. With word that NASA was going to be in nearby Carbondale, and all hotels within a 250-mile radius were booking fast, the potential for a mass influx of people was inevitable.
The coming crowd of people over a weekend time slot posed some logistical and safety concerns. We knew from the start that our forest “flagship”, Garden of the Gods would be the hotspot for visitors; and with limited parking space, steep topography, and accessibility barriers, it was a site we had to plan and monitor carefully. Since lodging in the area sold like hotcakes, the Shawnee decided to open additional campsite loops that had been closed, as well as create new ones.
The big weekend finally came. People flocked into the region from all over. I worked at the entrance to Garden of the Gods directing traffic and talking to visitors on Sunday (day before the eclipse), and you would have thought the eclipse was happening that day. The parking lots filled to capacity, and we were ordered to not let anyone else in via automobile–at least until some left. There were some who showed signs of disapproval towards us, but mostly everyone was understanding and willing to make the mile and a half hike up to the top. Obviously on eclipse day the crowds were still present in the area, Ozzy Osbourne “barked at the moon” at a local winery, and many people witnessed a spectacle of nature that most will only get to see once in a lifetime.
Experiencing this event while working in the Forest Service has been really beneficial and eye-opening to me. I learned more about how we prepare for large events and incidents, and I had the opportunity to meet and work with people I normally I wouldn’t. One unique thing about the Shawnee National Forest is that this exact same event will happen again in 2024! Not many people can say that they experienced two total solar eclipses in their hometown; and after witnessing this past eclipse, I can see why so many people traveled from so far to see it. I now know I would do the same!