Wait for it

Though it was my first eclipse I was well-prepared with a “shot list” I compiled by studying a copy of that year’s go-to book, Eclipse by Bryan Brewer, purchased from the museum store at the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park in San Diego.

Pro tip: a TSE can get exciting and disorienting, especially in the final seconds before totality. Always make a list of phenomena to watch for, with the time and duration of each. This page will help you plan.

We made pinhole projections, watched in vain for shadow bands on the beach, and felt the gut-deep delicious foreboding as changes in the light and the land grew more pronounced. In the final few minutes before second contact the atmosphere shifted, shimmered, dimmed. It’s an odd quality; not like night, not like day, not like twilight or dawn. To feel our planet and our beloved celestial bodies morph for the first time elicits an instinctive, vague, involuntary dread.

Through my protective glasses I watched the sliver of the sun as it slowly narrowed, and narrowed, and narrowed. Totality was approaching in seconds. We could hear people screaming on the hill as the moon’s shadow sped toward us on the beach.

Above and below: After first contact


Partial phase waiting

Pinhole projection with observation list

The light (and the locals) getting weird

The first TSE

On July 11th we rose early and trekked 15 minutes to the beach where we joined an eclectic group of other nerds, solar astronomers, and cooler party people attending an already-underway private bash, obviously sponsored by one of the astronomy magazines. Mexican caterers weaved their way past expensive telescopes and weather equipment, offering trays of antojitos and bebidas.

We set up a sparse observing area a few yards away. I brought zero equipment other than my ridiculous-looking #14 welder’s glasses that I purchased from a San Diego safety store, and my photographer boyfriend had one tiny Nikon balanced on a tripod with a screw-on solar filter.

Our gear was in stark contrast to the impedimenta operated by the professional solar astronomers that were there from Germany and Japan. I was amused by the stereotypes in action: the Japanese crew had blue, low-slung, high-tech tents arranged in a circle; the Germans had boxy, upright red and white tents arranged in a square. (I say this in the kindest, least xenophobic way.)

Above: Awaiting totality; photo by Gene Faulkner 1991


Packing to the beach site

Other people’s party

Red tent, blue tent

Their gear, our gear

Nerd alert

Todos Santos

In the early 90s the little town of Todos Santos (where we observed totality) was a sleepy fishing village; just look at that “arcade”. It was also said to be the alleged home of the original Hotel California of the Eagles song (but so are a dozen others, including the Church of Satan in San Francisco, the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, and, most reasonably, simply the Beverly Hills Hotel that’s pictured on the album cover and where the band hung out).

Since visiting 26 years ago I hear that Todos has gentrified into a tasty little artist’s haven, like Bisbee, Taos, and Jerome, Oregon—with prices to match.

We were lucky to be allowed to camp at El Zapote, a gentle, substance-free co-op where the residents raised organic produce before it was called “artisinal” and puttered around administering acupuncture to their pets and whatever else sweet reclusive hippies do. We never met any of the inhabitants; most were busy practicing the drum circle ceremony they’d perform on eclipse morning, or had fled in terror of the annual aerial malathion-spraying helicopters that were scheduled to fly over that week to bomb their crops.

We pitched a tent on the property and paid for access to the bathroom and shade palapa, where we sorted our gear and prepared our packs for eclipse day.

Above: El Zapote campsite


Todos at night

Kids playing Mexican Pong

Main street corner

El Zapote farm

Margs at the bar, Hotel California

Centerline near Todos Santos

Pasaporte, por favor

Step one: find a flight. Check. Step two: now what? Every hotel room had been snapped up months, nay, years ago by tour organizations and more skillful chasers. An entirely different travel agent—children, a travel agent was once the person who Googled your flights before Expedia—tried to secure a place for us to stay.

The Mexican government wisely decreed that no travelers would be allowed to board any aircraft into their country without proof of lodging in hand, to prevent people from doing exactly what we were attempting—show up with our backpacks in Todos Santos and flop where we could.

