Last Tuesday the local groceries ran out of toilet paper. The people of Hopkinsville, Kentucky — my hometown — were so worried that eclipse tourism would overrun the city that they rushed to Walmart and Kroger. Over a two hour period, every lane at Kroger had a line. “We’re selling everything,” said assistant manager Wilbert Vaughn. Shelf after shelf was missing stock: We’re all out of Crisco, we’re low on sour cream, no more sweet tea.
Hopkinsville is point of the greatest eclipse for the total solar eclipse that swept the country today. NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak has seen 20 of them. “There is absolutely nothing that compares to seeing a total eclipse,” he says. Moments after watching my first, I agree.
Before today, I assumed “nothing compares” meant eclipses are exceptionally beautiful or that seeing one could change my life. Instead, the description is quite literal: The world turned a completely different color — three parts Indian yellow, one part burnt sienna. My mother’s shadow became shorter and shorter on the ground. My entire body felt flat, like I was getting thinner and thinner with the sun.
The eclipse was like nothing I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, getting ready for it was nothing but hell.
Ten years ago, we learned that my great-grandparents’ farm was where the axis of the moon’s shadow would pass closest to the center of the Earth. The closest town is Hopkinsville, so the city hired a Solar Eclipse Coordinator: Brooke Jung. Jung was in charge of readying the town. And there’s no doubt that Hopkinsville was prepared — overly prepared, in fact. Toilet paper in hand, locals sequestered themselves at home, afraid of being caught in gridlock by the hoards of eclipse-chasers Jung said were coming. “Everybody’s locking the door and not coming out until Tuesday,” resident
Gary Jones told me Thursday afternoon. “They’ve got all they need, and they’re not coming out until it’s all over.” Tourists were projected to swarm the entire eclipse weekend. Instead, a few simply came within the 24 hours before it began. Traffic picked up slightly — to roughly the level you’d see after a high school football game.
Jung initially told the town to expect 50,000 tourists, a reasonable figure for an eclipse stretching across the whole country. Along its path, small towns from Oregon to South Carolina placed its hopes on the promise of eclipse tourism, just like Hopkinsville. Marshall, Missouri — population 13,723 — expected up to 50,000 people. In nearby St. Joseph, Missouri — population 76,472 — locals anticipated up to 500,000.
With an entire country’s width to chose from, why would eclipse chasers choose us? When I asked Jung this in December, she explained that’s why she was hesitant to over-promise: There was always the potential this eclipse would under-deliver. “We want to be realistic,” she responded. “We don’t want [restaurants] buying too much [food] in case fewer people come.”
In late May, without much explanation, the number of guests Jung’s office predicted doubled. To someone from New York or Los Angeles, 100,000 extra folks in town isn’t a big number. But in a rural town of 31,811 people, 100,000 was just high enough of a number to frighten residents.
No one in Hopkinsville was ever afraid of the eclipse. But many were very afraid of what the eclipse would bring with it.
Last Thursday my father came home from work with gossip of an Eclipse Day ISIS attack. The rumors were prevalent enough that at a press conference the following day, WKRN, the ABC affiliate in nearby Nashville, Tennessee, asked if the city was preparing for a terrorist attack. The local daily, Kentucky New Era, ran a front page story on how the eclipse would bring “a lot of human trafficking,” despite Kentucky State Police saying they were not aware of any credible threat. Three of my cousins were deputized to stand guard at an area Confederate monument should antifa use the eclipse as an opportunity to attack. Our neighbors, the Malones, roped off their family cemetery, terrified eclipse-chasers would park on relatives’ graves.
Today, on Eclipse Day — or E-Day as it’s called locally — locals are ready for everything to be over. For the last year, schoolteachers and farmers with no training in event management have been pressured to entertain the entire world. They’ve been like ducks — outwardly placid, especially to guests, but frantically paddling below the surface so they don’t drown.
“I wanna make a good impression on anybody that comes here,” county judge/executive Steve Tribble said. “I want them to say, ‘You know what? That was a good place. I had a good, good weekend there and maybe I’d like to come look at it again sometime.’”
As a local, I’d also love for you to come back. Come when we’re not so stressed. Come when you can look across a field and see the fog lifting and hear the clack of horse hooves as they pull an Amish buggy. Come when you can see us at our most beautiful, when you can see us at ease — the way nature meant all Southerners to be.
The eclipse, as Espenak says, was like nothing else I’ve ever seen. For a brief moment in time, as Hopkinsville turned its eyes toward the sky, the people who live here could just be. But the shadow this event cast on our lives will last much longer than two minutes and 40 seconds. So if there’s one lesson my town can share today, it’s that if your city ever gets the chance to be the point of greatest eclipse, just let the moon do its trick. The most truly majestic things in nature — the Grand Canyon, a growing soybean field, today’s eclipse — are at their best when you leave them alone. No lead up in the papers, no eclipse coordinators from the big city. A total solar eclipse is impressive enough on its own.