The Big One
Thursday, 11 July 1991
Santiago Ixcuintla, Nayarit,
21° 50' 20.5" N - 105° 10' 19.8" W
Totality: 6m 50s
By the time I decided to finally see what all this talk of total eclipses was all about, I had already missed two total eclipses, which, in retrospect, I never would have done as my first anyway. 1988 was best viewed from land in Indonesia and the Philippines, and 1990 was mostly visible from northern Russia and some remote islands in Alaska. The truth is, I didn't even know these eclipses were going on, and if I had, the chances of my actually going to see them were nil. If 1984 had been out of the question for a naïve young man, then those two certainly were!
In November 1990, I read about the forthcoming "grand eclipse" in a magazine article, and it got my interest up. This was expected to be the greatest eclipse of our lifetime, and all the authors were recommending it as a must-see. To be fair, though, we really have to give that honor to an eclipse that had happened in 1955. For any total solar eclipse, the maximum theoretical duration of totality is something like 7:51, and that one had come only about three seconds short of that! It had truly been an eclipse not to be missed, but, as my parents had had other plans, I wasn't around for it. Rather than cry over spilled milk, though, we all needed to set our sights on things that were actually possible, and so, for my lifetime at least, the "Big One" moniker that this eclipse was being given was about as accurate as could be expected. With respect to others that had come before, then, I'll continue to call it that as long as I live.
I loved astronomy, and I was pretty sure I would like to see an event as big as this one was being made out to be, but there was a huge hurdle to climb. In 1988, I had quit a pretty good job in order to become a teacher at a very small school, and that had lasted only a year. I was great at teaching, but handling kids was another question altogether, and I had learned very early on that it wasn't for me. By August of 1990, I had taken to working 3rd shift at a hotel and tutoring in the daytime (keeping the teaching thing alive and well), but I wasn't what you'd call financially rock solid. And this eclipse would definitely be a road trip for me - it wasn't even in the mainland US!
I thought about all the possibilities for places I could go to see it - Hawaii, Cabo san Lucas, or mainland Mexico - and pretty much immediately decided on the mainland. After all, by the time I decided I'd go for it, Hawaii and Cabo were sold out. (Boy, this must be a big event!) It's kind of embarrassing to admit now, but I hadn't been on an airplane since 1978, and I had to figure out how the airline industry worked well enough to make sure I was getting a good deal. (I hate to look like I don't know what I'm doing, even when I really don't!) As it turned out, the plane ticket to Puerto Vallarta wasn't that expensive (about $400), and I could stay pretty cheap at the hotel that was part of the chain I worked for. If I got somebody to go with me, and rented a car, well, my Spanish wasn't that bad. Maybe, just maybe….
It didn't take long before I had completely talked myself into it. Now, to get it set up. My dad helped me out with the plane ticket, after giving me the usual lecture about how I really shouldn't do stupid stuff like this and waste money (sigh), and I got the hotel and car rental arrangements all made pretty easily. Now, I had to find someone to go with me, and start to prepare for the technical things I'd have to learn in order to make it a successful trip. If I was going to go all that way, I was going to come back with pictures!
I turned to the only thing that I thought would really help - the local astronomy club. I called them up, and they invited me to their next meeting. I remember winning a door prize that night, which I didn't think was very fair (I was sitting next to people who'd been members of this large organization their whole adult life, and here I walk through the door and win something!), but the best thing that happened was that I got to show some of my constellation photographs, and announce that I was going to go to Mexico for the Big One. I asked everyone to please keep me in mind if they knew anyone who'd like to go along and help share expenses. That was all it took, because the next day, I got a phone call from a guy named Richard who had been at the meeting, was impressed with my photographs, and wanted to go to Mexico with me.
I was impressed with Richard. He wasn't much on first impressions, but his knowledge of astronomy, and his ability with a camera, were impressive. His pictures of comet Halley were awesome, and I knew when I saw them that I'd found somebody who knew what he was doing when it came to astrophotography! He had some trouble with his hearing, and because of this, his diction wasn't very good when he talked. Also, he tended to talk pretty loud, which made sense to me because of his hearing problems, right? But, all that made him sound very different, to the point where people would stare at him whenever he talked, without even listening to all the stuff he was saying. The fact that his content was very often lost in his presentation "style" really irritated me, and I did the best I could to overcome it in my dealings with him. I wasn't as successful as I thought I should be, but I guess I did pretty well, because we decided almost immediately that we'd be going to Mexico together.
