Field Notes from the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip: Part 1

Genesis?

I am talking to a hippie crone with Swedish-blonde bangs, a straw fedora and a woven poncho. Her eyes are squinty from wine and weed, and she is telling me about authors she’s loved and thinks I should read: Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut. She rummages around in her huge bag looking for tobacco for what seems like a long time, rubbing and licking her thumb and forefinger, rolling a cigarette.

Everything has been fuzzy for the last few months. It is the last day of April in Minnesota and I am at a bonfire on an island on the Mississippi River, hidden between the dry brush of late winter and the freight train bridge. We are celebrating Valborgsmässoafton, the end of winter (though it will come to snow heavily in the next few days), and people have brought things to burn to welcome spring back into our world. A dry Christmas tree, wooden skis, an old chair, drum sticks go into the fire. I’ve brought a little prayer-on-a-post-it and I poke it into the embers, closing my eyes and holding my breath. A tiny yellow request for happiness, for a sign on what direction I should turn in the coming months.

After a long silence this woman tells me about an author traveling to a wild and barren frozen land in the late 1800s. Iceland. She says something about his observations on the human condition, about his use of language or cultural notes, but I am not listening anymore because I am only hearing the echoing clang of this country calling out to me again. Why does it keep coming up?

Iceland, Iceland, Iceland.

~

I have never traveled alone before, and I was drawn to the alone-ness of a country whose population is less than the city of Minneapolis, whose wild open roads offer waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and roaming sheep. The air is cold and there are long stretches of road with no other people for miles in any direction. I decided to drive the perimeter highway, to make a full circle around the country moving clockwise. There’s something clear about that, about coming full circle, about coming back to where you started with a lot of road behind you; completion, wholeness, something final and real and absolute.

Planning the trip, thinking about what I wanted it to mean for me, was a bit of worrying it was frivolous fun balanced with hoping that it would be soul-crunching and raw and scary and life changing. Healing, maybe. The single lady pilgrimage trip. I am afraid to be alone. I am excited to be alone. Suddenly, I am alone.

Field notes.

The reality of alone-ness hitting me in the tiny rental car. I sat and laughed with the key in the ignition, the kind of crazy, bubbling-up laugh that surprises you when it comes out of your mouth sounding more hysterical than happy. I was scared to leave the comfort of Reykjavik with its art museums and flea markets and bars, scared to leave the newborn familiarity of sitting in the municipal hot spring baths; the creamy lilt of the Icelandic language; heavy smoky clouds over the harbor.

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The first day’s drive was rainy, as many of them would be.

I passed lakes in isolation, simple churches and paint-peeling farmhouses with white sides and red roofs, horses with shy teenager hair and sheep with matted locks, slopes of hill that ached up into low cloud cover. Beauty building up on that path, slow burn like the black lava boulders cloaked in the tendril clutch of creeping moss.

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Reaching my first trail in pouring rain, berating myself for not having rain pants, for being under-prepared to hike in bad weather. The wind threatened outside the car like a hungry hound. I will eat you alive.

I cried. What the hell am I doing?

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I waited in the car as the windows fogged up, more because I didn’t know what else to do or where I was even planning to sleep that night. Eventually though, the rain stopped and I walked the coastal trail, muck sucking my boots, slipping in the rain’s aftermath, black cliffs plunging into the ocean crash.

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The light like perpetual dusk, even clouds and a pregnant sky. The feeling that something was about to happen was always present: pressure change, a storm, a break in the clouds or maybe the sun would fall straight into the ocean, slipping over the verge of the horizon. When the the clouds cleared from half of the sky, plaits of rainbow crashed down while sheep drank rainwater from potholes in the gravel road.

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(The car’s seatbelt sensor is going off. My seatbelt is on. It starts out as a present beepbeepbeep and works itself up to a deep breath and BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP and I’m yelling at the car, I know, I’m wearing it! Shut up, I’m wearing it!!! and I’m barreling down this gravel road in a tiny toy car and it sounds like being thrown down the stairs in a crackerjack box during the apocalypse and I think to myself, this is not the peaceful quest I’d imagined.)

Further North in Hofsós I soaked in a steamy pool almost level with the ocean, bitter snowy wind blowing at my neck, my face, my wet hair, watching the shadowy clouds snag on the mountain across the inlet. School age boys played the international game of steal-the-tube-and-drown-your-friends, laughing brightly under all the gray.

