Middle Tennessee has it made in the celestial shade

Cities, businesses, individuals cash in on once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

Friday, August 11, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 32
By Hollie Deese

David Bates has been looking forward to August 21, 2017, for a very long time.

More than 53 years to be exact, ever since he was a second grader in Mrs. Niefer’s class at Alex Green Elementary School. Back then, his interest was sparked in solar eclipses after they watched a movie about them on the classroom’s 16 mm projector.

“It was the first time I had become aware that such an occurrence happens,” says Bates, president of Bates Nursery & Garden Center on Whites Creek Pike, an 81-year-old family business.

The avid reader went to the library and looked up ‘eclipse’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica, finding a chart that showed cities around the world where eclipses would occur for the next hundred years (U.S. path). He was ecstatic to see his hometown included.

“I’m reading through and lo and behold, I find Nashville, Tennessee, and it’s going to happen on August 21, 2017,” Bates remembers. “I did the math and I realized I would be 61 years old when it happens. So, I’ve had a little time to prepare.”

And, he’s glad being 61 doesn’t feel as old as it sounded back then.

The first 250 people to come to Bates Nursery to watch the eclipse will be treated to a free pair of solar glasses and a chill vibe as Bates plans on cueing up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album for the event, and has it timed so when the final track “Eclipse” plays, totality begins.

Nearby streetlights will be covered with garbage bags to create a total blackout.

“I’m going to put the invitation out there to our customers to come by and spend the time with us. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do,” he adds.

“I’m really hoping for what you would normally expect in August, which would be cobalt blue skies, no clouds.”

Perfect shot

The August 21 event happening across the country is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for most as the sky will go dark, the temperature will drop and stars become visible in daytime. The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the entire United States was in 1918.

The next total solar eclipse to cross the United States like this won’t occur until 2045.

Hendersonville photographer Rick Murray has been actively prepping for the total solar eclipse for the past four months, scouting out the path of totality and figuring out where he wanted to be to capture a stellar image.

But he has been thinking about the eclipse for years, aware as a young man this day would one day come.

“I wasn’t my age then, so it kind of snuck up on everybody,” he jokes.

Typically, one of Sumner County’s viewing parties is just the type of event Murray would shoot for one of his newspaper clients, but he made a decision early on that he would not take part in any mass celebrations or viewings, especially when he gets a great view from his own driveway.

“I’m going to be kind of selfish about this whole deal,” Murray explains. “It’s not going to be one of those days where I want people standing around, ‘Can I look through your scope? Can I see it?’ No. No. No. No. You can see it after the fact. I’ve got 2 minutes and 36 seconds to make this happen.”

What Murray hopes to make happen is the perfect shot – one that professional photographers will find challenging and casual photographers will discover is nearly impossible.

To get the kind of picture NASA would publish, he will have two telescopes trained on the sun, each controlled by different computers. He will have a couple of cameras trained on the sun, firing shots using a variety of tools, some built-in and some external.

First, find the sun

Sumner County photographer Rick Murray makes adjustments to the 8-inch telescope he has set up in his driveway. Murray, who has engaged in several trial runs in preparation for the August 21 solar eclipse, has decided to stay away from the crowds that will invade his county, which is directly in the path of the eclipse.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Murray had thought about taking his drone up too, just to capture the view of the horizon as it looks like sunrise but is worried he’ll spread himself too thin.

Getting photos on par with what an observatory would do will be hard enough as it is.

“I’m shooting the sun multiple times a week right now with both scopes, and strangely enough the most difficult thing to do – and I have had several friends that have made fun of me on Facebook and otherwise – is finding the sun,” Murray points out.

“With a telescope, you can’t be looking through the eyepiece and line it up with a finder’s scope on the sun. You do that one time and you’ll be blind.”

Instead Murray has to calculate where the sun is and use computer controls to line it up.

“Let’s put it this way. The first time I tried it several weeks ago it took me two hours plus to locate it with a new scope,” Murray adds. “Now, the last time I went out and set up and shot, it took me about two minutes, so I’ve gotten better. But every second counts. Every, single second counts on that.”

Eclipse watchers who think they will simply be able to point their iPhone at the sun are sure to be disappointed, not only with the picture they take that will most likely look like a blob of light, but possibly with what happens to their phone, too.

“It doesn’t take but a couple seconds to fry that CMOS sensor that’s in there, and if you damage that sensor you’ll at least have to replace the camera,” Murray says.

Come eclipse day, Murray’s goal is to be locked on and tracking the sun about an hour and a half before the eclipse begins.

It’ll still be bright, the moon won’t have begun to bite into it yet, and that way he will have confirmation he is properly aligned with the computer controls. He should then be able to track it both from the beginning all the way to the other side of the eclipse.

