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    So your town has 31,811 people and your county has 75,351, and you grow lots of tobacco and soybeans and make more bowling balls than any other place in the world, and you also make breakfast biscuits for McDonald’s and Ghirardelli brownies and, of course, car parts — like almost any other place in flyover country, rural America, USA — and suddenly, you realize your town, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is the center of the universe for a day. Literally. The very center. Of the universe — OK, maybe not the universe, which is expanding and may not have a center. Let’s say center of the solar system then. Does that work for you? Good.

    Yep, for one day. The center. And instead of the 72,351 citizens of Christian County making their way along narrow byways through gently rolling green hills, at least 100,000 more people will be jamming down your two-lane, no-shoulder roads to be part of the place that’s the center of the universe, er, solar system, on a Monday. And, btw, that 100,000 visitors thing? That’s just a guess, based on, say, nearly every person in Christian County inviting one friend, says Brooke Jung, Hopkinsville eclipse coordinator — the only eclipse coordinator in Kentucky. Honestly, though, Jung isn’t hearing from people with just one person coming for a visit. “They’re having 15 or 20 come visit them. We’re trying to prepare for these numbers that we can’t know in advance.” Just a few months ago, Jung thought maybe 50,000 visitors would hop over to Hopkinsville. Then she spoke at a gathering of eclipse-o-philes in South Carolina. The experts shook their heads. They raised their thumbs and jerked them skyward. Expect more, they said. Many more.

    So you’re a county of 75,351 people and you’re also the home of a 1955 encounter with alien visitors (more about this later). And, in 1877, you were the birthplace of America’s leading psychic — who still has acolytes — Edgar Cayce, the so-called Sleeping Prophet. And you were the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1808 — marked with a giant obelisk in a state park. And you are home to no fewer than two distilleries — one for bourbon and one for moonshine (of course moonshine). And you have a military base with 13,684 people — home of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne. And you managed, through sheer public determination, to raise your local schools out of the muddy seeping basement of academic achievement — the two high schools were among the bottom 10 in the state — “that’s bottom 10, not 10 percent,” Hopkinsville Mayor Carter M. Hendricks clarifies — into the top 40 percent in about 10 years, and you aren’t done yet. And now 100,000 partygoers are about to stop by and say hey? And you have, like, maybe three to eight restaurants downtown, and a cluster of fast food places out by the Pennyrile Parkway? And 600 hotel rooms in the region? And your pharmacy is called Cayce Pharmacy, leading some smart-ass visitors to hope one can pick up stock market tips with their allergy meds? (You can’t. Cayce is a common name here.) So you’re that town, that county. And now what the hell do you do? Or what in heaven’s name, since this is all about the heavens, anyway.

    Well, you hold a huge party. Many parties.

    You throw 20-some festivals. You order 100-plus port-o-potties — can that possibly be enough? You set up RV clean out stations. You establish committees to plan everything. You have tabletop disaster scenario practice with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You turn your health department food inspectors into an army capable of investigating 100 new food vendors in a single weekend. Then you straighten the doilies, check your hair in the mirror and put out the welcome mat, because you’re only the center of the solar system once in your life, if that — unless you’re Carbondale, Ill., damn them (I’ll explain that in a bit) — and you’re good enough, smart enough, and good looking enough to know that nobody can do Center of the Solar System like you, Eclipseville USA, aka, Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

    So, let’s first get the science out of the way. You’ve heard of the sun, right? Big light. In the sky. Don’t look at it without eye protection. And you’ve heard of the moon, right? Very romantic. Controls tides on the ocean. (All these short sentences. Too Trumpian? Sad!) I can see you’re pretty smart there. Good job. Every once in a while, the moon stumbles in front of the sun. The sun is much bigger than the moon — 400 times bigger — but it’s also 400 times farther away, so the two bodies appear to be the same size when moon blunders across sun.  

    Then it’s voila, Eclipseville. About once every 18 months, someone on Earth can see a total solar eclipse. But not you. No total eclipse has been visible in Kentucky — or much of mainland North America — for quite awhile. The last time a total solar eclipse got near us was 1869. Remember that one? 1878 was a pretty good total eclipse for the United States, but it was mostly west of the Mississippi. The most recent great transcontinental eclipse was in 1918, but it skipped Kentucky in its race from Washington state to Florida. But don’t let this solar avoidance get you down. NASA says two places in the United States haven’t experienced totality in more than 1,000 years: northeast Colorado around Fort Morgan, and somewhere near Lewellen, Nebraska. So quit complaining.