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A little boy in arm floats and an around-the-chest jetpack floatie sat in the shallow part of the pool until his young dad, ruddy cheeks and wet-straight hair, picked him up and carried him gently into the main pool. Hands cupped over the boy’s ears, he tilted his head back into the water. In the moment I think I might be witnessing a baptism of sorts, and I realize I’ve barely spoken a word for days.

~

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Walking in the Snow

One step at a time is good walking.
– Chinese proverb

It snowed last week. Pretty, soft snow that stuck to the trees and cars and sidewalks, wet and melty and cold and peaceful.

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Knee-high snow in my knee-high mukluks.

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Sometimes I can only take things one step at a time. Eight months ago, “one step at a time” was very purposeful, keenly directed, survival-mode walking. Get a job. Get a home. Get a car. Process. Grieve. Calm down. Breathe. Don’t forget to eat food sometimes. Once every few days, put on clean socks and get out of the apartment.

Things these days are a little more erratic and all over the map. Some days I feel so hopeful and have so many ideas, and I write really well and I run really hard and I feel so good that I think I’m maybe better off in some ways than I was a year ago. Some days I feel frustrated and sad. Some days I long so deeply for the life I left behind that it makes my teeth hurt. One step at a time means something different now. Go to work. Write poetry. Have fancy cocktails at fancy bars with girlfriends. Register for another creative writing class next semester. Cry and eat Nutella straight out of the jar. Walk around the icy lake drinking a latte, watching birds and talking with a great friend, dreaming about the future. Buy hiking boots for a trip that I haven’t even started planning yet.

My imagination of what the future will be, my 5-year “plan,” the fantasizing about travel and backpacking in Europe and going back to Antarctica and getting hired to work for a travel magazine, it’s going to my head. I find myself making plans that are loosely structured around things that I have no good reason to believe will ever happen. I guess that’s the point of dreaming though, right? What’s your 5-year dream plan?

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I left as the 24 hour rotating shadows were starting to become a little longer at South Pole, the wind getting sharper, the population getting smaller and more saturated with people getting ready to stay for their winter, bonding with each other and letting go, in a way because they have to, of summer contractors.

From the plane, hearing the drone of the props, watching the map underneath us change from flat white nothing to the volcanic soil of the mountains and coast, glacier tongues literally melting into sheer, vast open water, to sea ice. The view, visually overwhelming, seems to elicit poetic thoughts from even the most unlikely of mouths.

Being on McMurdo’s runway, letting comparatively temperate air and sun touch our ears, cheeks, necks, starved for that sensation. We watched firefighters shoo a penguin off the runway.

The stress of work peels away on that plane like a sheath of irrelevance—things that were immensely important just a few days before mean nothing at all now; it’s a blissful release, an absolution but also a kind of sad amnesia, because friends are invested in the same issues for the length of the winter season and it feels like giving up, abandoning them in a way.

Off the aircraft and though customs, the sweet New Zealand night air smelled like grass and flowers and rotten leaves, fresh or perhaps imminent rain (rain!), the sky dark and the moon ringed in a cloudy little rainbow. The group made the motions of the unceremonious chaos, dropping gear off at the CDC and boarding a shuttle, realizing that for the first time in a long time, you’re surrounded entirely by people you’ve never met.

The next day, waiting for and sitting through Daniel’s surgery, wondering at the pigeons outside the windows and the wind agitating the mature trees, wondering what happens if there’s an earthquake and they’re mid-surgery; wondering who was in the middle of surgery during the last earthquake and what happened to them, and then trying not to wonder that. And then it was over and he came rolling back up the hall in his bed and hospital gown. He’s totally fine now, no evidence of anything ever having been wrong.

We spent a week in Wanaka, south of Christchurch, soaking in a hot tub with friends and eating avocados, drinking bloody marys, decompressing from the season.

And here we are at home. It’s good to be back. Keep watching for more photos… there are plenty I want to share with you now that I’m back in the lands of plentiful internet.

Thoughts on Leaving: Soccer, Broken Bones, and a Very Personal MedEvac

As you may know, Sundays are our only day off here in Antarctica, and we have to make the most of them. There are all kinds of community-led activities, writing and photography classes, volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, impromptu craft parties and wine tastings in the greenhouse.

