‘The nerdiest of the nerds’ are already in Nebraska, setting up camp for eclipse

‘The nerdiest of the nerds’ are already in Nebraska, setting up camp for eclipse
Pennsylvania fifth grade teacher John Flyte (World-Herald News Service)

ALLIANCE, Neb. — The hordes are coming.

From north, east, south and west, all roads in the realm appeared to lead to Nebraska during the weekend as hundreds of thousands of people arrived by plane, train and automobile to view a total solar eclipse Monday.

Upward of 500,000 eclipse chasers from around the world were expected to travel to Nebraska. It started with a trickle last week and began swelling Saturday.

Near Alliance at Carhenge — the tourism magnet of partially buried automobiles that mimics the prehistoric standing stones at Stonehenge in England — eclipse veterans Paul and Edie Auguston of Minneapolis had set up in a campground Thursday.

They were among the first to pitch a tent in the more than 100 new campsites on a slope overlooking Carhenge.

“We came early,’’ Paul Auguston said. “We thought there’d already be people here, and it was awful to find out that we were the nerdiest of the nerds!”

The couple has viewed five total solar eclipses, including at the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt.

Kevin Howard, director of the Alliance Visitors Bureau, said the city of 8,500 started feeling more populated Saturday afternoon.

“We had more 65-county (Box Butte) people driving around looking for out-of-towners than we had out-of-towners in the morning. This afternoon, we started seeing more out-of-towners. I think it will keep building toward Monday.’’

Despite talk of upward of 60,000 visitors pouring into the Panhandle community, Howard said he expects the total to be 20,000 to 25,000.

“And I’m guaranteed to be wrong,’’ he said.

Rumors of celebrity sightings, or pending arrivals, are swirling around Alliance. The list includes actors Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp and rapper Snoop Dog.

“There may be a man who looks like Harrison Ford in town,’’ Howard said. “I’ve heard he was supposed to be at a grocery store.’’

Lynn Placek, Alliance’s airport manager, said no celebrities flying in to experience the eclipse are on her list of scheduled arrivals for a viewing party at the airport. The eclipse’s center line of totality crosses the runways.

“If they’re coming in, it’s under a fake name,” Placek said.

One celebrity arrival Monday is confirmed. Gov. Pete Ricketts plans to view the eclipse at Carhenge.

North of Alliance at Fort Robinson State Park, Lorraine Nickerson of Lexington, Massachusetts, marveled at the landscape of northwest Nebraska that she encountered on the drive Friday from Colorado.

“Going through all that open land, oh, my goodness, it was quite a sight,’’ she said. “And those bluffs! They were beautiful. Very unusual.’’

Nickerson accompanied her daughter and son-in-law, Linda and Joe Hudson of Longmont, Colorado. They were among the forerunners of about 150 others on an outing of the Longmont Astronomical Society to view the eclipse near Alliance.

Nearby Crawford is the hometown of Vern Rabin, president of the society. The group started planning the Nebraska trip more than a year ago. Members set up telescopes for a star-viewing party Saturday night at Crawford’s Legend Buttes Golf Course.

Linda Hudson said she was eager to see the Milky Way again.

“We don’t see it at all in Longmont’’ because of light pollution, she said.

Travelers heading to Beatrice in southeast Nebraska for the eclipse have filled hotel and motel rooms as far away as 90 miles south in Marysville, Kansas, said Lora Young, executive director of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce and Gage County Tourism.

“I never would have expected that,’’ she said.

Young said area campgrounds will host about 8,000 people this weekend. Add thousands more in motels and hotels, plus day-trippers, and Young estimates that upward of 60,000 visitors could be in the area Monday for viewing at Homestead National Monument and other sites.

Temporary air traffic control towers were erected in Alliance and Beatrice to handle the influx of aircraft. Beatrice expects 200 aircraft. More than 280 aircraft have made flight plans for Alliance, most arriving Monday morning. Alliance is shutting down one runway to use for parking aircraft.

During the roughly three-hour period it will take for the moon to move across the face of the sun, a roughly 70-mile wide band of the state will experience anywhere from a few seconds to more than 2½ minutes of darkness when the moon completely covers the sun.