We got together quite a few times over the next several months, planning our itinerary and comparing notes on how we might photograph this thing everyone was talking about. Richard had a big advantage on me here, as he'd already seen an eclipse (1979, in the Northwestern US), and that made him a veteran in my eyes. By the time we were ready to go, though, I had one on him. I'd made all the travel arrangements, and was somewhat emboldened in this by the travel experience I'd gained since April of '91. It was in that month that I'd gotten a weekend job flying and driving around the country taking pictures for a small company, and, even though only three months had passed between my getting that gig and our leaving for Mexico, I'd done enough traveling that I was already into the "Oh great, another plane trip" mode that seasoned business travelers will be all too familiar with. I matured as a traveler enough in those three months, so that whatever I lacked in common sense, I more than made up for in my ability to get off a plane in a strange city and immediately make myself right at home.
This isn't a skill to be taken lightly, when the strange city you're flying to has people in it who don't speak your language unless they want your money. A lot of places are like this, and Mexico is no exception; the people there are poor by our standards, and they welcome any opportunity to separate tourists from their money whenever possible. The trick to avoiding this is to do everything possible to not look like a tourist. I figure, yeah, I'm an American, and I'm in your country, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm as rich as you think I am. I'm here for a reason, and I'm not going to let all that touristy stuff get in the way of what I'm trying to accomplish. I speak enough Spanish that I can usually get the locals out of their "you want a nice present for your wife?" mode, and actually converse with them about stuff that makes a difference. Most people are really nice, it turns out, but the people I can't convince of this, well, they get treated just like telemarketers here at home. You just gotta be firm.
Anyway, there we were, in Puerto Vallarta, two days before eclipse day. It was a day to rest up and get our bearings, which for Richard seemed to be a little tough. I didn't know this when we left, but he had some stomach problems, too. Great…just great! Mexico wasn't as kind to him as I'd hoped, but at least we were in a pretty nice hotel, and the food wasn't bad as long as he stayed away from the little places off the beaten track. Those are exactly the kinds of places I like to see, but, oh well, we have to make some sacrifices in life. We weren't there to be tourists, remember?
We'd rented a little truck, and we were concerned about where we might actually go to see this thing. Puerto Vallarta wasn't in the path of totality; we'd have to go about 150km north to be in the shadow, so I suggested we make a road trip up that way to see what was there, and maybe scout out a spot. This shouldn't have been too bad; the roads were all pretty big and well-marked, we had a map, and I felt confident that I could ask directions if we had to.
I had seriously overestimated what a "big road" is to a Mexican cartographer! The roads were generally terrible, and every time we had to detour around a fallen tree, a washed-out bridge, or a stream that had turned into a river, I noted the roads as best I could. It wasn't enough. We'd decided to turn around and go back early in the game, but the roads just wouldn't let us. I was certain I knew exactly where we were, but every time we got to what I knew was the right road, one kind of detour or another kept us driving around in circles.
The worst part of the whole thing was that, once I knew we were finally on the right road home, I relaxed a little bit. I swear there were never any forks in the road, but I sat there in the driver's seat and watched as this nice big paved highway turned little by little into gravel, then grass, then dirt, then dirt with puddles, then rocks and dirt with deep ruts, then nothing. We were absolutely lost. I had no idea where we were, except that there were huge banana plants all around us, iguanas running across the road, and a guarantee of getting this four-wheel-drive truck hung up if we dared go any farther. I hadn't seen anybody I could ask for help, and I actually thought for a second that this might end up being the place we'd have to watch the eclipse from!
I had to keep up appearances for Richard, since I could see that he, like me, was scared out of his mind. He had his camcorder rolling, and he never stopped it until I eventually got so frustrated with everything, I just yelled at him. It was kind of a bad situation, and I have most of it on tape to prove it!
Of course, if there's a way in, there's got to be a way out. We got the truck turned around in the mud and the grass and the rocks, and headed back the way we came. Of course, by the time we were out of the bananas, nothing looked familiar, and I'm sure we were on a different road at that point. After driving a little ways, we saw a man with what seemed like every piece of straw there was between here and Mexico City on the back of this little donkey. We stopped to ask him for help, and found out he only spoke this local Indian dialect. What luck. Down the road, I saw a town off in the distance, and started heading for it. I saw a man walking by the side of the road, and stopped to talk to him. It turned out that little town was where he was going, and he identified it for me. This gave me enough information to know that I could now get all the way back to the hotel safely. I offered him a ride home (it would've taken him the rest of the day to walk it), and gave him $10 for saving our lives. (Well, that's what I really felt he had done!) The look on his face was priceless, as if I'd just saved his baby's life, but I insisted. He probably still sleeps with that $10 bill, and tells his friends about his encounter with those crazy Americans.
