Home >mint-lounge >features >A tiny American town is ground zero for eclipse tourism

On the morning of 21 August, a 70-mile-wide swath of land in America from Oregon to South Carolina will plunge into darkness during the day.

The total solar eclipse—the first fully visible from the US since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years—will reveal plasma flares on the sun visible from Earth as the moon passes directly between them.

It will also drive an expected 100,000 people to the tiny town of Madras, Oregon—current population a little more than 6,000. Twenty-four of the visitors will stay at Lysa Vattimo’s house.

“It’s organized chaos," Vattimo says with a laugh. She is the lead member of the City of Madras Solar Eclipse Planning Group, a team formed more than two years ago after city organizers realized they could have a serious logistics problem on their hands. Their first tip-off was even earlier—four years ago, when a travel agency called Continental Capers bought out the entire Inn at Cross Keys Station in anticipation of this year’s event. In such a tiny locale, such a purchase generated plenty of curiosity.

“Apparently, some astronomer said that Madras was the premier location for viewing the eclipse based on its high altitude, big plateau, and the weather compared to other locations across the path," Vattimo says. “He could barely get anybody (here) to pay attention to him. But when all the hotels started booking up years in advance, we realized this was a big deal."

The Premier Viewing Spot

Madras is far from being the only location along the flight path. The US space agency Nasa lists nine other cities as ideal for watching. But as the smallest and, some say, optimal viewing spot along the route, the ranching town 12 miles from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation will experience the onslaught of eclipse chasers quite dramatically. With its high elevation, flat plateau land mass flanked by pristine snow-covered mountains, and crystal-clear desert skies, it’s perfectly suited to star-gazing.

As for the eclipse itself, ask a science lover why it’s compelling, and he or she will respond in disbelief that you even have to ask.

“It hasn’t happened like this in a century, and it’s the only one we’ll see in our lifetime," says Molly Baker, the head of communications at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory. Lowell Observatory and the Oregon State University are sending dozens of scientists to Madras to observe and record the event; Nasa is sending a cadre of astronomers. They expect to observe and document unusual animal activity in addition to the plasma flares and other celestial activity during the eclipse (when unexpected darkness falls, many animals, and birds think night has fallen).

Hot-air balloons in Bend, Oregon, which is the largest town closest to the path of the eclipse. Some farmers will be offering balloon rides on their property for paying customers. Photo: Christian Heeb
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Hot-air balloons in Bend, Oregon, which is the largest town closest to the path of the eclipse. Some farmers will be offering balloon rides on their property for paying customers. Photo: Christian Heeb

Baker and 30 of her colleagues who will be attending, plus additional volunteers, plan to stay mostly in campgrounds and recreational vehicles (RVs). She does admit to some trepidation.

“I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also nervous," says Baker, who will arrive a couple days prior to the event. “It’s going to be pretty hectic."

Handling the hordes

On their part, Vattimo and her team didn’t waste time. They contacted the Oregon state police, transportation authorities, local business owners and residents to talk about how the region could sustain such an influx.

Madras’ chamber of commerce has held dozens of town meetings to urge business owners to stockpile cash, gas and wares. The town and surrounding campsites have rented nearly 700 portable toilets to meet demand, with garbage trucks scheduled to run nearly 24 hours a day to transport trash to huge dumpsters before it begins to smell in the summer heat.

The St Charles Medical Center of Madras & Bend has loaded up on supplies that medics would need to treat the general casualties frequent at any other large gathering, such as a music festival, say, or Burning Man. Doctors have cancelled vacations. Restaurants such as the regional favourite Black Bear Diner have bought five-weeks’ worth of supplies for one week of customers.

(Speaking of Burning Man, yes, there are multiple more free-spirited festivals planned near Madras during the time of the eclipse. Expect those to have the same free-living energy—minus the corporate baggage—as the annual Black Rock Desert retreat.)

Where People Are Staying

Since area hotels sold out long ago, many farmers are renting out camping spaces on their land. Campsite rates are roughly $300 (around Rs19,245) a night, with a three-night minimum; RV packages are running from $2,650-4,600 for up to four people, a price that includes “country" breakfasts and ranch-style dinners. Scheduled shuttles will move campers from the farms to restaurants and grocery stores in town. Music, food and entertainment are all planned for display at a nearby fairground.

Horses grazing near Madras, Oregon, with Mount Jefferson in the background. Photo: Alamy
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Horses grazing near Madras, Oregon, with Mount Jefferson in the background. Photo: Alamy

Christina Carpenter has 275 reservations to stay on her 100-acre farm Organic Earthly Delights—and could accommodate twice that number if she had to. She has hired 40 people to build decks, fences, bunks, tables, outdoor showers, and the like. Her Organic Earthly Delights will feature sustainable farming and bee-keeping sessions, cooking demonstrations, movie screenings, and host Joel Salatin, the popular holistic farmer, author and lecturer, during the event week.

She’s also importing experts for guided astrology lessons.

“The astronomers are so excited," Carpenter says on the phone. She has just finished planting a cover crop of grass perfectly timed to flourish by the time of the eclipse. “They’re coming in from Hawaii, and they already sent their telescope ahead of them."

Other residents as far away as Bend (43 miles away) and Prineville (30 miles away) are making a killing on Airbnb and VRBO bookings, either renting out rooms in their homes or renting the whole house for the weekend in a matter of minutes. Rates on Airbnb range from $500-1,500 for a room for one night; entire houses are listed for $2,000 and more.

The Deluge

Large billboards along the two-lane highway into and out of town have advertised the event for years. Rick Hickmann, who has lived in nearby Bend since 1976, says he was dumbfounded when the billboards appeared. “I laughed when I saw it," he says. “The sign was in the middle of nowhere, in the hot desert, with not a tree in sight. I thought, who in the world would go to Madras for that?"

Fast-forward to July, and the Oregon department of transportation is predicting “the biggest traffic ever in Oregon history" and posting humorous bulletins in efforts to stave off vehicular calamity (example: Don’t be a luna(r)-tic: Arrive early, stay put, and leave late). Bloomberg

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