The 12 October 1977 total solar eclipse, which occurred on my 22nd birthday, was a disaster plane and simple.  Being clouded out is bad enough.  Having broken down vehicles, impassable roads, rabid animal attacks, AND last minute clouds is intolerable.  It's taken 22 more years for the wounds of El Rosal, Colombia to heal before I electronically transcribed my notes which I now place before you.  This, truly, was the eclipse expedition from Hell.

"The One That Got Away"

"The Hydrogen-Alpha Rainbow"
"How NOT to Spend Your 22nd Birthday"

20 October 1977
Freeport, the Bahamas*

* I needed a vacation after this expedition

On October 9, 1977 the Amateur Observer's Society solar eclipse expedition departed for Colombia, South America.  Actually leaving from the United States, in two groups, we met in the airport in Bogota.  As the group leader, I had taken what was supposed to have been an earlier flight down to make sure everything was in place when the main group arrived.  My flight was 8 hours late, so I feared the main group which was supposed to arrive after me would have preceded me. I needn't had worried, there flight was equally delayed. This seemed odd since my flight left from Miami and the main group's from New York.  Why?  Avianca airlines just finished painting their entire fleet of aircraft, and the paint had not dried for either of our two scheduled flights to leave on time!  This was the portent of things to come.  Though tired from long delayed flights everyone was in good spirits and optimistic about our prospects for viewing the Oct. 12 eclipse. Little did we know what fate had in mind.

For the group, we had some local sightseeing planned, the day after our arrival.  Our local guide told us, however, that everything we had planned to do would be closed as it was a holiday.  Why this was never mentioned before remained a mystery.  Still, we appreciated a day at leisure, and to prepare for the eclipse.

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The next day, 300 meters from our Hotel our bus broke down minutes after we boarded it.  The odometer read  "00001".  I can assure you however, this bus was hardly new.  Several people decided to walk to the National Museum which was less than half a kilometer away.  When they arrived at what was supposed to be one of the key "must see" sites in town they were advised it was closed.  When they asked when it would be opened they were told "proximo ano" [next year].  Later, that morning two others on our trip suffered an attempted mugging just outside our hotel.  One of them responded by throwing one of the hooligans into the street headed for oncoming traffic (Atta girl, Alice), then beat a hasty retreat.  And so it went from bad to worse.  Why do I bore you with this trivia?  Only to let you know that at some point we should have known this was the Murphy's Law eclipse expedition.

On the days preceding the eclipse, in addition to touring the city and becoming familiar with Bogota, we made several 'official' visits in order to determine if our initial site selection was a good one.  First, we stopped at the Instituto Geographico, to examine the latest aerial photographs around our primary and alternative site locations.  Initially, we had chosen to observe the eclipse on a side road just to the east side of the town of La Vega.  This was in the hills, descending into the San Francisco plains, and had afforded both an excellent view of the western horizon, and a generally lower cloud cover near eclipse time that time of year.

Armed with maps and charts from the Instituto Geographico we next went to see Sr. Garavita at the Bogota Planetarium.  After discussing our plans with him, he agreed that this site was a good choice, but suggested we consider either Zipaquira or Guatevita.  Both of these locations cited for their ease of accessibility, in addition to the fact that other expeditions had opted for them.

We had planned on visiting Sr. Duffo at HIMAT (the Hydrological and Meteorological Service) but unfortunately did not have time.  Rather, we stopped in the HIMAT office in downtown Bogota for the latest weather update.  The problem with the weather in this area is that cloud cover, even as little as 12 hours ahead of time can be dubious. With our careful analysis and planning we then advised our bus driver of our plans.  As it turned out we should have consulted him first.  The road we had planned on taking to La Vega would have been impassable in our chartered bus ( a replacement for the on that had broken down).  With this new information we opted for our secondary site to the east of the town of La Pradara on the road between Subachoque and Zipaquira.

At 7:00 AM on eclipse morning the eighteen member expedition boarded our bus that was to take us into the moon's umbral shadow.  Fourteen aboard were "official" members of our expedition.  One, Mr. Mike Fortune failed to make his connection with the AAI group in Guatavita, and was effectively stranded in Bogota.  On hearing this we naturally asked him to join us.  Also along was our police escort, Sr. Christobol Herrara.  The Colombian government suggested in no uncertain terms that we take a security policemen along with us, and graciously provided one {along with his machine gun}.  Our local guide and bus driver (of course) were with us too.

