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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Eclipse Trip - Part II    ( Posted February 19, 2003 )

Many of those in our group had never been to Baja or Mainland Mexico before and these innocents needed to be protected. We tutored them at various get-togethers we held before the trip, mostly conducted as an excuse to party. I wrote a paper on traveling the peninsula. And on a Friday, we congregated at Barsam's house in Glendale and turned our keys, pressing right feet to the many throttles of our automobiles, campers and motorhomes. The exhaust from the vehicles amassed on this primetime street in our conservative town might have sent the city fathers, including Harry van de Water, my maternal Granddad, into cardiac arrest. But we wouldn't be there contaminating the air for long. We were heading south where the air was not burdened by the massive humanity and the waters were clear and reflective.

We arrived at the Cape three days later. We camped at a trailer park at land's end, with nothing except a stand of palms between us and the confluence of the Sea of Cortes and the Pacific. We were tired of driving and sat that evening cooking shared foods and drinking Mexican beer. We sat in the sun for two days before the eclipse, tanning and talking about the small things that Baja holds in favor over the bigger decisions we normally had to make back home. Our group was influenced by the Spirits of Baja. Vendors, with trays of silver jewelry and brightly painted papier-mache assemblages, hanging in clusters, walked the beach offering their wares. Children hawked tiny wooden turtles, bobbing heads emerging from shells of small hollowed and brightly painted gourds.

There were far fewer tourists than the government had expected. We were in the primo campground in Cabo San Lucas and even here a few slots were open. Perhaps the Mexican government had set up too many obstacles.

We spent the days before the eclipse hanging out on the beach and beside the pool and showing our friends the villages of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. We piled into several cars and, starting at San Jose, hit every major hotel bar on the road to the cape. The kids all entertained each other and the adults cooked meals and enjoyed the scenery.

We idled the time away, waiting for the event. It was made more exciting because several of us were associated with JPL. Mary Ann and I had brought a good amateur quality telescope and many of the more resourceful vendors and storeowners sold inexpensive paper frames with plastic lenses tinted to protect our eyes.

We experimented with a suggestion John and Bill came up with for using the telescope to observe the event without looking into it and thus blinding ourselves. This seemed to be a reasonable avoidance, even under the mild influence of several Coronas (the cerveza type).

Their suggestion involved only a paper plate. We pointed the lens at the sun and the aperture at a plate that we shielded from the sun with a dark sheet. A crisp image of the sun was projected onto the plate. We focused the image by positioning the plate closer or further from the aperture. Now we were all set.

On the big day, we staked out our positions for best viewing on the beach, around our camp and on the roofs of the motorhomes. By the beginning of the eclipse, during mid-day, the moon began to cover the sun slowly, there was time for our eyes to adjust. We hovered around the telescope and watched the images of sun and moon dancing on the paper plate.

The entire event lasted over two hours. The moon encroached on the sun slowly; it took over an hour to reach full coverage. We watched as the moon deleted more and more of the sun and waited for a detectable change in the light on our patch of earth. It was slow in coming. The moon advanced across the sun's face as we watched the event across the face of the plate; our own white orb. Nothing really changed over the hour that it took, until all but the slightest wedge of sun remained. But as that slice narrowed we began to notice it was quickly getting darker. Within a minute it was pronounced. Within two minutes it was almost dark. Our dog, Lassie, climbed out from under the motorhome, where she stayed during the days for the coolness and went into the coach to sleep for the night.

The eclipse was total for seven minutes. We watched the plate and peered through our special lenses at the moon layering in front of the sun. It never got completely dark, but the mock night was eerie and created kind of a smoky feeling over the water, looking toward the eastern horizon. It seemed, somehow, colorless, dim and gray.

Seven minutes after Lassie had entered the motorhome to sleep the sun popped a few shafts of light out from behind the moon. Lassie climbed back down the steps she had just climbed up. I wondered if she felt rested. Within a few minutes the sky was bright and the event was over. We watched on the plate until the two bodies were completely separated and put the telescope back in its box. But the event was not meaningful just to observe the darkened sky or to see one body overlay the other. It brought to us, I think, a subtle realization of proportion, of how insignificant we are in the overall weight of things. Observing an object, the moon, an invisibly small insignificant point in our planetary system, let alone galaxy, let alone universe, which can render dysfunctional a body so large and combustible and hot as a star, the sun, even on a tiny band around a small planet, Earth, for seven brief minutes, is awesome in a mysterious and deeply-felt way. It is a feeling quick to recall, years later, being there for that brief time.

To be continued...

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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