Frozen Landscapes

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Ice sure does draw me in.

I’m having trouble with the last installment(s) of the Field Notes posts; I’m stuck on the questions, yet again, of how much I want to share, how much I should share, who I’m writing for, and what people want to read. I normally prefer to write things consecutively but that tends to make writer’s block exponentially more insurmountable. I’d like to get better at posting things when the bloggy spirit moves me, so for now, I’m just going to set Iceland aside until the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip is ready to come out and play again.


The last few months in the Midwest have gifted us with one of the longest, most disgustingly cold winters I can remember. And with that long-lasting, seemingly never ending, brutal-stupid-cold came a lot of grey days and lonely nights and soul searching and journaling and trying to figure out the question that we can never answer fully: What Comes Next? (More on that later.) But there were some pretty great parts, too.

With that terrible cold came some terribly beautiful ice. Because of the weather, Lake Superior froze solid enough to allow visitors to walk to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves for the first time in a few years, and they were stunning. Red sandstone caves, striated arches, dangling exposed tree roots; they were all covered in ice whipped up by the bitter lake wind.


Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves Adventure Buddy

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Dear Sugar, How do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

They say we should never meet our heroes.

When we see our heroes for who they are, they mostly fail to live up to our expectations. They are, like us, flawed humans who make mistakes and fuck things up and hurt the people they love on accident or sometimes on purpose. They are, like us, people who say things they sometimes don’t mean and sometimes things they do mean, things they mean so much that it exposes a bone of truth so raw and ugly and scary that we wish we’d never said them in the first place. This beastly truth should make them less eternal, less ideal, less honorable, less heroic.

But what if it doesn’t? And what if our heroes present themselves from the beginning as so human that we can’t even construct that illusion around them? What if they’re so painfully honest that we can’t pretend?

About a year and a half ago, I happened across an article posted online by an acquaintance called “DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things.” It is a letter to the author’s self in her early twenties, prompted by a reader, and it is powerfully written, specific and moving. Please don’t trust me on this, go read it yourself. You won’t regret it.

“#64: Tiny Beautiful Things” has been a defining article, a crucial set of rules, an unofficial manifesto in which all the details don’t apply to me but the core values do. Sugar wrote anonymous, beautiful and wretchedly truthful articles. She wrote about death and love and fear and sex, about writing and courage and and the people who we become when we think no one else is paying attention. She wrote about trusting yourself. About living out what you already know to be true, that “you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.”*

Dear Sugar provided me with answers for questions that hadn’t even formed yet; questions I still haven’t parsed. Something about that article in particular pulled a thread out from inside me, started an unraveling, an emotional and lovely and terrifying thing.

To herself and to her readers, Sugar said, “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

I read this before I knew my partner would break up with me. I was someone he loved; he was, in this moment, simply someone who wanted to change the terms of this one particular relationship. I thought about this as I processed it; as I processed my own advice to friends who were also considering leaving their partners and I told them, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and I meant it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other end of it. With the clarity of eight months’ time now since the breakup, I can tell you that this paragraph gave me something. It didn’t make me understand my own situation more than I already did, but it gave me something to hold on to, another truth to face, another thread to pull. That perspective made things more bearable. “You are not a terrible person.” Like I was saying it directly to him.

In February this year, Dear Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed, an author I’d never heard of. Part of me was terrified to find out who she was, because being a real person with a real name and a real face would ruin the Sugar mystique. Part of me really wanted to know, because I wanted to gorge myself on her work, to devour every word she had written. In April I read her novel, Torch, a piece of autobiographical fiction about cancer, about her mother’s death. In May I read Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mother had died and her marriage had fallen apart at her own hands. I looked up every essay I could find online, and I read them all. In July, Tiny Beautiful Things came out as a collection, a physical book I could hold in my hands, a bound volume of Sugar.

And last night, she came to speak at Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. I requested the night off from work months ago, because I needed to be there, to see her, to hear what her real voice sounded like and the cadence with which she read her own words. It was so odd, in the beginning, the mix of feeling this real devotion to a stranger who wasn’t a stranger, the din of bar patrons chatting, the weird desperation we feel when we want a drink from the waitress and can’t get her attention. The dizziness, the red wine warmth and fuzziness of the whole situation, the odd lighting and bad sound. It felt like swimming, or like it wasn’t real. They say we should never meet our heroes.

The discussion moderator said something important. He said to her, “You make me want to be a better person. You make me feel like it’s okay that I’m not.” I agree with him.

It was intense, sharing the experience with all these other people, people who said “awww” in all the right places, as a chorus of emotional voyeurs. It was a stark difference between that and when Sugar was anonymous and I had this private relationship with her, reading at my laptop, connecting with her veiled but very naked and vulnerable self. And I felt like no one was looking. Like I shared something with her that no one else knew about.

Part of me wonders if Sugar can ever come back, now that she’s been unveiled, identified. Someone at the reading last night asked this, and Strayed said yes, she can and she will. She told us that she always wrote with the knowledge that she would one day put her name on Sugar’s words, that being Cheryl was not any different from being Sugar. “I was never anonymous to myself,” she said.

The last thing she said while onstage was about the importance of finding solace in the wilderness—whether that wilderness is the PCT or the banks of the Mississippi River. She is right.

And for me, that also extends to the wilderness of the unknown territory of yourself. It felt like she was saying to me, you must find solace in the trees and roots and shadows and animal noises and the sweet and rotting and bodyish smells of your own unknown forest. She once wrote, “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”**

And here I am. I’m standing at the edge of the forest. I’m leaving my stick behind, but I am bringing a book.
Walk with me?

Andrea, me, and Cheryl Strayed with Tiny Beautiful Things at the Amsterdam Bar, 10-16-12


** source

Third Grade Earth Science at the South Pole

A few days ago I did a live chat with two classes of 3rd graders in St. Paul who are learning about Antarctica. To prep for the Q&A, their teacher Mitchell told me, they played with mint-breath cold winds, made eyewear to ward 24 hour daylight rays, played sightless/wordless blizzard rescue, and made models of the Gamburtsev Mountains which they later covered with handmade snowflakes. They had some really good questions! Check ’em out!

Shekina asks How was your breakfast?

me: Hi Shekina! I haven’t had breakfast today, but I normally have fresh eggs when they are available–they have to be flown in from New Zealand, a country near Australia. I think that makes them taste special.

Griffin: Have you ever fell through the ice?

me: I did fall through the ice once–I was shoveling near the small aircraft landing pad last year and I fell into a 12 foot hole. Luckily there is no water here at South Pole, so I landed on top of a buried building, not in the ocean.

Charlie: Have you ever gotten lost?

me: No, we stay pretty close to the station most of the time. I got a little lost the first time I tried to find my bedroom, but not scary lost.

Imani: What is your favorite thing to do there?

me: I like to play games, dance, make art and exercise on my days off–we have one day off a week, Sundays, and we have to spend it wisely. My favorite thing would be hard to choose!

Mandeq: Do you ever see animals at Pole?

me: Not normally, since we are 800 miles away from the coast and there is no food or water for animals here. When the over ice traverse came in (like a tractor road trip that brings us fuel) a BIRD came with them! It was so crazy to see a living animal here–they announced it over the intercom so everyone could look.

Gunnar: How cold is it there now?

me: Right now it is -23 F with a windchill of -47 F.

It will get down to -100 in the middle of winter (june)

Tyler and Qiana: Have you ever ridden/touched a polar bear?

me: I wish! That would be so cool. We don’t have polar bears in Antarctica, though, they live in the northern hemisphere.

Addie: have you ever gotten stuck in the snow?

me: Not STUCK stuck, but sometimes it can be really hard to walk in deep drifting off station–you would lose your boots if they weren’t tied on!

Melissa: Do you stay warm in your cold gear?

me: Yes, they give us plenty of warm clothing–jackets, snowpants, boots, long underwear, fleece pants, mittens, neck gaiters. Sometimes I get cold when I work outside for a long time, but not too cold normally.

Austin: Ever seen an iceberg?

me: I have seen sea ice from the plane into McMurdo station (on the coast) but I don’t think I’ve seen an iceberg.

Amir: What is the hardest thing to do there, in your opinion?

me: Good question.. I think the hardest thing we do (in terms of work) might be the jobs of the people who defuel the airplanes–they work outside all day every day, and the planes are really loud, they have to carry heavy fuel hoses around, and they smell like stinky fuel.

Anna: Whats the highest temperature since you’ve been there?

me: Actually, we hit a record this year–it got to TEN degrees above zero. It felt so warm!

Sasha: Is it ever warm in your room?

me: It depends on the room. This year my room is so warm I can’t even wear socks to bed. Last year, in another room, I had snow on my bed sometimes, because it would blow in through the cracks!!!!

Georgia : Is the Jamesway comfortable?

me: It can be. I like my room a lot this year. It can get a little stinky though, because we are only allowed to shower twice a week to save water, and lots of people don’t have doors, only curtains.

Mitchell: from the class – what are you doing today?

Mrs. Voglegesangs 3rd grade class says “Thank you”!!!!

switching to other class

me: Well, today I am going to unpack a bunch of frozen food that we have stored outside (everywhere is like a big freezer) and we are going to prepare food for the winter.

Thank you all!! Nice to meet you!

Mitchell: How do you prepare food for the winter if it’s already frozen?

me: Well, we are stocking it so they can access it. It stays outside in the summer, and we need to move it with tracked loaders because the containers are thousands of pounds each– we unpack it and keep it in inside frozen storage because the tractors freeze in the winter and we can’t use them.

Mitchell: back in the other class, Hello!

me: hello from south pole station!

Cedes: How cold has it been lately?

me: It’s been around -25 F the past few days, and the windchill is going down again, getting to about -50

Adam Me.: Seen any polar bears?

me: Unfortunately, no! Polar bears live in the Northern Hemisphere, they don’t come all the way down here. Maybe I’ll see one someday if I ever go to the north pole.

Emily: How long have you been at the South Pole?

me: I have spent eight months here total–four months last year, and almost four months this year–since October!

Eddie: What do you like about the South Pole?

me: I like a lot of things, but mostly I like the people who I work with, getting to be outside,and getting to see the sun 24 hours a day.

Josh Wo.: What jobs do you do there?

me: My job last year was shoveling–lots of shoveling!!–and cleaning up/removing dirty ice in the vehicle maintenance facility. This year I work with inventory–counting things, lots of them stored outside, and putting them away (I get to use forklifts and tracked loaders)

Kenisha: Do you like sleeping in the tents (Jamesways)?

me: Some times I like it a lot, other times it’s no fun to go outside in the sunlight and cold to brush my teeth before bed–it wakes you up!

Quiante: What types of animals live there?

me: None, actually! We live 800 miles away from the coast and Antarctica is technically a desert, so there is no food or water for animals. We have to melt ice for people to drink, and all our food comes on airplanes.

Charlotte: What is your favorite activity for fun?

me: I like dancing–we dance every weekend here!

Josh Wa.: When did you first go to Pole?

me: My first time was October of 2010. But the first person to ever get here was 100 years ago, a Norwegian named Roald Amundsen.

Celia: If you could, would you live there year round?

me: I want to spend a full year here sometime, and to see the winter and the 6 month night. I think it would be really cool. You can only be here for a year at a time though.

Charlie: Have you slept in a sleeping trench and have they ever caved in? (happy camper pictures)

me: I haven’t slept in a trench myself, but my friends have! No one has had theirs cave in, at least not this year.

Chloe: How many people live there?

me: In the summer (now) there are about 250 people–scientists and the people they need to support them, like me. In the winter, there are about 45 people.

Ella: Is it comfortable to wear all your snow gear?

me: It’s pretty bulky–it can be hard to get in and out of vehicles, go up stairs or work (like shoveling!) Lots of us bring our own jackets since they are more comfortable.

Connor: How long did it take to get there?

me: A few days– from Minneapolis we fly to New Zealand–about 20 hours of flights. From NZ to McMurdo is 5 hours, then to South Pole is 3 hours’ flight.

Sandy: What’s the biggest hill you’ve slid down?

me: Ob Hill in McMurdo is really tall, like a mini mountain! I climbed up that and slid down on my bottom. It was fun, and fast!

Grace K.: Is the bed you sleep on soft or hard?

me: Pretty soft, but sort of old. Like summer camp.

Tess: Do you get scared during the blizzards?

me: It can be sort of unnerving to not be able to see the station, but I have a radio on me so if I was ever lost I could call for help.

Kara: Is it hard to be out in the cold that long?

me: Yes, very. Working outside is a very challenging part of my job.

Alaysia: How do you break the ice?

me: Well, to get ships to McMurdo for food, they have a special ocean vessel called an icebreaker. For things on station, we use shovels and icepicks and other tools.

Zoe: Can you go skating there?

me: The ice we live on is like packed snow, so not really unfortunately.

Will: What kinds of food do you eat?

me: We eat normal food, like from a cafeteria–sometimes we get fresh vegetables, which is really exciting and we have a small greenhouse to grow our own veggies. But we have things like hamburgers and soup and cereal, or more exciting things sometimes, like Thai food.

Mitchell: Kiell, thank you for responding to our questions and spending time with us!


What about you? Do you have any questions for me?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I traveled to Romania to tour the castles!

Well, not exactly.

I work at a kids’ day camp in Minneapolis and St. Paul called Leonardo’s Basement– a really cool organization that focuses on art, science and technology for kids of all ages. Every year, we have a one week class dedicated to building a cardboard castle from lumber, screws, refrigerator boxes and creativity: a full size, two story, five-towered beast of a playhouse.

