Saturday, August 26, 2017
For two minutes and 38.4 seconds, the 15,000 citizens who temporarily composed Totality Town, North Carolina, set their gaze on the sky this past Monday.
At 2:34:26.1 in the afternoon, the dark orb of the moon slid in front of the sun, and we fell into its cool twilight shadow, which felt strangely familiar. My parents and I later recalled the eerie orange cast of a smoke-filled sky during the Santa Barbara fire season. Birds chirped frantically. Perfectly round, the sun’s deathly white corona pulsed against a charcoal sky.
Then the baseball field erupted in cheers around us. A bright bead of light popped out as the edge of the sun emerged again. As quickly as it had come, the moon continued on, invisible. We yelled out to each other, “Put your glasses back on!”
“How’d that happen so fast?” my aunt repeated out loud several times. Then, like all the other families who had set up their tents and telescopes on the baseball field, we immediately packed up the car and left. Six hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic awaited.
My parents and I had flown from Santa Barbara to Asheville, North Carolina, where my aunt and uncle live. On Sunday, we drove the two hours to Andrews, a small town of 1,798 residents, along narrow roads that wound through the verdant green forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, humid and buzzing.
About 13,000 outsiders like us, traveling from as far as Bolivia and Germany, had descended on the isolated Appalachian town the previous weekend. Nestled in the beautiful valley of Cherokee County in the state’s western tip, Andrews was the only town in North Carolina to lie squarely on the path of total solar eclipse.
In preparation, the town had rebranded itself. For one weekend, Andrews became Totality Town.
“People were going to come whether we wanted them or not,” chuckled Bill Bailey, interim town administrator of Andrews. ”We made the decision to embrace it.”
Since January, weekly meetings had been held with town officials, law enforcement, businesses, and residents to prepare for the massive influx of people. Zack Stockbridge, a local astronomy instructor turned eclipse event coordinator, pulled together a website, a YouTube Channel, and a "Totality Town Passport."
Contingency plans were made and remade, as locals and visitors alike nervously watched the sky. Days before the event, Stockbridge returned my call, despite running around town like a chicken with his head cut off (his words). “We’ve done everything we can do to prepare,” he told me. “As for the weather — well that’s in God’s hands, and I’m hoping He delivers.”
If clear skies prevailed, he predicted the arrival of up to 60,000 eclipse seekers — or “for’ners,” as one event volunteer jovially named us, imitating a gruff mountain accent. Ultimately, those estimates proved overblown, perhaps due to the mercurial weather forecasts the week before or the endless traffic that clogged roads throughout the region on Monday morning.
We idled down Main Street, which had been closed to traffic and populated with a colorful array of food stands and craft stalls. Entrepreneurial citizens sold protective glasses and eclipse T-shirts of every color and variety.
Signs hung in store windows caught my eye. One said, “WARNING: THIS AREA PROTECTED BY SMALL HANDHELD DEVICES.” (North Carolina is an open-carry state). Chills ran down my spine when I noticed a Confederate flag with the words “ALL LIVES MATTER” hanging in a truck window. Following the atrocious violence of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Saturday before, I had wondered what conversations I might hear in neighboring North Carolina, home to more than 95 monuments that pay tribute to the Confederacy. I heard nothing, but I also never brought it up.
In a town where people mostly keep to themselves (“It’s a ‘live and let live’ kind of place,” remarked the same neon-yellow-clad volunteer), residents were encouraged to rent out private rooms, houses, lawns, and parking spots. Meanwhile, the town rented out 160 makeshift campsites on the big green lawn of Heritage Park and 40 others on the recently mowed baseball field, where my family set up camp on Sunday. Throughout town, lines of porta-potties stood guard.
Though once home to a bustling lumber and railroading industry, today Andrews suffers from a depressed economy, like much of Appalachia, where manufacturing, mining, and lumber industries have dried up. Andrews' median household income is $22,941, among a population that is 93.5 percent white, according to 2015 census data. In Cherokee County, 76.5 percent of votes went to Trump in the 2016 presidential elections.
Bailey explained that Totality Town was a sort of a test run for Andrews’ local government, which hopes to establish a sustainable tourism industry to bring more revenue and jobs into town. They’ve floated the idea of sponsoring a Christmas festival and plans to partner with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to add a stop in Andrews along its scenic route. But the Chamber of Commerce and local government have faced resistance. The last thing that Andrews residents want is for wealthy outsiders to come in and raise the cost of living, explained Bailey.
“We’re in Appalachia; people like to be left alone,” Stockbridge had told me matter-of-factly on the phone. He added, “People here like that we’re small and out of the way.”
Thus the Totality Town experiment wasn’t just about persuading tourists to come back. It was also about convincing locals that opening Andrews to outsiders could be a good thing. And, due to excellent planning and a manageable turnout, the weekend was a major success, Bailey reported on Tuesday morning. There were no supply shortages, no arrests, and no major traffic jams, and visitors cleaned up after themselves. Everyone was on their best behavior.
I asked one young woman how she felt about all of these strangers overtaking her sleepy town, and she laughed. “I’m okay with it. But I’m not used to it; let’s just say that.”
She raised her eyebrows when I said I was from California, and later, an older woman said, “It’s really different there, huh?” Her words seemed heavy with implication. I wondered what that meant to her. What did she know, or think she knew, about a reporter from the coast of California? What did I think I knew about this small town in the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains?