The Long Trip Home

Part Two: A Stroll to the Seaside

Journal Entry:
McMurdo
Tuesday, February 11th

I sleep surprisingly well, despite the increase in air pressure, but awake cold. The reason is that the window in my room is open a tiny crack, and the wind is howling. Not a breeze, no tropical zephyr. And not 'Wind', nor 'WIND' such as they get here in the winter. Simply 'wind', but more than I ever felt at Pole - thank goodness. By comparison with riding my motorscooter, I guess that this wind is maybe 30 mph (50 kph). The actual temperature on my thermometer is 9'F, so with the wind chill it's quite cold. Tiny flakes of snow are zipping along, reminding the population of Mactown that summer is over, and Winter is not far behind.

Having missed breakfast, I eat a meal in the galley at a time that is described on the board as "Early Lunch". I like this description much better, and to appear virtuous I eat fried chicken with rice rather than cereal with milk, which *is* available but which would have to be eaten surreptitiously. Then I think to myself .. "Why do I care? If I want to eat cereal, implying breakfast, implying that I slept late, What Does It Matter? - will the Lunch Monitor put an X on my attendance report? " It is in these ways that the ghosts of one's rigorous early education are found to be closer to the surface than one would wish. Despite all this, despite the fact that absolutely no-one here either knows me OR cares how late I sleep, I eat my pretend lunch as if I started work at 6 AM, and get to my eleven o'clock meeting in plenty of time.

"Bag Drag" is announced for 3 PM for our flight to Cheech (as Christchurch is called, from CHC). This means that a list of people must present themselves at the specified time to be weighed, together with their luggage and single carry-on personal bag. The aggregate weight allows the crew to calculate load and fuel: the flight from Mactown to Cheech is almost at the limit for a Herc. If there are headwinds, extra fuel will be taken, and some passengers will be dropped according to the "Bump Priority". The lower the number, the better your chances of getting on board. Senior staff are always zeros; I am an 18; returning contract workers may be 30's to 50's. If they decide they can take 42 passengers, then numbers 43 and up will simply have to wait.

The Bag Drag procedure is simultaneously logical and illogical, sensible and Government. The overall idea is to get an exact weight of the pax (passengers) plus their luggage, in order to be able to accurately calculate the aircraft load. Each passenger is allowed 75 pounds total of luggage. Sharon from Pole is in line near me, next to a Big Military Guy. She weighs maybe 100 pounds: yet her luggage is ten or twenty pounds overweight. GI Joe probably weighs 250 pounds: his luggage is acceptable. Sharon pulls out a whole bunch of books and boots from her luggage, and I stuff them into my bag. She passes the weight test. I give them back to her to put into her carry-on, and then *I* pass the weight test. The Bag Drag Lady doesn't mind at all: as we step on the scales, the computer registers the total.

Now come the Pronouncements. The Bag Drag Lady looks us all fiercely in the eye: she has processed hundreds, thousands of returning contractors, servicemen, graduate students. "Check the announcements for your reporting time. Do not be late. If you are late for reporting, or if you report in an intoxicated state, you will be automatically bumped". Like children being separated from their parents, our checked bags are taken away from us, and we are discharged into the wind clutching only our orange 'Hand Carry' bag containing whatever we were prudent enough to keep. If the flight is delayed, we shall have to exist on those contents for an indefinite time. Clean underwear? - toothpaste? - in your checked luggage? With misplaced priorities, some people keep with them their scientific notes, *which they will not need*, yet relinquish their clothing and toiletries for a two-day wait.

The wind gets stronger, the temperature drops a few degrees. Since I have the time, I inquire about visiting Scott's Hut. This small wooden building was erected at the turn of the century and served as a base for early Antarctic operations for about a decade. After abandonment, it gradually filled with snow and ice until it was 'excavated' a while ago and restored as a registered Historic Monument. It's less than half a mile from town, and the key is kept at the NSF office. Another guy wants to go, so I sign out the key and we set off into wind. We walk past the pier, from which I boarded the icebreaker for that wonderful cruise a couple of weeks ago. Then, the pier area was covered with a mountain of shipping containers, mostly containing sorted waste being retro'd to the States. Now, the pier is empty and clean: those Navy crewmen, with whom I flew down, put in their work when the cargo ship arrived, had a few beers, and have already returned. The research vessel "Nathaniel B. Palmer" is at the dock, taking on supplies, but there are no tours this time, so we walk by.

We reach Scott's Hut. What an amazing artifact, when imagined in its original context. Take away the backdrop of Mactown and try to reconstruct the scene in 1902. No radio for help, no maps, no electricity. Just this one hut at the very end of world, waiting over the winter for the ship to find its way back. Everything inside is preserved from ninety years ago: tins of biscuits and baking powder, tools and implements. The amazing thing is the familiarity of some of these items from my own childhood. Most major brands of goods that existed in England in 1901, still existed 50 years later when I was born, though I may not have seen them personally for a quarter of a century since emigrating. Suddenly, preserved in the most extreme form of time warp, I recognize 'Huntley & Palmers' biscuits, 'Birds' custard powder, and an 'Optimus' camping stove that is *identical* to the one that I had when I went camping as a teenager. But that was thirty years and ten thousand miles ago. Now I am in Antarctica, a second Egypt in its preservation of the past, and I am looking at an excavated tomb.

The wind blows harder: my co-visitor returns to town for his bag drag. I lock up the hut and walk over "Vince's Cross", commemorating a seaman who drowned near here in 1902. The cross is on a small cliff of crumbly volcanic rock, overlooking the coldest ocean water I have ever seen. The wind is howling, I can barely stand up against it. Since the air temperature is much lower than the water temperature, the water surface steams in streamers. It is only the force of the wind and the under movement of the water that keeps it ice-free, and this will not last much longer. At Vince's Cross I try to take photos: but the best angle for a shot is perilously close to the edge of the cliff, and the wind is extreme. It requires very little imagination to visualize peering through the viewfinder, backing up a step to get a better field of view, missing my footing on the loose surface and getting literally blown off the cliff into the icy water and certain death. *FOR THIS REASON*, the picture that I *did* take will have to suffice. I forced myself down the hill against the wind: it's amazingly hard to put cameras away in inner warm pockets when working against a 40-mph wind at 4 degrees F. I walk over to ... the beach.

A little tiny beach, in the lee of the hillside. A beach of shiny smooth black pebbles, the same volcanic rock but polished by the sea. A beach with icicles, no less, hanging from rocks into the water. This implies that the salt seawater is at slightly less than 32 degrees F. The seawater remains liquid while the icicles it bathes in waves are frozen, since they are pure water ice, not salt water ice. The black mountains rise from the ice-rimmed beach into cloud covered tops. The wind howls above my head, but I am sheltered in my little hollow. This, finally, is the true image of a Polar region. I have been here before in the Arctic, and I finally believe that I am here now. No more picture-postcard scenes: this is where the world of water and warmth buts up against the world of ice and rock and death. This is the last view that Stalin's deportees took with them from Magadan.

I look at this view for a *long* time. It is the violent intersection of three of the Greeks' primal elements, with Fire being noticeably absent. I turn, and examine some of the smooth pebbles, covered in ice yet washed by water. I turn back, and there is now a seal looking at me, hauled up on the beach a little way away. Where did that come from? Why has the force of life intruded on this purely meteorological scene? I back off, before the seal makes any noise, lest it spoil the abstractness of my contemplation. I climb back over the little hill, away from the beach and into the wind: abruptly, McMurdo comes in to view, and the reverie is gone.


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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 11 Feb 1997