The 'Eclipsers' arrive
Not long after sunrise Wednesday morning, Ray's Food Place found itself bombarded with customers.
Outside, a growing number of vehicles filled the large open parking lot that the grocery store shares with several other adjacent businesses. Mixed with cars were numerous motor homes and large travel trailers and buses sporting a host of designs and colors.
Groups of travelers, some toting loaded backpacks or clad in outfits reminiscent of the hippie culture, milled about in small groups eager to hit the road to Big Summit Prairie where the Symbiosis eclipse festival awaited them.
The same scene could be found in several parking lots throughout the community during the early morning hours as traffic on Third Street continued to increase. By mid-morning, long lines of cars at stoplights had morphed into a steady, slowly moving stream of bumper-to-bumper vehicles that stretched from the east edge of Prineville down Third Street through town, up the grade and roughly five miles west of town. The drive from Redmond to Prineville was reported to take 90 minutes.
While locals had heeded warnings that the eclipse would bring a huge crowd of people to the Prineville area, the population surge hitting on Wednesday, five days prior to the eclipse, still seemed to catch people by surprise. "It's only Wednesday," some remarked in bewildered tone while another admitted that they thought the huge crowd warnings were all hype.
The explosion of visitors passing through Prineville were likely headed to the weeklong Symbiosis eclipse festival, which opened to the bulk of its projected 35,000 ticketholders that day.
That was where native Australian Justine Carstairs was headed. Seated at a table with friends at Tastee Treet late Wednesday morning, she was waiting to meet up with other acquaintances to head out to the festival. Carstairs made the trip to Prineville from Denver, where she has lived with her boyfriend the past two years.
Samantha Sneed came up from Los Angeles. She had never been to Oregon, let alone Prineville, but as she waited to get back on the road to Big Summit Prairie, she took time to appreciate the new community.
"It's beautiful," she said of Prineville. "The weather feels really nice."
Christian Landsberger, also from Los Angeles, was likewise impressed with his first visit.
"Prineville is cute — very nice and clean," he said. "It's a nice little town."
The constant stream of visitors kept grocery stores and gas stations inundated with customers, testing the limits of what they can provide. Prineville police reported around 1 p.m. that two gas stations were running low on fuel. Cross Street Station was running low on unleaded, and Chevron ran out of unleaded gasoline but still had premium available.
At Ericksons Thriftway, water was in high demand as the staff worked hard to keep up with a very busy store. Manager John Amodeo said that organics were selling quickly, as were snack foods, ice and dry ice.
Water and snack foods were also flying off shelves at Wagner's, according to store manager Scott Michel.
"Our business has picked up almost double in the last couple of days," he said, adding that a surge in dairy purchases caught him by surprise.
Over at Ray's Food Place, manager Walt Blind said business has increased steadily, with water going quickly along with canned beer (no bottle beverages allowed at Symbiosis) and various snack foods.
"We are cranking in here," he remarked. "You can hardly get into our parking lot. It's pretty full."
Throughout the days and the increase in customer base, the store managers have encountered people from literally all over the world. Blind said he has seen people from all over the country and from as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
"I have had people from all over the place — Peru, Portugal, Oklahoma, London and Australia," Amodeo added. "They are good people."
By late afternoon, the traffic headed up to Symbiosis had died down in town, but east of town was another story as a line of cars waiting to get into the festival stretched from Big Summit Prairie all the way back to Ochoco Reservoir and beyond late into the night.
The traffic jam prompted the Prineville Police Department to address the drivers and public with a Facebook post around 11 p.m.
"Those headed to the Symbiosis on Highway 26 East, expect lengthy delays from just a couple miles east of Prineville all the way to the event. Event coordinators are working fast to get people into the event, and will work all night and into tomorrow to do so. Please be patient, you will be there soon!" the post read. "If you're stuck out on the roadway, please stay in your vehicles, do not drive in the wrong lane of travel, and try and be patient. We have already had a couple of motorcycle crashes and Life Flight sent to the area."
The heavy eastbound traffic had returned to Prineville shortly after sunrise Thursday morning as more Symbiosis visitors passed through the community. The emergency manager consequently issued an appeal to locals to avoid any unnecessary travel.
"Crook County Sheriff, City of Prineville and Crook County Court strongly urge travelers who do not need to travel today or early on Friday please consider delaying your journey," said Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Vicky Ryan. "Traffic later on Friday the 18th and over the weekend is expected to still be heavy, but moving better as most of the event at Big Summit Prairie will have already arrived at their destination."