Every so often, Scott Guenther finds a car stopped in the middle of the road with the doors open and the keys in the ignition.

The conversation then goes a little like this:

“Hey, whose car is this running in the middle of the road with the doors open?"

“That’s mine,” a guy says.

“Can we move it to the side?”

“But there’s a moose!”

“But your car’s in the road.”

“But there’s a moose!” 

Guenther, a 26-year-veteran Grand Teton National Park ranger, recounted the story recently dressed in a dark green bulletproof vest and matching pants standing alongside his patrol vehicle on the Gros Ventre Road, the Tetons rising sharply behind him. The Gros Ventre Road, 6 miles of two-lane asphalt stretching between Highway 89 and the unincorporated town of Kelly, is along the center path of totality for the upcoming solar eclipse. That means anyone staring at the sky can see all 2 minutes and 19 seconds of the moon obscuring the sun. Maybe even with a moose or bison in the foreground.

Guenther didn’t blame the guy for his temporary moose blinders; he had similar feelings when he first moved to the park. But the tendency to stop a vehicle in the middle of the road, or veer off the pavement completely while staring out the window, can make for hazardous conditions any time of year, never mind during the peak summer season.

Toss in a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event like Monday's eclipse?

“We’re preparing for this park to the busiest day we’ve ever seen,” said Guenther, the Jenny Lake District Ranger.

Ever.

Teton County typically swells in the summer to include millions of summer visitors from every state and many countries. Local businesses and agencies have grown so accustomed to foreign tourists even bathrooms have signs instructing users how to sit on the toilet.

As a result, some argue the county is well-equipped to handle the untold tens of thousands that will likely descend on top of the normal visitation. Emergency plans with officials like Guenther have been in the works for two years, and large, flashing highway signs already alert visitors and residents of eclipse information and the fire danger – which is high.

So will Wyoming’s busiest county be ready for the busiest day of the century? Most say probably. But is Wyoming’s busiest county as eager as the rest of the state to capitalize on the busiest day of the century? That one’s a little tougher to answer.

***

Exact visitor numbers in Grand Teton National Park are a little hard to parse because a portion of Highway 89 runs through the park but doesn’t require anyone to stop at a fee station. But park public affairs officer and eclipse planner Denise Germann said it’s safe to say about 25,000 to 30,000 people visit the park on a normal mid-August day.

How many more will come for the eclipse, she won’t even guess.

“We’ve been working with an eclipse consultant who said whatever you think will happen, double it,” she said. “It will be way beyond what you think.”

As a result, they’re simply trying to plan for “a lot,” said Guenther.

Grand Teton -- unlike Yellowstone, its popular national park cousin to the north -- is in the center path of totality. That means most of the park will be in a total eclipse just like central Wyoming towns such as Casper and Riverton.

But unlike cities such as Casper, visitors have only so many places they can go in the park. Backcountry camping permits are limited. Campgrounds and parking lots have finite space.

Every parking lot will be allowed to fill, such as the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, which has about 150 parking spots and 15 RV places.

Highway pull-offs and overlooks will swell. Parking along Highway 89 will be prohibited, and anyone thinking of camping on the side of the road will be run off.

But the Gros Ventre Road, the one from Highway 89 to Kelly along the path of the eclipse, will be special.

“At 6 a.m. Monday morning, we move to one-way traffic and allow people to park on the left side of the road and have traffic on the right,” Germann said.

“That’s about 1,000 cars parallel parked, at about 30 feet per car. Your car is 16 to 17 feet long, typically,” Guenther said.

“I think we could even do better than that,” he added, more to himself than anyone else.

“That’s what you would fit in 6 miles of a road.”

The park will then bring in 60 portable toilets, one for every quarter mile of Gros Ventre Road and a certain number for other strategic locations such as highway pull-outs.

Everything else – water, snacks, basic first aid supplies – people need to bring for themselves.

“When you dump in more people than we’ve ever seen in the park, and we think about closing down the Kelly Road like we’ve never done before, and you think about stacking 6 miles worth of vehicles and eclipse watchers, you can’t help, from my line of work, thinking about what can go wrong,” Guenther said.

“A gas grill catches on fire or somebody is smoking a cigarette and the wind kicks up and we have a big wildland fire, and we have 6 miles of road with a lot of people on it. What if somebody has a heart attack and they’re sitting here in a lawn chair?

“We have one main junction in town, Broadway and Cache, and with all the traffic that’s going to be flowing through town, do we have gridlock?

”These are the things that keep me awake at night.”

It’s also why he and Germann have spent two years planning contingencies:

Two helicopters will be waiting at the airport, equipped with buckets to dump water on a fire. EMTs will have bikes if an ambulance can’t make it. Medical tents will be staffed with medical personnel.

Every Grand Teton employee will be working, and all of the non-essential services people will be stationed as “park ambassadors,” answering questions, telling people where they can park and relaying emergency information to dispatch.

Worries aside, Guenther still appreciates the uniqueness of the event itself.

“This is the way I’ve framed it with park employees: We should enjoy this, too. We should have a great time viewing this with family and friends,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

***

About 15 miles southwest of the park, in the town of Jackson, there’s a similar apprehensive-but-maybe-enthusiastic vibe.

Ask Jayme Christiansen how she feels about the impending crowds, and she’ll sigh.

She's a sales clerk at Jackson Trading Company, a Jackson-themed shop across the street from one of the town’s many antler arches.

“It’s hard being excited when everyone is freaked out about traffic and running out of food and the internet going out,” she said.

As in many cities along the eclipse path, officials have advised residents to buy enough groceries to get them through the weekend and not plan on driving anywhere in a hurry.

“It will bring a ton of business here, and a ton of people will be here. I’m just hoping we don’t have internet and computer problems,” Christiansen said.

Her co-worker Crina Merlam, on the other hand, is ready. She knows, to the second, how long the eclipse will be visible in Jackson (2 minutes and 15 seconds) and when the last time there was a total eclipse in the area (1918).

“I really want to see what it looks like,” she said. “I don’t care about crowds.”

Down the street at Local, a popular bar and restaurant next to the famous Silver Dollar Bar, bartender Hunter Wood shrugged when asked about the celestial event.

He’s mostly worried about logistics. The line around the bar – already crowded on a Tuesday evening in mid-August – will be stacked “three deep.”

More important, he heard delivery trucks won't be allowed in the downtown area a few days before the eclipse. That would mean all booze, food and supplies needs to be ordered in advance.

Fortunately for Wood, it's just a rumor, one of many Jackson and Teton County eclipse coordinator Kathryn Brackenridge has spent quashing.

The city of Jackson and Teton County joined together in February to hire Brackenridge largely to handle eclipse messaging. But instead of places like Casper, where the eclipse coordinator works on advertising and marketing, Brackenridge has spent much of her time gathering information on logistics.

“It’s the anti-promotion,” she said. “If we were hedging our bets that there will be a lot of people here, there’s no need to promote it. It would be just too risky and too much of a strain on our resources to do anything but that.”

But local enthusiasm is building.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort expects about 2,000 people on the top of the mountain during the eclipse, said Anna Cole, spokeswoman for the resort.

And in true Jackson fashion, the resort is hosting a Red Bull athlete to slack line (essentially, walk a tightrope) over the famous Corbett’s Couloir at the moment of the eclipse.

“If you take a good glance to local businesses here, from big shops to mom-and-pop jam makers on the square every weekend to touristy shops to handmade stores, our local population is embracing and celebrating and looking to share and profit off of it,” Brackenridge said. “We just don’t have the ability from a funding and resource stance to put together a party.”

Follow managing editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside

 

 

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