We start on Monday morning with a few puzzle pieces laid out for the kids, get to know each others’ names, go over safety (basic safety and also use of specific tools).



Tuesday Teamwork!


Catwalks and Towers assembled, Tuesday

On Wednesday, we added cardboard walls.




On Thursday we practiced swordplay…

A student practicing safe swordplay with Julian, the teacher responsible for the magical mayhem

staged scrimmages…

and put a few finishing touches on the castle.

On Friday, we went over rules and prepared for battle.

Handcrafted by the kid himself: duct tape armor

And then, we scrambled to our defensive posts…

and fought off the attacking army…


and there weren’t too many casualties…

Don't worry, he's just pretending.

and all around had a pretty good time!

Summer Scenes

We camped in the middle of August with Val and Peter, leaving Minneapolis in the middle of a heavy rainstorm, feeling apprehensive about the bad weather. When we got to the park a few hours later, the weather had turned, and we hiked in to the site to set up camp and help out with dinner. There was just enough time walk a bit further down the path to a little dock for a private sunset swim. Hiking the next morning to Lake Maria, we sunned on the dock, swimming, having lunch in our wet bathing suits—cheese, bread, stone ground mustard, apples. We picked a lunchbox full of fresh blackberries from the bramble behind the ranger’s office, our arms and legs stinging from thorny branches, our lips stained purple.

I flew to Atlanta to visit my mom, spending ten hours in the car with her driving to Florida and feeling really lucky to have her. Catching up with my grandparents over cocktails and 5pm “salties,” having really good, really real conversations. Mom and I tanned through the clouds by the pool, swimming in the rain when it started. Doing one or two (or six) last cannonballs before going in for dinner, with her laughing and running up to the pool, hugging her knees and jumping in, her hair so straight when wet.

Daniel and I drove out west and back for two weeks, through torrential prairie downpours the first night, lightning eventually illuminating the hills forming out of the North Dakota flatlands and making camping impossible. The red, brown, sage and black striated earth of Montana made us regret only driving through and we want to plan a return trip in the future.

We stayed with a friend of Daniel’s from South Pole at the permaculture farm he lives on on Orcas Island, a few hours north of Seattle by ferry. He let us sleep in his quarters, a double layer canvas tent lit with a smoky oil lantern, drink his home brewed beer, and make pancakes with fruit we picked on our walk and eggs taken straight from the chicken coop. The three of us hiked down a mountain on the island on a mossy-quiet, switchback-riddled path, short but steep. We stopped at a pair of lakes nestled on the side of the mountain, skinny dipping off of a rock ledge into the breathtakingly cold water; dark, clear and still, save for us gasping at the chill. The sunset that night was purple-orange, one of the most beautiful we have ever seen.

In Portland, we stayed a night with artist friends we met in Beijing earlier this year, comparing travel notes and catching up, eating pad thai and wandering around the funkier-than-thou jewelry shop openings, microbrew pubs, secondhand clothes shops and record stores. Later in the week we went further west to see good family friends, driving out to Tillamook and following a gravel path to their super-secret beach spot and making a huge driftwood fire in the sand. We watched riders on horseback gallop down the waterside with Mabel the Oceandog loyal at our feet.


Grasshopper at Craters of the Moon National Preserve, Idaho



Dogs in an RV


Back east, we drove through the snowy looking sands of the Great Salt Lake Desert at sunset, coming all of a sudden through a twisty mountain pass and confronting a vast, unreal flatness. Through Colorado on Highway 14, our prairie driving mindset was again shattered by nighttime mountain driving, foxes and moose crossing our path, almost less scary not being able to see off the precipice on the really sharp curves. We drove and drove that same night, unsuccessfully looking for a campsite in Wyoming and Nebraska and gave up in the wee hours of the morning, drinking the best-ever warm beer and falling asleep on the nearly exposed mattress springs of a roadside motel, late night TV on in the background.


Carhenge, Alliance, Nebraska


On our last marathon day of driving, Daniel read aloud to me from a book he bought for us as I drove, and we stopped midday for overcooked bison burgers and bitter diner coffee, the South Dakota sun warming us through the window.

In September we camped with close Danebod friends by the Temperance River gorge, clambering down slippery log stairways late at night to feel the cold Superior wind on our faces, lying on our backs on the bridge over the river, listening to the crashing water and counting the north shore stars. We hiked during the day across the red lava rock flows, pocked and studded with pale green lichen and butting up against the insanely blue water. I listened to Daniel talk about this cove or that rock formation, fond memories from his childhood, realizing with a sorrowful but excited shock how soon we’d be leaving.