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Wolffork Church in Rabun Gap "sings in" tomorrow's total eclipse as throngs surge into north Georgia for heavenly event

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The Lord's Messengers, a local acoustic bluegrass band, "sings in" tomorrow's eclipse at Wolffork Baptist Church in Rabun Gap this morning. The church is inviting visitors in town for the total eclipse to the special worship service and hot dogs and hamburgers after the service. RON LAWSON/ Special

RABUN GAP — If you’re not already here, don’t even try it.

That’s the word from Ron Lawson who sat on his secluded deck yesterday afternoon and listened to the steady drone of traffic on Highway 441. The noise coming through the trees a mile away was highly unusual for a lazy August afternoon.

If it was fall leafing season in early October it could be expected. But this was no lazy afternoon, and most likely the sound will not completely cease until the last visitor leaves Monday or Tuesday.

Visitors and members of Wolffork Baptist Church enjoy a special pre-total eclipse service this morning with a bluegrass concert, hearty preaching by pastor Jimmy Greer, and hot dogs and hamburger cookout after the service. RON LAWSON/Special

It’s Total Eclipse Weekend, which precedes Total Eclipse Monday, and the festivities are in full swing in the small Northeast Georgia towns which make a little money off tourists but which are reaping a harvest with this rare gift from the heavens.

When he retired from the Georgia Baptist Mission Board as a video producer a few years ago, he and his wife, Elaine, fled the Atlanta traffic congestion for the bucolic pastoral solitude of the mountains. This weekend, the world has descended on their idyllic retreat.

“We have hunkered down in our house and don’t plan to venture out very much for the next couple of days,” he said as his pondered his departure from his normal routine.

Rabun Gap, Dillard, and Clayton in Rabun County are Ground Zero of the path of totality. All kinds of events are planned for this weekend, with nearby Clayton and Dillard hosting the most.

Wolffork Baptist Church welcomed guests with bluegrass concert, preaching, dinner on the grounds

But that doesn’t mean Rabun Gap, with its 2,331 residents, will be left out completely. This morning Wolffork Baptist Church, where Lawson serves as music director, welcomed visitors with open arms for a special acoustic bluegrass concert and good preaching, followed by dinner on the grounds … which means a variety of grills cooking hamburgers and hot dogs for all comers.

Rabun Gap Baptist Association's Woman's Missionary Union placed 20 road signs along Highway 441 to draw attention to the Creator of the universe. RON LAWSON/Special

“We thought about giving out water and hosting people in our parking lot on Monday but didn’t think we’d get that many because of the clogged roads and larger venues with more open viewing areas,” Lawson said. “We ended up promoting  today's worship service with local group The Lord’s Messengers and another wonderful sermon by pastor Jimmy Greer.”

One of Wolffork’s laymen, Jimmy Mullis, purchased 5,000 tracts with plans to distribute them with help from others throughout the weekend. And church member Judy McCracken, who leads the Rabun Gap Baptist Association Woman’s Missionary Union, said she and 8 volunteers had been busy placing roadside signs with the timely message from Psalm 19:1 proclaiming “The Heavens Declare The Glory of God.”

"We placed 20 signs along Highway 441 on Thursday and will trust that drivers creeping along the road will be reminded of the beauty and majesty of God's creation," she said. McCracken noted that WMU members had planned on having a booth at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Dillard which is the biggest viewing venue in the area. But when they learned about all the congestion they decided to avoid the roadways.

"We had a great idea of giving away sugar cookies dipped partially in chocolate but that just didn't work out under the circumstances," she added with a laugh.

The signs will remain up until Tuesday when they will be removed to provide access to the mowers cutting the grass on the right-of-way. Until then, she and her friends have all made their trips to the grocery store to stock up on the proverbial milk and bread until the event passes, just like they would do before a major snowstorm.

Head of Tennessee Baptist Church is located a stone’s throw from the sold out Total Solar Eclipse Viewing Party at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School on Monday. It was unknown if there were any plans to host an event. The Index was also unable to confirm if any special event was planned for Monday at Clayton Baptist Church in downtown in what is expected to be a heavily congested area.

Camp Pinnacle's last group departing today before the event

At Camp Pinnacle Retreat Center just two miles off Clayton’s main street, Director Ed Barnes reported that no special events are planned for the viewing but local authorities have stated that residents should ”treat this like a natural disaster and stay home.” He said he planned on heeding that advice not venturing out.

Bill Lisenby, right, talks with family and friends during the hamburger and hotdog dinner after church today at Wolffork Baptist Church. RON LAWSON/Special

Late Saturday afternoon Barnes' wife Amy and son Andrew did head into town and their initial impression was that traffic was normal. But they did not expect it to be the same story tomorrow morning as more crowds pass through Clayton toward the major venue in Dillard.

The eclipse will begin in Clayton at 1:06 p.m. with totality starting at 2:35 p.m. and ending a relatively brief two minutes and 34 seconds later. The totality will be complete at 4:01 p.m.

That stay-at-home-suggestion sounds like good advice from what Lawson has been hearing. If you don’t have a hotel room, don’t go looking for one now, he suggests.

“We have about 18,000 people who live in the area of the total eclipse in Rabun Gap, Clayton, and Dillard but have been told to expect between 50,000 and 100,000 visitors. We can’t possibly house all of those people for the weekend, much less for one day on Monday. So the roads will be totally packed and some, we have been told, will be closed completely," he related. And road conditions will be closely monitored so emergency vehicles will have access to house fires or automobile accidents.

Camp Pinnacle, owned by Georgia Baptist Woman's Missionary Union, is located outside of Clayton near the North Carolina border. It is located at Ground Zero of the total eclipse. JOE WESTBURY/Index

“I think I heard that we can house about double our population in bed and breakfasts, private cabins, and the very few hotels but not any more than that. Some people long ago booked all the rooms in Hiawassee and just over the state line in Cherokee, NC, and will try to either drive over here or settle for viewing it from there.”

But Lawson’s advice is the same he is hearing from local authorities: stay off the roads if you plan to get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time.

That could mean until late Monday or even Tuesday for the mass exodus out of town.

This story will be updated throughout the weekend as more information is received from Georgia Baptist churches in the viewing area.

Camp Pinnacle, Clayton, Dillard, Rabun Gap, Ron Lawon, solar eclipse, Wolffcreek Baptist Church

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