How Eclipse Chasers Are Putting a Small Kentucky Town on the Map
The most anticipated eclipse in American history is coming this summer. At the heart of it is Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which anticipates 100,000 visitors. Mental Floss takes a look behind the small town's preparations—and a deep dive into the passionate subculture of people who chase eclipses for a living.
In 2007, Cheryl Cook received an email from an out-of-towner planning a trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the executive director of the town's convention and visitors bureau, Cook was used to reading messages from potential tourists. There was one hitch, though: The visitor's projected stay was 10 years away.
The purpose of the visit: A total solar eclipse was coming to the U.S. on August 21, 2017, and Hopkinsville represented a plum location to observe it. The event would be huge, the traveler said. What exactly was the town doing to prepare?
Cook says she laughed when she first read the note.
"I didn't know what to say," she recalls. "We don't work 10 years out." Then she started Googling.
Hopkinsville, it turns out, was not only smack in the middle of the eclipse's path, but was also 11 miles from what astronomers dub the "point of greatest eclipse," where the Sun, Earth, and Moon form a nearly straight line. This was more than tavern night trivia. It was a big deal. The chance of seeing a total solar eclipse hover over your front porch is itself improbable—one appears over your location, on average, every 350 years. But the odds of living at the point of greatest eclipse was, statistically speaking, zero.
In other words, Hopkinsville—a Kentucky farm town of 33,000 whose main export is bowling balls—had won the cosmic lottery.
In the years since, Hopkinsville—or Eclipseville, as it's billing itself—has done a great deal to promote itself as the place to watch the 2017 eclipse, which will trace a path from Oregon to South Carolina: the first total solar eclipse to sail over the continental United States in 99 years.
"We've been trying to get the idea out for years that Hopkinsville is going to become very, very busy that weekend," says Scott Bain, an astronomy professor at Hopkinsville Community College. "I started my job here 10 years ago and the eclipse was one of the things they used to lure me here."
"Busy" is putting it lightly. This year's solar eclipse could be the most viewed celestial event in history. Roughly 12 million people already live in its main path. On August 21, all they have to do is step outside and gaze up. Another 78 to 88 million more Americans live within 200 miles of the eclipse's trajectory. Many of them are expected to hit the road to see it.
Most drivers will set their GPSs for rural America, aiming at modest towns like Carbondale, Illinois (pop. 26,192), home of Southern Illinois University, which expects up to 60,000 visitors on campus. Or Idaho Falls (pop. 58,374), which is predicted to double in size. Or Prineville, Oregon (pop. 9000), which may see 30,000 people show up for an eclipse-themed music and arts festival in the Ochoco National Forest.
But Hopkinsville in particular expects to draw visitors from all over the world. The town of 33,000 expects to triple in size. Some locals, such as Cook, estimate the town's population could bloat to as high as 150,000.
For many, swimming through that crowd will be a small price to pay: A total solar eclipse is a sight so beautiful and so powerful that it's known to radically shake the course of people's lives.
The first thing you'll notice is a small, dark dent. It will be difficult to see—the Sun will shine bright like every other summer day—but, if you're standing in the right spot, a dimple will appear and people will cheer.
Over the next 71 minutes, that scallop will grow. The Sun will glare like a husky crescent moon. If you're standing under a leafy tree and look down, you'll see hundreds of tiny sickles of light dance among the shadows—the attenuating sun transforms foliage into natural camera obscuras. Step out from under that canopy and you'll notice that your own shadow appears sharper.
The western sky will blacken. Above, the blues of the sky will deepen and flirt with shades of violet. On the ground, the grass, trees, and any people will assume a leaden pallor, sapped of their vibrancy as if somebody had turned the dial on the landscape's saturation settings.
About five minutes before the total eclipse begins, the Sun, narrowed to a sliver, will remain too bright to stare at with the naked eye. The sky will be dark enough, however, for a pinprick of light to emerge: Venus, shining now even in the daytime. More planets and stars will follow.
The western horizon will loom ominously, as if a thunderstorm were brewing. People observing the eclipse from a beach may see faint shadows undulate over their toes in the sand. These ripples, which resemble the folds of light wobbling at the bottom of a swimming pool, are called shadow bands. (If there are children in your crowd, they'll enjoy chasing them.)
