Eclipse Journal 1: August 20

I have been fussing with the transfer of this blog to WordPress, and with trying to make it current. But let’s start pitching in some new content, first by catching up to a momentous road with my son. This is adapted and expanded from my beer-centric eclipse coverage at beeronaut.com.

Departure

My son Sean and I set out at about 9 am Sunday morning to cross the State of Illinois—the long way—to experience the total solar eclipse of 2017. Our route would involve cutting from one interstate to another along an hour’s worth of rural highway so the Boy could practice his driving.

But even before we could get out of town, the Boy insisted on stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts. Seems he had latched onto a sheets of coupons that regularly appear in the newspaper, and he felt duty bound to use them. Starting with the coupon for a free donut. I explained to him that we did not “have to” use the coupons, but sure, we could get a donut. And I got a free hash brown and an extra cup of coffee.

We started with a slightly indirect route, cutting from I-55 to I-57 through some county roads, to give Sean a chance to put more driving hours on his learner’s permit. Once you get past Joliet going south, it’s interesting how quickly cutting off the highway can send you down rural towns and highways.

We only hit one snag, and that was at the first part of the trip. Roads were closed due to construction coming out of one of the small towns. I was without a working tablet at the time, so I did not have a navigation map that would have set us up with good detours. So we just kept trying every road that seemed to head south.

We kept mostly good weather with us, except for those few occasions where we needed to stop for a restroom or to get gas. The further south we went, the more the humidity went up, until it was properly stifling. As our gas tank slowly unfilled itself, I was taken with the notion that the huge levels of expected traffic might deplete gasoline supplies, or cause the prices to get jacked up in an exploitative manner. So I hit gas stations twice along the way, adding maybe 5 gallons each time, and noting with some satisfaction how prices got lower the further away from Chicago. I figure people have been streaming into the area over the past few days, and will likely be mostly heading home en masse Monday afternoon. However, traffic was no more crowded than any regular summer weekend. Perhaps on a Sunday afternoon you might find people coming up north from their lake houses downstate, but perhaps they stayed home to avoid the anticipated traffic jams.

Arrival

Our destination for the evening was the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds. I had now just worked out that the DuQuoin Fairgrounds was a private concern built for horse racing in 1923, which was taken over later by the State of Illinois, and now puts on a sort of auxiliary state fair there. Our interest there was that by the time we had decided to make this trip, hotels were filled up from Metropolis to St. Louis, state park campsites were “take a chance” or $1,000 a night. But the DuQuoin Fairgrounds was offering camping for just $25. All I had to do is mail in a check with an application, and hope a confirmation arrives. In time. But it turned out I didn’t have to worry, as a paper reservation card arrived in plenty of time. My guess is that fewer people wanted to reserve a location by such a now primitive means.

The main event was taking place at Saluki Stadium, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It would have been reasonably priced, but my son has a major aversion to crowds, and there would be about 25,000 expected there. Instead, I picked a spot with the same amount of total eclipse coverage, and a more informal gathering planned.

With no real issues on the road, we arrived at the Fairgrounds late in the afternoon. An attendant in a golf cart led us through the camping area, already full of campers and family buses. The attendant pointed us to an area on the shore of a small recreational lake alongside the fairgrounds. We had a couple of electric outlets nearby, and a latrine within walking distance… so long as I didn’t have any urgent business. Although despite the car starter/air pump in the picture above, it took nearly an hour to inflate the air mattress. It was still a little mushy when I gave up on it.

Dinner

We managed to stay on the road with few food stops, except for coffee refills and more beef jerky. So we were ready to hit the town for dinner. For my beer blog, I had compiled a list of all the breweries and brewpubs in the path of totality through eastern Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, especially the ones which would be open on Monday for the event itself.

So we were already headed for St. Nicholas Brewing Co., located in the town’s historic St. Nicholas Hotel, right across from the railroad tracks, which still has an Amtrak intercity stop. The three-story hotel was built in 1879, and remained in business until 2005. It apparently fell into neglect quickly, since when the owners of what became the brewery took the building over in 2009, several years of rehab were needed. Today only one floor of the building is occupied, all the walls in the public rooms are stripped to the bricks, and the ceiling to the rafters. But those rafters have several bicycles hanging from them, indicating St. Nicholas’ support of local cycling groups and events. It has the brew works visible at one side of a blocked off staircase, a bar and dining room, and an outdoor patio.

Sean is still 17 and does not care for beer, yet, but I got him interesting in coming along based on the promise of their “Pint of Bacon” appetizer. The eclipse crowd was good-sized, and a map at the entrance bore hundreds of pushpins showing from where in (and outside) the US customers had come.

Sean’s appetizer turned out to be simply a pint glass with strips of bacon, not a solid pint of bacon, as in 16 ounces. But that was probably for the best. He moved on to a 12-inch Meat Lover’s Pizza, baked on what looked like flatbread crust, that he managed to inhale with no trouble at all. I went for their basic hamburger with just a few fixings, the better to taste out the burger itself. The burger meat was thick, but not juicy, apparently using a leaner grind. Its edges were well done and crispy, and the bun from a local baker had a slightly chewy crust, like a brioche.

I ran through a tray of just four sampler beers, since I was going to be sleeping on the ground that night, but I also got a bomber of their strong dark Belgian ale, which is now in my cellar. Sean finished off his repast with a root beer float from their house root beer.

St. Nicholas is one of small-town brewpubs that’s been the latest effort to revitalize small downtowns. It can give people a reason to come to the town, just like any out-of-the-way steakhouse will, or a historical site, or other unusual feature. Walking through the rest of downtown DuQuoin, you can find several old shops that have boarded up, or been converted to offices or other functions, then boarded up.

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