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VOL. 41 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 11, 2017

East Tennessee has it made in the shade

Sweetwater, Smokies, others cash in on once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

By Mike Blackerby

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Sweetwater, a small East Tennessee town about 40 miles southwest from Knoxville and home to less than 6,000 people, is located on prime-time real estate – at least for one day.

That day is Aug. 21 when a total solar eclipse – that rare and surreal occurrence when the moon completely blocks out the body of the sun, leaving only the normally hidden halo-like corona – will be visible in parts of Tennessee, one of 12 states in the path of totality as the eclipse shadow races at about 1,500 mph in a 70-mile-wide swath across the United States.

Chart of eclipse path

Sweetwater will be in the dark longer than most areas in East Tennessee, meaning more eclipse visitors. “We knew it would be big – we figured that out a while back,” says Hayley Isbill, co-chair of the Sweetwater Total Eclipse Festival.

The official T-shirt puts it best: “I blacked out for 2 minutes, 37 seconds in Sweetwater, TN.’ Sweetwater’s festival is 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. with the big moment beginning at 1:03.59 (EDT) for 2:32:35 (EDT) for 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

The eclipse isn’t fully visible from Knoxville, so area small towns, such as Sweetwater, have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, taking advantage of the economic impact.

“In our lifetime, it’s the biggest thing that has happened to us,” Isbill points out. “Nobody living in Sweetwater has ever experienced anything like this. Sometimes we look at each other and just say, ‘wow!’”

NASA in the park

Expect the more high-profile of East Tennessee’s top attractions to be on the national radar that day.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is dead in the aim in the path. NASA will broadcast live out of the park from Clingmans Dome during the eclipse. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the park’s highest point, the highest point in Tennessee and the second highest point east of the Mississippi.

In February, 1,325 tickets were made available for Clingmans Dome and were sold out within five minutes.

The National Park is bracing for a massive influx of sky gazers. Some areas of the park will experience totality for more than two minutes, Dana Soehn, park public affairs officer, says.

The crew at Crafter’s Brew Market & Social in Oak Ridge include, from left, Tripp Coleman, Keith Davis, Alan Conrad, Paul Mayton, Christa Dills and Chris Keever. Crafter’s Brew will provide protective eye glasses for everyone who comes to their eclipse viewing party on Aug. 21.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“It’s hard to estimate how many people may come to the park to experience the eclipse, but we understand that many people want to be in a natural area free of artificial light and sounds when totality happens,” Soehn adds.

There are a variety of organized programs in the park that day, but Soehn explains many visitors may prefer to strike out on their own to find the best viewing location.

The path of totality also goes through popular destinations in the park like Cades Cove. “The general public will be invited to participate in an informal learning eclipse program, free of charge, at Cable Mill,” Soehn says.

“Once parking is full, though, access to Cades Cove area will be closed to additional traffic. Cable Mill will experience totality for 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Visitors may also view the eclipse on their own from other locations accessed by road or trail, as the western half of the park will experience totality for up to 2 minutes, 26 seconds.”

Visit the park website for more information at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2017-solar-eclipse.htm.

Great for Gatlinburg

If you think Sweetwater got a lucky break, consider Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas, normally driven by tourism that are still on the rebound from the historic November, 2016 wildfires.

Mark Adams, CEO/president of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said interest generated by the eclipse is the perfect tonic for the area. “We’ve gone through a lot the last eight or nine months,” Adams explains.

“The eclipse has been a great thing for tourism. We’ve got people from all over the country coming. The last time we’ve seen anything like this (eclipse) in our area was the late 1800s.”

While there are some hotel and motel rooms still available for the weekend of the eclipse, Adams predicts near sell-outs. “By the time the eclipse gets here, I think we’ll be at 95 to 98 percent occupancy. With the eclipse on a Monday, people will be coming in for an extended weekend. I’d say we’ll have 25 to 30 percent more people for the weekend than we normally do because of the eclipse.”

Skyway access

Sweetwater has been marketing its T-shirts and taking hotel reservations for some time. “We have sold hundreds of T-shirts that we have shipped all over the world,” says the festival’s co-chair.

“We’ve got five or six local hotels that have been booked (for the eclipse) for months,’’ Isbill explains. We’ve gotten responses from people from Florida, California and all over the world. Some people from the United Kingdom are coming.”

The festival offers music, vendors – and of course – moon-walking lessons and moon pies.

The festival pre-sold 157 parking passes that offer prime viewing. “They were $50 each and it took less than three weeks to sell out. We’re looking to secure more parking passes.”

Campground reservations are near capacity for the event, and Isbill says people are opening up their homes and land to visitors. “We’re getting overwhelming response. About 6,000 people live here. We really don’t know what to expect the day of the eclipse. We expect to have at least 25,000 people here.”

Isbill notes that number could swell if predictions of the crowd along the Cherohala Skyway are accurate.

The skyway is a 43-mile national forest scenic byway with tall vistas that connects nearby Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is likely to be one of the most-coveted viewing sites for the eclipse.

One of the ways to access the Skyway is through Sweetwater off Interstate 75.

“They’re expecting about 200,000 people (on the skyway), and a lot of them will have to come through Sweetwater to get to Tellico Plains,” Isbill explains. “We anticipate this to be a huge boost in our economy. This will definitely put Sweetwater on the map.”

Oak Ridge: an eclipse gathering place

Crafter’s Brew Market and Social has proven to be a shot in the arm to the entertainment scene in Oak Ridge – about 25 miles west of Knoxville – since opening to rave reviews on April 14.

