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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Eclipse Trip - Part I    ( Posted February 16, 2003 )

In 1989 Mary Ann, the boys and I had moved from Glendale to Ventura County. This was a major shift. We moved from our old Spanish three-story home built in 1927, to a single story ranch house, built in the mid-sixties. It wasn't the house we had purchased; it was the property. We had five acres nestled into a north-facing slope of the Oak Ridge range in the Santa Clara River Valley. The land had been carved out of a Spanish land grant back before the State was born. We had a sweeping view from the Pacific Ocean, thirty miles west, to the Mojave Desert, thirty miles east. We had no neighbors. On the valley side we overlooked the sometimes-running Santa Clara River from our lofty plateau. But the mountain view was my favorite, a scene of complete tranquility, of rising hills and mountains, no roads, deer, mountain lions, bears, Lynx's, foxes, skunks and possums walked our property, some more frequently than others. There in the evenings I would sit looking into the distance at the plateaus and ridges that towered over us, providing a natural frontier between us and a small town thirty miles distant. Cattle grazed on the lush growth in the spring evenings. Quail raised their young in relative safety of the too-thick-to-hunt underbrush. Occasionally, in the riverbed on the downslope from our home we would hear the shooters hunting birds and rabbits there. But in the hills rising behind us there were only the sounds of Red-Tailed hawks, quail and coyotes.

By the early 1990's my small business with JPL was facing some new challenges. Work was a stressful deal. I was uptight and wanted time away. Mary Ann, Michael, Kevin and I had been visiting Bahia de Los Angeles several times a year since we'd spent the summer there at Las Cuevitas in 1985. But we had not been further down the peninsula since then. John called my office at home one morning.

"You coming to lunch today?"

"I'll be down. I've got an early afternoon meeting. Where do we want to go?"

"How 'bout Pepe's? I'll tell Bill. We'll see you at 11:30."

Pepe's is a personable Mexican restaurant in La Canada. It's a basic, no-frills place with a no-nonsense mother-daughter team of waitresses and the best salsa and chips we could find in the area. It was a JPL lunchtime hangout between the 1960's and the millennium. So I did my home work, jumped in the shower and at 10:45 walked out the door to drive to La Canada. Forty-five minutes later I walked in the door of Pepe's. John and Bill had saved me a place at the table.

"There's a total eclipse of the sun this summer, in August." John announces. Bill smiles.

"Why do I need to know this?" I ask. The eclipse has been discussed before. We did, after all, work for JPL.

"I'm surprised you haven't figured this out. Do you know where the best views will be?"

"Give me the scoop."

"South of the Tropic of Cancer."

Terms like Equator and Tropics have always caused by heart to stop and the hair on the back of my neck to stand. In my gut, growing up in Cuernavaca in the '50's, I always, somewhere in my heart, figured I'd be a gun-runner or some sort of smugler. Here I was then pushing 50 and stuck in my office shuffling paper.

I ordered iced tea and a carnitas tostada, stuffing a couple chips and salsa in my mouth and asking John for more information.

It was beginning to sense from the way they had set me up that this was going to be a big trip.

"The Cape." John said. "Cabo San Lucas. That's where the best viewing will be"

It turned out I was right. It was going to be a big trip. Fifty of us planned for weeks. John and I bought a new boat. Then a problem came up which was serious enough to conceivably cause us to cancel the trip. It was unique to the eclipse phenomenon.

The configuration of the peninsula and the lack of a serious tourist support superstructure caused the Mexicans to worry, legitimately, about too many travelers rushing to the Cape all at once. They estimated that hundreds of thousands of tourists would arrive en masse, all at the end of a thousand-mile-long baron stretch of land, an open tap flowing freely into a boot. The one highway that ribbons that entire length is a single lane and narrow road. It's filled from place to place with potholes. The supply of gasoline during normal demand is often dwindling to none. There are a limited number of restaurants, bathrooms, hotel rooms, parking places, markets campgrounds and RV parks.

"Where would all these people go?" the government cautiously asked.

Mexico decided the way to handle the potential problem was to issue a special permit which had to be applied for, issued, received, carried and presented to armed guards by any tourist passing the 28th parallel at Black Warrior, halfway down the peninsula. There were many rumors about other checkpoints. Snarls of confusion reigned for the months before the big event. We followed the instructions for obtaining the permits and picked them up at a bureau of Tourism in Tijuana. We felt like we'd grabbed the gold ring. We had some fifty permits issued to our group.

The organization for this trip was coordinated by John and Bill. They called others that would be interested and made plans and set dates. We had a barbeque at our ranch to make final arrangements. In the pool compound, the guys sucked up beers in the Jacuzzi while the kids plated darts and pingpong in the rec room and did cannonballs into the pool and our wives, sitting in the shade of the vine-covered arbors, made lists of stuff to bring. It would be, it turned out, a two-week trip. The first week would be getting to Cabo San Lucas and viewing the eclipse from its primo location. The second week would be at La Gringa, always my favorite place on Earth. We fought to get the tourist permits the Mexican government required for the event, and, a week before the eclipse, stormed the border in a caravan that backed up vehicles for miles. As for my family, we were just going home!

To be continued ...

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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