HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. — This southwestern Kentucky town has hit the astronomical jackpot.
When a total eclipse of the sun darkens skies on Aug. 21, 2017, the show will last longer in a stretch of bucolic hill country near Hopkinsville than any place on the planet. It will last two minutes and 40 seconds, not much longer than the Kentucky Derby.
But already this town of 32,000 near the Tennessee border is making preparations to cash in on the fortuitous celestial alignment. And like the Derby, run three hours away in Louisville, the eclipse itself will be a blip in time compared to the buildup.
"We will be the Mecca of the solar eclipse because we are the dead center," said Cheryl Cook, executive director of the Hopkinsville-Christian County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A few miles northwest of town, the countryside of crops, modest farmhouses and quaint churches is expected to draw bands of scientists and eclipse chasers. They'll be armed with telescopes and cameras to capture the first total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. mainland since 1979.
"If people want to make the absolute most of it, and get every single last millisecond of looking, that's where you want to be," said Dean Regas, an astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory.
Reservations for 2017
Already, local motels are hearing from people wanting to witness the spectacle.
At the Hampton Inn & Suites, eclipse chasing groups from Germany and Japan have reserved more than two dozen rooms, said Jeff Smith, the inn's general manager.
Smith said it's a sign of the frenzy to come.
"It will be the largest event that this community has ever seen," he said.
Local officials started a Facebook page promoting the event. And they coined a slogan, promoting the eclipse as "the most exciting two minutes and 40 seconds in astronomy" — playing off the Derby's claim as the most exiting two minutes in sports.
Mike Mathis, co-owner of the Wood Shed Bar-B-Q & Restaurant, hopes to serve up slabs of barbecue ribs and piles of pork and mutton to hordes of visitors. The eatery is a few miles from the best eclipse-viewing spot.
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Mathis vowed he won't jack up his food prices when the big event arrives, and urged fellow merchants to resist the temptation.
"Don't try to gouge the folks so we can draw 'em in," he said.
Vince Dixon, who runs an ATV repair shop nearby, describes the area as a "secluded little bubble," but predicted area residents will be welcoming. It's given him even more incentive to create a campground out of an empty field on his property.
"In my opinion, with the way the economy is, you better welcome them," he said. "You take what you can get now."
How the eclipse works
A solar eclipse happens when the moon lines up between the sun and the Earth, casting a lunar shadow on the Earth's surface and obscuring the solar disk. During a partial solar eclipse, only part of the sun is blotted out.
Total solar eclipses draw anywhere from hundreds to thousands of scientists, tourists and curious observers to areas with good views. There will be a handful of such spectacles around the world before August 2017, but none with good vantage points in the U.S. mainland.
"I've only seen one total eclipse in my life, and it is the most incredible experience you'll ever see," Regas said. "On the top 10 list of astronomical events, this is No. 1, and No. 2 is way down the list. It's not even close.
"The way the sky just turns this purplish color, the temperature drops very quickly, the stars pop out in the middle of the daytime. It's eerie. You get an idea of how scary it might have been for the ancients when this came out of the blue."
The proximity of the prime viewing spot to Hopkinsville was reported earlier by the Kentucky New Era newspaper.
The path of the total eclipse will cut a narrow swath across the country. It will start in Oregon and take a path through parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, slivers of Georgia and North Carolina and then into South Carolina, Regas said.
Along the path in Kentucky and Tennessee, the sky will darken in such places as Paducah, Ky., and Clarksville and Nashville in Tennessee, he said. In Nashville, the total eclipse will last one minute and 47 seconds, he said.
In most other parts of the country, a partial solar eclipse will be visible, he said.
Scientists urge people to wear protective glasses when viewing a solar eclipse.
Bill Kramer, who runs a website geared toward eclipse chasers, said the crowds could be "more akin to a county fair than a gathering of scientists and astronomers."
"A solar eclipse is a very public event and does not require a tremendous amount of technical support — except to be at the right place at the right time," Kramer said in an email.
Hopkinsville officials are talking about setting aside viewing areas, Cook said. Parks and a football field are among the possibilities. Seminars featuring astronomers in the days beforehand are being discussed.
In one ironic twist, the solar eclipse will share the same Aug. 21 date as a popular piece of local folklore — when a family claimed to see a spaceship with aliens land near their home in 1955. The family's claims are kept alive in the Little Green Men festival near the eclipse-viewing spot.
"It kind of gave me the chills when I saw the date," Cook said.
Meanwhile, local county magistrate Mark Cansler, said he wants to be accommodating but hopes that designated viewing areas are created to keep visitors from trampling through yards and farms. He lives and farms in the area.
"I don't think people would want large groups setting up camp in their yards," he said. "If we have crops out there, we wouldn't want people running over them."
Tammy Hale, who lives near what will be the most prime viewing area, was asked if she would charge visitors to park on her property.
"Why?" she quickly replied. Her husband, Tim, added, "Depends on how bad we're hurting for money."
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