The total eclipse will begin about 11:46 a.m. MDT in northwest Nebraska and end about 1:07 p.m. CDT in the southeast corner of the state.

Auguston, the early-arriving camper at Carhenge, said viewing a total eclipse is an unforgettably spiritual experience.

“It’s such a rare phenomena. It’s a celestial experience,’’ he said. “Once you’re exposed to things that are beautiful and awesome and become sensitized to that, you start to look for those kinds of experiences.’’

The eclipse experience begins during the 90 minutes that the moon begins to cross the sun, Auguston said.

“It’s building and building and building, and at the moment the moon crosses in front of the sun completely, people express themselves in wild joy and wonder. It always happens,’’ he said.

Auguston said the 2 minutes and 28 seconds of totality at Carhenge will seem to last a fraction of that time to viewers.

“Everybody says it seems like only eight seconds,’’ he said. “It goes very quickly. That’s why you don’t want to be fiddling around with other stuff. You don’t want to be sending a text to somebody or doing some distraction — which we’re always doing in our lives.”

The North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau teamed up with nearby Stapleton and Tryon in the Sand Hills to promote the villages as prime locations to view the eclipse. The villages each will experience 2 minutes and 33 seconds in totality — about 53 seconds more time in the dark than at North Platte — but North Platte has hotel rooms to accommodate thousands.

A steady stream of people flowed into North Platte’s Visitor Center off Interstate 80 late this week to buy solar eclipse glasses at $3 a pair, snag promotional brochures for local attractions or ask logistical questions: “Where can we camp? How far is it to Tryon and Stapleton? What will traffic be like?”

An Oklahoma woman called to ask if the four hours she scheduled to drive Monday morning from Oberlin, Kansas, to North Platte will be adequate. Normally, the drive would take 1 hour and 44 minutes.

“I hate to say you won’t need that much time because you might,” Muriel Clark, assistant director of the convention and visitors bureau, told the woman. “Who knows? But we’re expecting everything to run smoothly.”

Emergency managers across Nebraska cautioned motorists to fill their vehicle’s gas tank before Monday to ensure that they’ll have enough fuel to ride out traffic delays caused by a crush of cars. Some villages have no gas stations, or supplies may be limited.

“We’re just encouraging people to get out and about early Monday and get to their viewing sites,’’ Clark said.

Henri and Jill Levesque of Middleboro, Massachusetts, stopped for two nights in North Platte late this week on their way to view the eclipse at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where their astronomer daughter will be a featured speaker.

North Platte wasn’t an accidental layover. The couple planned to visit Buffalo Bill Cody’s ranch and the Golden Spike Tower at Union Pacific’s world’s-largest railroad yard. But their primary goal for lingering longer was to scout places to someday return to view the spring migration of sandhill cranes.

Tens of thousands of hotel, motel, and bed-and-breakfast rooms and campsites in most communities within the zone of totality have been filled for months, but tourism officials say cancellations happen, so bed-less travelers should call hotels directly to confirm. The same is true with camping spots.

Kearney is expecting upward of 15,000 visitors in town, according to Sarah Focke at the Kearney tourism office.

Gering and Scottsbluff are prepared for upward of 10,000 visitors to view the total eclipse from three designated sites. Large, temporary camp cities that sprang up on pre-arranged private lands will swell the total, said Karla Nieden-Streaks at the Gering tourism office.

“What a tremendous opportunity to introduce Nebraska to people who never would have come here otherwise,” Nieden-Streaks said. “They’ll have a life-changing experience here, and maybe they’ll come back again.’’

All 45,000 of Gering-Scottsbluff’s “Moon Over the Monument’’ eclipse glasses have or will be distributed by Monday. The last of the “Moon Over the Monument’’ T-shirts was sold Friday. Tourism officials will pass out 8,000 free bottles of water at viewing sites.

One of Nieden-Streaks’ favorite questions from the thousands of calls to the tourism office was from a woman who asked if it would OK to use duct tape to attach eclipse glasses to her dog so it would not be blinded during the partial eclipse.

For the record, it’s not necessary. Animals typically don’t look at the sun.

Nieden-Streaks met a couple who traveled 1,200 miles to Gering to experience the eclipse on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Businesses across the state have embraced the chance to welcome visitors, tourism officials said. Many are making it fun.

