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Solartown campground
Oregon’s Mount Jefferson looms on the western horizon outside Madras. The fields on either side of the blacktop road will be turned into a “Solartown” campground for 4,900 tents during the runup to the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

MADRAS, Ore. – If there’s one thing central Oregon has in abundance, it’s open space. And that’s a good thing for the total solar eclipse that’s due to sweep through the region on Aug. 21.

Even though hotel rooms are sold out anywhere that’s even near the 70-mile-wide zone of totality running across the state, there’s still a good chance of finding an enterprising landowner who’ll rent you a camping spot.

But if there’s one thing central Oregon doesn’t have a whole lot of, it’s four-lane highways.

That’s likely to be an issue for the hundreds of thousands of eclipse-chasers who are expected to swarm into towns like Madras, Prineville, Mitchell and John Day. Or maybe not.

“The bad thing about it is that nobody knows how bad it’s going to get,” said Terry Hansen, park host for Round Butte Overlook Park, just west of Madras.

Weeks before Eclipse Day, worries about jammed-up roads, gas stations and food stores are looming over central Oregon like the dark clouds that skywatchers hope will stay far, far away in August.

That’s a big reason why Oregon Gov. Kate Brown authorized the state’s National Guard this week to put six aircraft and about 150 soldiers and airmen on standby to assist with eclipse traffic control and support services.

Oregon is expecting about a million tourists to visit the state for the total eclipse, the first such event to take place in the continental U.S. since 1979.

Many of those tourists will be on the more populated west side of the Cascades, in cities like Salem and Corvallis, which are also in the totality zone. But an estimated 250,000 or more will venture over to Madras and its environs – a thinly populated region that has the highest probability of clear skies, based on U.S. historical data.

Locals have been told to stock up on water, groceries and gasoline, and hunker down for several days before and after the eclipse. Rumor has it that the time required to drive from the region’s largest city, Bend, up Highway 97 to Madras will mushroom from an hour to eight hours or more. Rumor also has it that the price of gas will balloon to $5 a gallon.

Many of the businesses that don’t expect to make a buck from the tourist trade, such as insurance offices, plan to shut down for the day. And some of the businesses that do expect to make a buck are nevertheless dreading the coming crush of humanity. “I did ask a city councilman, and apparently shooting over people’s heads is a gray area,” one proprietor said. (I think she was joking.)

In contrast, Kim Tucker, a camp host for the recreational-vehicle park at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Madras, is looking forward to the spectacle.

“I was in the path of the ’79 eclipse, and I thought it was great,” she said. “I’m going to be interested in how people react to it. … I’m interested to see how my roosters react.”

Solarfest truck
A beat-up truck along the side of Highway 26 touts the Oregon Solarfest in Madras. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Amid all the hand-wringing, worriers run the risk of forgetting about the wonder that will accompany Aug. 21’s total eclipse: If the skies are clear, eclipse-watchers will be able to gaze through solar-filter glasses (a must!) as the moon takes an ever-bigger bite out of the sun. They’ll watch as the moon’s shadow sweeps eastward from Mount Jefferson and wings of darkness descend from the sky.

The climax will come at 10:19 a.m., when the moon-covered sun turns totally black for two minutes and becomes surrounded by the sun’s shimmering corona. Stars and planets will twinkle in a nightlike sky. And when the sun comes back, Tucker’s roosters just might crow.

J.R. Brooks, president of the Jefferson County Tourism Group, aims to leverage all that wonder into an experience that will bring tourists back long after the two minutes of totality are over.

He and his partners organized a four-day event called Oregon Solarfest that will bring representatives from NASA, Lowell Observatory and other astronomical organizations to town, along with musical acts, tethered balloon rides and as many as 30,000 campers and RV users from all 50 states and 39 countries.

“We felt that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Brooks told GeekWire. “So we want to get a hold of as many people as we can, give them a great customer experience, and then launch events throughout the year to draw people to the area.”

Solarfest’s organizers are working with local authorities to set up shuttle bus services and checkpoints, mobile medical services, food concessions and beefed-up cellular services at two sites around town.

“I wake up every night at 2 or 3 in the morning and say, ‘My God, we have to make sure this is right, or that is right,'” Brooks said. “If this was just a one-shot, and we ran away with our bag of gold, it would be a lot less stressful.”

J.R. Brooks
J.R. Brooks, president of the Jefferson County Tourism Group, surveys the scene outside his office. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Just this week, Solarfest reserved the last of its 5,500 campsites, which are currently no more than 20-by-20-foot squares of bare grass at the fairgrounds and in grassy fields. But the festival’s website links to 10 other outlets in the Madras area that are offering camping and RV spaces. Other landowners are simply putting up signs in hopes of putting left-out campers on their property.

As Eclipse Day nears, the price is escalating. “There are some people charging $1,500 a night,” Brooks said.

And that’s just Madras. Other totality parties being planned east of the Cascades include Oregon Eclipse at Big Summit Prairie, Moonshadow Festival in Prineville, Pandyfest near John Day, Mystery of the Eclipse Explained in Baker City, the Total Eclipse Festival near Baker City (sold out) and the Oregon Star Party at Indian Trail Spring (sold out).

West of the Cascades, where there’s a higher chance of cloudiness, there’s Total Eclipse of the Garden in Silverton, Solar Eclipse 2017 in Corvallis, Total Eclipse in Dallas, Total Eclipse on Marys Peak, Indy Goes Dark in Independence Solar Eclipse Viewing Party in Salem (sold out) and more than a dozen other events. Check Travel Oregon for a long list.

Civic leaders in Madras and surrounding communities are putting a lot of effort into preparations for two minutes of totality, but Brooks figures that a good customer experience will translate into warm, fuzzy feelings about central Oregon – and, not insignificantly, cold hard cash.

He calculates that a family of four could well spend at least $500 a day over the course of several days, giving a boost to an area of the state that tourists often simply pass through.

“The economic impact could be in the tens of millions,” Brooks said.

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