Cities like Madras, Oregon and others in the path of next month's total solar eclipse have lessons to offer other destinations about hosting once-in-a-lifetime events and the kinds of decisions and processes that it takes to welcome throngs of visitors.
On Monday morning, August 21, a 70-mile-wide swath of America from Oregon to South Carolina will plunge into darkness during daytime hours.
The total solar eclipse—the first fully visible from the U.S. since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years—will reveal plasma flares on the sun visible from earth as the moon passes directly between them.
It will also drive an expected 100,000 people to the tiny town of Madras, Ore.—current population a little more than 6,000.
Twenty-four of the visitors will stay at Lysa Vattimo’s house.
“It’s organized chaos,” Vattimo said with a laugh. She is the lead member of the City of Madras Solar Eclipse Planning Group, a team formed more than two years ago after city organizers realized they could have a serious logistics problem on their hands. Their first tip-off was even earlier—four years ago when a travel agency called Continental Capers bought out the entire Inn at Cross Keys in anticipation of this year’s event. In such a tiny locale, such a purchase generated plenty of curiosity.
“Apparently, some astronomer said that Madras was the premier location for viewing the eclipse based on its high altitude, big plateau, and the weather compared to other locations across the path,” Vattimo said. “He could barely get anybody [here] to pay attention to him. But when all the hotels started booking up years in advance, we realized this was a big deal.”
The Premier Viewing Spot
Madras is far from the only location along the flight path. Idaho Falls, Idaho; Lincoln, Neb.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Columbia, S.C., are among the nine other cities NASA lists as ideal for watching. The first point of contact will be Lincoln Beach, Ore., at 9:05 a.m. local time; “totality,” as astronomers call it, begins there at 10:16 a.m. Over the next 90 minutes, the darkness will cross through Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, ending in Charleston at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Its longest duration will be near Carbondale, Ill., where the moon will block the sun for two minutes and 40 seconds.
As the smallest and some say optimal viewing spot along the route, the ranching town 12 miles from Warm Springs Indian Reservation will experience the onslaught of eclipse chasers quite dramatically. With its high elevation, flat plateau land mass flanked by pristine snow-covered mountains, and crystal clear desert skies, it’s perfectly suited to stargazing.
As for the eclipse itself, ask a science lover why it’s compelling, and he or she will respond in disbelief that you even have to ask.
“It hasn’t happened like this in a century, and it’s the only one we’ll see in our lifetime,” said Molly Baker, the head of communications at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory. “It’s going to be incredible when it gets dark and to see the nocturnal animal activity.”
Lowell Observatory and Oregon State University are sending dozens of scientists to Madras to observe and record the event; NASA is sending a cadre of astronomers. They expect to observe and document unusual animal activity in addition to the plasma flares and other celestial activity during the eclipse. (When unexpected darkness falls, many animals, such as birds, think night has fallen and take to roost.)
Baker and her 30 colleagues attending, plus additional volunteers, plan to stay mostly in campgrounds and RVs. She did admit to some trepidation.
“I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also nervous,” said Baker, who will arrive a couple days prior to the event. “It going to be pretty hectic.”
Handling the Hoards
On their side of things, Vattimo and her team didn’t waste time. They contacted the Oregon state police, transportation authorities, and local business owners and residents to talk about how the region would sustain such an influx. “We knew we needed to lock arms, get to know each other really well, and get prepared,” she said.
Madras’s chamber of commerce has held dozens of town meetings to urge business owners to stockpile cash, gas, and wares. The town and surrounding campsites have rented nearly 700 portable toilets, including some from Idaho, to meet demand, with garbage trucks scheduled to run nearly 24 hours a day to transport trash to huge dumpsters before it begins to smell in the summer heat.
St. Charles Medical Center of Madras & Bend has loaded up on such supplies as gauze, bandages, painkillers, and other sundry items that medics would need to treat the general casualties frequent at any other large gathering, such as a music festival, say, or Burning Man. Doctors there have canceled vacations; pregnant women close to their due dates are being told to leave to avoid getting stuck, according to local reports. Restaurants such as regional favorite Black Bear Diner have bought five-weeks’ worth of supplies for one week of customers.