The Sun disappears. Lights along the lunar rim will flicker, sparkle, and pop: These are Baily's beads, the last gasps of sunlight hurtling through the valleys of the moon. They will fade until one last torch of sunlight beams along the moon's edge like a gemstone. As it fizzles, a warm red halo, for one brief instant, may gleam around the moon.
It will become eerily quiet. Birdsong will cease. Then the darkness will swallow you.
People on mountaintops will see it sweeping across the landscape, a cloak of darkness careening in their direction at more than 2000 miles per hour. This is the moon's innermost and darkest shadow, the umbra. Mabel Loomis Todd, a 19th-century eclipse writer, described it "like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom."
Things will get weird, and fast. The chirp of crickets may replace that of birds. Fireflies may emerge; bats may flit. Cows may low and jangle back to the barnyard. Pigs may wallow, flowers close. Chickens may return to roost or—as happened when an eclipse passed over Easter Island in 2010—freeze in place, standing flamingo-like on one leg.
A gust may sweep across your face as the wind shifts direction. Even here in August, you may shiver as the temperature sinks 10 degrees. Anybody who brought telescopes or binoculars that aren't filled with nitrogen may be disappointed as the plunge causes lenses to fog.
The Moon's umbra is so small—this year, barely 71 miles wide at most—that spectators who gaze into the distance will see to the shadow's edge. In all cardinal directions, the horizon will radiate with the oranges, reds, and purples of sunset. Directly above, the planet Jupiter, the star Regulus, and other members of the constellation Leo will sparkle.
Most people won't notice them. Their eyes will be glued to the corona.
Wispy tendrils of light, frothing and flailing around a deep black disc. That's the corona, a thin shell of gas millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun. Our star's interior light usually renders it invisible—with the exception of this moment.
Humans have tried to describe the corona for more than three millennia, and every account is said to not do it justice. It is ineffable. But all accounts agree: It is the most beautiful phenomenon in the natural world. The corona makes sunrise over the Grand Canyon feel like a sightseeing trip to a vacant strip mall.
The only people who will see the curtain of darkness, the 360 degree sunset, the corona—what's called totality—are those lucky enough to stand underneath the moon's narrow umbra. Everybody outside of this roving path of darkness will have a much less dramatic view. Standing under the moon's wider penumbra, people in Pennsylvania or Arizona will have to shield their eyes with special eclipse-viewing glasses the entire time and will only see a small bite taken out of the Sun, like a celestial Pac-Man. It will be, in comparison, remarkably disappointing.
"Make no mistake. The difference between whether you're inside the path of totality or outside it is literally the difference between night and day," writes astronomer Tyler Nordgren in his book Sun, Moon, Earth. "No other experience comes close to the multisensory strangeness of this most unnatural of natural events."
Totality will first appear over a rocky spit of land in Oregon called Governor's Point. It will zoom over Volcanoes Stadium in the town of Keizer, where the minor-league Salem-Keizer Volcanoes will be playing the Hillsboro Hops, prompting what's believed to be the first solar eclipse delay in professional baseball history.
Within 14 minutes, the umbra will slip over the Cascades into Idaho and, fittingly, the tip of Craters of the Moon National Monument.
The shadow will make stops in Grand Teton National Park and rove over Alliance, Nebraska to visit Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge built from 39 automobiles spray painted to resemble monolithic bluestones). The umbra will divide Nebraska and hurtle over dozens of small towns before barely clipping Kansas and Iowa. In Missouri, it will fly over the towns of California, Cuba, Washington, and Mexico. It will also visit a crowd of 71,000 spectators packed in Faurot Field, home of the University of Missouri Tigers.
By the time the eclipse enters Kentucky, the umbra will have slowed to approximately 1451 miles per hour. At 1:24 p.m. (CT), the Sun, Moon, and Earth will nearly align. For two minutes and 40.1 seconds, the moon's shadow will mask a quilt of corn, tobacco, wheat, alfalfa, and soybean farms a few miles northwest of Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
In the crowd will surely be a handful of people who live for this moment. They go by many names: umbraphiles, ecliptomaniacs, total(it)y nuts, even lunatics. Most, however, call themselves eclipse chasers.
When James McClean was 12 years old, a lunar eclipse cruised over his house in suburban New Jersey. It was a hot August night, and McClean asked his mom for permission to drag a lounge chair outside to watch it. When a concerned neighbor—confused by the sight of a prepubescent squatter on one of the neighborhood lawns—saw McClean, they called the police.