Murray actually has a number of shots he is hoping to get as the eclipse moves across the sky, including “contact one” or “C1” just as the moon’s shadow starts to eat into the sun all the way to just a few seconds before totality when some really cool things start to happen.

“You get a phenomenon just before it goes total, well really two phenomena,” Murray says. “One is called Bailey’s Beads, and that’s the refraction of the sunlight over (the moon’s) mountains, crater rims, large rocks.

“And then, just for a few seconds after that, you get what they call the diamond ring. And that’s where you get the big flash of the sun, and it looks like a solitary diamond ring for a couple of seconds.”

The diamond ring, Murray adds, lasts just a few seconds, and you have to know to be looking for it. He will be recording real time to take some of that pressure off, but will have to move to take his solar filters off once totality hits to capture the “corona effect.”

He says he hopes the stars and brighter planets will become visible as if it was the nighttime sky.

“I’m going to experience the moment as best I can, but I’m more experienced with capturing it so that I can experience it for the rest of my life,” Murray says.

‘Living, breathing animal’

Barry Young, executive director of the Sumner County Convention and Visitors Bureau, has ordered more eclipse merchandise and rounded up more volunteers in the days leading up to the eclipse.

The city has added entertainment to the lineup at Triple Creek Park’s viewing event, and stocked up on 20,000 glasses. It’s the kind of event that grows as the day nears, and one he says he hopes will be a boon to local businesses.

Rick Murray sits in his driveway preparing for the big day. He has two Celestron telescopes set up and attached to laptop computers.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“There is a bluegrass jam on Saturday night, and we’re hoping people will come to the square and eat dinner at the restaurants and shop in the shops and enjoy the pickers that are picking on the street corners,” he says.

Portland, Hendersonville, Goodlettsville, Bethpage – every community in Sumner is having some kind of event before or a viewing party the day of.

Jeff Hentschel, director of communications and administration for the city of Gallatin, says the city put the bluegrass jam together because there wasn’t much going on that Saturday night before the eclipse. “We knew a lot of the shops were going to be open, and it’s become a living, breathing animal.”

Hentschel says there will be five stages placed throughout the downtown square area, and local restaurants and bars that already have live events are planning on hosting an open mic night. He says he hopes the response is so good that it will be a jumping off point for a regular bluegrass event on the square, long after the hype of the eclipse is over.

“I really hope this is not only a great event for the people who are visiting Gallatin, but I hope the city embraces it, and we can keep the momentum and have more of these in the future.’’

Science on center stage

Derrick Rohl, planetarium manager of the Adventure Science Center, says they have been prepping for the big day even before he started working there a year and a-half ago. In January, they launched a new planetarium show, Eclipse: The Sun Revealed, that teaches people about the history, math, scientific discoveries and more.

“It was immediately our top-selling show,” Rohl points out. “It’s definitely something that people are getting really, really excited about as August 21 gets closer.”

Rohl admits he thought space was kind of boring as a kid, but in college he was assigned to be a teaching assistant for an Intro to Physics lab. The instructor of that lab did research focused directly on the Jovian Trojan asteroids, asteroids trapped in front of and behind Jupiter as it orbits the sun. She invited Rohl to South America to help with research, and he fell in love with the dark night skies in the Andes Mountains.

Today, he couldn’t be more excited about the solar event we are about to experience.

“We are long, long overdue on this,” he says. “The last time we had a total solar eclipse in Nashville was 1478. One little technicality there – there was no Nashville back then, so in a way you could say this is Nashville’s first ever time in totality. That’s something that’s incredibly exciting.”

Rohl adds that the experience is so rare that if you were to simply stand at any place on earth and wait for that shadow to come to you, statistically the average wait is 375 years.

“It’s definitely going to be something memorable, something that’ll go down in the history books for Nashville.’’

The science center is hosting an outdoor science and technology festival the weekend before the eclipse with food trucks, tents, activities and science demonstrations that are free and open to the public. On Sunday night, they’ll take down the majority of the tents so there is a clear view of the sky for Monday when there is free viewing for the public.

Inside is a ticketed experience that includes entrance to the planetarium show, eclipse glasses, T-shirts for kids and access to the center’s new virtual reality experience, being unveiled that weekend. Monday is already sold out.

It also is partnering with Twice Daily convenience stores in Middle Tennessee to distribute free viewing glasses, beginning this week at the area's 87 stores.

A few weeks before the eclipse Bonna Johnson, vice president of corporate communications with the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp, said hotels for Sunday, August 20 were nearly sold out, and Saturday, August 19 and Monday, August 21 were running at 85 percent booked – all well ahead of pace from this time last year for those days.