This Sunday, I went to yoga and spent a while in the sauna before heading for dinner, and Daniel went to the first soccer tournament of the year—soccer players practice a few hours every week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and it’s a big part of Daniel’s exercise regime, something I remember him telling me on the phone in 2009 when he first came down to the ice. During the game, Daniel had a collision with another player, both men running full speed and focusing on the ball instead of each other. He fell and got up, and finished out the tournament.

But when he was still in pain later that evening, we decided to call Medical, even though Sunday is their day off too. Something seemed wrong; it looked like there was at least swelling on the left side of Daniel’s face, if not a maybe-different shape than normal. The PA was on call, and after looking for a bit and making sure Daniel wasn’t suffering a concussion or any head injuries, she called in the doctor as well. After poking and prodding and examining and xrays, the prognosis was a broken zygomatic arch, Daniel’s left cheekbone, and he was immediately scheduled for the next flight out. An unresolved fracture is an automatic NPQ (the opposite of PQ, when we are physically qualified to come to the ice at the beginning of each season).

That night, we sat together in bed after packing Daniel’s stuff, dealing with his physical pain, regretting this seemingly small accident, and grappling with our mutual feelings about the season having to end like this, but having flashbacks to food poisoning and malaria scares in third world countries and being grateful that here, at least we speak the language and understand the medical system. We decided together that it made the most sense for me to stay and carry out my contract, since I’d be leaving in a week and a half anyhow.

And then before I could think straight or even realize this was real, he was on the plane and I was crying on the runway. His two sweet coworkers stood on either side of me as we watched taxi and takeoff, the contrail behind the plane like a physical thing, looking as though the runway itself buckled up to assist the plane’s loft.

He is in New Zealand now, getting ready for appointments and maybe a small surgery, and hopefully will be ready for a real vacation in about a week when I get back. I miss him a lot, and it feels weird and hollow and different to be here without him in this big, cold bed, but I know that this is the best way to have a medEvac; finish your soccer game, pack your own bags, walk yourself unescorted onto the plane, and be ready for a kiwi roadtrip in a week. And I know it could have been so much worse, so I’m grateful for that.

And I’m grateful for the community response to this, the support I’ve gotten, the off-ice medical and insurance help that Daniel is and will be getting, and the hugs and offers for help packing and airplane bag lunches from friends. I’m even more ready to go, now that work is getting frantic with things to finish before station close and people, including me, are dirty and cranky and just over being here. The funny thing is though, I know we want to come back.

So here’s to fast healing and minimal pain, to friends who stand beside you when things go wrong, to the end of this season, and perhaps to the beginning of the next one.

South Pole Centennial Photo Extravaganza!

As promised, here is a glut of photos from the Centennial and the days preceding it. 

Tourists camping on hardened sastrugi and skiing for transportation and recreation:

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Polar Solar:

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The ceremony sound guy:

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Video in –25F:

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The ceremony itself:

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The unveiling of the ice bust of Amundsen:

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The press:

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The fashion:

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And the celebration:

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We went inside to get ready for the cocktail hour in the gym and the special dinner in the conference room.

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Centennial Menu

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Sydney Clewe, Dining Assistant by day and Graphic Designer/Artist by night, painted this amazing canvas mural especially for the dinner (as always, click to enlarge):

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The night went perfectly and the dinner was divine (I tested everything, especially the julekake, which brought me back to childhood Christmases).

Kitchen staff, waitstaff and runners:

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Antarctic waitress brigade:

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How to Get to Antarctica in 11 Easy Steps

Step 1: Apply for a job.

Step 2: Get said job.

Step 3: Physically qualify (medical and dental for austral summer, plus psychological for winter). Do lots of paperwork. Actually, this is like 30 steps, but you probably don’t want to hear about them all.

Step 4: Pack, unpack, repack, take some stuff out of your luggage, repack again, and still end up taking too much.

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Step 5: Go to a lot of orientations and learn about riveting things like OSHA, Information Security, payroll, health insurance, waste procedures and New Zealand BioSecurity.

Step 6: Fly. A lot. Arrive in Christchurch.

Step 6.5: Sleep off the flight.