A private landowner hosting campers near the Five Rocks Amphitheater in Gering — a designated eclipse viewing site in the shadow of Scottsbluff National Monument — is offering “Yoga with the Goats’’ in a pasture at dawn Monday.

Gering’s popular Gering Bakery is featuring a special edition “Eclipse Donut.” First State Bank in Gering will be serving “Dogs in the Dark’’ to customers during the eclipse.

Many hotels in Omaha — not in the totality zone but a gateway city for travelers to Nebraska — were near capacity. Rental car companies were busy and, in some cases, sold out, according to Traci McPherson at the Omaha visitors bureau.

Although thousands of people are expected to make the trek from North Platte to Stapleton and Tryon, Clark said she hopes that eclipse events in North Platte will take pressure off roads to the communities.

“We’re not like Sturgis that plans for this craziness every year,’’ Clark said of the annual South Dakota motorcycle rally. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing we’re trying to plan for.’’

Some landowners along the highways to prime viewing spots have mowed their pastures and rangeland and prepared parking areas for motorists to pull off and watch the eclipse if they’re frustrated by the slow pace of travel.

“The Stapleton and Tryon viewing sites were so reasonably priced ($10 at Stapleton and $15 at Tryon) that even if people who already bought tickets there decided at the last minute to stop somewhere else along the way, they’re really not out a huge amount of money,” Clark said.

Tim Johnson of Hershey is hosting a sister from Texas and a cousin and a friend from Minnesota for viewing along the Platte River west of North Platte.

“We’ll go up the river and see if we can get to a place where there’s nobody else and have a little eclipse party,’’ he said.

Johnson said he had no desire to travel north for more time than the 1 minute and 45 seconds he will experience in totality.

“That’s enough,’’ he said.

Global news coverage of Nebraska sites to view the eclipse is estimated to be the equivalent of more than $80 million in advertising for the state by Sunday, according to the Nebraska Tourism Commission.

“The publicity has been phenomenal,’’ said Angela Sears, the commission’s marketing manager.

Stories abound in western Nebraska of ranchers and farmers encountering eclipse chasers rumbling across grassland in RVs and other vehicles scouting for spots to set up a base camp near the center line of totality for friends and relatives arriving during the weekend.

The landowners inform the visitors — to their surprise — that they are trespassing on private land.

Clark said she understands the visitors’ confusion.

“They’re looking at Google Earth and seeing all of this open land, and they think it’s open to the public,’’ she said. “No, it’s private property. These people are from the city, and they can’t conceive that one person owns all of it. They’re not being malicious. They just don’t have any idea.”

Clark said she expects North Platte’s “Canteen hospitality’’ reputation will help everyone enjoy the eclipse experience. (North Platte-area volunteers operated a canteen for military personnel passing through on troop trains during World War II. More than 6 million personnel received free sandwiches, doughnuts and cigarettes.)

“I don’t care if you get frustrated by the big RV that just turned the wrong way on the one-way street,’’ Clark said. “Just put on a smile and understand that these people are here for an incredible experience, and we really need to roll out the hospitality for them.”

Clark expects Nebraska to reap deep dividends from visitors returning to see more of what the state has to offer after making the trip to watch the sky go dark at midday on an August Monday.

Especially when they encounter “Nebraska Nice,” she said.

“As much as we all made fun of the “Nebraska Nice” slogan (adopted by the State Tourism Commission a few years ago), it really is true,’’ Clark said. “People have been welcoming visitors with open arms.’’

But some disgruntled visitors have posted social media complaints about price gouging at private campsites.

Howard said he is confident that the good nature of Nebraskans will prevail.

“These tourists have spent a lot of money to get here and are spending a lot of money while they are here,’’ he said. “They will be lost, and they will be flustered trying a find a good place to view the eclipse. Give them a break.’’

Howard said some residents may awaken Monday morning, look out a window and find a visitor sleeping in a car parked in the street.

“If that’s what you find, walk out there with a cup of coffee, knock on the window, give them the cup and welcome them to Alliance.”

News Channel Nebraska Partners with Nebraska Loves Public Schools to Live Broadcast the Solar Eclipse in English and Spanish

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