“Eclipse Virgin” is written on the button that Hillary from California gave me. Solar Eclipse Virgo. That’s not entirely true. This is not my first time. I have already seen two total solar eclipses: in Karlsruhe in 1999 and in the Chilean Atacama Desert in July 2019.

But that still puts me well behind the “eclipse chasers”, the hunters of the total (solar) eclipse. People from all over the world who try to be there for every total solar eclipse possible, no matter where it takes place.

People like Rainer Kresken. His main job is as a space engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA) and researches small planets that could one day land on Earth. The 63-year-old from Darmstadt has already been to China, Siberia, Zambia and Venezuela to see a total solar eclipse. In total he does it twelve times.

Rainer took me to Carbondale, a small town somewhere in Illinois. It normally has a population of 25,000 and is not a tourist attraction. But now the hotels are fully booked and a remaining room in a slightly run-down motel is charging the astronomical sum of $400 per night. The reason: Carbondale lies in the totality corridor, the strip in which the total obscuration of the sun can be seen.

During a total solar eclipse, the moon moves in front of the sun so that no more light from the sun’s surface reaches Earth. This happens about every two years, somewhere in the world. The last time a total solar eclipse was seen in Germany was in 1999.

Carbondale is special for another reason. A total solar eclipse could already be observed from here in 2017, now again. This happens extremely rarely. And so Sofi enthusiasts have come from all over to experience the natural spectacle here.

The place has been in a state of emergency for weeks. Almost all stores advertise “Eclipse” special offers. The clubs host “Eclipse” parties. Lectures on the solar eclipse are given at the local university and prayers are held in the services before the big day to ensure that no accidents occur.

Of course, Rainer Kresken was also there in Carbondale in 2017. With Hillary, a former bank consultant, and her husband Bill, who is originally from the area. The two Americans and the German space engineer met on the beach in La Paz, Mexico, in 1991. It was the first solar eclipse for all three. They have been friends ever since.

Since then they have seen four total solar eclipses together. This will be the fifth. But there is one prerequisite for this: the sky must be cloudless.

On the big day, Rainer Kresken checks the weather report every half hour. It looks good. Unlike Texas, which is also in the totality corridor and has therefore attracted many tourists. But bad weather is forecast there.

The sky must be clear so that you can optimally see the three phases of the solar eclipse. In the first, the moon covers only part of the sun. This looks a bit like someone bit the sun. Anyone who looks at the sun during this phase without special protective glasses can lose their eyesight. In the second phase, the moon has moved completely in front of the sun’s disk. There then appears to be a radiant ring around the sun. It is the glowing plasma in the solar corona, a shell of particles that surrounds the sun. This moment, the climax of every solar eclipse, lasts varying lengths of time, usually a few minutes. During this time you can see the sun with the naked eye. The third phase then begins, in which the moon gradually reveals the sun again. Like the first phase, it lasts a little over an hour.

Like any unusual natural spectacle, the solar eclipse is an event that has occupied and inspired not only astronomers, but also philosophers and art throughout the centuries. Its description as a sign from heaven can be found by the Greek philosopher Thales (probably lived from 624/23 to between 548 and 544 BC). The American writer Mark Twain dealt with the phenomenon in his book “A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur”. His hero is captured and avoids execution because he predicts a solar eclipse, thereby impressing his captors so deeply that they release him.

You probably wouldn’t be able to get away with this trick in the enlightened 21st century. But the event is still spiritually charged for many. For example for the Navajo, the second largest indigenous group in the USA. In their tradition, the solar eclipse is a sacred time when the sun is “reborn.” That’s why you’re not allowed to eat, drink or sleep. The rules also stipulate that you stay at home and not look at the sky.

That would be out of the question for Rainer Kresken. He and his wife Bettina, a marine biologist, traveled ten hours by plane and three more by car just to see the solar eclipse with their American friends.

At 12:42 p.m. local time the sun changes at the bottom right edge. As if the moon had bitten off a piece. The bite gets bigger and bigger, the sun gets smaller and smaller, first looking like a half moon, then like a quarter moon.

We are standing on the private property of one of Bill’s former schoolmates. Family and neighbors came, but also friends from other states. His daughter-in-law brought a man-sized cardboard cutout showing former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in a famous sitting pose. She gave him solar eclipse glasses. The grill is turned on and there is a festival atmosphere.

It gets dark at 1:49 p.m. The shadows become sharper. The temperature drops. Irritated birds are looking for places to sleep. The frogs from the neighboring pond begin their night concert. At 1:58 p.m. Rainer Kresken counts the countdown. Hillary takes out Elysian Space Dust champagne and beer from the cooler. A minute later the moon has completely obscured the sun. For four minutes and eight seconds it becomes a black circle with a halo.

It is a moment with special magic. Overwhelmingly beautiful and a bit spooky. It gives an idea of ​​what would happen if the sun were no longer there.

It’s hard to put into words what you just experienced. The Austrian poet Adalbert Stifter once tried it. On July 8, 1842, he observed a total solar eclipse. He then tried to summarize what he felt about it in a long text. “Never in my entire life have I been so shaken, so shaken by horror and majesty, as in these two minutes,” wrote Stifter: “It was no different as if God had suddenly spoken a clear word and I had understood it .” And further: “How holy, how incomprehensible and how terrible is that thing that always surrounds us, that we enjoy soullessly and that makes our globe tremble with such shivers when it withdraws, the light when it withdraws only briefly. “

Things aren’t quite as poetic in Illinois. But here too, among the eclipse watchers, there is euphoria. People hug each other, one hands out buttons with the inscription “I blacked out in Carbondale” and the date, a play on words. You relax and watch as the sun gradually seems to gain volume again.

An hour later it’s all over. You would have to wait 20 years to see the next total solar eclipse in the USA, somewhere else. I wouldn’t have a chance in Germany during my lifetime.

But Rainer Kresken has good news. The next total solar eclipse of this type will be visible in around two years. If you are in Greenland, Iceland, Portugal or northern Spain. And has a sky without clouds.

I now have a date for August 12, 2026. With Hillary, Bill, Bettina and Rainer. I have become a hunter of total darkness.