"Traveling without Moving"

Journal entry 25~27 January 1999

 

I am on my way to The Ice again. This time, I shall be working on my own, setting up equipment and making measurements of pollution of the working environment, hopefully getting to scope out the Dry Valleys for my next project. But what this means is that I won’t be meeting up with Harry Mahar, I won’t be getting the feedback and validation that come from working with a peer on a project of mutual interest. Harry will be on the end of the wires – e-mail that is – but he won’t be physically there. In terms of on-the-spot scientific program decisions, I’m on my own. I look in a mirror. The person that looks back at me is the kind of person that I would expect to be able to handle it. The person that looks out at the mirror is still surprised. Blink once and you grow up. Blink twice and you’re in charge.
 

 

My son Christopher comes to my office at LBL. The digital camera is on my desk, the pixels captured when he presses the button delineate this person that I have miraculously become. The perspective is that of a child: the angle of view tilts upwards. What flows back down this same slope?

 

 

We trade places, this time I press the button and we see the next generation aspiring. But my instinctive view is horizontal - not tilted down – either as if envisioning this future, or more simply, as a proud parent.

 

 

 

This time, the routine for preparing for a trip to Antarctica is – routine. On my last two trips I’d recorded faithfully all the clothing I used, all the stuff that I didn’t use. The shadow of the Bennett Island Project had faded to the point where I now knew I didn’t have to pack my own toilet paper and scotch tape. I knew that the efficiency of the U.S. Antarctic Program really would provide. It would be a trip to the known, rather than the unknown: a trip to the furnished and familiar, despite the remarkable natural setting. 4 pairs of underwear – check. 2 cotton turtlenecks – check. Extension cord – check.

 

In this insidious way, the process of traveling is transformed. The more the destination contains familiar elements common to the source, the more there is to immediately associate with upon arrival: the perception of having gone anywhere is proportionally diminished. Yet ‘we’, in communal marketplace action, seem to like this. Our collective actions and preferences lead to the replication of some kind of familiar environment no matter where, some kind of clean haven from which to sally forth to view the natives from a safe distance. No matter where travelers from the dominant west go, they want to find a clean bed, running hot water, familiar food. It may be thrilling to see the tribesmen, but few tourists want to live like one, even temporarily, and none want to eat their food or catch their diseases. The tribesmen are placed behind a sanitized curtain, rather like a Web browser screen.

 

In a similar way, the gross magic and myth of Antarctica that filled my imagination in 1996 has been tamed. The obviously astounding will be anticipated: I must look closer for the details. Closer at the natural world, and, if I am able, closer at the human side. Maybe travel has a fractal nature: the closer you look, the more you see, the picture transforms but the complexity remains.

 

- - - -

 

Boxes. We pack boxes. Pumps, cables, spares and supplies for the equipment at Pole, an aethalometer to measure pollution levels in the work environment at McMurdo. From past experience I use giant bags of miniature candy bars in place of packing filler. An official Box Of Chocolates (shiny wrapping, brown crinkly paper cups), with which to appreciate favors from administrative staff empowered to assign me either to the farthest Jamesway tent, or to a comfortable close-in Hypertat.

 

 

 

 

Boxes. We paint boxes. In 1997 I used several cans of aerosol paint and asphyxiated myself while simultaneously producing only blotchy designs on the cardboard. This year it’s a quart of Best Matte Black, two brushes and an assistant.

 

 

Life speeds along. I pack my bags a week in advance, knowing that the pressures of everyday life will not release me until the last moment. At 4 PM I’m printing out a report for my boss at the Lab: at 5 PM I’m discussing Christopher’s homework: at 6 PM we’re in a car to the airport. I envy Shackleton his heroism, partly for the attendant recognition and build-up.

Kiss, hug, "I’ll be back soon". Shackleton couldn’t say THAT to his family.

 

- - - -

 

At Oakland airport, the illusion intensifies. A familiar and known situation, one of the most recognizable and yet anonymous artifacts of our modern age: The Airport. No matter how hard the planners and architects try, all they can do is to ice the inevitable fruitcake: The Airport. It’s a shuttle flight to L.A., in the waiting lounge area I am surrounded by eager young men talking into cellphones. We fly, yet there is no sensation. If my window is a screen, it is dark for most of the time. Suddenly, the lights of L.A. appear and start moving across my screen. I was raised up, and the earth obediently turned beneath me to its new position. There’s a vending machine at the Lab that has a carousel of many partitioned shelves that can be aligned with opening doors. A button on the front says ‘Press To Rotate Product’. I pressed it, but the products didn’t rotate – the whole carousel did, positioning first one then the next behind the sliding doors. (did I really expect each sandwich to pirouette?).

In a similar way, a flight could be entitled ‘Sit Here to Rotate Planet’.

I get to LAX: the only real difference is that this airport is under continual construction. Find Gate 76, a vast sweaty mob of people all haunted by the look of fear that derives from anticipation of a 12-hour flight.

Horror. My name is called. "Mr. Anthony Hansen, to the podium please".

They’ve bumped me, I flunked the attitude test, people whose last names end in N will be denied boarding.

 

"Mr. Hansen? – we’ve had to upgrade you to Business Class to make room for all the coach passengers." I resume breathing, I board, the world of privilege welcomes me in muted shades of dove gray and teal with a glass of champagne.

As I sit guiltily in a seat with more controls than my first car, the sweaty mob files past me to serve out their sentence in the rear. The distant screams of babies will be a murmur in my slumber, like the cries of seagulls as one snoozes on a beach.

 

We rise, the world slips away beneath the wings. What really happens to scenery after it’s been used?

 

We descend, it’s Another Airport. Auckland, not Oakland – though the buildings could be interchanged without anyone really knowing that they were on the other side of the world. I walk the half-mile from the international to the domestic terminals, and I start to register a difference: it’s Hot and Humid, it’s almost Tropical, there are puffy white something-something clouds all floating at a fixed level in the sky. In the domestic terminal I have an hour to wait: I pull out my laptop and Hah! – I am so smug, I brought with me an adapter for the bizarre angled power outlets, I plug in and type, I’m back in the Oakland waiting area with the other road warriors.

 

Another flight, Auckland to Christchurch … but when approaching ‘Christchurch’ becomes departing ‘Cheech’ the illusion and privilege will be abruptly replaced by rivets and webbing, this much I know. What has up until now been a detached, visual-only phenomenon is waiting to burst forth in sound and fury, ECW’s and eye-popping noise, the aesthete in the hands of the military.

 

But first …