The Long Trip Home
Part One: From 3 Miles of Ice to 3 Inches of Dirt
On board the Hercules from Pole to Mactown
Monday, February 10th
I am writing this part on board the Hercules: today I departed from Pole, to begin my long transition from ice to non-ice. In literature, rites of passage usually *begin* with a challenge, and are initiated in ceremony. The long journey back from Pole, however, begins with waiting around for the plane. There's a marker in the snow, from which point all directions are North. This morning, the direction is Sit.
My bags are packed, my tiny sleeping cubicle is cleaned out. My suitcase and orange 'Hold Bag' are dumped on the snow: the former full of clothes I didn't wear, the latter full of issued ECW gear I didn't wear, just out of circumstance. Both will be tossed into a steel skip on the front of a Cat to be taken out to the plane, and are cooling off nicely right now. "Take your bathroom bag with you", they said, "don't let your toothpaste freeze". My briefcase and a couple of items of ECW gear are stuffed into another orange ' Hand Carry' bag to take on board with me.
work is done, our projects brought to conclusion for this season; the contractors
have put in their last shift. We sit in the galley and wait for the plane.
Groups that have become buddies exchange addresses, tell final improbable
tales. For most of them, they are both glad and sad to leave. Glad, to
be leaving the monochromatic world of cold and snow, where every task is
I have another cup of coffee, and visit the bathroom again. "Plane on deck" announces the PA. I go out, up the hill from the Dome, and out onto the flight area to watch Cargo Ops unloading. The sky is overcast with an icy mist, no sun at all and the wind is blowing enough. Probably 70 below zero with wind-chill. I look at the smoke from the engines: in the last couple of days we have had some ideas about how to reduce the exhaust concentrations where the drivers have to work.
a modern-day Snow Princess, Diana from Cargo Ops is on her Cat, her face
and hair framed in delicate threads of ice. In a few days, she and her
staff will write themselves their own tickets out of here, and the Cats
will be tucked in for a long sleep.
Finally, Cargo is done, and the PA announces "All passengers for Mactown, proceed to the flight deck and have a safe journey". The crowd in the galley picks up their bags and heads out through the freezer doors for the last time. In front of the Dome they say their last farewells, and we climb aboard the Bean Can. Inside, the cargo area is filled with huge packing boxes of sorted waste being shipped out. A full load out for a full load in: no garbage is disposed in Antarctica any more. The cost of getting that margarita to me on Saturday night not only included the cost of shipping a bottle of tequila to 90' S, but also the cost of shipping the empty bottle home. Knowing that in advance made it that much tastier, that much more incongruous.
The engines roar, the fillings in our teeth vibrate and Pole Station recedes through the scratched windows into a tiny dot in the vast white flatness: an outpost of mankind at the End of the World. Unlike other remote places, this one is doing more than just barely hanging on: instead, it is equipped with the most advanced scientific equipment peering into the cosmos, the most sensitive instruments studying the earth and space. If Robert Scott were to awaken from his icy grave and trek back across the Polar Plateau, he would be astounded: a miniature city on and under the ice, with running hot water, fresh fruit and satellite communications. There is no strategic value to the location: this high-tech dot on the map exists purely for the sake of science, and science in its purest sense for the sake of knowledge. And smoke in the air, alas.
After an hour, we pass over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains: for the first time in a week, my horizon is not perfectly flat in all directions, though the windows add an interesting distortion. I'm sitting on one side of the aircraft: there's a draught and it's 19 degrees F right here. (Where does the draught come from? - yikes.) I pull on my ECW bibfront pants, I am colder than I have been for a long time. Again, the Man in the front has the Knob, and probably a small mirror: we passengers know that the Air Force will wait until we've pulled on every last layer of clothing, and will then turn up the heat to 'MAX'. The air crew are professional military men in professional military gear with short military haircuts: the returning Polies are a rag-tag bunch in worn insulated coveralls, torn jackets and stringy unwashed hair. The freight load being retro'd is garbage for recycling: how do the crew view the passengers?
The plane dips and turns, dips and turns. We don't land: 'It's fogged in', we think, 'we're returning to Pole'. But no, the plane was being used for radar calibration and had to circle a number of times. We land at Willy Field on the ice shelf, and the view is spectacular, if simply for the fact that there *is* a view. There is no view at Pole. Mount Erebus looms over the landscape, its summit catching clouds. The van speeds along on the smooth snow: we are on a freeway. The passengers sit quietly, thinking of the pending transformation in their lives.
We drive off the ice, and up onto the dirt road on the east side of Ross Island. Dirt. Dirt everywhere. Dark-gray gritty volcanic dirt. This dirt produces no dust, and therefore no country-and-western nostalgia, no truck ads. Non-romantic dirt. The tires crunch, we drive over the crest of the hill and into the back side of Mactown. Past storage yards of construction equipment and supplies, shipping containers, mounds of pipes and girders, spools of cable all neatly stacked on the dirt. Past fuel tanks, penned in against spillage by berms of dirt. Finally into town, built on the dirt. After ten days of white snow in all directions, the sight of rows of three-story buildings painted brown assaults the senses.
I forget whether transitions like this are nodes or antinodes, yin or yang. The white and the black swirl around each other, and each has a dot that connects to the flip side of the coin. Perhaps the dots represent the trance of travel by Hercules, from white to black. Flip the coin again, pass through another dot, and the world turns green in New Zealand. Go the other way: 8 more months of white.
The Mactown sky is overcast and gloomy: the wind is much stronger than at Pole. The black hillsides have patches of snow remaining, old snow that hasn't melted. Like Pole, McMurdo is also monochromatic: dirt and white, instead of white only. I change out of my ECW bunny boots into hiking boots: my feet are several pounds lighter. Adding the fact that the outside temperature is warmer by 60 degrees F, and there's 50 percent more air, (the barometric altitude is 10,000 feet lower), I skip over to the dining galley in just my fleece jacket. The food is Good Cafeteria Food: but not the home cooking of Pole. There is a *CROWD* in the dining hall. A crowd!! where did all these people come from?? A crowd so large that you could not expect to recognize every face in a season, let alone a week. The magic has gone, dissipated in a crowd.
Finally, the Rivalry Question: "Is McMurdo Antarctica?".
The view: definitely.
The town: definitely not.
This place is a Government mining camp of great activity and unrevealed purpose, the perfect setting for a B movie.
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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 10 Feb 1997