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The eclipse’s really early birds

Kay Wyatt in her observatory. She and her husband moved 15 years ago to be in the path of the solar eclipse. (Steven Wyatt)
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Thousands of eclipse oglers eager to secure their viewing spots have been pouring into rural towns on Oregon’s arid east side and craggy coast for days. But some Oregon residents have been preparing for Monday's total solar eclipse for much, much longer.

Kay Wyatt and her husband, Steven, moved to Depoe Bay, Ore., 15 years ago, in no small part because it lies on the centerline of the path of totality — the 60-mile-wide swath across the country where the moon will completely block the sun on Monday. The Wyatts are geophysicists who traveled the world conducting seismic exploration for oil and natural gas. When they retired, they wanted to live somewhere they could indulge another mutual passion: amateur astronomy.

They took their obsession a step further about four years ago and bought a plot of land near the coast, in Otis — also on the path of totality. They built a summer home and their own observatory, which shelters a telescope in an eight-foot-diameter dome. It’s high enough to get a clear view of the sky, and far enough inland that it’s less likely to be blocked by the fog and clouds that can cling to the coastal cliffs and beaches here even in summer. That's where they're planning to watch the eclipse.

“I know it’s going to be the most beautiful natural event that I’ve ever seen. The hair on the back of my neck I’m sure is going to stand up. And goose bumps,” Kay Wyatt predicted. “I’m almost hyperventilating getting everything ready.”

See full coverage of the August 21 total solar eclipse

Wyatt traces her unflagging fascination with the stars to her dad. He and Wyatt’s mother worked at a laundromat, and for the 1963 eclipse, when Wyatt was 10, he brought home five cardboard washing machine boxes and converted them into pinhole theaters where each of his five kids could watch the event unfold as a tiny projection without damaging their eyes. When Wyatt asked him how she might become an astronaut, he suggested she write a letter to NASA. And when NASA wrote back to inform her that women couldn’t be astronauts, but were welcome to assemble astronaut meals or sew space suits, he fired up the backyard grill, told her to tear the letter into a thousand pieces and watched as she threw them in the flames.

“‘Kay, don’t you ever let somebody tell you that you can’t do something; you can do and be anything you want to be,’ ” Wyatt recalled him telling her. She held on to her love of science, and now she's running simulations with her automated telescope-photography setup and testing battery systems that will power her picture-taking if the surge of people to the coast overwhelms the electrical grid. She's hosting a countdown podcast for a local radio station, interviewing astronomers, eclipse chasers  and local officials about every facet of the celestial event.

The Wyatts’ story isn’t as unusual as you might think. Just east over the Coast Range, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Jon and Susan Brewster made a similar move to the path of totality about 16 years ago, to build a home and observatory near Monmouth. Now a senior software engineer at HP, Jon Brewster had worked at a major observatory in Hawaii and had an astronomy obsession of his own. When the couple was clouded out of their attempt to see the 1979 total eclipse on its sweep through the Northwest, he said, they immediately began to plan for their next one — in 2017.

They’re so star-struck for space that even the temporary house in Monmouth proper, where they lived while they built their present dream home and telescope dome on a high hill with a clear, dark western view, needed opportunities for late-night astronomizing. “I told the realtor, we’ll meet you there at 9 o’clock at night. Do NOT turn the lights on. Meet me in the back yard and we’ll see if the sky is any good,” Brewster said. “He thought we were nuts.”

If that real estate agent has any celestial inklings, he’s probably jealous now: With millions of people clamoring for spots in the path of totality where they can watch the eclipse unfold, the Brewsters get to hunker right down at home. Some 100 friends and family will join them to watch the moon’s shadow rush across the valley floor at more than 2,000 miles per hour, to watch the sun become a cold, black, miasma-wreathed disk.

Then again, it could be cloudy again, Jon pointed out. “The only thing we’re promising is two minutes of darkness followed by hamburgers.”

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