HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. — The long-awaited crowds started trickling into town late last week, and Eclipseville was ready.
Nestled into the rich farmland in the southwest corner of the state, not far from the Tennessee and Illinois borders, a quirk of celestial geography has turned Hopkinsville, a city of about 30,000 people previously best known for black patch tobacco and a bowling ball factory, into the center of the sunless world. For about 2½ minutes, anyway.
At 1:24 p.m. and 41 seconds Central time, the total solar eclipse making its way across the United States will throw Hoptown, as the locals know it, into total shadow. As it happens, this is the closest city to what astronomers call the point of greatest eclipse: the location at which “the axis of the Moon’s shadow passes closest to the center of the Earth,” according to NASA.
For many of the cities and towns along the so-called path of totality, Monday’s eclipse is a rare moment in the sun. Places like nearby Cerulean and Metropolis, across the border in Illinois, and Blairsville, Ga., have spent years preparing for massive crowds. Hopkinsville’s website — eclipseville.com, of course — even has a running countdown clock.
Nashville, the largest city to lie completely along the path of totality, is offering dozens of public viewing events, at sites from the Grand Ole Opry to the Nashville Zoo. The zoo’s animal observation event is aimed at finding out whether “animals behave differently when experiencing a total solar eclipse.” It may be too dark to discern confusion on the face of a meerkat.
The considerable excitement cutting a narrow band through the country was also accompanied here by dire warnings that stopped just short of werewolves: Alleged gas and food shortages haven’t materialized, and as of Sunday, traffic was heavier than usual but still a breeze by Boston standards. The Nashville Police Department even issued a stern warning against wandering into the street on foot, conjuring an image from science fiction of awestruck townspeople, slackened of jaw, trudging mindlessly onto Main Street.
“Most of the locals are staying in,” said Krystl Martinez, who owns The Village restaurant in Hopkinsville, where out-of-towners started showing up in earnest on Sunday morning. “We’re letting the visitors have the run of the place.”
And the visitors obliged. At the DeBow Recreation Complex, a tent city sprang up over the weekend, as people from all over the country set up and sweated out a 95-degree afternoon in the path of humidity.
These last few days, Gary Barker has felt like he’s been living at the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl. The lifelong resident of Hopkinsville has been walking through the tent city, taking pictures of everyone and welcoming them to town. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Barker said, gesturing toward the expanse of tents and telescopes and activity in the fields just a few steps from his home.
Without considerable planning, getting to the area could be a challenge. Flights were mostly overbooked. Hotels were largely spoken for, too, and what rooms remained were fetching several times their typical rates. A handful of available Airbnb listings mostly involved tents. By last weekend, you might have been better off trying to book a ticket to the actual moon.
The pilgrimage to the region is less “journey to Mecca” and more “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but it’s a pilgrimage nonetheless. Roads into Nashville on Sunday were filled with recreational vehicles.
Tim Kearney, an amateur astronomer from Plymouth, left home with his daughter Elaine, who will soon start her sophomore year as a humanities major at Regis College, on Thursday in their Nissan Versa and rolled into Hopkinsville Friday night. They reserved their spot in the sold-out field in April.
“Some people booked this three years ago,” said Kearney, who plans to stick around and spend a few days in Nashville after the big day. For Elaine Kearney, Hopkinsville has been a welcome surprise. She and the locals are amused by each other’s accents, she said, and they’ve been enjoying the restaurants.
Whether anyone will be tucking into a plate of cabbage rolls or salmon patties at The Village a little before 1:30 p.m. on Monday is impossible to say. Maybe nobody will come in. The movie theater in town is going dark, assuming, perhaps, that nobody will buy a ticket for “The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature” when they can see a much bigger show in the dark outside for free.
But whatever is going on, Martinez and her staff will step outside for a few minutes Monday. They’ll watch the sun disappear over Eclipseville for the last time, and then emerge once again, a few moments later, shining on Hoptown.