At two in the morning, a cop pulled in front of McClean's yard.
"What's going on?" the officer said. Without missing a beat, the 12-year-old spent the next 20 minutes lecturing that police officer on the quirks of celestial mechanics. By the time McClean finished, the cop stood convinced: The two watched the lunar eclipse together from the lawn. "I've been hooked on this kind of stuff since," McClean says.
Today, James McClean is an eclipse chaser. That's not the name of some cute weekend hobby. It's a lifestyle. For the past two decades, McClean, a professional photographer, has given up everything resembling a normal life. He has no permanent home base, opting instead to trot the globe, work odd jobs, and live on tight budgets to see solar eclipses.
Every. Single. One.
McClean has made a living as a cartographer and an aurora borealis tour guide. He's lived on an island near Sitka, Alaska and taught photography. (When he needed Internet, he'd kayak an hour and a half to the nearest library.) He's spent summers in Germany doing archaeology and winters in Sweden constructing, and living in, a hotel made of ice. He's slept in bamboo huts on top of volcanic islands, backpacked through Egypt, and trudged the snows of Svalbard, Norway. One time, in Indonesia, he was invited to sip coffee in a sultan's palace.
As he told me, "You know, I've struggled with, 'Do I take this job? It pays more money, but then I won't see the eclipse. Or do I take this job where I know I'll lose money, see the eclipse, and do good for people? That's the job I took."
Currently, McClean works as a park ranger at South Dakota's Jewel Cave National Monument. I met up with him this spring as he passed through New York City, where we rendezvoused, fittingly, by the telescope and binoculars section at the B&H Photo Video superstore. He's a mutton-chopped man, 50, with an encyclopedic knowledge of photography and an infectious zeal for what he calls "that corona-action."
Standing by a sea of telescopes, he gestured toward the equipment. "Eclipse chasing is a stupidly expensive hobby," he said. "I can do it because I have nothing. I walk the Earth like Cain." He wasn't kidding. At one point, when we got on the topic of home offices, he motioned to a book-sized tin perched under his arm, a former chocolate box adorned with depictions of Mickey Mouse, in which he kept plane tickets, documents, notebooks, and his iPad. "This is my office," he said.
McClean is not alone in his pursuit. There are hundreds of people just like him, somewhere between 300 to 800 who are so passionate about solar eclipses that they will drop everything and travel to the ends of the Earth to experience one.
"We all come from different walks of life, different countries, but there's that one thing: We love a total eclipse of the Sun—that unites us," says David Makepeace, a Canadian eclipse chaser and professional videographer. "I've become friends with people I would have never met in any other way, and I might not have anything else in common with them but this. We love this shit. It's our whole existence."
Eclipse chasers are as evangelical as they are dedicated. In 2010, an eclipse passed over Chile's Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. It's home to roughly 6000 people and is notoriously difficult to reach. Four thousand visitors still showed up.
A similar scenario played out in 2015 when a total solar eclipse passed over the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago 200 miles north of Scotland. The islands, which only have 800 hotel beds between them, expected somewhere between 3000 and 5000 visitors. Actual attendance surpassed 11,000.
In 2012, Australia learned the hard way what happens when you don't heed the warnings of eclipse chasers. "Astronomy clubs and other eclipse chasers there had tried to warn them: This is a much bigger deal than you think!" Makepeace recalls. "It wasn't until the last minute that they took it seriously—they tried to control traffic, but it was a fiasco."
Months out, officials had estimated that 30,000 people would visit the northern reaches of Queensland, Australia. They were wrong. Twice as many showed up.
It's these kinds of numbers that Cheryl Cook, Hopkinsville's tourism director, discovered when she opened her search engine 10 years ago. "I was looking at ones that had been in China, and how many people were there and what they did, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is a really big deal!'"
Which makes you wonder: What's the fuss about?
McClean and I were walking and talking along Manhattan's High Line on a soggy day when, suddenly, his sentences started growing exclamation points. "The problem with solar eclipses is that everybody has seen pictures! They think they know what it's like! But their whole perception is based on bad photography!"
You know the photos: A black hole in the heavens circled by a soft, opalescent halo. Even the best photography, McClean insists, can distort people's impressions. That's because total solar eclipses aren't something you see, but something you experience. "Don't think you know what this is," Makepeace said with a rhetorical wag of his finger. "Don't think you already saw one in school when you were a kid. You didn't."
