Sunday, June 30
Today we left for the center line. It was cloudy from horizon to horizon. The promised storm. Harrumph. First stop was a big box store, for bread and cheese and any other little snacks we might require. It was not at all obvious that there would be food in Bella Vista, especially if there were a few tens of thousands of visitors in town. (We learned later that the government was planning for 25,000; I haven’t yet learned how many actually came to the valley of the Rio Jáchal.)
We drove north toward San Juan, where Doug and Hind had reserved their own hotel.
Ben wrote to us with a weather prediction about Sunny Skies, and I wrote back to him, grimly: “The problem, as always, is that the liberal media don’t care what the truth is, only what is entertaining. At this instant (14:07 UT-03) approaching San Juan, San Juan, Argentina, the sky is about 90% overcast. Yet, at this instant, if you look on Accuweather, it shows 100% sunny in San Juan. We will have to do some driving and get lucky as well. Still two days to go, after all.”
San Juan is right on the southern edge of the eclipse path. It gives you an idea of the shape of the top of an ellipse: according to the detailed maps on line, the restaurant where we stopped for lunch, all of six blocks inside the path of totality, was slated to get 25 seconds.
Club Sirio Libanés is a real find. It was founded as a club by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to San Juan province; there are characteristic Middle Eastern arches in the foyer, and tiles, and Lebanese guests with whom Hind could converse in a selection of languages, especially body language. Watching Mediterranean women communicate is such a treat for Puritans. We had brochettes, and mezes that they called Popurrí Arabe, which meant kebbe, hummus, dolmas, tabouli…
We stopped to top up the gas before heading further north. Having learned about the gas lever, we were disappointed to discover that it did not in fact open the gas cap. After some experimentation, we determined that if Dave held the lever while I pried open the gas cap with a key, the cap would open.
We drove two hours under darkening continuous clouds, to Camping Bella Vista. It cleared a little toward sunset. We set up the tent in the last light. There weren’t many people there. There weren’t many people anywhere. I guess they are all planning to drive up from San Juan on the morning of the eclipse; or maybe they think that watching it on TV is good enough. Maybe watching it on TV is good enough. Better for us, that they should think so. Eclipse watching isn’t something that requires the economies of scale and mass markets the way, say, the Internet does. Except for cruises. The night sky cleared, and we took a walk along the road lined with adobe and concrete houses and dogs and looked at the southern sky. I was still worried about the weather.
Monday, July 1
It gets cold at the 2000 meter level in the winter, even at a latitude only 30° from the equator (Houston, New Orleans). We had bought a sleeping bag from REI for this trip, which was rated down to 25°F, and it just plain wasn’t warm at that temperature. We will try to return it when we get back. We were cold all night despite wearing all of our clothes, and in the morning we decided, the heck with that. Equipment failure is one of the things that happens on expeditions, and you do something else. The thing we did is to look for a hotel room on TripAdvisor for the next two nights. We booked the last room in San José de Jáchal, an hour and a half down the river but still well inside the zone of totality. So ended the camping adventure.
The weather on July 1st was clear but for wisps of cirrus far to the north. I won’t say I stopped worrying about the weather from this point on, but the coherence between the predictions and my own observations gave a more positive 8-ball reading. We spent the day scouting locations, from the official Punta de Observación, which was a giant outdoor disco being set up exactly on the center line 7 km south of Bella Vista, to the mounds and shrines about Rodeo, a larger town north of Bella Vista on the road to Jáchal. There is a lot of beautiful scenery, with the reservoir and the chaparral, enough for every photographer to get the foreground he wants.
When in Rodeo: eat breakfast at Encantos de Rodeo. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can point in Spanish, and Churros con Dulce de Leche is an English word now anyway.
When in Tudcum: I have no idea what you do. They have signs all over the highway saying to visit the Dulces de Tudcum, but the signs point to this closed looking dusty factory-type place and there isn’t anybody around anywhere.
When in Bella Vista: a nice lady sold us choripán on the road to the disco. I talked to an Indian fellow from New York. Everybody took photos of everybody, to ensure that their cameras were in working order.