    Even better: If you miss this year’s event, you’ll get another shot at totality in 2024 when the eclipse path grazes western Kentucky and then heads north to Indiana. Louisville will be just outside the band of totality; the center of the eclipse path will be just south of Indianapolis and continue on to Cleveland.

    (Historical note: The most famous eclipse in history, NASA says, took place in 1133. It lasted more than 4 minutes and coincided with the death of King Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror. Civil war and chaos followed.)

    OK, that’s enough science for now. Here’s a tip of the hat to word nerds: Syzygy (sizz-uh-gee). It means the alignment of astronomical bodies, such as in an eclipse. Great word, no?

     

    Edgar Cayce aside, if anyone was the prophet of the Hopkinsville eclipse, it was Cheryl Cook at the Hopkinsville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Or maybe it was a guy named Dirk Barthelow. On June 10, 2007, Barthelow sent Cook an email asking her if the city had begun planning for the solar eclipse in 2017.

    Cook didn’t know Barthelow. Never heard from him before. Never heard from him again. And she didn’t know anything about an eclipse.

    “Of course I googled it. And I found out it was huge!” Cook said.

    Things got going, albeit not at the speed and furor that would eventually follow. At first, people were skeptical. How big could this possibly be? Mayor Hendricks was president of the Hopkinsville-Christian County Chamber of Commerce at the time, and he was among the skeptics. “Is everybody really going to be interested in this?” he wondered. It didn’t really hit home with Hendricks until he heard an eclipse chaser speak at Hopkinsville Community College. “He presented this one photo of the eclipse epicenter in, I think it was the sub-Saharan African desert. It literally looked like tens of hundreds of thousands of people in a tent city in the middle of the African desert. I remember sitting there and thinking, if that many people are willing to go out in the middle of the desert to view an eclipse, how many more are going to come to Hopkinsville when it’s so easy to get to? When we have an international airport within an hour of us? That’s when it really got to me: we better get prepared to entertain hundreds of thousands of visitors — potentially — in a community of 33,000.”

    The path of totality for the eclipse on Monday actually begins out in the Pacific Ocean before sweeping down through Oregon on its way east. With that kind of geography to choose from, why would Hopkinsville be so important? The answer: The Point of Greatest Eclipse —heretofore to be referred to as POGE. Hopkinsville — actually, a spot on the map about 12 miles northwest of Hopkinsville near the Trig County town of Cerulean — is the POGE. This is where the axis of the moon’s shadow passes closest to the center of the Earth — which means exactly nothing to most of us. Think of it like this: POGE is the point where you could shoot a laser beam straight through the center of the sun, moon and Earth. The beam would pierce Earth 2 ½ miles west of Cerulean, at a spot on Cerulean Hopkinsville Road in Christian County. I find this a bit poetic since Cerulean isn’t just a town, it’s a shade of sky blue. Two centuries ago, Cerulean Springs was a health resort. Local lore claimed the springs turned cerulean after the 1811 New Madrid quake.

    Totality at POGE will last 2 minutes and 40.1 seconds. But that’s not the longest totality, which hardly seems fair. The longest totality takes place near Carbondale, Illinois. Totality is a full tenth of a second longer in Carbondale than it will be in Christian County, so you don’t want to miss that. And here’s the other way Carbondale wins: in 2024, when Kentucky gets another glimpse of totality, Carbondale will AGAIN be on the path of totality. Twice in fewer than 10 years. Sad!

    But even the pope prefers Hopkinsville to Carbondale as a viewing site. OK, this is gross exaggeration, but among the luminaries coming to Orchardale Shepherd Farm, which is the official viewing spot closest to POGE, is the pontiff’s chief science observer. NASA is also sending a planetary scientist to Orchardale. All the cool kids will be there. All the big media. I think Sue Grafton is expected. (Her next novel, Y is for Yesterday, comes out the day after the eclipse, which seems somehow significant, but isn’t, really.) However, you can’t go to Orchardale. It’s sold out. In fact, you’re going to have a tough time getting close to any of the official viewing sites, since most of them have been booked solid for weeks by people who plan ahead. Which doesn’t happen to include me. I intend to join the giant traffic jam and wander aimlessly — with several coolers packed full of food and liquids in case I end up in a big parking lot. Yet I optimistically intend to be in the path of totality by the time the partial eclipse begins.

    Here are the times to know for the Hopkinsville area:

    11:56 a.m. CDT, partial eclipse begins.

    1:24 p.m. CTD, total eclipse begins.

    1:25:32.0 p.m. CTD, eclipse maximum

    1:27 p.m. CTD, total eclipse ends.

    2:51 p.m. CTD, partial eclipse ends.

