CHESTERFIELD • People started showing up at sunrise at the Chesterfield Amphitheater to get prime parking spots for the eclipse.
James and Darla Stumpe of Medora, Ill., left home early enough that by 6 a.m. they had snagged a parking space directly across from the amphitheater entrance. The joining of the sun and moon would be the perfect symbol of their 36th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.
"After this we are going to get a hotel and spend a couple days around Chesterfield," he said.
They'd made the right choice. Before the eclipse began, people parked as far away as Chesterfield Mall to the east. Businesses and other facilities seemed especially tolerant of the space-hunters who fell upon the area around 9 a.m. and through the mid-afternoon. Some took taxis and Uber to the gates.
A line had already formed and stretched far south and out of sight when the amphitheater opened at 10 a.m. for live music, food trucks, face painting, sales of souvenirs — including increasingly rare viewing glasses — and other eclipse-related festivities.
Within an hour, most of the seating spaces were filled, from seats near the stage to grassy spaces farther back. But despite wide blankets and even picnic baskets and a few wagons, the remarkably civil crowd wedged people in until everyone outside was inside, and the sardine-like compression simply produced more laughter and joking among the throngs. Calling this an upbeat crowd was an understatement.
Police closed Veterans Place Drive outside the amphitheater as the eclipse drew near. Chesterfield police cited the increasing number of pedestrians in the area. The reasoning was sound, even with slow, driving cars, families and children making the long walks from remote parking lots often turned with no warning to cross Veteran's Place Drive. Fortunately, a couple of sun-stroked drivers traversed the street at insane speeds without hurting anyone.
Everyone admitted to the amphitheater was given a pair of eclipse glasses, courtesy of radio station, KLOU, which played popular music until the eclipse passed and the live entertainment began.
Speaking of which, the overflow crowd was full of gab and gaiety with people taking each others' photos, waiting in the long lines at the food trucks in the northern parking lot, and just roaming around until the moment the moon reduced the sun to a crescent. The less sun, the less noise, until Totality arrived, to resounding applause and cheers. And then the diamond ring, as if the cosmos had offered up an encore.
"Awesome," became the day's mantra followed by a litany of superlatives.
Rachel Dees of Edwardsville was there with her friend Michael Vancil, also of Edwardsville to celebrate her birthday. "We'd thought of Carbondale, but we heard that would be crazy," she said. The forecasts of traffic and hoards of eclipse chasers was more than they wanted to handle. Besides, turning 26, she found the St. Louis area had more to offer in terms of diversions. "So we'll head to the downtown for (revelry) after this," she said.
A couple of astrophysics graduate students and their groupies from Iowa State University sat beneath an expert's tent and answered questions from anyone who cared to ask. "The most common question?" said Travis Yaeger, of Wausau, Wisc. "It's what is an eclipse. Yeah, amazing."
He says he was invited by a friend helping to organize the event. He jumped at the chance because this sort of eclipse, an "umbra shadow" eclipse is the most complete coverage of the sun by the moon, and the rarest. Partial eclipses are more common, but not as ... cool ... he said.
Which brokers another question. Where's the moon untll the eclipse?
Brandon Marshall, another astrophysics major from Iowa State, explained that the only reason we see the moon at all is because it interacts with the sun. That's why the moon seems to disappear sometimes during its cycle. So the moon is pretty much invisible until it blocks the view of the sun in a total eclipse, then disappears again when they part company, Marshall said.
John Malcolm, of Finlay, Ohio, leaving the amphitheater to beat the traffic, spoke for the hundreds of people: All the hoopla, planning and anticipation was worth it. "It was pretty awesome," he said. A hobbyist astrophysicist, he used the 90-second Totality to survey the sky. "That was the marvel," he said. "You could see other planets. You could see Venus."