Departing Bogota we had planned to take the route through Tabio, Subachoque, La Prederra, and finally to our site.  The drive to Tabio was approximately 3 hours.  Or arriving we wandered into the town's big annual Colombus Day celebration.  School children were all dressed in uniform, music playing in the streets, local art exhibitions, and reenactment of historical scenes were all going simultaneously.  And, the inhabitants of Tabio were gearing up for a festive day to be topped off with viewing the eclipse.  We watched the pageant for a while, then the bus departed the scene, pulling down an overhead electric wire, ripping down the PA system, causing the festivities to stop.  We asked the driver to stop so we could help.  Our police escort said, in effect, "no way ... drive on."  So we watched out the rear of the bus at the unintended chaos we had caused.

From there the trip to Subachoque was a little over one hour. We stopped there for lunch and ended up drawing quite a crowd.  People from all over town came to ask questions about the eclipse, and see this strange group who came from the United States to see the event.  We had taken the opportunity to distribute aluminized mylar filters to people in the town to view the partial phases.  Our bus was surrounded by those asking for filters, and nearly one hundred were given out in less than 10 minutes.  At this time, however, most of our  eyes were on the sky as some rather ominous clouds were drifting in front of the Sun.

We bid a fond farewell to Subachoque, after sampling some of the best yogurt I ever tasted, wishing the people there the best of luck in viewing the eclipse.  In a short while we passed through the village of La Pradera, and continued on to our site.  That is when the trouble started.  Several kilometers north-east of La Pradera the road conditions deteriorated rapidly.  This was unexpected. Our driver remembered the road being well kept.  We later found out that this was half a dozen years earlier, now it was hardly traveled at all.  In attempting to surmount one large and unavoidable pot hole in the unpaved roadway, the bus became stuck in the hole.  Just at this time it began to rain, and the road turned into a quagmire.  After an hour of struggling, with everyone pushing the bus, we managed to get it free.

Still raining, we inspected the road ahead, by foot, and determined it would be quite impassable.  We could not stay where we were, as the mountains to the west would block our view of the Sun, and could not go forward, as the road was untravelable.  The driver assured us that he could not go back down the way he came, so the bus would have to be turned around.  The road at this point was less than half a meter wider than the length of the bus, and dropped off sharply into two muddy ravines.  Tuning the bus proved to be no simple task.  The slippery road conditions just compounded the problem.

Two hours later, with a lot of luck, covered with mud, we returned to the town of Subachoque.  This seemed quite miraculous, as at time we thought we would miss the eclipse due to mud.  If we had gotten a strange reception our first time through Subachoque, the town's reaction to the mud enshrouded bus, and mud covered people returning before the eclipse, was quite something to see.  Thanks to the hospitality of the local inn keeper we managed to clean up and warm up a little.  But now, it was just one hour to local first contact, and a new site had to be chosen immediately.

Without reservation, we selected a large valley to the North of El Rosal.  This would take us off centerline, but still allow 38 seconds of totality.  In addition, a newly paved road could be traveled all the way.  Twenty minutes later we were at our observing site; Latitude 4° 55.6'N, Longitude 74° 46.5'E; and began setting up our equipment.  We had descended considerably in altitude since leaving Subachoque, and with the mountains to the east of us the western sky was quite clear.  When we first arrived the area was devoid of people.  But, no sooner had our bus stopped then cars started slowing down and stopping.  It was a chain reaction.  Within half an hour over three hundred people had joined us at our site.

We were hampered by clouds until a few minutes after first contact.  Then the last of the clouds began to clear way.  From here on it looked as if the eclipse was "in the bag" with unobstructed viewing in the western sky. During the partial phase (ingress) as tension was mounting at our site, the locals who had joined us were as excited as we were at the prospect of what was to come.

About 15 minutes before second contact some very small cumulus clouds began to form over the western horizon. Perhaps this was due to the now dropping temperature, and increasing relative humidity.  As totality approached, the cloud cover thickened and the sun dropped into the solitary cloud just 3 minutes before totality!  At that time the crescent sun was visible as less than a 180 degree arc. At this point, 2.5 minutes before totality, to say we were disheartened would be a gross understatement.  Rather than a moving wall of darkness, as had been seen in previous eclipses, the shadow looked more like a spreading triangular wedge etched in the sky pointing back to the now obscured sun.

