Eclipse 2017! Casper draws international crowd for Monday’s big celestial happening

A couple of visitors put pins on a huge map behind the visitors’ booth on Second Street in Casper, Wyo., showing where they’ve come from to see the eclipse. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

CASPER, Wyo. — Here on the front lines, things are running pretty smoothly.

After reading all about the total eclipse for days on end, and hearing stories about how people from all over the world could be converging on Casper for front-row seats, we didn’t know what to expect.

What if we came over the last hill and saw cars stacked up for miles at the exit ramp? What if we made it into Casper but had to abandon our car miles from where we were planning to stay? What if the National Guard turned us back at Wyola?

But no. Interstate 90 didn’t seem unusually crowded, not for this time of year, and as we approached Casper we didn’t see any backup in traffic at all. We sailed into town with hardly a pause, to the point that we began to wonder: would the much-anticipated event be a bust?

But no, again. After we got to my sister-in-law’s brother’s place and put up our tents and otherwise settled in, we drove into downtown Casper, into the heart of the Wyoming Eclipse Festival.

This was the third day of the festival, culminating of course in tomorrow’s celestial spectacle. There were supposed to be something like 35 events around Casper during the festival, but downtown is Ground Zero.

They’ve closed nine blocks of Second Street, with several connecting streets blocked off for shorter distances. There are food booths, live music, games, miniature carnival rides and many thousands of people.

Mayor Kenyne Humphrey said she couldn’t have been happier with how things have played out so far.

“It’s perfect,” she said. “It’s every mayor’s dream,” with a steady stream of visitors coming in, but not so many as to overwhelm services or put a damper on anyone’s experience.

“I think we found the perfect sweet spot,” she said.

The centerpiece of the festival is the David Street Station, a city park with an amphitheater and stage, which was offering live music, dance shows and other entertainment from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. The park had been years in the making, Humphrey said, and a lot of people didn’t think it could possibly be done in time for the eclipse festival.

“But they pulled it off,” she said. “Now it’s one of the most beautiful parks I’ve seen.”

Anna Wilcox, executive director of the Wyoming Eclipse Festival, moved here from Iowa in June 2016 to work on the festival full time. She said projections — based on reports from motels and campgrounds, and information about people renting out their houses or welcoming friends and relatives — were that the city of 60,000 could expect at least 30,000 people over the days leading up to the festival.

But many others could drive up from Denver and other population centers for the actual eclipse, she said, “so the day of is a giant question mark.”

For that reason, authorities are asking people who are in Casper now to stay put, not to drive around town looking for the optimal viewing spot.

“If you’re in Casper, you already own the best seat in the house,” she said. “We don’t need another car on the road.”

The festival was organized by local agencies as a nonprofit, so most everything is free.

Wilcox said she, like everyone else, plans to enjoy the eclipse tomorrow. After all this preparation, she thinks she’s earned it. She said CNN called and asked if they could interview her tomorrow at 11:44.

“I said, ‘Uh, how about 11:45?’”

One of the most popular spots in town Sunday was right behind the visitors booth on Second Street, where people were invited to put a red-topped pin on a 9-foot map of the world, to show where they were from. By late afternoon, the map was crowded with pins, mainly in North America and Europe, but with every continent represented, and a whole lot of countries.

Johan Hast and Leona Rohrbeck pushed a couple of pins in to Stockholm, Sweden. The pair landed in Denver Friday, rented a car and drove to Casper for the eclipse. Hast said Casper seemed like one of the best places to see the eclipse, and he also wanted to make his first trip to Yellowstone National Park.

He was a little awestruck by the emptiness of southern Wyoming, “and then a small town is the capital!” he said, referring to Cheyenne.

Rohrbeck, for her part, said, “I was just amazed by how friendly everyone is. You always hear that about Americans, but I’ve never been here before.”