Arriving back at the hotel, we decided to celebrate our continued survival by mingling with the other eclipse nerds who'd made the trip to the mainland. We ended up meeting lots of great people, and, like always, there were some people who were having a rougher time of it than we were. One guy's story in particular really got to me, and I knew I had to help him out.
Just about the only things I found out about Jim were that (1) he was some kind of engineer from South Carolina, (2) he and his wife had decided to bring themselves and their two kids to PV for a vacation/eclipse adventure, and (3) they hadn't been able to get a rental car. I, of course, had anticipated that possibility, and had not only called Avis to reserve a car, but had contacted their local office in PV prior to the trip, just to make the kind of contact that lets them know I fully expected to have a car waiting on me when I arrived! When I did arrive, as it turned out, they had let all their cars go to people with and without reservations, and that's how we ended up with the truck instead of a car. It was a good deal, and it worked to our advantage as well as Jim's, as it turned out.
Jim's family, Richard and I all hit it off pretty well, and over pizza the night before the eclipse, I offered to let them ride with us to the site we'd "selected". I told him about our little adventure in the Mexican countryside, but left out the fact that I really had no clue yet as to where we were going to watch the eclipse from! He jumped at the chance to go with us, even though the back of the truck (where his whole family would have to sit) didn't have a roof. He'd even pay me a little money (I think it was like $50) to help offset the cost of the rental! A good deal, indeed, all around.
As would come to be my custom, I didn't sleep a lot the night before the eclipse. I also got up very early, around 6:00. We still didn't have any idea about where we were going to go to see it, and, because of our little adventure the day before, we hadn't had a real chance to see any of the things that were happening there in the hotel, right under our noses. After getting ourselves and all our stuff ready, we made it down to the car to find what seemed like a traveling carnival-like atmosphere. Everyone and their brother was there, it seemed, and I hadn't heard so much good-old American English being spoken since we got on the plane in Dallas three days before! Richard and I saw the busses pull up, and we both had the same brilliant idea at exactly the same instant: These were tourists on an eclipse expedition, and their busses were about to take them to what certainly would be an excellent, well-planned and thought out, easily accessible eclipse viewing site! How hard would it be to follow them?
Turned out, it wasn't hard at all. They took the same road we'd been on the day before, the only difference being that their driver knew where he was going. We ended up at an old airstrip off the beaten path about a click northeast of the little town of Santiago Ixcuintla, almost smack-dab dead square on the centerline! It was perfect, and there were enough people (tourists) there that we were able to blend right in. The airstrip was a great place; there was plenty of room and visibility for everyone, and there were even a couple of small Cessnas that came in right before totality. Talk about convenience! This was five years before I got my pilot's license, but even then, it seemed like maybe it was the way to go for last-minute mobility. You couldn't have asked for a better situation!
Possibly, though, you could have. You could've wished for fewer clouds.
Clouds are the nemesis of the eclipse-chaser. I mentioned them briefly in the chapter about the 1986 eclipse, but I'll go into a little more detail here, because, at a total eclipse, clouds are much more important. They're usually hard to see through, and, considering you've made a huge investment in getting to wherever you are to see the thing, clouds can generally be considered a bad thing. In fact, it's customary never to use the C-word anywhere near an eclipse viewing site.
There is a lot of preplanning that goes on by veteran eclipse chasers prior to their choosing the site where they'll watch the big event. Weather trends from previous years are studied, satellite photographs of eclipse day from previous years are reviewed, and many papers and articles are written by top meteorologists (such as Jay Anderson of Winnipeg, Manitoba) who specialize in eclipse weather predicting. Sites are visited by advance planning teams, who analyze topography, facilities, infrastructure and political climate. Every possible step is taken to ensure that those precious minutes in the shadow won't be lost because of some unturned weather-forecasting stone or other unpleasantry. Weather is the one thing we can't control or predict as accurately as we'd like, and if we're going to get clouded out, we certainly don't want it to be because we didn't examine every possible thing. Sometimes, though, bad luck hits us, and we find that Mother Nature doesn't usually pay any attention to the forecasters. As Jay Anderson is so fond of saying, "Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get!"