With less than two minutes to go we could see the ground and hills just a kilometer down the road in diminishing, but obviously clear sunlight.  Some of us took off running to get out of the shadow of the one damned cloud between us and the eclipse.  It was not very big - but big enough.  The cloud shadow, centered on us was too big and totality too close, and too short, to escape our inevitable doom.

Though hardly just compensation for our plight, a remarkable event occurred just before second contact.  Turning away from the cloud-covered Sun, briefly, to look at the opposite horizon, a rainbow waning in brightness was seen in the sky. Though we could see nothing of totality, just before the expected time of second contact the surrounding clouds took on a reddish and unmistakable chromosphric tint, and the rainbow collapse to a single brilliant red strand of Hydrogen-alpha light lasting for just a second or two before being snuffed out.  This was phenomenal - a flash spectrum seen in a rainbow!
But then, agony.  Cries of agony from our group of frustrated eclipse chasers.  We were unmistakably in totality - but could not see it.  The sky was actually quite light.  Only seven stars could be seen during totality, and the sky at the northern and southern horizons was hardly darkened at all.  This was probably due to the narrowness of the shadow at that point.  At our location, off centerline, we were only 20 kilometers from the southern limit of totality.

Missed it by that much! One miserable cloud with a Hydrogen-alpha lining taunts us in silent mockery.  Clear skies loom only a few degrees away from it's edge. So near, yet soooo far....

During totality our eyes were glued to the spot in the sky where the eclipse should be.  Viewing with telescopes, cameras, binoculars, and searching in vain with unaided eyes for even the shortest glimpse of the sun. Then as quickly as the lunar shadow had engulfed us it began receding, and the one cloud which had eclipsed the eclipsed sun began to lighten.  The Sun, hidden from our view during totality, broke through the cloud into surrounding blue sky less than 5 minutes after totality and remained visible most of the time until sunset.  The sky had then been almost completely blue except for a few isolated spots near the horizon.  A line of parked cars, along the periphery of the roadway, extended as far as could be seen.  Then, the disappointed masses began packing up cameras, telescopes and began a very subdued, almost silent retreat from this site whose name would never be spoken from our lips.  Lenny Lataille, from Massachusetts, took a quiet moment to burn his until-then lucky "eclipse hat".  Turned to ashes by the roadside as were our aspirations.  A white sheet, set up in hopes of seeing shadow bands, laid discarded and unused and went fluttering down the roadway.

To add insult to our injury, sunset was rather spectacular.  The partially eclipsed sun set over the distant mountains.  In setting, the Sun passed behind a water tower on the foreground hills, and gave a very interesting parting view.

During the eclipse, the temperature dropped by 13 degrees Fahrenheit.  Since the Sun set in partial eclipse, the temperature did not rise again afterward as had been noted in the previous two eclipses in Australia.

The traffic on the road back to Bogota after the eclipse was as bad as any I had ever experienced on the Long Island Expressway in New York, on Friday, at rush hour.  Our armed police escort got off the bus, and directed the traffic off of the road so we may travel on the opposing lane. Even so, we did not arrive back at the Hotel Taqundama until 10 PM.  Had Cristobol not been waving his machine gun at oncoming traffic I think we might still be tied up in that traffic jam.

After surviving the shock of missing the eclipse, we remained in Colombia until October 18th.  During that time we saw the sights in and around Bogota, seeing the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira (where several got food poisoning at lunch), a coffee plantation near Fusagasuga (where we were told we couldn't enter because we were Americans), the Bogota Planetarium (where our specially arranged English language show was in fact in Spanish) and others.  We had arranged with the manager of the Hotel to allow us the use of the roof for a night of star gazing hoping to see something of the southern skies.  The weather did not cooperate.  From Bogota we traveled to San Agustin, a truly fascinating area containing ancient ruins, statues, and monoliths.  This deserves a special note.

