It looks like an ordinary Nebraska cornfield, but Louis Dorland sees something more: an ideal place to observe the Great American Eclipse.

The horizon extends for miles to the west and the east, with few obstructions to mar the view. It’s just a two-hour drive from his home in the Omaha suburbs, but because it’s deep in the country, he figures the area won’t be packed with sky watchers on the big day.

Dorland spent an entire day scouting locations in search of a quiet spot to spend about 2 1/2 unforgettable minutes, when day will eerily give way to night. The tricky part was making sure the guy who owned the cornfield wouldn’t mind Dorland setting up his binoculars and picnic blanket on the side of his property.

With some trepidation, the retired IT worker hopped out of his minivan and approached the farmer steering a green tractor near the side of the road.

“I was worried he might not be pleasant about it, but he was absolutely fine,” said Dorland, who expressed his thanks by offering the farmer several pairs of paper eclipse glasses to share with his family.

Thanks to an unusual celestial alignment, the moon’s shadow will race across the United States on Aug. 21, tracing a 2,800-mile arc from Oregon to South Carolina. It will take about 90 minutes for the eclipse to travel from coast to coast, plunging a roughly 70-mile-wide swath of land into a twilightlike darkness in the process.

Only in this so-called path of totality will the world grow dark enough to see the stars as the moon blots out the sun. The temperature will drop, crickets will begin to chirp, and farm animals will lie down and go to sleep. If skies are clear, observers will be able to see the sun’s halo-like corona, which is usually obscured by the brightness of the photosphere.

An estimated 12 million Americans are fortunate enough to live in the path of totality. But for the rest of us, viewing the first total solar eclipse to stretch across the continental U.S. since 1918 will take some strategizing.

Finding a good spot

Serious eclipse chasers often stake out their viewing spots years in advance of a total eclipse.

Victor Roth, a retired state park employee from Santa Cruz, Calif., thought he was way ahead of the curve when he discovered the Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa last summer.

The resort is in Warm Springs, Ore., about 100 miles southeast of Portland and well inside the path of totality. Roth was eager to share this information with the hotel’s reservation manager.

“I told her she had a real marketing opportunity here,” he said. “I thought I was really helping her out.”

But when Roth tried to make reservations for himself and his friends, she told him all of the lodge’s 137 rooms had been booked three years earlier.

As awareness of the eclipse continues to grow, towns and cities along the path of totality are bracing for an onslaught of visitors.

“Whatever the biggest event in town is, they are going to get at least twice as many people — and usually more than that,” said Kate Russo, an eclipse chaser and consultant who is helping communities prepare for the crowds. “This is not just a science event. This is a human event and something very powerful and life-changing.”

Andy Sinwald, supervisor of special events for the city of Isle of Palms in South Carolina, said he didn’t realize just how big a draw the eclipse would be until he attended a two-day workshop sponsored by the American Astronomical Society in March. Now, the small barrier island with a permanent population of 5,000 is preparing for an influx of up to 50,000 people who will watch the eclipse on the beach.