“You feel reminded that you are very much in a massive universe, and that you are connected to something much greater than you can possibly imagine,” says Kate Russo, an eclipse chaser (she’s seen 10) and a psychologist who has devoted her career to studying reactions to eclipses. “It is my connection with the universe. I sense euphoria, and excitement, and loss afterward when it goes away.”
So many “umbraphiles”—people obsessed with chasing the umbra, the shadow of the moon—use similar language, which sounds a lot like religious fervor. During totality, people drop to their knees, weep, cry out; even typically staid and reserved people are reduced to exhaustion, tears, and a form of ecstasy. Just look at YouTube for a taste.
“There should be a national law that if you are anywhere near the path of the total eclipse, you have to see it, or else you will be fined,” David H. Levy, the renowned astronomer and discoverer of comets, told me this summer.
This year’s eclipse will hit right smack in the middle of an age of renewed science denialism, when the scientific enterprise itself is under assault. Astronomers hope the eclipse will be a respite.
“It’s a wonderful way to understand where we fit in, in a cosmic perspective,” says Matt Penn, an astronomer at the National Solar Observatory. “If you’re really adamant about not being affected, you might drive down the road and turn your headlights on, but I have a feeling that about 90 percent of the people in the path are going to be awestruck.”
About 12 million Americans live in the path of totality, and some 200 million others live within a day’s drive, according to federal officials. Depending on weather and how many people are up for a Monday road trip, some 2 to 7 million of them are expected to travel to that narrow zone on August 21—meaning travelers may experience some of the worst traffic jams in American history, according to Martin Knopp, an administrator at the Federal Highway Administration. If it’s cloudy in some cities on the path, more people might try to move to areas with clear skies, clogging the nation’s arterial highways even more.
The eclipse is “a special event for which there has been no recent precedent,” the highway authority says. The days before and after the eclipse could see the greatest temporary mass migration of humans to see a natural event in U.S. history.
That means things could get dicey, especially in the West and Midwest, where summer temperatures spike to the upper 80s. Most of America is open land, so the problem isn’t space, but logistics. Twenty interstate highways are in the path of totality, but most towns on the path are only accessible by a few county or city roads. And most towns on the eclipse path have limited resources—and limited portable toilets—to accommodate a groundswell of visitors. Glendo, Wyoming, population 202, is soliciting donations via GoFundMe to help pay for sanitation and trash services to accommodate its expected 50,000 visitors. In Madras, Oregon, where scientists and tourists are flocking for its clear, high-desert skies, local officials are telling residents to stock up on necessities like medical supplies and water. State officials have called up the National Guard to help manage crowds, estimated to top 1 million across the state.