Road­side at­trac­tion, Ne­braska town are bask­ing in light as shadow looms

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Bruce Finley

AL­LIANCE, NEB.» The to­tal eclipse of the sun that will cast an ob­sid­ian shadow across Amer­ica next week is bring­ing com­pany to Carhenge, an oil­man’s replica of pre­his­toric Stone­henge ren­dered in vin­tage Detroit ve­hi­cles.

Towns­peo­ple here in western Ne­braska’s Sand­hills have been toil­ing for three years to get ready — right down to the lo­gis­tics of diesel backup power and bak­ing cook­ies for for­eign­ers.

They’re brac­ing for a po­ten­tially chaotic rush of peo­ple con­verg­ing on the eclipse’s 67mile-wide “path of to­tal­ity,” which runs from Ore­gon beaches to South Carolina, span­ning Wy­oming and Ne­braska. This ranks among the most ac­ces­si­ble to­tal eclipses ever, with an es­ti­mated 47 mil­lion Amer­i­cans liv­ing within an hour of the shadow. Sud­denly hu­mans, whose an­ces­tors feared eclipses as har­bin­gers of dis­rup­tion, are flock­ing like crazy to be in

them.

But no mat­ter how much plan­ning towns and cities do, the un­ex­pected and ir­ra­tional loom.

“Ev­ery day for the past 61 years, the sun has come up, went across the sky, and went down here in my world,” Carhenge man­ager Kevin Howard said, voice quiv­er­ing a bit as he spoke. “It has done that ev­ery stink­ing day. Now, all of a sud­den, when the sun gets here, it is go­ing to go out. How am I go­ing to re­act to that?”

Planted north of Al­liance, around 1987, Carhenge — a road­side at­trac­tion in­hab­ited by pi­geons, snakes and an owl — has risen up rank­ings as per­haps the prime view­ing spot for this Amer­i­can eclipse. Its en­cir­cled gray­painted hulks sit about four hours north­east of Den­ver, in a place at the edge of the Great Plains where clear skies are al­most cer­tain when the moon slips in front of the sun on Aug. 21. The sun will stay blocked for 2 min­utes and 30 sec­onds, about as long as any­where along the eclipse path.

Sci­en­tists from Antarc­tica, an un­named bil­lion­aire and politi­cos led by Ne­braska Gov. Pete Rick­etts are among the es­ti­mated 25,000 com­ing to Carhenge. Wealthy fly­ers slated to land on the town run­way have ex­ceeded a cap, so no more air­craft can fit. Two buses will bring eclipse chasers from Bel­gium, and an­other will bring trav­el­ers from France. The five mo­tels in Al­liance, pop­u­la­tion 8,500, have been booked full for months, prompt­ing 30 or so home­own­ers to of­fer rooms on Airbnb. A Nasa-backed white bal­loon hov­er­ing 100,000 feet above Carhenge will shoot video and pho­tos of the shadow.

Eclipse chas­ing will di­ver­sify an al­ready global flow of ce­les­tial searchers, Amer­i­cana con­nois­seurs and car buffs who con­tem­plate the Ford Fair­lane, Cadil­lac Deville, Ply­mouth De­soto, Oldsmo­bile 88s, Galax­ies, Valiants and a Grem­lin.

“Why do peo­ple go to Stone­henge? It’s kind of a mag­i­cal, mys­ti­cal place. It gives some­thing for peo­ple to puz­zle over, like the Yeti mon­ster. Some of that has rubbed off on Carhenge,” said Jim Rein­ders, 89, who cre­ated it, in­spired by his time as a petroleum engi­neer dur­ing the 1970s in Lon­don near Stone­henge.

“And, of course, au­to­mo­biles are very much a part of Amer­ica,” he said.

Po­lice are brac­ing for grid­lock, de­pend­ing on cloud pat­terns east and west of the Sand­hills.

This eclipse is ex­pected to demon­strate, more than any other re­cent ce­les­tial event (a to­tal so­lar eclipse hap­pens some­where about ev­ery 18 months), the in­creas­ing mi­gra­tion of peo­ple to be in the shadow when the moon blocks the sun. A crim­son-fringed black orb forms, re­veal­ing wispy golden ten­drils of hot gas and par­ti­cles from ex­plo­sions.

Eclipse watch­ers cry, scream and — un­able to find the right words — ut­ter ex­ple­tives, ac­cord­ing to Uni­ver­sity of Colorado as­tronomer Doug Dun­can, who has seen and recorded six eclipses and stud­ies the mod­ern phe­nom­ena as di­rec­tor of CU’S Fiske Plan­e­tar­ium.

Then, many be­come ad­dicted. Of the mil­lions of peo­ple who see each to­tal eclipse, 10 per­cent to 20 per­cent are com­pelled to see more of them, Dun­can said. An in­dus­try emerged in the 1990s cater­ing to needs for char­ter flights out over oceans to is­lands — in­dulging eclipse-chas­ing pas­sions.

Peo­ple in­vari­ably freak out, pos­si­bly re­lated to an­i­mals freak­ing out, he said. Winds shift. Birds and bats swirl as skies darken in the mid­dle of day. Plan­ets pop out, fol­lowed by stars. Flow­ers close. Crick­ets sing. Tem­per­a­tures plum­met up to 20 de­grees.

“It looks like the end of the world, like noth­ing you’ve ever seen or will see again. It is so in­tense,” Dun­can said. “Ev­ery to­tal eclipse, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.”

It’ll be eas­ier than ever to sit out­side the path and watch the moon shadow on web­sites.

NASA im­ages from Carhenge, com­bined with video streams and pho­tos from 54 other bal­loons over the path of to­tal­ity, will feed those on­line post­ings. This will con­tinue the turn of hu­man­ity in the in­ter­con­nected, yet lonely, 21st cen­tury to­ward vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence.

But for res­i­dents of Al­liance, with its brick streets and 1880s build­ings, the eclipse is emerg­ing as a tan­gi­ble and over­whelm­ing re­al­ity re­quir­ing wide prepa­ra­tions. And, in an iso­lated ru­ral town, mo­bi­liz­ing for a del­uge of un­known guests is done with a sense of duty.

The crowd will in­clude vis­i­tors who think noth­ing of pay­ing as much as $10 for a ham­burger, So­lar Eclipse Task Force co-chair­per­son Becci Thomas told res­i­dents last week at a fi­nal prep ses­sion. But mer­chants must not gouge, she said, re­peat­ing a civic warn­ing lead­ers have been re­peat­ing for months.

“This is your chance to shine,” she said. “You’re hav­ing com­pany. Be as nice as you can.”

It started in 2013 with a phone call from Rus­sia. The guy was ask­ing about ac­com­mo­da­tions for some­thing ce­les­tial in­volv­ing the sun when it would be straight over­head.

Then came more calls from Europe, Asia and Africa, claim­ing Al­liance sits right on the path.

In 2014, town lead­ers formed the So­lar Eclipse Task Force.

At first, “peo­ple were like, ‘Re­ally? Why is this such a big deal?’ ” said Chelsie He­rian, di­rec­tor of the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of­fice.

Then, vis­it­ing physi­cist Peggy Nor­ris, up from the San­ford Un­der­ground Re­search Lab in South Dakota (she reg­u­larly works a mile down), told lo­cal lead­ers the eclipse would be “Stur­gis for stargaz­ers.”

The an­nual Stur­gis mo­tor­cy­cle rally, about a three-hour drive north of Al­liance, brings an an­nual rum­bling of nearly 750,000 rid­ers.

Nor­ris has trav­eled to 14 to­tal eclipses, in­clud­ing one in the Arc­tic at mi­nus-20 de­grees, and reck­ons hu­mans’ emo­tional re­sponse de­rives from an­ces­tral fears the sun won’t come back. Her ex­pla­na­tion hit home in Al­liance.

“Now we’re get­ting 30 calls a day,” said He­rian, who took notes as the task force of 50 key lo­cal play­ers met ev­ery month for three years.

They’ve worked out seem­ingly ev­ery­thing. Hos­pi­tal staffers said they’ve stocked up on hy­dra­tion salts and an­tivenom for snake bites. Farm­ers are mo­bi­liz­ing to han­dle park­ing and camp­ing. An ex­tra dozen or so State Pa­trol Troop­ers have de­ployed to the Sand­hills with three air­craft track­ing traf­fic. To let peo­ple know what is hap­pen­ing, KCOW 1400 AM ra­dio’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive promised to broad­cast any­thing im­por­tant on the air, de­spite a cor­po­rate push to drive lis­ten­ers to a web­site.

A mo­bile plan­e­tar­ium will prep chil­dren.

And Al­liance co­or­di­na­tors are bas­ing all plans on the as­sump­tion in­ter­net ac­cess will break down due to lack of ca­pac­ity. Mo­bile phone re­cep­tion, even with no eclipse, is spotty in the Sand­hills. The worst-case sce­nar­ios in­cor­po­rate dif­fi­culty find­ing fuel, eclipse chasers run­ning out of wa­ter, and fal­ter­ing elec­tric­ity as too many peo­ple charge cam­eras and smart­phones (even though these may not work). Mayor Fred Yea­ger said Al­liance can turn on a backup diesel gen­er­a­tor sys­tem if nec­es­sary.

Res­i­dents re­ceived mes­sages ad­vis­ing them to buy gro­ceries early so stores can stock up fully, and to top off their gas tanks and an ex­tra 5-gal­lon lawn mower jug ahead of the eclipse.