Owner Chris Keevers of Crafter’s Brew Market & Social in Oak Ridge saw an opportunity for a unique beer garden experience when he decided to build Crafter’s Brew Market & Social on the former site of a swimming pool demo store. The business will host an eclipse viewing party on Aug. 21.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

The popular Atomic City gathering place offers 24 craft beers on tap and a spacious patio area, a prime place to watch an eclipse, which by the way, will feature 31 seconds of totality beginning at 2:33.22 p.m.

Crafter’s Brew owner Chris Keever calls the hoopla surrounding the eclipse an entrepreneur’s dream. Typically, the new hot spot opens at 3 p.m., but on the big day, it will be open at noon.

Keever, like other business owners in the area, is putting his own spin on the eclipse. “All of the songs we’re playing on our sound system have something to do with the sun. We’ll be playing songs like ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and ‘Sunshine on my Shoulders.’”

Keever is also selling eclipse T-shirts for $20 and handing out free eclipse-viewing glasses. He has already sold about 35 of the T-shirts, which include the longitude and latitude of Oak Ridge and a reference to watching the eclipse at Crafter’s Brew.

Even for a Monday, he expects a big crowd to turn out for the once-in-a-lifetime event.

“We’re promoting it on Facebook. It’s really hard to say how many we’re going to have. Normally we might have 30 to 50 people at 1 p.m. on a Monday, but I’m preparing for 200 people.”

Now about the weather

Tania Rich is looking forward to her total-eclipse mulligan.

Hopefully, the weather will cooperate this time. Rich, the director of the Sweetwater Public Library, was stationed with the Army in Germany on Aug. 11, 1999 during a previous solar eclipse.

Rich was poised to witness a rare total eclipse when clouds suddenly filled the mostly clear sky. Poof, her chance to witness totality was gone in a snap.

“We were on the edge of the band for the total eclipse,” Rich recalls.

“The weather called for partly cloudy skies that day. We had clear skies, but as totality was about to set in the clouds came in. As soon as it was over, it (the sky) opened back up. That’s the way it was that day – hit or miss.”

Now, 18 years later, Rich has another opportunity to witness one of nature’s rarest events – this time, thousands of miles away from Germany in Sweetwater.

“I plan on watching it from outside the library,” she says. “We’ll be open that day and we have a lot of activities going on. The Friends of the Library will be selling parking spots for $15.”

Given what happened the first time, Rich says she’s going to keep her fingers crossed and keep a steady eye on the weather.

“I’ve seen partial ones, but I want to see a total eclipse,” she adds.

“I want to see totality. After 1999, I knew there was another one (total eclipse), but I kind of forgot about it until a couple of years ago. I just never thought I’d end up in its path again.”

‘Otherworldly’ perspective

Dr. Kate Russo, noted author, psychologist, lecturer and eclipse chaser who has penned several books on the subject, says the Aug. 21 happening is must-see viewing.

“The sun doesn’t go dark – it completely disappears,” she relates. “It’s otherworldly. You think you know what it will be like, but, in reality, when it happens it totally surpasses anything you could possibly imagine.”

She says it’s easy to understand why ancient civilizations that witnessed unannounced eclipses thought something cataclysmic was happening. “You can completely relate to how totality was interpreted as the end of the world – it (total eclipse) seems so wrong. Yet it is so sublime, beautiful, awe-inspiring and captivating.”

Russo says it changed her life in 1999 when she witnessed her first total eclipse. She has written several books on the topic, is in much demand as a lecturer and chases eclipses all over the globe. On Aug. 21, she will watch her 11th total eclipse at 9,000 feet at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, leading a tour group of 33 international eclipse chasers.

“Totality is so much more than an astronomical event,” she offers. “It is a human event that we can all appreciate and experience with wonder and marvel at how lucky we are to be alive. For the first time in a generation, ordinary Americans will get the chance to experience this amazing event. If seeing my first total eclipse can have this major impact upon my life, it could happen to you. You do not want to miss it.”

The next total eclipse in Tennessee will be on Oct. 17, 2153. The last two total eclipses in Tennessee were on Aug. 1, 1869 and Oct. 4, 1717.

Russo, who has lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the last 20 years, says her experience at that first total eclipse was a game changer.

“The 1999 total eclipse changed my person life trajectory for sure. I was already a traveler, and had already backpacked around the world, and was locating in the UK to facilitate travel for future years.”

It was an awakening, of sorts.

“Seeing totality in 1999 suddenly made eclipse chasing my priority, that is, selecting countries to visit purely based upon the path of totality. I had never imagined that would happen. I just thought I’d see the eclipse, and then that would be it. So, from that moment on, every subsequent total eclipse enriched my life in so many different ways.”

Professionally, though she stayed the course.

“It didn’t really change my professional career at the time. I was working as a paediatric clinical psychologist and spent a good 15 years doing so. I was also developing expertise in a research approach called interpretative phenomenological analysis.

“It was around 2006 or 2007, that I realized that I really should use this research approach to study the total eclipse experience. And then in 2011 I made it happen – I took a career break from my clinical job (but kept on with my academic job), and successfully submitted a book proposal to a publisher, and then started this research.”

Russo’s first book on eclipses, “Total Addiction,’’ was published in 2012. Here most recent book is “Being in the Shadow,’’ which features stories of people who experience totality for the first time.

Russo says her dream job would be to obtain funding to support her eclipse research program.

“That would be perfect,” she says.

Mike Blackerby is a freelance writer in East Tennessee who plans on watching the eclipse at 6,593 feet from the top of Mt. LeConte