Totality and beyond

Afraid to damage my eyes, I wore my welder’s glasses too long and missed the beginning of the diamond ring, but whipped them off in time to see totality pop into place. The solar corona quickly brightened to reveal a shocking black hole, delicate white streamers, and red flames of the sun. A splendor, a marvel, a miracle. It seemed to make a sound in my head, and fill the sky. Tears stung my eyes.

My guy and I grabbed a quick smooch for luck (like you do), and he shot a few frenzied photos, but mostly we gawped, wordless. A few people near us whooped and cheered; others stood in stunned silence, grinning. Six minutes and 53 seconds passed in an instant, and at third contact we lunged for the calendar of upcoming eclipses to start planning the next one.

As with all drugs, the first time is the best time and leaves you craving more.

Afterwards we joined a street party where I drank something dark yellow—probably mescal—from a plastic jug being passed among the crowd. Did not die.

My first eclipse experience—from the time we landed in Cabo to the end of fourth contact —was nothing short of magical. Reports of totality included phrases like “for sheer beauty, it ranks among the best”; the large, detailed corona “had a three-dimensional appearance”; a “pink chromosphere wrapped all around the south”; a naked-eye “crimson pair of huge, glowing prominences” extended to the east and west; and “it seemed like someone tied a ghostly bow around the sun.”

A writer in Sky said, after third contact, “The light returned. The wind off the sea returned…everything was as it was before, only everything had changed. Maybe I had changed.”

The Great One as seen from Baja did not disappoint—and it launched a very expensive hobby.

Above: Totality (not my photo)


Celestial bodies visible during totality on July 11, 1991

Trying to photograph the eclipse. (Tip: don’t bother.)

Thumb’s up at third contact

A toast

Plotting number two

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!”