The pitch black hole in the sky above the Australian Outback lasted about two minutes.
In the moments leading up to the fleeting cosmic phenomenon known as a total solar eclipse, the temperature cooled and the light dimmed.
The moon’s shadow rushed across the landscape toward Michele Wistisen.
“The anticipation of it just raises the hair on the back of your neck. Just talking about it now is enough to make me relive all of that,” said Wistisen, the supervisor at the Casper Planetarium.
She was not the only one so deeply affected by the event. As the moon completely blotted out the sun, a star about 400 times larger than Earth’s orbiting neighbor, the small crowd watching from deep in the Australian wilderness spontaneously cheered. The slight, quiet amateur astronomer with frameless glasses and cropped brown hair joined.
Wistisen flew 8,300 miles from her Casper, Wyoming, home to experience a total solar eclipse. On Aug. 21, a significant proportion of the Cowboy State won’t have to leave their backyards to enjoy the same spectacle.
During a total solar eclipse, the moon completely covers the sun. The resulting shadow is about 60 miles wide and 1,000 miles long. For a few minutes, spectators along that path can look directly at the sun without eye protection and witness the wispy tendrils of the sun’s corona.
The event happens about every 18 months somewhere on the planet. Often, however, the phenomenon is visible only in a remote location. The 2016 eclipse traversed Malaysia and Indonesia. The last total solar eclipse visible in the United States passed by nearly 40 years ago.
Those lucky enough to live in the 60-mile corridor can enjoy the show from their yards. That’s how Wistisen plans to enjoy the eclipse.
“You’ll need a pair of special glasses to safely look at the sun when it isn’t completely covered, but those few moments of cold twilight during totality are incredible,” Wistisen said.
Communities across the state are working hard to make sure visitors enjoy their stay and keep coming back long after the show in the sky ends.
The first total eclipse to traverse the United States from sea to shining sea in nearly a century will pass through the heart of Wyoming – including portions of 11 counties and the towns of Lusk, Torrington, Guernsey, Casper, Douglas Riverton, Thermopolis and Jackson.
“The number of people within a four-hour drive of the path of the total eclipse, the ease of access and things like social media mean this is expected to be the most well-viewed total solar eclipse in history,” said Anna Wilcox, executive director of the Wyoming Eclipse Festival in Casper.
Of all the U.S. cities likely to enjoy the event, Casper is considered among the top three places to view the eclipse because of its favorable weather and location directly on the centerline, which will experience the longest amount of time with the sun completely blocked by the moon.
Local officials are preparing for a barrage of international tourism in the days leading up to the eclipse. Hotels and campgrounds in Casper are already booked. About 35,000 people are expected to pass through the city, including several thousand people in attendance at AstroCon, an annual expo for amateur astronomers featuring scientists and major science publications.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will film the event from Casper, interspersing live shots with footage of area destinations.
Statewide, about 500,000 people are expected to travel to Wyoming for the eclipse.
“We have not spent a dime to promote coming to this area,” Wilcox said. “People are coming anyway, so the hard work has been done for us.
Japanese, Swiss and Italian eclipse chasers have already visited to scout the area for photography, she added.
Wilcox estimated the eclipse’s impact on Casper alone would triple the economic benefits of the College National Finals Rodeo, which draws 10,000 competitors and their families every year.
The surge of people will mean more than just a temporary financial boost. Wilcox said some hoteliers and campground managers are planning to use the influx to pay for renovations and additional space. Service providers will be able to expand their inventories. The city is set to unveil the David Street Station, a public plaza cited as the catalyst for future downtown development.
The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, provided $500,000 toward the $9 million renovation project.
All that infrastructure investment will bolster Casper’s tourism in the future, explained Brook Kreder, executive director of the Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Aside from being the state’s second largest industry behind mining, tourism is important because sometimes when people arrive, they don’t want to leave.
“From an economic development perspective, what I know is bringing any new business to a community starts with a visit,” Kreder said. “No one is going to pick Casper out on a map and say, I think I’m going to move my business there. They visit first, and this is a great opportunity to leverage those visits and show these small business owners the economic opportunity in Casper.”
Small towns along the eclipse’s path are seeking creative ways to show visitors their strengths and convince people to take some extra time and even return.
In Goshen County, eclipse event organizers are cajoling local ranchers and farmers to offer visitors an agricultural tourism experience to entertain guests for the rest of the time the solar system is not putting on a show.
The eclipse could act as a tourism business incubator of sorts, explained Jennifer Lanier, the executive director of the Goshen County Solar Eclipse Committee.
For example, a chuckwagon-themed camping experience may draw crowds during the eclipse and convince that family to do something similar every year. The side business could become a new source of income and another draw to the area for tourists. Or, the local sports and gun club may unveil a new competition to bookend the eclipse. If the event enjoys high demand, the club may be motivated to continue developing the competition in the future.
Fort Laramie plans to spark new interest in its namesake by offering the use of telescopes and capitalizing on the opportunity to discuss the fort’s future. Table Mountain Vineyards will hold a party to show off the company’s Wyoming made wine.
Lanier would also like to give interested developers tours of vacant commercial properties in Goshen County’s downtowns – outfitted for the occasion with wifi, drinks, sofas and artwork - and shovel-ready lots in the area’s business parks.
“These are all things we have already and that our community normally does anyway,” Lanier said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re wanting to highlight what we already have so people who love this lifestyle and this kind of culture want to come back and experience more of it.”
Ultimately, Lanier hopes to use this event as a way to help change the narrative of Goshen County to that of a destination, rather than a place to pass through.
The early signs are promising for a big turnout in Goshen County. Most of the hotel rooms in the area are already booked by people looking to enjoy the rare opportunity of a nearby solar eclipse.