Step 7: Go to the clothing distribution center (CDC) and try on Emergency Cold Weather gear (ECW), which has been pre-sorted and neatly lined up in giant orange duffel bags just for you: big jackets, insulated overalls, clunky boots, neck gaiters, mittens, gloves, hats, long underwear of varying weights, socks, boot liners, and more. Exchange anything that doesn’t fit.

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Step 8: Enjoy Christchurch a bit, (we got to go to the Rugby World Cup Expo, and then after we got here, the New Zealand All Blacks won!), see some beautiful scenery, or pretend to, and buy anything else you need.

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Step 9: The next day, put on your gear and get on the plane.

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Step 10: On arrival in McMurdo, get off the plane and onto another shuttle.

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Step 11: Check out beautiful MacTown!

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Little things about Zanzibar and the Long Way Home

When my boyfriend was feeling a little better after our IV drip adventure, drinking his prescription-strength Gatorade and eating a stale cookie or two (bought from a stall vendor, complete with a millimeter thick layer of dust on the package), I went shopping. I was hoping to buy a few kangas, the Tanzanian printed cloths women wear as skirts, turbans and baby holders, printed with proverbs I don’t understand. When I was at one of the shops, haggling over prices, two young men got into a scuffle–not quite a fight– and a fat, strong-looking, grandmotherly lady stood up and went over to one of the men, giving him a full strength whomp in the shoulder with a stick of sugar cane she was chewing before sitting back down. Everyone laughed, even me.

Drinking exotic-tasting spiced coffee, a slight breeze on the backs of our necks.

Daniel looking for a wifi access point, walking around with the netbook like it was a metal detector or a divining rod.

Athletic, sweaty men running with a pushcart in Dar es Salaam, keeping up with car traffic.

We took a long taxi ride to Jambiani beach, watching the land and people go by. Grilled maize, lumber yards and power tools, a boy balancing a stack  of plastic bowls and pitchers taller than himself, tire shops and land rover parts, a funeral procession with men standing on the back of a fenced-in pickup truck.

On Jambiani, we sat on scratchy woven hemp twine chaises, contemplating the unreal turquoise ocean; the fishing dhows were beached twice a day when the tide went way, way out: nearly a quarter mile. You couldn’t even hear it anymore. Kids rolled bike tires along the beach, tires almost as big as they were, laughing and playing, and little blue sandy crabs ran for their lives as if pulled by a string or blown by a little puff of wind. Stormy weather sat out on the horizon like a plateaued mountain, topped with puffy clouds.

Colobus monkeys sat in the trees, preoccupied with something on a particular branch, while we ate the catch of the day and the sun disappeared completely but its evidence remained. The moon, like a spotlight, illuminated the receding tide and the reflective white sand.

On the night that we didn’t order the catch of the day, but rather the beef, Daniel was again so incredibly ill that we were up all night. This time the clockwork vomiting kept us up again, scared and tired, but not quite so afraid as in the previous week. The tide, in at 4 in the morning, lapped literally at the foundations of our little screened cabin, loud, roaring, calming (to me at least)–a reminder of the presence of where we were, despite the food poisoning. Grounded but not grounded. Serene but not serene. Ready to go home, right now.

In the morning, kids played soccer on the beach, a homemade goal set up against the coralline rock, practicing their impressive moves. I remember thinking to myself, I can’t imagine growing up in such a beautiful place, where families live off the ocean. Little fenced in seaweed gardens were exposed when the tide rolled out twice a dayPiles of coral rock lay in the morning arranged at low tide, to be collected and later sold out of the bed of a truck. Fishermen with nets tossed small fish to kids up on shore. The older ones gathered them by handfuls, the youngest one picking up a fish now and then, and when it flopped in the air he would squeal and twirl it around by its tail.

Eventually, we took another taxi ride back to Stone Town, back to the ferry, back across the ocean to Dar es Salaam and started the long journey home. Having gotten some bug or another, I was so sick by that point that I could barely stand in the line for customs, could barely contain my nausea. I thought they would take my illness for nervousness and detain me like a would-be bomber on our flight home. Multiple multiple immodiums and bottles of water later, we landed in MSP, our luggage stranded somewhere in DC. But, one way or another, we were home. Home, home, home.

~

And now, it’s almost time to leave again. Is it normal to have every year of your life go faster than the last?