Watching the star disappear during daytime stirs something deep within the brain. Our circadian rhythm, which regulates biochemical processes within the body, is braided to the light-and-dark rhythms of the Sun. When that's radically disrupted, it may spark an innate chemical rush that many describe as pure primal fear. As Nordgren puts it, "[M]y mind screams at the wrongness of what I am seeing."
John Dvorak, a science writer and trained planetary geophysicist, agrees. "The sight of a total eclipse—the sudden darkening of the sky, the radiant corona, the blood-red prominences circled around the edge of what had just been a brilliant Sun—was the most primal experience I have ever had," he writes in Mask of the Sun. "It was as if the most primitive part of the brain—the part inherited from reptiles—kicked into play and now controlled my emotions."
Primal fear is a complex nervous system response. When the brain processes unfamiliar or unusual surroundings—such as, say, a colossal sheet of darkness hurtling in your direction at Mach 3—the amygdala, the brain's fear center, goes haywire. It incites an unconscious reaction that is difficult to articulate, even for those expecting it. McClean, for instance, felt afraid when he witnessed his first eclipse. "I was terrified," he says. "I felt a sense of dread … It was like the Eye of Sauron was peering through your SOUL."
Kate Russo, an eclipse chaser and psychologist, describes the response in her book Total Addiction. "Our logical minds understand what is happening, but our basic primitive warning systems go into overdrive." Like the first drop of a rollercoaster, this experience can be deeply thrilling—and addicting. For people like McClean, the rush can make drugs look unimaginably lame. "I have, let's say, preparatory research with psychedelics," he says in Russo's book. "[A]fter an experience like a total eclipse, I realize, who needs the stuff? Reality alone is weird enough."
You can't blame the brain for freaking out. Total solar eclipses are an anomaly. Our Sun, which is 400 times larger than the Moon, is also 400 times as far from the Earth. According to the book Totality: Eclipses of the Sun, if the Moon were a mere 169 miles smaller in diameter—or if the Sun were a pinch closer—total solar eclipses would never occur. The corona would remain the stuff of imagination. The sight, in fact, would resemble Martian eclipses, where the asteroid-sized moons Phobos and Deimos prance across the Sun like cosmic googly eyes.
That natural we-are-doomed feeling is probably why many cultures have viewed eclipses as portents of misfortune. The Tlaxcala people of Mexico sacrificed people of ruddy complexions at the sight of an eclipse; the Aztecs targeted dwarves. The Ojibwe Indians of North America tried to relight the heavens by shooting flaming arrows into the sky. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, pregnant women still follow Vedic scripture and rub their bellies with a mixture of ghee (clarified butter) and cow dung to avoid an eclipse's contaminating air. In ancient China, where eclipses were regarded as indictments of the current ruler—a cosmic approval rating, if you will—record-keepers would fabricate eclipse reports to thumb their nose at unpopular leaders.
People across the globe went to great lengths to predict an impending eclipse, in hopes to prepare for the ensuing havoc. In ancient Mesopotamia, officials protected the royal bloodline by hiding kings and queens and hiring "stand-ins" as the eclipse approached. In 1628, when astrologers predicted an eclipse would kill Pope Urban, the Holy Father was whisked away to a secret room and treated with rose vinegar, silk cloths, music, and magic. He lived. Two years later, when astrologers again predicted an eclipse would kill Urban, cardinals flocked to Rome to usher in his replacement. After surviving this second eclipse, the annoyed pontiff made history by banning astrology from the Church.
(That didn't stop believers. Days before a partial solar eclipse in 1654, Catholics in France scrambled to confess their sins. One parish priest, drowning in requests, fibbed and told parishioners the event had been postponed.)
By the 19th century, terror would cave to awe. The astronomer Francis Baily wrote he was "electrified at the sight of one of the most brilliant and splendid phenomena that can well be imagined." His contemporary in Vienna, Adalbert Stifter, witnessed crowds crying at the sight. "I have always taken the old descriptions of eclipses to be exaggerated," he said. The event changed his mind. And when the poet Emily Dickinson saw a total eclipse, even a veritable garden of dashes couldn't help her describe it.