“We know there are other demand generators that weekend, so the boost can’t entirely be attributed to the eclipse,” Johnson said via email. “We expect 50,000 to 75,000 overnight out-of-town visitors.”

Johnson said the estimated direct spending by visitors for the eclipse could be $15 million to $20 million, but it was difficult to estimate because Nashville has not experienced an eclipse before and there’s no way to count the crowd.

Omni Nashville Hotel started picking up bookings for the eclipse as long as 160 days ago. Tod Roadarmel, area director of sales and marketing for the Omni, adds the hotel saw the major uptick right around the 90-day out mark and have been sold out for about the past 60 days. The average stay is a little over three nights with a majority of people coming in Saturday, leaving Tuesday.

Nashville is no stranger to large-scale events, Roadarmel says, with their biggest bookings coming from the Music City Bowl, New Year’s Eve, CMA Fest, July Fourth, and the CMA Awards. The eclipse is something totally different though, but the party atmosphere will likely be the same.

The Omni’s rooftop will be open to hotel guests only, and media will be stationed at the 4th floor Mokara Spa Terrace.

“Since we’ve never had an event like this, we’re not 100 percent sure of what to expect, but our rooftop pool’s going to be open, and we went ahead and purchased eclipse sunglasses,” he says. “Barlines, our honkey-tonk, is creating a Moon Pie milkshake that’ll be available. How do you plan for a once-in-a-lifetime event?”

There is even a new startup creating hundreds of new campsites in the path of the eclipse, allowing landowners to benefit financially from the event as public campgrounds, hotels and Airbnbs are all booked up.

Hipcamp, like Airbnb, allows landowners in the path of totality to offer their acreage to eclipse chasers.

Fear, fascination comes with eclipse

Bates was working in Atlanta in 1984 when it experienced a near total eclipse.

Already outdoors early in the morning doing landscaping jobs, he always felt an affinity for celestial events and made plans to safely view the eclipse. But was surprised when many others’ plans meant staying inside and avoiding it altogether.

“The entire area became completely remote,” Bates recalls. “Everyone went inside. There was no traffic. There was complete silence apart from birds chirping, and I mean the dogs stopped barking. Everything. It was surreal how quiet it got. I don’t know if it’ll be that way this time or not, but there’s a large section of people who, at least from my experience from that time, find it scary.”

Murray says that 20 minutes into the start of the eclipse, even before the sun’s halfway covered, you’ll start to notice animals acting weird.

“I can remember going through a 75-80 percent total eclipse when I was a kid, and I remember the sky looking weird, and I remember the birds quit singing. Dogs howled. They didn’t know what to think of it,” Murray recalls.

“And this is going to be a lot more so, because the temperature will drop probably 8 to 10 degrees, and you’ll get some wind because of changing atmosphere conditions.”

Throughout history, and in many parts of the world, eclipses have been viewed with dread, or as ill omens. But they’ve also been viewed as moments of change and opportunity.

“I don’t know how much of that comes just from our instinctive fear of the unknown or just that it is a departure from normal,” Bates explains. “I expect it to be an extraordinary event. There’s only one thing that can spoil the day and that would be clouds.”

Weather could ruin everything

In fact, all the prep and hype could all be a bust if just one, fluffy cloud passes over the sun in the few minutes the total eclipse will last. Murray is concerned since this summer has been filled with the kind of slow-moving cumulus clouds that would ruin everything. He is already consulting long-range NASA forecasts.

“If we’re out of this humidity cycle, that will improve things for us,” he adds. “But I’m going to be prepared that morning to take a couple of cameras and one of my scopes and I’ll drive a couple hundred miles if I have to. I’m not going to miss this.”

For Gallatin, being in the path of totality helps mitigate a risk of cloud coverage since the length of time of totality is nearly one minute longer than in Nashville.

“There are lots of viewing events all over the area,” Hentschel says. “They’re in Nashville. They’re in Goodlettsville. Every city is having a viewing event, but make no mistake. Gallatin is the best place to view the eclipse.

“We’re at the center of totality. If there’s one cloud in the sky in Nashville where they’re seeing it for a minute less than us, they may very well miss the event while that cloud is passing by.”

Bates has a backup plan too, just in case clouds decide to make an unwanted appearance.

“If for some reason I’m disappointed with the cloud cover, in five years there’s an opportunity to drive a few hundred miles and get see a total eclipse again, more in the central part of the U.S.,” Bates explains.

“That’s my fallback. I can make it five more years, I’m pretty sure. That’s kind of my fallback plan. I’ll probably go anyway.”