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The Day the Sun Disappears

On August 21, the United States will witness a rare solar eclipse, and dozens of Midwest towns sit right in the path of totality. Here's an inside look at how some Midwest areas are preparing—plus tips for how you can get ready, too.

Four years ago, the St. Joseph Visitor’s Bureau in Missouri received an email from someone who called themselves an “eclipse chaser.” It read, “Do you know you’re in the best place to see the eclipse?”

“We were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Beth Conway, the visitor bureau’s communications director, told Midwest Living. “But then we heard the senior editor of Astronomy magazine had rented out a nearby airport. He’d been planning a watch party in St. Joseph for 20 years. That was when we realized ‘oh my gosh, we have to get ready.’ ”

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will pass over the United States for the first time in almost 40 years. Everyone in the United States will be able to see a partial eclipse, but Midwesterners will have some of the best seats in the house. Towns like Tryon, Nebraska and St. Joseph, Missouri can expect the ultimate experience: a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely blots out the sun and the stars peek out in the middle of the day. (Want to get an idea what the eclipse will look like in your area? Check out this simulation.) 

But Midwesterners are looking forward to more than the show in the sky. Towns in the path of the total eclipse expect thousands of visitors from around the world. Beth estimates anywhere between 50,000 and 500,000 people will make their way to St. Joseph. “We honestly can’t narrow it down more,” she says. “In talking with people, we’ve realized that the majority of people coming to St. Joe are staying with friends and family. That’s tough to count.”

The path of totality
The gray line traces the path of totality (total solar eclipse) across the United States. Graphic courtesy of NASA.

Errol Ray is one of those people staying with family, although he’ll be watching from his Nebraska hometown, not St. Joseph. Errol lives in Omaha, but he grew up in tiny Tryon (the population is 157 according to the 2010 census). Tryon sits in the path of totality, and its location in the Nebraska Sandhills means eclipse chasers will encounter open skies and hilltop viewing sites. Errol and his family are planning a series of events pre-and-post eclipse to welcome newcomers.

“People are coming from France, Germany, Belgium. They have no knowledge of the area,” he says. “Other visitors will be big-city types who also have no idea about (life in) Tryon.”

The town is hosting events like “Coffee with a Rancher,” which involves a rotating panel of experts answering questions about life on a ranch. The evening before the eclipse, several ranches will offer range rides to star-gazing locations.

The town has also come together to provide lodging. Errol says his sister-in-law opened up 75 primitive campsites on her property. Those sites, along with B&Bs owned by other family members, are already booked, but Errol is still working to find guests a place to stay. He runs the Eclipse in the Sandhills Facebook page, and periodically posts requests for an extra room or campsite. He’s excited to show off his hometown. “It’s been 47 years since I lived in rural Nebraska, but it’s still an important part of my life,” he says.

Solar eclipse eyewear
Special eclipse glasses are needed to safely view a partial solar eclipse. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Many Midwesterners will be experiencing an eclipse for the first time. Georgia Zimmerman is travelling from her home in St. Louis to her mom’s house in Jefferson City, Missouri. The two-hour drive will put Georgia and her husband in the path of totality. “I know the town has some formal activities planned, but I think we’ll just watch from my mom’s house and make a little party of it,” she said. (Those looking for more organized events in Jefferson City can learn more here.)

Georgia has always had a casual interest in the night sky—she and her husband often step outside to catch a glimpse of the International Space Station when it’s in view—but she’s especially excited about the eclipse. “I’ve never travelled further than my driveway to view anything in the night sky,” she says. “I’m excited to be able to say ‘I was there.’ ”

Beth is also excited—to say “I told you so.” Since learning about the eclipse, she’s been travelling around the area giving presentations about what towns should expect. “I’ve had a lot of people doubt that it will be that big of a deal,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being able to prove it to people.”

 

Presentation
A member of the St. Joseph Visitor's Bureau presents information about the eclipse to guests at the Missouri Theater. Photo courtesy of StJoMoEclipse.com. 

The St. Joseph Visitors Bureau is coordinating with the police, the fire department and other emergency responders to deal with the influx of visitors and the potential hazards they’ll create. “A couple hotels sold out a year and a half ago. All our usual campgrounds have been booked for about a year,” she says. “There’s going to be heavy, heavy traffic.”

Even though the weekend will be busy for Beth, she’s looking forward to it. St. Joseph’s largest annual music and arts festival will be held the weekend leading up to the eclipse, and each of the 13 area museums is holding special events. Businesses with land will also open pop-up campgrounds to accommodate the crowds.

“We’ve been preparing for a year and a half,” Beth says. “We have never experienced this many people coming to St. Joseph, and we probably won’t again.”

Eclipse Tips:

  • It's safe to look at the total solar eclipse (when the moon completely covers the sun) without eye protection, but wear certified solar glasses to view partial coverage. Be sure the ones you buy follow NASA guidelines. You can buy a pair here.
  • Experts expect some serious traffic jams on roads leading to areas in the total eclipse zone. To avoid gridlock, try to arrive in your eclipse destination the weekend or night before. If you must travel the day-of, get on the road early and be prepared with supplies such as food and water in case you get stuck. 
  • Can't travel to the path of totality? Other Midwest locations will experience a partial eclipse, and many cities are planning special events, like a block party at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. Contact your local CVB to learn more about cool events near you.

For more information about the solar eclipse, plus a few more locations in the path of totality, check out Midwest Living's There Goes the Sun

Campground near St. Joseph
Heritage Park in St. Joseph. Expect a lot more tents the weekend of the solar eclipse. Photo courtesy of StJoMoEclipse.com. 

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