We eventually made arrangements with a hotel in Cabo San Lucas so we were allowed to enter Mexico, but the centerline was where we needed to be. The hotel in Todos (rumored to be the original Hotel California in the Eagles’ song) was booked to capacity long ago.

There was unsubstantiated hearsay of a condo further north (that required an expensive rental car to get to the eclipse), waiting lists on cruise ships, friends-of-friends with expat ranch houses, and a hotel with bare beachfront for rent. Someone now long forgotten suggested a destination we were delighted to settle on: pitching a tent on the grounds of “El Zapote”, an alternative co-op an hour west of La Paz in Todos Santos, just a short 1/2 mile hike to the water and prime viewing of The Big One.

As it turned out, the expected gridlocked highways and chaotic crowds were overestimated. The Mexican government, various authorities, newspapers and science magazines cautioned that an exaggerated 120,000 tourists would be crushing Mexican resources that week in July. Travelers were advised about stern checkpoints that would allow a random number of visitors past undisclosed points, and warned so strongly against the possibility of being stranded without petrol on a remote Baja road that many chasers were frightened into choosing Hawaii—where the clouds rolled in on July 11 (as well as airborne particulates from volcanic eruption) that obscured totality for many.

We flew in a couple of days before the eclipse and partied pretty hardy in Cabo, the nearby tourist town. The year of my first TSE I was 26 years old, sporting big 90s eyeglasses, pale legs, and a dweeby mop of curly hair under an unflattering crusher hat.

In advance of every eclipse, the local government distributes safety information which is always a hoot to read. “Viewing through balloons and black plastic bags es muy peligroso!”


No room in the inn

I started planning far too late, as I only heard about the event for the first time in January 1991, when a fellow Rotarian approached me during our morning meeting with a folded copy of Discover. Inside was Bob Berman’s “Night Watchman” astronomy column and his article “The Great Baja Eclipse”.

Bob described “chasers”—lunatics (literally) who traveled the world to stand for a few scant minutes in the shadow of the moon. I recall the phrase “better than sex” was used.

The Great One of 1991 was less than a year away, and I decided there and then I’d be attending—though everyone else in the world had already booked and confirmed their travel plans. In May I was still scrambling for transportation and accommodations. Eclipse mania had swept the country and every flight, hotel room, youth hostel, B&B, barn and backyard was reserved—even books about the eclipse were impossible to find.

As I lived in Southern California, the logical and subsequently luckier viewing destination was Mexico. A San Diego travel agent—remember those?—took pity on me (or tired of my relentless begging) and made it his quest to put me in the shadow. He worked zealously to find a flight for my then-boyfriend and I—hello Tom at Hillcrest Travel, thinking of you fondly wherever you are—and after a long waitlist period eventually sold us roundtrip tickets from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas.

Above: Tee logo


Surprisingly, fares today are about the same or lower

Astronomer luggage 

Haircut, 1991



The Big One

“The Greatest Eclipse” it was called. The December ’91 issue of Sky and Telescope extolled it as the “Grandest Eclipse—Science and Spectacle”, while restrained Astronomy slightly under-raved with “The Eclipse of the Decade”. It was “The Big One”—and my first one.

It may have been a mistake to start chasing with the unsurpassable Eclipse of 1991, which was superlative in a dozen ways. With a duration of almost seven minutes, totality was about as long as technically possible—the lengthiest TSE anyone alive or recently dead had ever seen.

It was conveniently located, with easy access to every North American who could scrape together the modest funds to travel to the shadow. Plentiful and inexpensive tourist flights to Hawaii AND Mexico were available; not what you’d describe as a hardship destination. The path of totality crossed many populated cities all the way to Brazil, and clear summer weather along the centerline was likely. No eclipse since then has been as popular and as much of a CF to visit without booking through a tour group.

Above and below: Path of totality, 1991

Below: Geek mags go giddy