The Train Inn has four rooms and two cabins. All of them are available for the highly coveted days around Aug. 21, when the twirling clockwork of the universe, no less, has placed humble Carbondale smack dab in the center of an event of cosmic magnificence: the total eclipse of the sun.

No one has booked a room, though not for want of trying.

“I’ve had 4,000 plus calls,” said Paul Lewers, owner of the train-themed bed and breakfast. “I started getting requests five years ago: the first was an astronomy professor from Sweden.”

And why hasn’t he booked any?

“I’m not coming up with a price,” he explained. “I didn’t want to have them re-sold.”

Usually, rooms there start at $125, swelling to $245 for prime Southern Illinois University events. But the eclipse, reaching totality longer in Carbondale than any other place in the country, ah, eclipses any football game or graduation. Carbondale businesses are hoping to squeeze every dime out of pilgrim sky gazers. The Holiday Inn is asking $499 a night, paid in advance. SIU is renting out four-person dorm suites: $800 for three nights (“That’s only $66 per person per night” an SIU representative helpfully pointed out).

The university has an eclipse website with an end-of-the-world countdown clock. It’s teaming with NASA, the Adler Planetarium and the Louisiana Space Consortium for a two-day celebration that is part tail-gate blowout, part science fair. Aug. 21 was also to be the first day of SIU classes, but those were canceled so as not to distract from the business at hand.

For those unfamiliar with our physical world, I suppose I should mention that a solar eclipse takes place when the moon gets between the sun and the earth and cast its shadow. A total solar eclipse, where the moon completely blocks out the sun, hasn’t touched the United States since 1979, and that was in the Pacific Northwest.

This time the shadow, about 70 miles wide, kisses the rocky beaches of Oregon, just southwest of Portland, about 10:15 a.m. Aug. 21, and sweeps across the country, hitting Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri until brushing good old Illinois at the southern tip: Murphysboro at 30 seconds past 1:19 p.m. and Carbondale at 1:20 p.m.

I haven’t decided where to stay yet — prices being what they are, I like the thought of a tent in the middle of the Shawnee National Forest. But then I would miss the spectacle of all those sophomores who indulge in one too many Eclipses — and yes, the drink exists, using several recipes — and miss the whole thing. That’s part of the story, alas.

Chicago will have only a 90 percent eclipse, meaning it won’t get as dark or last as long. Even then, the Adler Planetarium is expecting 10,000 people.

But Chicagoans cannot look at the eclipse without using special glasses—this can’t be said enough. You’ll burn your retinas otherwise.

This being a charming combination of physical science, mob dynamics and good old fashioned American hucksterism, I phoned American Paper Optics in Memphis, one of two manufactures in the country of the special viewing glasses — items which wholesale for 18 cents and retail for about two bucks.


“It’s been pretty hectic here,” said co-owner Paulo Aur. “We started marketing this two years ago.”

Any advice for viewers of the eclipse?

“You want to make sure you get glasses from American Paper Optics,” he said, warning about “Chinese trying to infiltrate our market” selling glasses that “aren’t safe.”

But the total eclipse — you can look full at it, the round black of the moon surrounded by the sun’s corona, darkness at (near) noon, the temperature dropping.

It sounds cool.

“It should be a gas,” said Lewers, who hopes to hold that eBay auction for his rooms at the end of the month.

How excited are visitors about this?

“People have checked into the Train Inn just to come feel the vibrations before the eclipse,” Lewers said.

Could be fun. Or could not. I don’t want to be a kill-joy. But August is a cloudy month in Illinois, and the chances of any day being 80 percent overcast are 1 in 3.