    In case you were wondering, officials will be very unhappy with you if you decide to simply pull off the road somewhere and create a hazard. In fact, they’re preparing for crowds. State Emergency Management is activating its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with Hopkinsville. And everyone is warned to carry an emergency kit in their cars, with plenty of water, sunscreen, and eclipse glasses. (Good luck finding those now.)

    “This is essentially like having a Super Bowl in every single city along the path of totality,” Jung says. Jung and Christian County folks identified 20 critical traffic areas to man months ago and they had special signs in hand by July.

    Given anticipated congestion, emergency services may be a nightmare, so Jung & Co. arranged to have 10 air evacuation helicopters available within 30 minutes of the community. The local hospital has cancelled all operations scheduled for Monday in order to have space to handle any emergencies that occur during the event.

    But not all the planning has been disaster-driven. For instance, the Hopkinsville Eclipse Team identified the location of every (they hope) light pole near viewing sites and will have someone on hand to turn off the pole electricity before the eclipse, so streetlights don’t come on during totality. They’ve also arranged to bring COWS to some critical viewing sites — those are Cell on Wheels supplied by both AT&T and Verizon.

    One critical strategy to handling the influx of visitors, Hendricks says, has been taking advantage of geography. Christian County is the second largest county in Kentucky, the mayor says, extending some 60 miles north to south and some 45 miles east to west. “Since we have the geographic space to accommodate people, we can spread them out through the county,” Hendricks says. (Pike County in far Eastern Kentucky is larger at 786.8 square miles to Christian County’s 717.5 square miles). So viewing sites are all over the county. Most of them are full now, although as late as Friday, All Nations House of Prayer said it had openings, as did MB Roland Distillery, Good Shepard Church and a few others. Check out the eclipseville.com site to see what remains.

    Some counties might look at an event that threatens to bring 100,000 people or more into town and find ways to block them. Hopkinsville did the opposite, and threw a bunch of festivals, including the three-day Summer Salute Festival, Friday through Sunday, with many musical acts including headliner Tracy Lawrence on Saturday. Then there’s Eclipse Con 2017 Saturday and Sunday, a comics convention at the James E. Bruce Convention Center. And there’s a bourbon “Mashoree” at MB Roland distillery Friday-Sunday; a Bluegrass Bash at Burdoc, Friday-Sunday. You can go to the Casey Jones Distillery shindig and have some of their Total Eclipse Moonshine — it’s good. You can’t buy one of the handful of Eclipse bowling balls hometown company, Ebonite, commissioned, but you can buy eclipse earrings, eclipse Christmas ornaments, “anything with an eclipse on it, we’ve got it somewhere,” Hendricks says. You can “Dive the Eclipse” at the Pennyroyal Scuba Center, where they’re selling tickets to scuba in a quarry during totality. The Jefferson Davis Memorial was even selling chances to watch the eclipse from the top of the 351-foot obelisk.

    But the best festival for people watching, and not bad for eclipse gazing, is the Kelly Little Green Men Days Festival Friday through Monday. Eclipses bring out weird predictions. There is the expected appearance of a Lizard Man in South Carolina, stupid theories of food-tainting radiation emissions and a numerologist predicting a collision with the non-existent planet Nibiru. But in Kelly, about 8 miles north of Hopkinsville, there’s history. On Aug. 21, 1955, 12 to 15 aliens terrorized Elmer Sutton and Billy Ray Taylor and kin for nearly four hours. Despite the name of the festival, the aliens were a metallic silver, not green. A poster in the Pennyroyal Area Museum in Hopkinsville states, “Police officers and their chief testified that the Suttons were genuinely scared, and by all accounts, sober.”

     

    I think people in the Kelly area have become a lot friendlier in the 62 years since the aliens visited. And I say this based on a museum poster detailing the events of 1955: “One or several creatures approached the house many times that night, their hands raised above their heads as in some kind of friendly gesture. (Italics are mine.) Each time they did, the men would fire at them.” So you visit Kelly, you gesture in a friendly manner, and they shoot at you. Here’s another bit: “Whenever they came toward the house, they seemed to have an upright posture, walking slowly, with their hands raised, as if they were trying to reassure their hosts or trying to communicate with them.” My husband and I visited Kelly recently, saw a pair of women out taking a walk, gestured in a friendly manner, and neither one of the women shot at us. In fact, we successfully communicated with these women, and they said they plan to be as far from all the commotion Monday as they can get. It probably helped that we are not metallic in color with large glowing eyes, long arms, and hands that end in long talons. Yet we are still planning to invade the region on Monday, with 100,000 other aliens.

     

    Cover photo: Pexels

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    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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