THE BUZZ 3: Sleepless in the Hole

By on August 16, 2017

As the eclipse approaches, valley commuters are preparing for days away from home, hours on the road and overtime.

Pack your car up good, we’re in for a bumpy couple days. (Wikimedia, 1969)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Bo Williamson anticipates a five-hour commute from his Star Valley home to Snake River Ranch on August 21. The trip usually takes an hour when his company Bo-B-Q caters events there, but four hours of traffic time will probably be necessary, he said, during a day of historic gridlock.

Yes, Jackson Hole is in the Great American Eclipse’s path of totality. An eclipse like this hasn’t crossed over the entire continental United States since 1918, making the event all the more alluring. Predictably, viewing the affair with a Teton backdrop will have tourists flooding the valley in incalculable numbers.

This massive tourist deluge could transform a 20,000-citizen county into veritable bumper-to-bumper chaos. As businesses prepare for just about every eventuality, traffic remains the wild card when it comes to getting workers through the doors. However the chips fall, employers are sure of one thing: they can’t afford their employees missing work. For many in the valley workforce, this will mean long days and several nights away from home.

The darkest day

Denise Germann, public affairs officer for Grand Teton National Park, has no interest in even guessing how long it will take commuters to reach their destinations. “I’d be prepared to say it will most likely take hours [to get from town to the park],” she said, flinching over the word “hours” as if even that was a promise she wasn’t ready to make. She referred to expected tourist numbers as the “crystal ball question,” saying even a ballpark figure was anyone’s guess.

Regardless of visitor numbers, every organization from the Jackson Hole Police Department to the National Park Service described staffing levels as “all hands on deck.”

For small business owners like Williamson, that means bringing his wife and three-year-old son along to help cater his event. He didn’t really have a choice. Because of the massive worker demand and traffic concerns during the eclipse, Williamson couldn’t recruit other valley residents to help him cater his 300-guest shindig during the eclipse. Jackson Hole is already facing a worker shortage, but that “all hands on deck” mentality means for Williamson, along with most of the valley, a lot of overtime.

To avoid the perils of traffic, assistant director of airport operations Dustin Havel said many workers at the airport simply wont leave. “A number of the vendors and stake holders will just drive up early that morning and work a double shift so they don’t have to drive on the roads, starting early when the airport opens around four or five in the morning, and then working until the last shift.”

Some airport workers, concerned about a multi-hour commute, will ditch their vehicles all together the day of the eclipse and the days leading up to it. They’ll be biking to work instead, one airline employee said. But they’re not expecting the bike path an easy commute either.

A dawn to dusk expectation at the airport isn’t the only way vendors will stay covered. A long-standing federal rule at Jackson Hole Airport will be broken in light of traffic concerns. Havel said the airport and airline staff and vendors have established the “accommodation plan for preparedness,” which will allow workers to spend the night at the airport the day before the eclipse. Designated sleep zones in the airport, even for staff, have never been allowed before because of national park regulations.

Many more miles to go before we sleep

Camping is in the cards for a lot of commuters. Williamson will pack his camping gear and “plenty of beer” in case he becomes stranded somewhere overnight after the eclipse, because it’s not just getting to the Tetons that will be an issue. The big exodus after the show might be worse.

“We’re asking people to just hang out after the eclipse, to wait and enjoy the natural beauty of the park rather than everyone rushing out at once,” Germann said. “We want to create realistic expectations, and there will probably be a lot of traffic if everyone tries to leave at once. Visitors need to plan accordingly, have extra food, medication, fuel, etc. Maybe that means staying put for a while.”

To cut down on congestion, the park has staffed hot spots in accordance with worker’s housing locations, so employees are less likely to get hung up in the melee. But even with these precautions, along with Germann’s “all hands on deck” marching orders, the park will still have a hard time covering all the bases. Germann explained that, regardless of title or position, every park worker will be utilized for eclipse-related work for the day; the trail crew might help with parking, administrative workers might manage eclipse activities or even man pullouts.

“No one is on vacation on August 21,” Amy Russian said. As the communications coordinator for St. John’s Medical Center, Russian said the hospital has found overnight camping near the hospital for hospital staff. Others will snooze on site. The hospital will not perform elective procedures during the week of the eclipse to cut down on foot traffic.

Meanwhile, hotels like Amangani face challenges too. The high-end hotel sits behind a two-mile-long privacy road that gains several hundred feet in elevation. “We’ve set up a system where if our employees are willing to bike to work from town, we’ll pick them up at the base of the butte in our shuttle,” Chandler Minton, evening hotel manager, said. “We’ve worked to set up schedules, so that people in town are on early morning shifts, and those who live over the pass work in the evenings.” The resort has asked workers who live over the pass to sleep at friends’ houses the night before.

The hotel started taking eclipse reservations more than four years ago. It will be one of the highest revenue days in its history.

Unbridled anticipation is the norm for visitors to Jackson during the eclipse. Amangani’s neighboring resort, Spring Creek Ranch, has had reservations on the books for more than a decade; Williamson’s catering event was booked more than a year ago, and most hotels in Jackson have been sold out since last summer.

Wild expectations in tow, guests are still calling hotels like Amangani looking for a room just days before the eclipse. “My real concern is just how many people will show up without any ideas concerning accommodation at all,” Minton said. “We’ve been turning people away for over a year now, but we still get a steady stream of calls asking for room availability. With every hotel in Jackson sold out, I just want to know where these people are going to go?”

Policing congestion and free rides

Emergency responders, too, must find alternative housing during the eclipse. The Jackson Hole Police Department worked with Teton County School District to find responders temporary housing during the eclipse weekend, Lieutenant Roger Schultz said.

Responders living outside the county will camp out in one of the school district’s buildings.

Schultz said congestion is the police department’s number one concern when fighting through the quagmire of eclipse-goers. It’s another all hands on deck scenario.

“All officers of the Jackson Police Department will be working every day during the weekend and deployed in designated zones throughout the town to better respond. The deployments are such that even if an officer has to walk, he/she can still get to where they need to be,” he said. JHPD and the sheriff’s office have also imported 13 additional officers from neighboring communities.

To mitigate some traffic anxiety, START Bus, which is reporting its highest ridership in history for the months of June and July, will be waiving all bus fares on the day of the eclipse. The hope among local officials is that this will alleviate some of the vehicular—and individual—madness.

“In addition to the fact that many people are likely to take the bus if it’s free, bus service will be more simple and efficient if bus drivers do not have to collect money from the mass amounts of passengers,” Jenelle Johnson, START board member, said.

START will also be expanding its schedule on the day of reckoning, offering additional rides between Jackson and Teton Village, as well as extra morning rides to Star Valley and Teton Valley. PJH

For more eclipse info check

About Natosha Hoduski

You must be logged in to post a comment Login