Last month in anticipation of the centennial, Norwegian reporters roamed the station, trying to distill the South Pole Living Experience into a paragraph or two. While I was out inventorying the C-Berm, on my hands and knees in the ice, burrowing into snow drifts to count yellow-paint-peeling-in-the-sun CAT track grousers, one one of them approached me, wanted to ask me a few questions.
“Why do you come here?” he asked.
“Inventory?” I answered.
“No, like, why do you come here?”
At first I didn’t know, and I mumbled some half-assed speech about the people, about being with the people who come here, which he interpreted as, “So you like the night life?” …Well, not exactly, but I didn’t know how to explain it. He took my picture with a used 953 fuel tank and a box of bolts, and moved along.
But I’ve been thinking about the answer ever since.
I come here because of the interesting people, really. Not the night life, but to be with people who are living their lives however they want, and seeing whether they are happy with that, or not, and why.
Traveling, adventuring, falling in and out of love and getting frostbite and shoveling; biking a hundred miles a day in Maine and motorcycling across Southeast Asia, partying like maniacs in Brazil or Miami, and then driving their pickup truck all down South America through cities and jungles and drug lord territories, because they want to. Because they are here to study the cosmic microwave background and the birth of the universe and neutrinos and to capture the cleanest air in the world for science. Because people have little patchwork businesses at home that they sustain themselves with, carpentry and teaching yoga and fixing people’s cars; because people have been to every continent whether to fight in wars or to save people’s lives through volunteer medical work; because their kids are grown and they wanted to do something different.
I come here because it frames my whole life from a totally different perspective, because it makes me appreciate little things I can’t have, like baths and candles and grass and puppies, decent beer and coffee and a place to cook my own food, bodies of water and mountains and trees. It makes me appreciate things I don’t like, like a commute to and from work every day which is a time to be alone with my thoughts, and a time to separate my work life from my home life (rather than a few flights of stairs from my office to the galley where people ask me about work at breakfast, lunch, dinner and parties). It makes me appreciate my family and friends even more, because although the people here are living amazing lives and while I love some of them, I don’t choose them.
I come here because it gives me a chance to learn things in ways I couldn’t learn them at home; every little thing, like writing on a piece of paper, becomes a struggle of mittens and wind and cold, sluggish hands and paper like a kite. And because of more substantial hurdles, like trying to learn a language or playing a violin or running despite the altitude. Because I have the opportunity to defuel military planes and blow up buried buildings with dynamite and drive giant vehicles, things I might never fall into at home.
And, well, because it sounds interesting.
Even though sometimes while I’m here I question why I ever agreed to this insanity of a lifestyle, I came back this year because as soon as I left I missed Antarctica, and because when I thought I might not be able to come back because of the icebreaker situation this summer, I was devastated.
Because even though my lips are now so chapped and peeling that they feel like they’re growing hair, and even though my body is screaming for vegetables and warm sun and more sleep and long showers, I still want to be here, to be a part of this. I want to spend a winter here, to see the sun go down for six months and see the moon go up and stay down for two weeks at a time, to feel what 100 degrees below zero is like, to see the aurora australis in all of its shimmery splendor.
Why do I come here? I don’t exactly know, honestly. I came here in the first place because it fascinated me, and I came back because I liked it.