By bus to Baja for the solar eclipse--it takes you back

July 11, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

CAPE PULMO, Mexico -- Like wow.

Like, I mean, like, the eclipse is coming here to Baja California. And the Green Tortoise is serving a sushi lunch to the remnants of the '60s.

The Green Tortoise is a 1958 General Motors transit bus turned into a rolling dormitory for 30 survivors of the Kool-Aid-acid test.

But the jargon of the era has been replaced by words such as syzygy, open star clusters, totality, Beads of Bailey.

Where once "los hippies" of the Green Tortoise entered the universe through clouds of marijuana smoke, now they are here to groove on a natural thing.

Shortly before noon today, the guests of the Green Tortoise will be plunged into darkness, in what promises to be the best total eclipse of the century.

No drugs are needed.

For almost seven minutes, the moon will interpose itself between the Earth and the sun, revealing four planets and a host of winter stars normally obscured this time of year.

Unfortunately for Baltimoreans, the moon will take only a tiny 7 percent bite out of the sun at 3:34 p.m. EDT.

More than 50 million people live in the 9,300-mile path of the total solar eclipse as it cuts a 160-mile-wide swath from Hawaii to Brazil.

To bask in the dark side of the moon, the Green Tortoise people have joined thousands of other Americans in driving the 700-mile, two-lane highway that runs from the border to the tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula.

Nothing much grows here, so some recreational vehicle owners stashed fuel and water along the way for fear that the Mexicans would run short of supplies, leaving them stranded.

But local businessmen who stocked their shelves with imported Miller beer, Pringles and Gatorade have found sales disappointing.

"The hordes of gringos just aren't coming," said a grocery owner in La Rivera. "We were told to expect thousands, but so far my only expectation is losing my shirt."

Many blamed the Mexican government for announcing that eclipsomaniacs would be refused entry to the Baja unless they had confirmed "notarized" reservations at hotels and campsites.

The advisory turned out to be false but caused many would-be tourists to stay home or forced motorists to take back roads to avoid roadblocks that never materialized.

Meanwhile, the better-heeled astronomers and astro buffs flew from 78 nations to fill all 5,000 rooms at the resort hotels in Los Cabos, south of here.

Many of them have spent thousands of dollars to be in a spot that has the least chance of rain or cloud.

But for a mere $700 each, the Green Tortoise took its 30 guests

on a 14-day adventure that began in

San Francisco and ended here in the heat-seared mesquite overlooking the Sea of Cortes.

"Like, what could be finer than to be so close to nature and each other? It will be awesome. We have truly become lunatics," chuckled Gardner Kent, owner of the Green Tortoise and pigtailed survivor of San Francisco's Haight-Asbury -- the notorious mecca of the flower children of

the '60s and '70s.

Mr. Kent remembers the days when buses like the Green Tortoise and its predecessor, the Grey Rabbit, took people from New York to San Francisco for the far-out price of $59.

"In those days we could take twice as many people because they all slept on top of each other and were totally stoned for the four-day trip," he said. "Now everything is different. Privacy is in and drugs are out. We have been eclipsed."

(Today, like many of his generation, Mr. Kent has gone corporate. He now owns a fleet of 10 Green Tortoises and has an 800 telephone number for those desiring off-beat vacations to Alaska and Mexico.)

Indeed, the passengers here are more likely to be lugging Star and Astronomer magazine than Rolling Stone.

Carl (no last name), a welder from San Francisco, was quite familiar with astronomical terms. "Syzygy is the position of the new moon between the sun and the Earth, and the Beads of Bailey are the points of stellar light surrounding the sun's corona immediately before and after the total eclipse," he explained.

Carl remembers the good old days of the '60s as "basically a time I'd rather forget. . . . I'm into stars and the cosmos now," he said.

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