It sounded as if the Streets were running -
And then the Streets stood still -
Eclipse - was all we could see at the Window,
And Awe - was all we could feel -
In 1925, when a total solar eclipse passed over New York City, Alvin Peterson, the Navy's chief quartermaster, stood atop a dirigible and recorded a video. His description of the event was admirably succinct:
"It was the weirdest sensation I have experienced."
In 1764, a foal was born at the stables of Windsor Great Park in England. A total solar eclipse towered overhead. The horse, named Eclipse in honor of this fact, would later win 18 of 18 races and retire a stud. More than a century later, his great-great-great-great-great grandson, Aristides, would win the first Kentucky Derby in two minutes and 37 seconds—a time nearly equal to this year's totality.
Kentuckians like to riff on the Derby's slogan—the "most exciting two minutes in sports"—and joke that the Bluegrass State will be the starting gate of "the most exciting two and a half minutes in astronomy."
Most of that excitement will fall on the Orchardale-Shepherd Farm, located 11 miles northwest of Hopkinsville. The 170-acre farm will be the point of greatest eclipse. The prize for winning the solar system's Powerball? A whole bunch of strangers on the lawn.
The farm has been in Mark Cansler's family for about a century. When he learned that the farm would be cosmic ground zero, he was unsure what to do. "We tried to make some arrangements like food vendors and insurance, but we weren't sure we wanted to do all that," he says. A share of other farmers had decided to close their property off to spectators—they have crops, and a living, to protect—but Cansler, with his farm at the epicenter, "guessed it would be a shame if people wanted to come and look at the eclipse and there was no place for them to see it." He and his family, like many other locals, set aside a viewing area and is renting spots for RVs on a few acres of fallow land.
Nobody knows if that will be enough room.
That uncertainty is rippling across the country right now. The eclipse will pass over five state capitals—Salem, Lincoln, Jefferson City, Nashville, and Columbia—cities that likely have the resources and budgets to prepare for a tidal wave of visitors. It's a different story for the small towns riding the eclipse's centerline. As Steve Kemp, a services director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, told the Asheville Citizen-Times, the best views will be "way out in the boonies." And people are coming.
Kate Russo, the psychologist who also works as an eclipse-planning consultant, pointed out that the 2017 eclipse will pass over 1000 communities, "and most of them will be under-resourced. These small communities, they usually have one person who does multiple jobs, and they're not able to think on this scale. They just don't usually need to, because nothing this big happens."
She said, "I've been saying this repeatedly to people, the hidden story is how all of these communities are preparing for what's going on. It's an unprecedented event."
The logistical challenges involved in managing a rural town that may quintuple in size for 24 hours can be intimidating. Gas stations could run out of fuel. Grocery stores and restaurants could run out of food. ATMs could run out of cash. Roads that rarely see traffic could clog.
Hopkinsville, however, is emblematic of the Herculean efforts small towns across the country are making to ensure that none of this happens.
The town, which expects visitors from across the U.S. as well as from as far as Germany, Brazil, and Japan, has hired a full-time eclipse coordinator. They've requested 85 National Guard and a handful of state police be on hand to help control traffic on the two-lane highways lacing the countryside. They've advised locals to avoid eating out on the days before the eclipse to ease the food crunch, and they've hired at least 50 food vendors to set up shop downtown (50 more vendors will be located at different spots around the county). Officials have encouraged locals to acquire temporary health and safety licenses to hawk snacks.
If roads jam on August 21, ambulances could be marooned on country lanes, a scenario that's prompted Hopkinsville's local Red Cross and other nonprofits to certify more residents in First Aid. The town even designated extra landing zones for med-evac helicopters and established a makeshift alternative care site in the northern reaches of the county. Emergency managers from Lexington and Louisville are on speed dial in case Hopkinsville needs reinforcement choppers.
Hopkinsville's regional airport, which has space for 40 small airplanes, expects twice as many aircraft to land that weekend. It will install extra tiedowns. Aviators better have rooms booked: A night's stay for that weekend at the local Hampton Inn or Comfort Suites, according to Cook, is currently running "anywhere from $400 to $800." Pickings are slim on Airbnb too, where, as of press time, a one bedroom ranges from $170 to $4050 a night. To make more space, the town plans to transform its parks into campsites and RV lots, building communal dump sites so visitors can safely dispose of gray and black water. Some areas have already sold out.
