One year in advance may seem way too soon to start making plans for anything, but the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in the USA may be worthy of an exception. On Monday, August 21, 2017, the eclipse's 100-mile wide path of totality will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina, providing for the first time in a generation, a relatively easy opportunity for the entire population of the continental United States to observe such an event. No one knows exactly how significant the pilgrimage to the path of totality will be, but it has the potential to be on the order of something this country has never seen before. The phrase "biggest movement of people for tourism in US history" has been tossed around. It's not very far-fetched to think so. The town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky already has 400 hotel rooms booked for eclipse observers. It's even been suggested to make the day a one-time government holiday.
For the St. Louis metro and adjacent areas in Missouri and Illinois, consider the implications. We could see large percentages of the population of Chicagoland, Quad Cities, Madison, Springfield, Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Indianapolis and others - possibly millions of people - all converging on that 100-mile wide strip of land in southern Illinois and mid-Missouri. After all, if there were a total eclipse within a few hours' drive north or south, wouldn't you go?
If this event is as big as some expect, think of the effects. Interstates and highways clogged with hurricane-evacuation scale traffic jams for dozens - maybe hundreds - of miles. Remote rural back roads lined with cars and people. Hotels and campgrounds booked months in advance. Gas stations running out of gas, restaurants running out of food. Even though those extreme scenarios may sound hyperbolic, one thing is clear - the time to start planning is now. Mark the time off of work, make the hotel reservations, start choosing your destination and planning for some of the logistics.
I live in New Baden, Illinois - just 6 miles from the edge of the eclipse - and I'm concerned the event may be a challenge, even for me! I have several potential 'targets' in mind to get near the center of totality. All are in rural areas, all will avoid the interstates and will utilize the least amount of main highways possible to get there and back. I'm preparing to have to leave well before dawn, and packing enough food and water to be self-sufficient for the entire day. I'll have my gas tank filled up days in advance. (Those preps are not too different from planning/outfitting for the hurricane chasing expeditions I've embarked on!) I've even considered bicycling down to the eclipse center to avoid traffic jam issues!
For St. Louis, the eclipse has the potential to produce gridlock on a scale the city has never seen, with nearly half of the city inside the path of totality and half outside. We could see nearly 50 percent of the city's population trying to travel to the other side of town in just a few hours. The streets could be jammed, highways at a standstill. Unfortunately (or fortunately, from a logistics perspective), downtown St. Louis and the Gateway Arch will be outside of the totality path by just a mile and therefore not a viable 'target' for photographers/observers.
A few other items to consider for those planning on making the trek:
The closer to the center of the totality path, the better: The total eclipse lasts the longest in the center of the totality path. Areas at the edges of the path will see very short-duration totality, areas just outside of the path will not see totality at all!
Consider terrain and road network: You can lessen the likelihood of being caught in before-after traffic jams by arriving days in advance, staying at a hotel in towns far away from interstates, and choosing eclipse observation sites in wide-open rural areas with gridded road networks. In the parts of totality near St. Louis, the southern Illinois region has a better road network and more flat, open fields than the more hilly and forested Missouri side.
Prepare for gas and food shortages: I expect some counties/municipalities within the eclipse path will underestimate the influx of people, and consequently run out of food and gas. Pack non-perishable food and drinks to last you at least one full day. Try to minimize the distance you need to travel from the hotel to your eclipse observation site. Top off your gas tank in the days beforehand, and limit driving to maintain that full tank for the 'big day'.
Make it a multi-day trip: Since the eclipse is on a Monday, there's no reason to not make a long weekend of it. Arrive at your hotel on Friday night if possible, and find some local things to do and explore on Saturday and Sunday. It's likely that many towns in the path of totality will put on special events specifically to accommodate the crowds of eclipse watchers. Why risk last-minute traffic jams? Plan to stay at least a day after the eclipse to allow the egress traffic to subside.
Consider alternate transportation to the eclipse observing site: With proper planning, you may not even need to drive from your hotel on eclipse day. Mount the bike rack! A 25-mile morning bike ride is easily doable for a reasonably in-shape person, and can get you into position while providing some insulation from the effects of traffic jams and limited parking.
It's never too early to purchase essential eclipse-viewing gear: Things like special eclipse-viewing glasses that allow you to safely look directly at the sun are a must. There's no reason not to "gear up" now and avoid shortages or higher prices later!
Clouds: My biggest fear about the event is a deck of stratus or high cirrus clouds moving in and blocking out the sun. I've concluded that this is likely something out of any eclipse observer's control to do anything about. There's no way you're going to be able to relocate hundreds of miles east or west along the totality path at the last minute - especially if the crowds are on the worse end of the potential spectrum. What we do have going for us is that the typical August mid-day period in the Midwest has, at worst, scattered cumulus clouds. With the eclipse starting near St. Louis at 1:20PM CDT, it should be well before the usual thunderstorm formation times. Of course, there's always the threat of a decaying thunderstorm complex moving in from Iowa or Kansas - which would probably be a worst-case scenario. All things considered, I think the raw probability of a solid cloud deck at that time of day and year is relatively low. My opinion is that I don't see a point in worrying about things I cannot do anything about. If clouds ruin the show, it just "is what it is".
As if the 2017 event isn't remarkable enough, the very same parts of southern Missouri and Illinois will see a second total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024! The two paths of totality intersect very near Carbondale, IL. Hopefully by then, we'll have something very few people in US history have had - previous eclipse-watching experience to help us prepare for another!