- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2017

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — This railroad town of 25,000 may be just a speck on flyover country, but for one day next week, North Platte will feel like the center of the universe.

Millions of people are expected to gravitate toward rural America to view Monday’s total solar eclipse, a rare celestial event. The path of totality runs from Lincoln Beach, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina, presenting backwoods burgs with unparalleled moments in the sun.

And Courtney Fegter wants her home to shine. An events specialist at the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau, she has worked for three years to put the town in its best possible light during its 1 minute and 40 seconds of total darkness.

“It’s been crazy. Really great, but a little overwhelming,” Ms. Fegter said with a grin as a half-dozen staffers and volunteers busily stuffed hospitality packets for visitors. “For us, the biggest challenge has been how to plan for this big one-time event.”

The goal isn’t just for North Platte to cash in on the eclipse — although that is part of it — but also for first-time visitors to fall in love with the Nebraska Sandhills and return someday to tour its other attractions, such as the Union Pacific Bailey Yard or the crane migration.

“They all have to eat at our restaurants, buy our gas, stay at our hotels,” said group sales specialist Amanda Connick. “And after that, we’re hoping that we make a good enough impression that they’ll come back.”

Certainly small-town America is rising to the occasion. Casper is hosting the six-day Wyoming Eclipse Festival, culminating at 11:42 a.m. Monday with a totality of 2 minutes and 26 seconds. In Oregon, the town of Madras is ground zero for the weeklong Oregon SolarFest.

The town of Perry, Missouri, population 8,825, plans to unveil a sundial on Saturday in honor of the eclipse, while organizers in Gallatin, Tennessee, are hosting country music performers for the Gallatin Eclipse Encounter.

Elsewhere, it’s getting weird. In Kelly, Kentucky, locals are timing the arrival of the eclipse to the Little Green Men Festival, an annual event that commemorates the fabled arrival of space aliens in 1955.

The South Carolina Emergency Management Division joked last week that the eclipse may coincide with “possible paranormal activity,” including lizardmen.

The agency “does not know if Lizardmen become more active during a solar eclipse, but we advise that residents of Lee and Sumter counties should remain ever vigilant,” the agency said on Twitter.

Space aliens aside, what’s unique about the first solar eclipse to hit the Lower 48 since 1979 is its all-American flavor. More than half of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the path of totality, said Michael Zeiler, a traffic and geography analyst for Esri.

“If you compare the numbers, this is an unremarkable solar eclipse. In fact, it’s a little on the short end,” said Mr. Zeiler, who runs the Great American Eclipse website. “But what makes this one so special is that normally we travel to remote places around the Earth to see these, and this is cutting a clean diagonal across the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic.”

Not only that, but the continental United States is the only land mass in the world from which this year’s eclipse can be seen, which has never before happened in the 241-year history of the republic.

“It’s going across part of the Pacific and part of the Atlantic, but it doesn’t make any other landfall on any islands,” said Mr. Zeiler. “And that’s the first time in the nation’s history that that has been true.”

Three simple tips

Of course, with great opportunity comes great headaches. State officials have tried to reduce the potential for massive traffic jams on rural roads by halting construction projects, beefing up highway patrols, banning oversize vehicles for the day and, in the case of Oregon, mobilizing the National Guard.

For small towns, the biggest challenge has been where to squeeze the millions of stargazers expected to overwhelm the sparsely populated regions. In the case of Wyoming, the number of visitors could easily exceed or double the state’s population of 585,000.

“A lot of those communities are going to see double or triple their population on Eclipse Day, and it will be a massive economic boom for a lot of these places,” Mr. Zeiler said.

In North Platte, hotel rooms have been sold out for a year, but the locals are rallying by offering to put up visitors at their homes through Airbnb and even their backyards.

“This is a unique and significant opportunity to show off our state to one of the biggest crowds, if not the biggest, to ever visit Nebraska,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a July 31 statement. “As we prepare for this historic event, let’s make sure visitors to the Good Life come away with a great experience to share with their family and friends back home.”

Wyoming authorities had a message for Coloradans who plan to cross state lines for the eclipse: Leave your marijuana at home.

“Wyoming’s Marijuana Laws to be Enforced During Great American Solar Eclipse,” said the headline on a Friday statement from the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police.

Mr. Zeiler lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and plans to watch the eclipse from Casper, Wyoming. He urged eclipse watchers to follow a few simple steps. First, leave no later than Sunday, the day before the eclipse; second, bring your own food and supplies; and third, wait awhile until after the eclipse ends before heading home.

“A lot of these small towns simply don’t have the facilities and stocks of food, so the message I’m beating like a drum right now is arrive at least a day early, bring everything you need, and stay a bit afterward until traffic clears,” he said. “If you follow those three tips, you’ll be fine.”

Many school districts across the path of totality are planning to close for the day, although not all. In Nashville, the metropolitan school district reversed its decision to shut down in the interest of student safety.

Like many other towns, North Platte plans to run shuttles to the best viewing spots to cut down on traffic. The worst-case scenario is that would-be viewers will clog roads by waiting until Monday morning to drive up and park by the side of the road to watch the event.

“Some people might think they can just saunter down the morning of the eclipse. Forget about it,” Mr. Zeiler said. “It’s going to be among the worst traffic jams in the nation’s history. If you go the day before, Wyoming has plenty of [Bureau of Land Management] land, and people can freely camp in any suitable camping spot at no fee, no reservation.”

Lora Bevington of North Platte is one of the lucky ones. She plans to watch the event from her backyard with her dogs, Big Red Ted and Talia.

“I’ve already got my glasses,” she said, “and I’ve got two pairs of glasses for my greyhounds.”

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