Despite all the hype, the moon has nothing special planned for Aug. 21. It will continue doing what it’s done for more than 4 billion years—insensibly circling Earth, a dead rock at the end of a long gravitational tether.
The sun has nothing special planned either. It will sit where it must sit and burn as it must burn to sustain the flock of planets and moons and asteroids and comets that have orbited it for so long.
That’s how things go in the clockwork cosmos, and yet once in a while, there’s poetry in the machinery. Once in a while, the wheels click in synchrony and the indifferent universe offers up a rare spectacle. Just such a thing will happen on Aug. 21 as the moon’s orbit crosses in front of the sun at the precise spot to eclipse its face and appear to snuff its fires.
A total solar eclipse occurs somewhere on the face of Earth every 18 months. But it usually plays out over water—which covers 70% of the planet’s surface—or over unpopulated land. This month things will be different. The sky show that is being dubbed the Great American Eclipse will begin in the Pacific Northwest and make first landfall over Lincoln Beach, Ore., at 9:05 a.m. P.T. It will track southeast across the U.S., inking a narrow stripe of total darkness over 12 states before passing into the Atlantic near Charleston, S.C., at 2:48 p.m. E.T.
The band of totality—the strip of land in which the sun will be entirely obscured—will be just 70 miles wide. Only 12 million Americans live in that corridor, but 88 million live within 200 miles, and 350 million live within one day’s drive. A great many people will be hitting the road to make that trip.
Hopkinsville, Ky., which will experience the longest period of totality—2 min. 40 sec.—is normally home to about 32,000 people, but it expects at least 100,000 visitors on eclipse day. Madras, Ore., pop. 6,500, is steeling itself for a day of pop. 150,000.
“We have people coming from 16 countries,” says Brooke Jung, Hopkinsville’s solar-eclipse event consultant.
No matter how big the arriving hordes, Hopkinsville, like other towns in the path…