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Taking the Kids: The solar eclipse in the Smoky Mountains

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Where are you taking the kids on Aug. 21? We're not talking about taking them to the first day of kindergarten, high school or to college, or even on a last-gasp summer getaway before that special school year starts.

No, we're talking about a different kind of milestone, but one equally memorable -- the 2017 total solar eclipse, something that happens only rarely in this country. It's an event they'll remember all their lives, and should be good for many science projects to come.

This is the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse will occur across the entire continental United States, NASA reports.

In case you need to brush up on your astronomy, a total eclipse occurs when the moon moves right in front of the sun, covering it completely for a very short time, darkening the whole sky, allowing you to look directly into the sun (but only when it's completely covered). To safely look when the sun isn't completely eclipsed, you must use special solar viewing glasses. (Stars come out, the horizon glows with a 360-degree sunset, the temperature drops, and day turns into night. "It's one of the most beautiful things you can ever see on earth," says eclipse2017.org.

Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe for looking at the sun, NASA warns, except during the few minutes of the total eclipse. For more information on viewing safety, visit:https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety.

What's the big deal? Isn't there an eclipse somewhere on earth every year? Yes, but that doesn't stop committed eclipse chasers from traveling the globe to watch the show. Thousands of people travel long distances, in fact, to be in the "path of totality," the strip of land about 70 miles wide or so stretching across 14 states from central Oregon through South Carolina.

A million people are expected to visit Oregon, says Travel Oregon spokesman Allison Keeney, noting there are "few if any remaining hotels." (Check here.) You won't have much luck in Nashville, either. The city and surrounding county is expecting in the neighborhood of 75,000 people with hotels sold out for Sunday Aug. 20, said Heather Middleton, vice president of public relations for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.

The states with the largest increase in hotel searches on Hotels.com, when compared to this time last year, are Nebraska (325 percent), Kansas (more than 200 percent), Missouri (nearly 160 percent), Idaho (nearly 135 percent) and Kentucky (more than 130 percent). But there are hotel deals -- if you are willing to drive to where the eclipse will be -- starting at $141 a night, according to Hotels.com's deals page.

(Download the free app and you can immediately see where you are in relation to the eclipse. There are maps on www.eclipse2017.org that will show you exactly where you need to be to be in the path of totality and see the total eclipse.)

Often times, it's necessary to travel to very remote locales -- think Mongolia or Antarctica -- for the privilege of seeing a total eclipse.

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