It’s fitting that my hometown’s moment in the sun is going to be spent in the dark.
Madras is mostly known by the people who drive through it on their way to enjoy Central Oregon’s ample outdoors activities or perfect weather. It’s not usually a destination, merely a waypoint.
The path of Monday’s solar eclipse will go right over the town, about 10:20 a.m. That, combined with the city’s location in the rain shadow of 10,495-foot Mount Jefferson, has turned my hometown of 6,000 into a gol-danged metropolis of about 100,000.
Hotel rooms have been sold out for years. The traffic jams started midweek. And I couldn’t be more excited.
(It might help that I get rent-free housing this weekend. Thanks, Dad!)
The eclipse isn’t just for tourists, though. This is a moment worth celebrating for locals, too.
The community has gone through a lot of change in recent years, and a lot is stacked against it.
The lumber mill that brought us to town in the first place in 1995 now employs about two-thirds of the people it employed at its peak (about 600 in 2015, according to The Bend Bulletin). Seaswirl Boats left nearby Culver in 2007, taking almost 200 good-paying jobs out of Jefferson County. During April 2009, unemployment was at 15.5 percent.
I’m happy to report that June 2017 data show unemployment in the county at about 5 percent, but that’s still in the upper third of rates in Oregon.
The Jefferson County School District has seen its share of struggles, too.
Madras High School was rated unacceptable twice by the state Department of Education before formats changed in 2012. Jefferson County Middle School was rated unacceptable twice while I was there between 2000 and 2004.
There’s a huge mitigating factor here, however: More than 95 percent of students throughout the district are eligible for free or reduced school lunches, according to the district’s most recent state report card from 2015-16.
Celebrating probably feels a little foreign these days, anyway.
My beloved White Buffaloes are on a 21-game losing streak in football, and they’ve been outscored 731-77 in their back-to-back 0-8 seasons.
They haven’t won a team state title in any sport since winning the 3A girls basketball title in 2004. (We were one massively blown hand ball call away from a state title in boys soccer last fall, however, and much of the team is returning. Hopefully that streak ends, but I digress.)
Big things aren’t a big thing in Jefferson County, usually, which is what makes the hubbub over the eclipse so hilariously novel to me. The county fair and the airshow are about the only two events that seemingly bring out everyone in town (apart from the start of deer hunting season, of course).
News coverage isn’t a big thing in Madras, either. When the fifth stoplight was installed in town, it was the front-page centerpiece of the weekly Madras Pioneer two weeks in a row.
Until our eclipse coverage ramped up earlier this year, The News Tribune mentioned Madras 10 times over the previous decade: three times in stories about native son and New York Yankees outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, five stories about death or other depressing topics, a mention of the airplane collection at the airport and a passing reference to a bank branch being rebranded.
Heck, I found a mention of Madras in The New York Times last weekend for the eclipse. (The city slickers called us a “farming hamlet” though. Ugh.)
My three-plus years spent in Tacoma are long enough to know there’s a similar feeling here of surviving through the rough patches and never seeming to get attention for the right things.
But right now, I don’t feel that. I feel happy for Madras, which can certainly use the boost of tourism dollars and attention, and I feel excited to watch the solar eclipse Monday morning.
It better not be cloudy.