So much de­pends when di­verse peo­ple meet “on who has the sand­wiches,” said Jane Potts, a for­mer teacher or­ga­niz­ing an In­ter­na­tional Wel­come Cen­ter in Al­liance’s Knight Mu­seum and Sand­hills Cen­ter. (Hun­dreds of food ven­dors bound for Al­liance have the ben­e­fit of the re­gion’s sole state health in­spec­tor be­ing gone on va­ca­tion.)

The wel­come cen­ter hosts will serve tea, free, to in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers Sat­ur­day and Sun­day be­fore Mon­day’s eclipse. A le­gion of vol­un­teer cooks around town com­mit­ted to bake 1,600 oat­meal, snick­er­doo­dle and choco­late chip cook­ies for each day.

Potts lined up in­ter­preters speak­ing French, Ger­man, Rus­sian, Ja­panese and Korean. The vis­i­tors will bring dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the U.S., Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and world af­fairs.

But the grow­ing hu­man fas­ci­na­tion with eclipses, Potts said, “is more who we are than our gov­ern­ments.”

Some prob­lems couldn’t be solved. State trans­porta­tion crews tore up U.S. 385 south of Al­liance, a main route, as part of the 29year-old Heart­land Ex­press­way con­struc­tion project. Town lead­ers ne­go­ti­ated a deal to knock off con­struc­tion be­fore and af­ter the eclipse.

The town’s brick main street also is ripped up for side­walk and curb in­stal­la­tion near the movie theater. The BNSF Rail­way re­fused to dim lights at its hub for trains haul­ing coal to en­able eas­ier stargaz­ing — of­fi­cials said bright light is nec­es­sary for safety.

And res­i­dents still ar­gue about school on the day of the eclipse. Should it be can­celed? On one hand, teach­ers en­vi­sion “a teach­able mo­ment” and want to avoid hav­ing stu­dents sit in base­ments watch­ing eclipse videos on web­sites. On the other, western Ne­braska is a cour­te­ous place where kids cross­ing streets aren’t used to ag­gres­sive driv­ers from cities.

But now it is all sys­tems go with towns­peo­ple poised and de­ter­mined to make ev­ery­thing right for their guests.

“If you see some­body out sleep­ing in their car, take ’em out a cup of cof­fee,” Carhenge man­ager Howard, the other task force chair­per­son, told lo­cal res­i­dents last week. “Tell them: ‘Wel­come to Al­liance.’ Be as nice as you can.” Some peo­ple re­main wary. East of Al­liance at his shop in the Sand­hills, Wade Mor­gan, 55, stood with a burly black Rot­tweiler, Bruce, frown­ing.

“It is a lit­tle wor­ri­some. We don’t want to see too many peo­ple out here,” he said. Cat­tle­men con­firmed a con­cern that eclipse-chas­ing hordes will open gates and let cows wan­der onto roads.

Cheyanne Volz, 28, a wait­ress at the Mi Ran­chito restau­rant, said some­body might drop a cig­a­rette on dry grass, set­ting off a ru­inous wild­fire like fires in 1893 that rav­aged Al­liance.

“I hate to sound dooms­day about it. But it is our main pri­or­ity to take care of our cat­tle and grass,” Volz said, an­tic­i­pat­ing a mo­ment of mass panic ev­ery­where when the moon blots out the sun.

“Hu­mans are fight or flight. I’m not sure how I’m go­ing to re­act. I’ve been through nat­u­ral dis­as­ters,” she said. “I am ex­cited about it, to ac­tu­ally wit­ness it.”

She’ll watch from a ranch, stand­ing in open grass­lands away from cat­tle.

“If the cows freak out, I don’t want to put my­self in harm’s way,” she said.

For thou­sands of years, this was Lakota coun­try, and about 500 Lakota peo­ple live in Al­liance. Oth­ers may drive down from Pine Ridge, the tribal cap­i­tal 90 min­utes to the north, Lakota spokesman Kevin Steele said. A pow­wow is planned. Buses will bring schoolkids.

Yet no­body’s sure what the eclipse will lead to as peo­ple from all over con­verge.

St. John’s Lutheran Church pas­tor Tim Sta­dem re­flected on that, plan­ning to host “con­ver­sa­tions about the won­der of the uni­verse.”

“Peo­ple in ear­lier cul­tures spent a lot more time than we do look­ing at the skies,” Sta­dem said.

“This so­lar eclipse will drive peo­ple to look up more. It will prob­a­bly trig­ger some things. I an­tic­i­pate some new ques­tions,” he said. “I feel like we, here, have adopted some­thing. But we don’t know what we’ve taken on. We have no clue what we’re in for.”

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple plan to come to see the Aug. 21 eclipse in the area near Carhenge, a replica of pre­his­toric Stone­henge ren­dered in vin­tage Detroit ve­hi­cles. Carhenge is lo­cated in Al­liance, Neb.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

At Allen Set­ter’s bar­ber shop in Al­liance, Neb., the talk of the town is the Aug. 21 so­lar eclipse.

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