(Speaking of Burning Man, yes, there are multiple more free-spirited festivals planned for near Madras during the time of the eclipse. Expect those to have the same free-living energy—minus the corporate baggage—as the annual Black Rock Desert retreat.)
Where People Are Staying
Since area hotels sold out long ago, many farmers are renting out camping spaces on their land in plots with such names as Sunset Solar Campground, Solar Celebration, Solar Eclipse on the Farm, and Totality Awesome. Campsite rates run roughly $300 a night, with a three-night minimum; RV packages are running scheduled shuttles will move campers from the farms to restaurants and grocery stores in town. Music, food, and entertainment are all planned for display at a nearby fairground.
Christina Carpenter has 275 reservations to stay on her 100-acre farm, Organic Earthly Delights —and could accommodate twice that if she had to. She has hired 40 people to build decks, fences, bunks, tables, outdoor showers, and the like. Her Organic Earthly Delights will feature sustainable farming and bee keeping sessions, cooking demonstrations, movie screenings, and host Joel Salatin, the popular holistic farmer, author, and lecturer, during the week of the event.
She’s also importing experts for guided astrology lessons.
“The astronomers are so excited,” Carpenter said on the phone. She had just finished planting a cover crop of grass perfectly timed to flourish by the time of the eclipse. “They’re coming in from Hawaii, and they already sent their telescope ahead of them.”
Other residents as far away as Bend (43 miles away) and Prineville (30 miles away) are making a killing on Airbnb and VRBO bookings, either renting out rooms in their homes or renting the whole house for the weekend in a matter of minutes. Rates on Airbnb range from $500 to $1,500 for a room for one night; entire houses are listed for $2,000 and more. You can stay on a pontoon boat in a nearby lake for $2,850, though you must bring your own lifejacket, which is required for the stay.
“There is a sense of panic,” said Beth Rasmussen, a Bend native. Rasmussen and her husband, Jesse, are the language arts and social studies teacher at Pilot Butte Middle School and vice principal of Jewell Elementary, respectively. As the parents of two young girls, they plan to stay put for the event, if only to avoid an anticipated six- or eight-hour drive back home along Highways 97 or 26.
“ They are telling us to expect one million people to come to Central Oregon,” Rasmussen said. “Everybody knows about it. There is definitely a lot of hype.”
In fact, large billboards along the two-lane highway into and out of town have advertised the event for years. Rick Hickmann, who has lived in nearby Bend since 1976, said he was dumbfounded when the billboards appeared two years ago. “I laughed when I saw it,” he said. “The sign was in the middle of nowhere, in the hot desert, with not a tree in sight. I thought, who in the world would go to Madras for that ?”
Fast-forward to July 2017 and the Oregon Department of Transportation is predicting “the biggest traffic even in Oregon history” and posting humorous bulletins in efforts to stave off vehicular calamity. (Two examples: Don’t be a luna(r)-tic: Arrive early, stay put, and leave late; If travelers plan ahead and come prepared, we’ll all dance together for two unforgettable minutes as the sun throws the moon’s shadow over us. If travelers don’t plan ahead, we’ll all go nowhere together for many forgettable hours probably throwing shade at each other.”
How to Do It Right
Not scared off yet? It’s not too late to get to Oregon to see the event. Flights into the nearest airport of any size, Redmond, the Saturday prior can still be had. They don’t cost as much as you might expect—nearly $700 from New York and $600 from Los Angeles, which is up slightly from routine fares but not, say, double what travelers might usually pay.
But don’t expect to get anywhere fast, and travel with plenty of water, gas, food, and any essential prescriptions. There’s plenty of room once you get there, as long as you’re OK with a lot of fresh air.
“You just have to be willing to camp,” Vattimo said. “There is glamping, or you can rent an RV and bring it out, or pitch a tent.”
On some of the farms around town, a friendly rancher will even set up the tent for you. It’ll beat staying with 23 others in a crowded home—though that might be a lunatic time, too.
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Photo Credit: Cities such as Madras, Oregon in the path of next month's total solar eclipse are preparing for large influxes of tourists eager to experience the spectacle. Amy Meredith / Flickr