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Baja California, Mexico, 1991

Total solar eclipse

In July, 1991, I and some friends drove all the way from Lexington, Kentucky to the west coast of the Mexican "mainland", then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to the city of La Paz, most of the way down the Baja Peninsula. The trip was prompted by the chance to see a very long (7-minute) total solar eclipse.

I had been thinking about doing such a trip already, but the real clincher came in May, when the Center for Computational Sciences (which was funding my Physics research) hosted a conference. There, I met a Mexican physicsist named Carlos Amador; when I described my thoughts about driving down to see the eclipse, he was immediatedly enthusiastic and agreed to go. Suddenly, it seemed much more do-able. So we did it.

The travelers:
Tom Plamondon (a friend)
Suzanne (Tom's friend)
Carlos Amador (a Mexican physicist on sabattical in Cleveland),
Carlos's friend Hortensia (visiting from Mexico),
Chris Wolverton (a physics grad student from Southern California, who flew to Arizona to join us)
Claudia (Carlos's friend, who took the bus from Mexico City to join us for the trip to Baja).


Click on the image for a bigger version...this shows (l to r.) Carlos, Hortensia, me, Suzanne, and Tom, in St. Louis.

The trip

Across the U.S.

Colorado Springs---car starts having problems---losing power, can barely make it up hills...vapor lock? At the suggestion of a mechanic, I put insulation around the fuel line. Will it help?

Through the New Mexico mountains, the problem recurs. We stop at a Kmart (or something) with a car sevice center, where the problem is diagnosed as a blocked catalytic converter. Cost to replace it: $300, or about what I have brought for the whole trip (a major expense, on my $12K/year grad student salary). We decide to try to find a place to just remove the catalytic converter...they won't do that at a reputable place.

We send Carlos's car ahead to pick up Chris at the Tucson airport, while we pull in to a gas station in Lordsburg, New Mexico to try to get the problem fixed. The guy there has no qualms about removing the converter. He's also not very competent. We leave two hours later with the catalytic converter removed, replaced by straight pipe hanging on to the bottom of the car with clotheshanger wire. It scrapes against the ground every time we hit a bump. I feel like we need to have it worked on again, but Carlos convinces me that in Mexico the mechanics are "wizards with a blowtorch", and we should get it fixed there before the drive back. (He's right---that works out perfectly).

 Into Mexico

 We drive south into Mexico, first stopping at the border to register our cars and buy Mexican car insurance. Carlos said we should tip the police official we dealt with, apparently normal business practice.

As we drove across the Sonora Desert, I told Chris about a friend of mine, who had toyed with the idea of coming on the trip but who thought driving a car in Mexico would be dangerous, and wanted to take horses instead(!). So every time we came to a particularly forbidding stretch of cactus-spotted desert, Chris would say "ride across this, you bimbo!"

We stop in a couple of small towns, some of which are bustling with activity---apparently just walking around seeing people is the normal evening entertainment.

Eventually we reach the town of Los Mochis, where we catch the ferry to La Paz, on the other side of the Sea of Cortez.

 Carlos and Phil discuss distance and time

 We lucked out in finding a hotel in La Paz. We had been worried before and during the drive, that the peninsula might be packed with visitors. In fact, there were plenty of visitors (indeed, I ran into one of my college physics professor on the street), but it was not the madhouse we feared.

We had a couple of days to kill before the eclipse, so we took the bus down to Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo). I got off for a couple of hours at a small town called Todos Santos to look around and do some snorkeling before taking another bus the rest of the way. The snorkeling was pretty good---saw a small ray, for instance.

In Cabo San Lucas, we took a boat to an interesting beach, had some food and drink, etc. I spent a while hanging out with some beach babes from Southern California, who I had met on the bus.

The bus back, via San Jose del Cabo, was packed. One guy got on just as the bus was pulling out, and said "Voy a Cabo", to which the driver replied "Pues a ver si cabe", a pun that drew much laughter. (It means "I'll go to Cabo"..."Better see if you fit.")

 The eclipse

 Remarkably enough, my traveling companions had only modest interest in the eclipse itself, while I was totally psyched about it. In the end, I took the bus down to Todos Santos again, to watch the eclipse with the aforementioned beach babes and their father, who had brought a telescope.

I arrived just at "first contact", when the moon first took a nibble out of the edge of the sun. (I was watching through a welding filter---I brought several filters down for the occasion). Over the next hour or so, the moon covered over more and more of the sun. It wasn't until most of the sun was covered (maybe 80%) that things began to look abnormal: the quality of the light seemed to change, almost like a brownout. Then every small gap that let the sun shine through began to act like a pinhole camera, so for instance every palm leaf cast a shadow with dozens of little sun images superimposed on it.

Finally there was only a tiny part of the sun left (the famous "diamond ring" effect)...and then, totality. I quickly turned to look west, hoping to see the "terminator" (the shadow line) approaching, but I guess I missed it. Then I looked back up...incredible. During totality, the sun is completely covered except for the corona (see photo at right. click on it for a bigger view). No picture can really do it justice: (1) the corona had a lot more structure than shows in the photo, (2) the corona extended much farther out---visible to at least four solar radii, (3) the red prominences around the limb were a striking hot pink, and (3) most stunning, I thought, was that the location of the sun seemed to be a black hole, surrounded by the corona, in the middle of a deep purple sky. The contrast was just incredible. The sky was plenty dark, too---dozens or hundreds of stars were visible, as well as several planets.

Totality lasted almost 7 minutes, almost the theoretical maximum (because the moon was at its closest to the earth, and thus its largest angular size, while the earth was at its farthest from the sun, and thus its smallest angular size).

I know people---including my friends---who found the sight diverting but not spectacular, but to me it was one of the most amazing, remarkable things I have seen. I can understand why some people are eclipse chasers, planning their vacations years in advance in order to see as many eclipses as possible.