To Weiser they came from afar, since in an eclipse, ‘99% and 100% are totally different’

Latvian scores first cornhole

Latvian native Laura Kurbe plays cornhole for the first time ever in Weiser, Idaho. Kurbe was in Weiser with a group of 22 Latvians traveling the western U.S. for the 2017 total solar eclipse.
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Latvian native Laura Kurbe plays cornhole for the first time ever in Weiser, Idaho. Kurbe was in Weiser with a group of 22 Latvians traveling the western U.S. for the 2017 total solar eclipse.

She didn’t know exactly what was going on when the red bean bag left her friend’s hand, but Agnese Zalcmane was enjoying her slice of Americana anyway.

Zalcmane is the organizer of a group of 22 people from Latvia who traveled more than 5,000 miles to tiny Weiser this weekend. A seasoned eclipse veteran, Zalcmane has seen seven total eclipses in places including Kazakhstan, Australia, Kenya and Indonesia. When she learned of Monday’s total solar eclipse, she knew she wanted to find a spot where the moon would fully block the sun.

She found Idaho – and found a game she had never heard of, much less played, called cornhole.

Zalcmane and her group left home July 31 and have visited San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Now they’re road tripping along a portion of the 70-mile path of totality that extends from Oregon to South Carolina. At first they hoped to get to Oregon by Monday, but they didn’t want to miss the perfect view because of traffic congestion. So they stopped in Weiser, a town of 5,500 that expects more than 20,000 visitors Monday.

Saturday morning found the group at the center of Eclipse Fest in Weiser’s Memorial Park. Amid dozens of food vendors, shirt sellers and beer drinkers, Zalcmane and her friends played cornhole for the first time.

They didn’t know how the scoring worked or even what the game was. But they cheered one another as if they had been playing since childhood. They were enjoying their path to totality.

“I know it’s worth it,” said Zalcmane, wearing a red sundress she bought from one of the vendors. “Ninety-nine percent and 100 percent are totally different things. It’s worth it to go to the path of totality.”

Zalcmane’s goal, like most of those who came or are coming to Weiser by Monday, is a front-row seat for the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States since 1918.

Some will trek from Boise, others from the East Coast. Zalcmane’s group came from half a world away.

“It is going to be worth it,” said Susan Lessier, a retired schoolteacher from Maui. Lessier and her son-in-law, Souk Douangdara, sat under a canopy at their campsite Saturday in front of the Snake River Heritage Center, which overlooks the softball field of nearby Weiser High School. For $100, tent campers at the softball field get three nights and access to the high school’s showers twice a day.

At 13 and 43 after each hour, the bell atop the heritage center chimes loudly. It’s supposed to ring at quarter after the hour and a quarter before, but the clock has seen better days. It’s also an hour behind.

“[People asked me,] ‘Why would you come from Maui to Boise? We should be going from Boise to Maui,’ ” Lessier said with a laugh.

Susan Lussier, from Kahului, Maui, Hawaii, talks about why she choose Weiser, Idaho to watch the 2017 total solar eclipse.

Douangdara, originally from Laos, recently has been reminded of tales he heard as a child.

“There’s an old Laos tale about frogs eating the moon. Everybody [would take] out pots and pans and [chase] the frogs away,” said Douangdara, who now lives in Boise. “Now I’m thinking, ‘That was crazy.’ 

In a campsite on the softball field, Brad German, 62, sat down to take in the morning sun. He recently retired from a job in public relations and began driving from Maryland on August 5. He won’t be back until Sept. 6.

Why? “Wanderlust and wanting to put some distance between me and my work life,” German said. “I noticed the eclipse and said, ‘I’m going to drive out west to see the eclipse.’ Then it became a question of how do I get there, and where do I go?”

Sisters Toni Androes and Samm Madsen arrived in Weiser on Friday night, but their journey to the campsite began 15 years ago, when they were 12 and 8 years old. They lived in Boise and wanted to see a lunar eclipse at night, but their mother told them they had to be home by the time the street lights came on, so they couldn’t.

“We made a promise: Next solar eclipse that’s in the U.S., no matter what our lifestyle is, no matter where we are, we’ll go see it together,” Androes said. “We’ve spent the last 15 years planning and talking and growing up, knowing we would go see the eclipse. And here we are.”

Weiser natives enjoy tales like these as much as the people telling them do.

Dave Davies, the principal of Weiser High, is serving as campground host at the school. He will sit at a table for four days, checking people in and giving them wristbands to ensure access to the showers.

Every time he checks another name off his reservation list, Davies hands the camper a small red composition book and a pen. He is making a scrapbook to fill with accounts from travelers explaining how they ended up in Weiser. Some people so far have written a little; others have penned short novels.

“I haven’t talked to everybody that’s rented a site, but every person I’ve talked to has just been really nice,” Davies said. “They’re genuine in their enthusiasm toward coming here and being a part of this. They’re happy to be here.”

Michael Katz: 208-377-6444, @MichaelLKatz