So it was in 1991. Many people went to Hawaii, thinking there was no way they'd get clouded out; in fact, the prognosticators had been giving it something like a 90% chance of being absolutely perfect. Of course, that usually means there's going to be a 10% chance of the puffy stuff, and, well, you can figure out the rest. A whole lot of people in Hawaii that day got to watch a total eclipse, but theirs wasn't the kind we like. Their total eclipse was caused by clouds, and it lasted quite a bit longer than four minutes. Bummer.
For us, it wasn't so bad. There was a nice thin layer of high altostratus all the way up until totality. It was enough, though, that quite a few of the people who were there with us were considering abandoning our site and chasing some holes in the clouds they had seen. We didn't follow suit, because the time was growing later and later, we would've had to truck Jim and his family along, and Richard's video camera had had so many problems, it probably wouldn't have survived a move.
One of the big things you worry about as totality gets closer is the temperature shift. As more and more of the sun is covered, there's a noticeable drop in temperature, similar to what you feel after the sun goes down at night. The problem is, not only can we feel it, but the air molecules can, too. This thing called temperature/dew point spread is the important concept here, and, as it gets that cool that quickly, the temperature of the air can actually make it down close enough to the dew point that previously unsaturated parcels of air (containing enough condensation nuclei, of course) begin to have their suspended water vapor molecules start condensing. In other words, clouds form. This is a bad thing.
Fortunately for us, that didn't happen at our site. In fact, I don't quite know how to explain it, but I would have sworn that what clouds there were before totality actually dissipated a little, right before the big part of the show. So, after all the original worry we'd gone through, it turned out that clouds played no factor at all in our enjoyment of the entire 6m50s of totality!
And what a totality it was! Being new to this whole total eclipse thing, I really didn't know what to expect. I knew it would be exciting, but I wasn't fully prepared for the amount and intensity of the stimuli that would bombard me unrelentlessly for close to two hours. I know, I know, the total eclipse itself doesn't last that long, but there's much more to it than that. There's the whole buildup, the one that began for you when you first decided you were going. You plan and plan, and think about what you're going to do photographically, and look at your maps, and practice your setup with a stopwatch to make sure you get everything done in the short amount of time you have. Then, you finally get to the country, the city, the hotel. Everything's looking good as you struggle with a different culture, all the while keeping one eye on the sky as if you could change the weather by staring at it long enough.
You're at the site now, hours before totality. There are mobs of people of all different types. Some are speaking different languages, some have flags planted near their chosen spot to advertise what part of the world they've come from, most have weird contraptions that you have no idea how they explained away to the customs officials at the airport, some are relaxed and calm, while others are animated and excited to a point that's obviously way beyond anything they're usually willing to display in public. The locals are looking at everything and everyone with the most incredulous looks you can imagine, as if to wonder just exactly how crazy these strange people are, and maybe whether their mothers know they're here. Everyone's there for the same reason you are - to stand in the shadow. And in that way, for that brief moment in time, they're all family.
Everyone's walking around, comparing setups and credentials. "This is my fourth", one man exclaims proudly to the oohs and aahs of lesser mortals, listening with rapt respect. People show off their homebuilt scopes while tourists clambor aimlessly out of busses. (You can tell they're tourists because of the gaudy shirts they're wearing.) You have just enough time to wonder who could possibly have designed such ugly things, when someone comes up to you and politely asks every detail of what you hope to accomplish with your setup that day. It's a carnival atmosphere, full of fun and happiness and anticipation, and you begin to understand exactly what it is you're doing here, thousands of miles away from home, when someone yells,
You look. Through the filters you brought for just exactly this reason, you
can barely see what they meant. The moon has indeed begun its trek across the
face of the sun, as evidenced by the ever-so-small bite you can see there on its
western edge. Just like the charts and calculations said, there it is! You
wonder at how amazing it is that the predictions can be that accurate, and that
all your thoughts, all that anticipation and planning and saving money has
finally come down to this, while someone around you says, "Well, it looks like
we're gonna have an eclipse today!", and all you can do is smile.
But it doesn't last for long. You have to make sure everything is set up properly. All your cameras are aimed exactly where you want them, and for the next hour or so, you have to make sure that they stay in the right position for when the eclipse goes total. You begin to feel the thrill that something great is going to happen here today, and you're going to be a part of it. You feel sorry for all the people back home who thought it was a crazy thing for you to do, and who at this moment are back home in their beds or at their jobs or whatever, and you know that there's nowhere in the world you'd rather be right now than right where you are!
Satellite views of the moon's shadow sweeping
Note the clouds over Hawaii and the Puerto Vallarta area!