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Columnist chilling in Rexburg, waiting for total solar eclipse

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Aug 20, 2017

REXBURG, IDAHO -- It's the calm before the (solar) storm.

This small college town of just 28,000 is bracing for what is expected to be unprecedented hordes of visitors for Monday's total eclipse of the sun.

As I write this, the Saalkowskis -- the Bennifer-like name given to the combined households of the Saals and Frankowskis (the married name of our daughter, who's living with her family in our basement) -- are camped in a huge, almost-empty grassy expanse. We've rented two of the roughly 200 30-foot-by-30-foot campsites the city of Rexburg set up on its soccer fields.

RELATED: Utahns will need to head to Idaho, Wyoming to catch 2017 solar eclipse

Although I've never seen a total solar eclipse, it's always been at the top of my bucket list. So six months ago, when I realized a total solar eclipse would be passing just a couple hundred miles from my front door, I immediately began planning this trip to Idaho. (And yes, astronomy nerds, I realize six months ago is quite late in the game. We're all very impressed that you got your hotel rooms back in 2014 ...)

RELATED: Difference between total and partial eclipse is like night and day, experts say

A little over a dozen campers arrived on Friday, but parks and recreation employees say they were expecting 83 arrivals on Saturday and another 100 on Sunday.

By the time Monday's eclipse rolls around, these soccer fields should resemble a refugee camp -- except that, you know, we're camped on luxurious Kentucky bluegrass, and we've got plenty of food, shelter and clean water, and there's a splash park right next door, and big-box stores and restaurants and convenience stores all within walking distance.

Oh, and we can return to our homes whenever we want.

Rexburg is no stranger to large crowds. It's home to Brigham Young University-Idaho -- formerly Ricks College -- and when school is in session the population more than doubles, to about 60,000.

But this? Nobody even knows what to expect. Eclipse crowds could completely overwhelm many of the cities in the path of the moon's shadow.

Bob Yeatman is assistant manager of parks for the city of Rexburg. He and his fellow parks employees have been doing everything they can to make visitors feel welcome at this makeshift tent city.

Yeatman, who relocated to Rexburg almost 10 years ago, says people are coming from all over the world.

"It's going to be exciting by tomorrow night," he said Friday. "And we have a pretty sheltered town, so it could be interesting."

Astonishingly, a few of the eclipse-watchers have already come and gone. In mid-July, a tour bus full of Asian people actually showed up in Rexburg for the eclipse, according to Yeatman.

"They got the wrong month," he chuckles.

Yeatman says he thinks Rexburg is ready for the crowds. The city begin making plans for the eclipse about a year ago. (And again: We all acknowledge that you astronomy geeks have been planning on it MUCH longer than that ...)

Adjacent to our campground is an eclipse vendor village, featuring about 100 booths selling everything from arts and crafts to food and clothing -- mostly t-shirts.

Jerrod Guddat, of Rexburg, is selling his own version of an eclipse t-shirt.

The shirt reads "Solar Eclipse Idaho, Aug. 21, 2017," and in the place of the moon it features a potato blocking out the sun.

"It makes it a little Idaho-esque," Guddat explained. "It's a novelty on a novelty."

Guddat, who is a BYU-Idaho administrator by day, said he and his wife came up with the potato idea and had a friend design the shirts.

"We ordered 200 t-shirts," Guddat said. "I was optimistic about selling them this morning, but that went away this afternoon because we haven't seen that many people yet. Now, we're just hanging out and having fun."

The Guddats were selling the shirts for $20 on Friday. On Saturday, the price would go up to $25.

And by Monday?

"I'm guessing on Monday the price will come way down," he laughed.

Guddat also says he informed his children that if the shirts don't sell, they may be graduating from high school in them.

John Cleggett, of Long Beach, California, was one of the few Friday campers on Rexburg's soccer fields. He was spending his 42nd wedding anniversary alone, in a tent.

Cleggett's wife wasn't about to rough it, nor did she want to pay the $1,000- to $2,000-a-night prices for a room. But she also didn't want to deny her husband the experience.

"She said, 'Go,' " according to Cleggett. "She knew how much it meant to me."

Cleggett couldn't talk any of his friends into joining him on the trip, either. But unlike his wife, his friends didn't understand the appeal.

"For two minutes?" his friends told him. "You're out of your mind traveling 900 miles for something that lasts two minutes."

Ah, but it doesn't just last two minutes. Because here it is, a beautiful Saturday morning in Rexburg, and Cleggett, the Saalkowskis and a handful of others are enjoying the warm glow of a completely non-eclipsed sun.

Bet none of you astronomy eggheads thought of that ...

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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