To prevent light pollution, the city teamed up with utility companies to manually stop streetlights from flipping on during totality. It's more complicated than it sounds. "It's not like one big switch on the grid!" says Brooke Jung, Hopkinsville's eclipse coordinator. The town has also worked with shop owners to stop light-sensitive business signs from flickering when the sky blackens.
A lack of technology outside of town, however, is a bigger concern: The farmland near the point of greatest eclipse, where thousands of people are expected to gather, has no cell service. AT&T will install a MEGA-COW, a temporary cellular tower on wheels, to transform the wireless desert. In the meantime, Hopkinsville has stockpiled everything from folding lawn chairs to porta-potties. "I tell you what. If you had a share in porta-potties right now, you'd be doing well," Russo says.
You'd be cashing in if you held stock in eclipse-viewing glasses, too.
It goes without saying that, unless you want to look like a pirate for the rest of your life, staring directly at the Sun is a bad idea. Thirty seconds is all it takes to cause permanent eye damage, which often goes unnoticed because it rarely causes pain [PDF]. Injuries have plagued every solar eclipse. In Europe, in 1999, 70 people lost some vision. Four years earlier in India, 21 people suffered eye damage. Since sunglasses don't cut it, Hopkinsville ordered 100,000 pairs of eclipse-viewing glasses, which Cook sells for 50 cents a pop. (The school district also purchased a pair for each student.)
This story playing out in Hopkinsville is quietly playing out in small towns across the U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina. "That doesn't mean it won't be chaotic," Cook says. "But it will be organized chaos."
When I asked her what the people in Hopkinsville's tourism office would be doing the day after the eclipse, Cook's voice lilted with excitement: "Oh, we're gonna take the day off!"
The experience of watching an eclipse can be so intense it spurs some people to reevaluate their lives. Before Makepeace saw his first total eclipse in 1991, he had set life on cruise-control. "I liked my job in film and video. I liked girls. That was pretty much it," he says. In fact, he was chasing a woman when he traveled to Baja, Mexico, to see his first eclipse: His girlfriend was working for a travel agency promoting the event and he decided to tag along.
That eclipse lasted almost seven minutes—one of the century's longest—and it shook Makepeace. He spent the next few days sitting on the beach in a daze of suspended awe. "It took two days for me to say, OK, how am I actually feeling about this? And then I started digesting that. I've been digesting it for 25 years." He's chased eclipses ever since.
Kate Russo had a similar experience. Being a science enthusiast who loves to travel, she figured it'd be a fun one-time event. "I thought a total eclipse would be something I see and move on," she said. "And then when I went, I was completely overwhelmed. It blew my mind. I knew it was going to be a good experience, but I had no idea it was going to be completely overwhelming, smacked around the face, wake up and go WHOA. And straight after that, I thought, I have to do this again—I didn't even know there were eclipse chasers—I just knew that I had this full compulsion to see this again, I have to feel that again, I have to see it again. I got to do it."
When she returned home, she checked a science textbook and discovered a map depicting future eclipse paths. "I saw that and thought: This is my life."
Russo's eclipse-chasing has brought her to Mongolia, to the brink of deportation in Russia, and to the muddy rivers of Mozambique, where she paddled dug-out canoes with tribesmen. It's led Makepeace to visit all seven continents, fly prop planes in the Australian outback, spend 30 days on an Antarctic icebreaker, and flirt with the Iraq-Turkey no-fly zone.
All to see eclipses.
An idea from the 18th century might help explain why, for some, the experience can transfigure lives.
Today, people slap the word sublime on oversized cheesecakes and graceful tennis volleys, but in the 19th century, philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer had a different meaning in mind: The sublime was an overwhelming feeling of awe that overcame people when they confronted something so powerful, so incalculably grand, that it forced in his words a "turning away of the will"—that is, viewers lost themselves in pure contemplation. The sublime transcends beauty. It's paralysis by awe.
Eclipses are arguably the sublime at its most potent. "Because it is so compressed in this time, and it's so intense, nothing else comes close," Makepeace says. The Moon's shadow could basically put the country's mindfulness gurus out of work. "We're all intensely focused on the same thing, and there's nobody whose focus is elsewhere."