We were to fly from Bogota to San Agustin via Aeropesca airlines (the "flying fish" airline) to get there in time for a scenic 3 hour bus-ride through the mountains to where we were staying.  The Aeropesca 1950's vintage DC-3 had other ideas.  We were supposed to leave at 9:30AM.  By 10AM they hadn't boarded, nor by 10:30, 11:00, or 11:30.  No information was forthcoming save the departure time on the board was blank.  Looking out the window of the terminal one of us noted a very peculiar looking airplane pulled off the end of the tarmac.  It was a DC-3, painted orange with giant bright yellow daises all over the fuselage.  One engine cowling was off, and pieces of the engine were scattered on the ground with two mechanics standing around scratching their heads.  The plane looked like it had been through a war (it probably had).  Only then did reality strike when we noticed an "Aeropesca" logo on the tail.  We continued to watch the mechanics for some time, and eventually they had the engine reassembled.  A mechanic climbed in the cockpit, opened the cracked window, gave a "thumbs up" sign, tried to start the engine, which obviously sputtered then smoked, gave a "thumbs down" and climbed out of the cockpit.  The engine cowling was again removed and the mechanics went back to work.  This process was repeated three times.  Part way through the second time the departure time was changed to "mañana?".  Now we didn't know what the question mark meant, but the "tomorrow" part was obvious.  We were told that the "?" meant they didn't know if it would be tomorrow, it still could be today.  Actually at about 3:30PM on the third attempt, the engine started and they announced boarding.  Only 6 hours late.  At least they were not painting the airplane like Avianca.  But wait, it gets better.

We went onto the airfield to await boarding.  We were lined up next to about 150 crates of live chickens.  We had to wait until the chickens were loaded before we could get on. Only about 100 crates fit in the cargo hold.  The rest went, you guessed it, into the passenger cabin.  They were piled in the last 8 or so rows.  We were told if our seats were occupied (i.e., by chickens) just to take any seat.  There was, of course, no AC, and the ventilation was non-existent, except for the large crack in the cockpit's left hand window, which was obvious as the cockpit cabin door was missing. So was the co-pilots seat.  He flew standing up.  Given the lack of ventilation, and that it was hot, no one had any desire to sit near the chickens.  An announcement was made that we all needed to sit as far forward as possible to properly balance the aircraft.  No problem, I said we didn't want to be near the chickens.  Then a second announcement.  I thought I didn't understand it correctly, as I can understand some Spanish, but I am not fluent.  The essence of it was that the cabin could not be pressurized (no doubt due to the crack in the front window), so they would have to fly low.  Low being under about 12,000 feet.  This may seem high, except that we would need to pass over some 11,000+ foot mountains. The announcement was telling us not worry if it looked like we were flying into a mountain, as this was planned.  Why should we worry, just because we were convinced that this plane should have been scrapped during the Korean war.  Well, we did make it in one piece.  Though we declined the in-flight snack - chicken sandwiches - we did smell like chickens on our arrival for some odd reason.  Of course we arrived as it was getting dark, just in time to miss our scenic bus ride.

Some years later I related this story to Alberto Villegas, a graduate student at the University of Florida, who is Colombian.  He almost turned white when I mentioned Aeropesca, and said in a muted but shocked voice while shaking his head: "Aeropesca?!  NO ONE flys Areopesca!

We did try to take advantage of our late night bus ride to Pitalito (near San Agustin) and stopped to try to enjoy the first really clear dark sky of the trip.  The sky was gorgeous, but then as John Fuzek was returning momentarily to the bus he was bitten by a possibly rabid bat, which we could not catch.  John completed his rabies inoculations after returning home.

On our return to the Unites States, despite the fact that we had been clouded out of the eclipse, everyone was happy they had attempted the venture, but somehow thought that for an unknown reason we were cursed.  With the clouds of El Rosal behind us we started planning for the February 1979 eclipse in Montana.  With over 500 days to go, we are all anxiously awaiting the opportunity to again stand in the path of totality, but this time leaving Mr. Murphey behind.

POSTLUDE: This was a valuable, though very costly, learning experience.  Not in terms of dollars, but of 38 seconds which can never be recaptured.  Perhaps Mr. Murphy was a 15th unseen member of this eclipse chase doomed to failure, perhaps not.  What did I learn?  a) NEVER trust second-hand information.  b) Check EVERYTHING, twice, yourself.  c) Be dual redundant; have a back-up and back that up.  d) The real estate agents are wrong.  It is not "location, location, location", it is "mobility, mobility, mobility".  Being clouded out of a total eclipse is traumatic.  Being clouded out of an eclipse on your 22nd birthday is a wake up call saying "do NOT let this happen again".  That's not to say that other cloud-outs may not happen.  Indeed, in 1990 I was clouded out on Atka Island, but that one was a LOOONG shot, and I knew that going into it.  No, it says to maximize the probability of seeing an eclipse you must consider every alternative and possibility, weigh them effectively, and be prepared to discard previous decisions as needed no matter how well considered they were at the time.  I have since lived by this, and other than the 1990 gamble have not been clouded out since.  Still, 1977 hurts.