In the spring of 1970 I hitchhiked 300 miles to Valdosta, Georgia to witness my first total solar eclipse. It was impressive and I was hooked. In February, 1979 I hitchhiked from Marin up to Washington State to see the rare phenomenon again. I knew then that I would be in Baja California on July 11, 1991. It’s not often that you can forecast your exact location 12 years in advance. But solar eclipses encourage predictability.
No hitchhiking this time, I flew directly from LA to Loreto, Baja California Sur. I had a group of twenty with me from the Oceanic Society Expeditions. Loreto is great town but not on the path of totality. So we drove south along Highway 1 in a three vehicle caravan. Our local outfitters, Douglas and Trudi, had stashed water and gasoline along the route. They were anticipating traffic jams, long lines at the gas pumps and crowds. None of the dire predictions came true. In fact the pre-eclipse publicity about massive crowds resulted in empty hotel rooms and quiet beaches, an economic drag for the Mexicans but great news for us.
Our viewing site was a coastal ranch right smack dab in the middle of totality along the Sea of Cortez. We snorkeled in warm water, tooled around in kayaks and we were the only gringoes around.
Even though Baja usually has very clear skies, there had been scattered clouds, so we took no chances. The night before the eclipse we made a bonfire to the sun god. I did a few Druid incantations and one of us was stung by a scorpion while throwing wood into the fire. We figured that this was pretty close to a human sacrifice and that we had just guaranteed perfect skies. We were right.
July 11, 1991 was nearly cloudless. Early that morning we visited the ranch house to observe the activities (the women working and the men eating). It was a typical Baja ranch with goats, chickens, turkeys, sheep, cattle, pigs, a large garden and locally trapped birds singing from their cages. On the dirt floor of the kitchen they roasted coffee beans over a mesquite fire, the smoke wafted up through the palm thatch roof. After hand grounding the coffee they poured the whole mixture into boiling water. We watched as they made tortillas from scratch. Then we ate and drank, it was a great breakfast.
We returned to camp for final preparations. We reviewed everything to look for and in what order….the changing sparkles on the sea, the crescent suns under trees, the first appearance of Venus, the shadow bands, the darkness racing in from the west, Bailey’s beads, the diamond ring, totality, the corona, solar flares. The sky remained perfectly clear, the sea calm. But all wasn’t tranquil. Some cultures believe that an eclipse is the sun and moon copulating under cover of darkness. You could taste that kind of tension in the air. Eclipse foreplay, building for the orgasm of totality.
First bite. Through a large telescope we could actually see the uneven edge of moon as it moved in front of the sun. The light gradually changed all around us, it was eerie. Hundreds of crescent suns appeared on the back of a cow standing under a tree. There were jokes about the moon jumping over the cow.
It was getting closer and closer. I do not have the words for it. There are things have to be experienced to be truly known, a total solar eclipse is one. No one saw the wall of darkness rushing down on us but suddenly we were plunged into totality. Even now as I write this I have goose bumps. We all shouted in unison as the night descended on the day, the moon and the sun were mated in perfect unison as the planets looked on. The world was complete in that moment.
In the shadow, the time passed rapidly. We were all trying to drink in the moment, expand ourselves into it, make it last forever, but it didn’t. And then the diamond ring sparkled. A dramatic signal that totality was over.
This eclipse was known as the “Last Chance Eclipse”. I am sorry to tell you but if you didn’t see this one, you blew it. The next one in the mainland US isn’t until August 21, 2017 and there won’t be another one this long for 150 years. Maybe in one of your next lives.
Moments after totality ended we were making plans to meet under the shadow again. You just can’t say no to eclipses.