Such responses aren't new. For centuries, eclipses have had a reputation of causing people to remake their lives for the better. In 585 BCE, as the Lydians warred the Medes, an eclipse supposedly appeared over the battlefield and inspired the soldiers to call a truce. In 1183, the Minamoto and Taira clans of Japan were in the midst of a three-year civil war, yet, when an eclipse appeared, both sides dropped their weapons. In 1988, when the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore visited the Philippines to view an eclipse, people feared terrorists would target visitors. "But when we went there, the three terrorist groups issued a combined statement that they weren't going to shoot at us, and they didn't," he recalls in Total Addiction. "It was jolly sporting of them!"
A story McClean tells about the 2009 total solar eclipse in China sums it up well. As totality ended, another American in the crowd—an eclipse virgin—fumbled for his cell phone to call home. "Mom! Remember that time we saw that documentary about those crazy eclipse chasers?" he yelled. "Well, I'm one of them now!"
Ask anybody in Hopkinsville, and they'll tell you that August 21 is an uncanny date for an eclipse to arrive. The people of Christian County have a history of seeing otherworldly objects in the sky that day.
On August 21, 1955, a blinding light tumbled over rural Kentucky. Billy Ray Taylor, a visitor staying in a packed rural farmhouse a few miles outside of Hopkinsville, was drawing water from a well when he saw the light whisk across the horizon, leaving a contrail of "exhaust all the colors of the rainbow."
Taylor ran into the farmhouse and yammered about having witnessed a UFO. Nobody listened. As suppertime passed, and as dusk crept in, a hound outside began to bay. Taylor and a man named Lucky Sutton grabbed two guns and stepped out to investigate. Outside waited a group of creatures. One eyeballed the men from a tree branch.
It stood two and half feet tall: silver, with spindly legs, pointed ears, a large head, luminescent yellow eyes, and a long talon protruding from its hands. It could float. Sutton and Taylor shot at the creature and scrambled into the house, watching nervously from the window as night fell.
Big golden eyes glowed from the other side. The farmhouse matriarch, Glennie Lankford, shoved her youngest children under the bed as the roof rattled, the sound of claws scraping above. Gunshots rang out. The creature in the window dodged. Then the eyes peered again through the hole.
This game of peekaboo reportedly continued for hours.
Eventually, the family sprinted outside and drove eight miles to Hopkinsville's police headquarters. As the Kentucky New Era reported the next day, the family's distress appeared genuine. "We need help," one of them said. "We've been fighting them for nearly four hours."
Four city police, five state troopers, three deputy sheriffs, and some military police drove to the farm, but when they arrived, nothing was there but a hole in the window and, according to lore, a graveyard of spent shells and casings. After investigating for two hours, authorities found no signs of the creatures.
Today, the "Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter" is a favorite among UFO-philes [PDF]. Explanations range from extraterrestrials to monkeys that escaped from a traveling circus. The FBI's famed investigation into UFOs, Project Blue Book, calls the account a hoax. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, however, believes the family genuinely saw something: a dusk-loving critter with large yellow eyes, skinny legs, claws, talons, and the power to hover … called the great horned owl.
Avian or alien, the Kelly-Hopkinsville creature is cheekily celebrated by the town every August 21 with the "Little Green Men Days Festival," a celebration full of arts and crafts booths, cheesy T-shirts, bouncy castles, and excuses to eat fried dough. This year, however, the county is pulling out all the stops for the eclipse. In addition to the Little Green Men Days Festival, there will be a three-day music festival, a mini comic-con, a bluegrass bash, a bourbon mashoree, and more than 20 other events, including visits from NASA scientists and a lecture from the director of the Vatican Observatory.
The total economic boost may exceed $30 million.
For some, the coincidence of having the eclipse fall on the same date as a purported extraterrestrial encounter remains too eerie. "I like to say they came to pick up their viewing spot, they just came early," Cook says. "It just gives you the chills!"
In 2013, James McClean boarded a pondhopper in Nairobi, Kenya and flew two hours north to the town of Lodwar. He flagged down a taxi—which "cost about $2 and the time it takes to fix three flat tires"—and traveled 36 miles to the village of Kalokal, a sandy hamlet along the western shores of Lake Turkana. A park ranger sat there waiting for him, propped atop a motorcycle. McClean grabbed his backpack, hopped on, and puttered to his base camp.
For the next two weeks, he prepared for an eclipse that would last 12 seconds.
McClean shuttled between Lodwar and Kalokal to scout different viewing locations, build rapport with locals, and set up equipment. On eclipse day, it was a balmy 80 degrees with a few puffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. McClean placed his cameras along the shore of Lake Turkana, framing a small grass hut and thousands of pink flamingos standing in the shallows.