The canyon that connects Rodeo and the reservoir to Jáchal turns a brilliant red at sunset, although highway 150 is a bit harrowing. It’s wide enough and paved enough, but the turns tend to get sharper at the end, and there are piles of little rocks (“Zona de derrumbes”) crumbling from the cliff, pushing you into the edge lane, which you hope a car isn’t coming up right then. You don’t want to skid on them, right? It’s a long way to the river, down. Somebody sweeps them up every day, as we noticed the next morning when we drove back to Rodeo.
And so to bed, exchanging cautious glances with fellow travelers.
Tuesday, July 2
In the morning, Aparthotel Huelta Picum brought us breakfast in our room, as the kaiseki in a luxury ryokan, it won’t remind you of that actually. We were WhatsApping Doug down in San Juan. He decided to drive up to meet us. I wasn’t in favor of that, because I had visions of being trapped on a crowded highway such as the ones across America in 2017. As it turns out, the highway through the beautiful red canyon of Río Jáchal was once again nearly empty. We got to Rodeo before noon, had breakfast in the little cafe of the day before. It was crowded, today. We noticed the film crew that we had spoken with yesterday. They are making a documentary. They seemed a little lost.
The four of us went Location Scouting again. Souvenir shopping. Mounds with shrines on top of them. I never did find the Perfect Shrine, Gauchito Gil and his red banners framing the setting sun. We ate lunch at the square in Tudcum. Nobody was there. Even the dogs were understated.
Did I mention, I found post cards? Or I thought I did. They were 55 pesos each, and they turned out to be refrigerator magnets in the form factor of post cards. That was at the souvenir shop at the “Y” intersection connecting Rodeo, Tudcum, and Bella Vista.
If this all sounds minimal, it was. There was nothing to do but wait. There was not a cloud anywhere in the sky.
Finally, Dave decided to take the suggestion of Pablo, who runs Camping Bella Vista, to drive to the end of a dirt road next to the campground entrance, and view from beyond a line of trees. We did that. Climbed through a barbed wire fence, walked 800 meters down a dusty driveway to an abandoned hacienda, listened to the distant cows, and the thumping of the discotheque down the road, planned our three seconds of handheld photography (there are always photos on the Internet), and waited. It got dimmer and dimmer, in the exciting way that eclipses get dim, that regular sunsets don’t. Then it got dark. Dave saw shadow bands. I saw, maybe one shadow band, with a great deal of self persuasion. I didn’t see any Baily’s Beads, either. I gave up looking for them and took down my eclipse glasses, to watch the Diamond Ring.
In a prolonged instant, it was over. I hope I remembered to look at everything, in two and a half minutes. There needs to be an Eclipse Coxswain: “Prominences! Binoculars! Binoculars down! Let it glide! Sunset colors! Pull!”
I always feel that it’s rude to leave before fourth contact, but in this case, there wasn’t going to be a fourth contact, because the sun would set, and there was going to be a Concert Crowd leaving the discotheque, and Doug and Hind had to catch a plane back to Santiago from Mendoza, the next day. And the road down the canyon to Jáchal, better when it’s light, on a number of grounds. We did beat most of the traffic. When we got back to the larger town, it was nearly 8 o’clock, which is the time the restaurants open. We went to a restaurant that had been closed Monday night, 1000 Ochocientos. We were all covered with playa dust from the cow pasture. They must tolerate that, in the ranching country.
Those of you who have been to Buck’s, in Woodside, will recognize the decor ethic. When you visit junk stores, and you think, who would ever buy this and what would they use it for? The answer is, period kitsch restaurants. Definitely the falling apart sled that Aunt Margaret had in her wood pile ready to burn (and she was a hoarder) when she died, (which went at the auction for, am I remembering correctly, $1100?) is hanging from the ceiling of one of those restaurants, now.
1000 Ochocientos had motorcycles. The food and wine was OK. I don’t want to order any more pizza in Argentina, though, and Argentine beef is still tough by American standards. Doug and Hind WhatsApped that they arrived in San Juan at Midnight, and again when they left early the next day for the Mendoza airport.
In the morning, we chatted with a fellow from Slovenia, in the parking lot of the Aparthotel. He was surprised we knew where Slovenia was, let alone planning to go there in six weeks. He said he’d give us ideas. Mostly, I need ideas of things to skip. There’s always a lot to do.