CHASING SHADOWS

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

Mar 1, 2024 | Featured, Travel

The last time Bill Solleder gazed at the sky to take in an eclipse he came away, well, less than impressed.

“I go all the way back to 2017 when we had that partial eclipse,” he says. “I went outside, put on some glasses, looked up at the partial eclipse and probably like many people who weren’t in the path of totality, I was like, big whoop.

“One of my colleagues said, ‘We’re going to be in the path of totality in 2024. We should create a Facebook event.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh yeah, whatever. Create a Facebook event. Big whoop.’”

Bill, marketing director for Visit Hot Springs, chuckles at this point in the story.

“Literally, within two hours, 82,000 people had responded to that Facebook event that was seven years in the future,” he says. “This was without any sort of boosting or whatnot. That was the first time I realized, ‘Aha, people are really into this.’”

With the possible exception of someone living off the grid in a manner rivaling the Stone Age for the past couple of years, almost everyone in Arkansas has received some version of the memo that Mother Nature will flick the lights over the Natural State on April 8. The solar eclipse is being hailed as a once-in-a-lifetime happening and an event to which Arkansas holds the golden ticket to boot. The path of totality runs right over the state, cutting it neatly from southwest to northeast like a grilled cheese sandwich, which has merchants and tourism directors from DeQueen to Pocahontas drooling.

“I was at a conference and someone from Casper, Wyoming, was speaking on the eclipse,” Bill says. “They talked about how the eclipse doubled the entire population of Wyoming and more than a million people jammed into Casper in a week’s time. Then she showed this great photograph of people putting thumb tacks in a world map; if they were in Casper and they were from Indianapolis, they’d put a thumb tack on Indiana. The next image she showed was a closeup detail of the world map that was zoomed in on Europe and the entirety of Europe is packed with little thumb tacks.

“I said, ‘What? People from around the world were traveling to, of all places, Wyoming, to see the eclipse?’ Next ‘aha’ moment for me. Then the press started; Forbes covered us, AFAR covered us, The Atlantic covered us, it just goes on and on. People are covering Hot Springs because we’re one of the two national parks in the path of totality. I knew we were really onto something.”

A total solar eclipse is a celestial event that occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and sun, completely blocking out the sun’s face. At the most dramatic climax of the phenomenon, the sun appears to have turned black as the moon is directly in front of it, surrounded by a halo of rays. The event has fascinated and terrified mankind throughout human history.

Ancient cultures didn’t know what to make of eclipses but were pretty much unanimous that whatever was happening wasn’t good. Livescience.com reports it was common for these cultures to believe the sun was being “eaten,” signaling cataclysm and perhaps even the end of the world. The Vikings described it as two supernatural wolves, the ancient Vietnamese said it was a frog, in South America a puma, in China a dog, and in Mexico a giant snake.

The events inspired people to take matters into their own hands to restore order to the universe. Historians say ample evidence exists of ancient civilizations shooting flaming arrows at the sky to scare off the devouring beast or reignite the darkened sun. Other cultures, such as the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific Northwest, took a different approach. During a lunar eclipse at the turn of the twentieth century, the tribe performed an eclipse dance to try to distract or frighten off the beast chewing up the heavens.

Today, modern science and communication advancements have all but eliminated the fear that something supernatural is afoot, but cities from one end of the state to another are still banking on people’s urge to get out and dance for the event. With some estimates predicting an influx of a million or more people to the state just to take in the three-minute-or-so attraction, eclipse festivals are scheduled everywhere in the hopes of reaping a dazzling economic windfall.

“Mountain View hosts three or four festivals throughout the year that bring a great deal of tourism to our area here in Stone County, and we saw this as an opportunity to add a festival to our repertoire,” says Tracy Turpin, executive director of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce. “The planning began quite some time ago and it was slow going at first. I believe people first thought ‘That’s silly. No one’s going to drive to see an eclipse.’ It took people a while to kind of catch onto this idea that we probably will be overrun.”

No one is scoffing now; Tracy says the community is bracing for 100,000-plus visitors given the picturesque community’s global positioning that will give it one of the longest periods of blackout of any spot in the state. The event is spawning entrepreneurism of every kind from individual landowners converting field space to welcome guests to the community throwing an eclipse-themed bash.

“The event we have planned will span four days,” he says. “We will begin our festival on Friday, April 5. We have a stage in front of our courthouse that is used regularly. We will have musical acts coming in, we’ll have food trucks. It’ll be a festival/carnival-like atmosphere.”

Lodging is available but disappearing fast. Tracy says he took an informal survey of the community and at this writing the city’s formal lodging was eighty-five to ninety percent booked.

“That doesn’t include everyone,” he says. “There are also campsites popping up around the county that are not associated with the chamber of commerce, they’re not associated with city. They’re just individual property owners who said, ‘You know what? I’ve got forty acres and thirty of it is clear of trees, so I’m going to allow camping and parking on my land.’ I don’t have a feel for how those things are going but for your standard Airbnb house or hotel room or cabin, they’re almost gone.”

Hot Springs, long known as the tourism and party center of the state, is also putting on the dog for the eclipse.

“We’ve got a lot going on. It seems like everybody in town is getting in on the celestial event and there’s quite a party happening beginning Thursday, April 4,” Bill says. “We will kick off eclipse weekend with an eclipse edition of Bridge Street Live which is a block party series we do on Bridge Street. We’re having a band play, and besides the music, food and beer, the coolest thing is we have a group of NASA scientists coming into Hot Springs for the weekend and they are going to be presenting at Bridge Street Live.

“Beginning on Friday a few things are taking place; one of the most notable things is Atlas Obscura, the big media conglomerates. They are partnering with Low Key Arts on the Atlas Obscura’s Ecliptic Festival and will be out there April 5, 6, 7 and 8 at Cedar Glades Park. It’s turning out to be a pretty huge event with music and camping.”

Hot Springs officials are also predicting 100,000 guests or more, but given the convergence of events that weekend, such a figure might be way low.

“It’s more than the eclipse. It’s still spring break for parts of Louisiana. It’s a race weekend. It’s one of the busiest times of the year for Hot Springs,” he says. “You throw this eclipse on top of it, you throw a national park on top of it, you throw neighbor Mount Ida, the Crystal Capital of the World, in there. You have all these things combined which is leading me to think we are on the verge of a very big moment.”

Mountain View Chamber of Commerce: mountainviewarkansas.com/eclipse
Visit Hot Springs: hotsprings.org.
Learn about more events statewide at Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism:  arkansas.com/things-to-do/outdoors/skygazing/2024-eclipse.

Do South Magazine

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