In the mid afternoon, the Moon chewed into the Sun, right on schedule. In the distance, darkness steamed across the landscape.
This was not the Moon's shadow.
Eclipses generate shifty winds. As ground temperatures cool under the umbra, warm air may stop rising and wind can alter course. The currents had caused a sandstorm. McClean chuckled as it rolled through a camp of moneyed tourists who had just flown in. "I thought, Look! all of those people who paid $8000 for that fly-in adventure are in the middle of this epic sandstorm."
Twenty minutes later, he stopped laughing. Minutes before totality, McClean watched a small island in the middle of the lake disappear. The sandstorm barreled straight for him.
"It was a dark wall of DOOM," McClean says. "Straight from the Scorpion King!" Large shards of sand—hard, painful pieces resembling "powdered glass or candied sugar"—swirled in the air. McClean abandoned his equipment, jumped into a taxi, and found shelter among a few grass huts.
The sky darkened. McClean looked up and saw sand. Twelve seconds later, daylight returned. "We all got skunked," he says.
That's the hard truth of eclipse chasing: Mother Nature holds the steering wheel. Many people who chase the 2017 eclipse, including those in Hopkinsville, could get skunked too: All it takes is one well placed cloud. In fact, a number of diehard eclipse chasers are avoiding the point of greatest eclipse in favor of states such as Wyoming where foul weather and big crowds are less likely.
"As ironic as it is, as large and open and free to move around in as this country is, this one's gonna be really hard to find a place in the west unless you arrange something with a rancher or if you're very skilled with rock-climbing," McClean says. In other words, the bulk of casual chasers will funnel to towns like Hopkinsville that are not only close to major cities, but are also ready to put on a party regardless of the weather.
Assuming skies are clear, the number of people who could catch the eclipse-chasing bug is anybody's guess.
"People say to me, 'I wish I could chase eclipses … if only I had the time," McClean said. He leaned in and carefully weighed his words. "Look. I have given up so much in my life just to have the time. I have nothing. I have this iPad, some Nikons I need to sell—I've given it all up to see eclipses. I have my backpack and my health, thank God, and I'm starting to think if I'm not crazy."
Is it crazy to give up expectations of a normal life, to take gigantic financial risks and literally go to the ends of the Earth, to experience something that may last only 12 seconds? What if those 12 seconds make you feel incandescently alive? Is that as crazy as having a passion you neglect? As crazy as actively choosing to spend most of your waking hours staring into the bug zapperish glow of a computer screen?
Russo is a psychologist, so I had to ask: Am I—your typical city slicker desk jockey—the crazy one? She just laughed. "Everybody is passionate or obsessed about something. Maybe they haven't found it, or maybe it's not as developed as other people's may be … but when you find your thing, and it becomes a part of who you are, it becomes a way of life. That's why I call [eclipse-chasing] an addiction. It's a positive addiction though, because it doesn't take anything away from your life. It gives you something."
Makepeace can vouch for that. When asked if he's made sacrifices, he shook his head. "I think there have been consequences for the way I've lived, to be less stable and more spontaneous—but those are things I love about life," he says. "I generally have spent 100 grand or 150 grand traveling, that could have gone into a house, and I could have equity. But then I'd be a boring son of a bitch."
Say what you will: Eclipse chasers are finely tuned to what matters most to them.
In Hopkinsville, the total eclipse of the Sun will last two minutes and 40.1 seconds. After that, the Sun will reappear, cleanup will begin, and the umbra will bolt into Tennessee at speeds tickling Mach 2. After giving Nashville a show, it will graze the corner of Georgia and North Carolina and sail over Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Its last stop will be South Carolina, where it will, appropriately, make its curtain call by visiting a lineup of small towns—like Anderson (pop: 26,686), Saluda (pop: 3565), Kinards (pop: 810)—before tipping its hat in Charleston. At 2:49 p.m. EDT, the 2017 eclipse will charge over two lighthouses, a sandy barrier island, and disappear over the Atlantic Ocean.
Who knows what will be left in its wake.
Kate Russo's new book about ordinary people experiencing an eclipse for the first time, Being in the Shadow, is available now.
Also out now: David Makepeace's latest documentary about the hunt for eclipses, Still Hooked.