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Our view: Daytime eclipse tourists may become astrotourists

With the Four Corners in the privileged path of the annular “ring of fire” eclipse on Saturday, lodging has been sold-out or near capacity since midsummer. No wonder. This kind of celestial showstopper draws a wide range of humanity for reasons as vast as the cosmos.

And this daytime eclipse may just transform tourists into astrotourists, who long for dark skies, starry nights and the lessons of astroarchaeology in the Southwest.

Some eclipse tourists will chase the astronomical significance or make scientific notes on effects in the natural world.

Others will engage in mindfulness practices or rituals or shamanic pilgrimages or efforts to capture culminations of energy, such as leaving out water to be bottled and used later. An eclipse brings out crystals for recharging, too.

In Navajo culture, reverence and respect is directed toward what is happening in the sky. Traditionally, people don’t observe the event but sit quietly inside, fasting and praying.

Others see an eclipse as an opportune time for a psychedelic party to optimize an otherworldly experience or spiritual reckoning.

Note to this last group: Mesa Verde National Park is not the place for a mini-rave. Those wandering off trails risk damage to delicate, archaeologically rich, highly restricted areas. And if staff members don’t catch you, local park volunteers just might.

On Saturday, Mesa Verde staff members expect at least 6,000 visitors, more than the usual daily average of 2,000 visitors. They have been readying for this eclipse for nearly a year. In addition to the incident action plan, and positions mapped out for NASA scientists and educators, Kristy Sholly, chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at the park, said, “a whole volunteer corps that love and protect the park’s ancestral sites” will be available to greet visitors.

Sholly made clear volunteers are there to educate, not police. They are, though, “more eyes in the park.” Under their watch, no one will get away with going rogue. Volunteers will report improper conduct that could compromise cultural sites. This cadre has earned clout and stripes in time and efforts spent. They are a might force.

Sholly, who has been with the National Park Service for 27 years, has seen a lot on the job. Back in the late 1990s at Death Valley National Park, Sholly and a co-worker noticed a rental car in an unlikely spot in the backcountry. They turned off the road and rolled into a party with a constructed stage, lighting and the DJ-ing of electronic dance music. In the middle of the desert.

When seeing the patrol vehicle, hundreds of partygoers ran and scattered. Sholly marveled at how good they were at hiding this event by where – and how – they parked their cars and trucks.

Again, not probable at Mesa Verde. “We’ve had weird things happen over the years,” Sholly said. “But that would be really disrespectful near these ancestral homes. Modern people are still connected and it would not be in keeping with the spirit and respect” of the place.

Not only is the park exceedingly managed, those local volunteers are impromptu backup. They love this park and its history too much to tolerate shenanigans. Warning: Do not mess with them.

On Saturday at about 10:30 a.m., the moon will blot out all but the sun’s outer rim as it lines up precisely between Earth and the sun. A blazing border will appear for as long as five minutes. Mesa Verde, Cortez, Dolores and Dove Creek will get a full view.

This annular eclipse could very well entice newbie astrotourists back – again and again – to learn more about interpretations of astronomy in the lives of Ancestral Puebloans and Indigenous people. An escape from light pollution, the Southwest holds cultural sites demonstrating a sophisticated, enchanting understanding of celestial cycles.

So much more to experience. So much wonder.

Stay safe out there. Wear appropriate eclipse glasses. And if a Mesa Verde park volunteer redirects you at a viewing event, make sure to snap in line.