Darkness On The Edge of Town

[The fact that I chose a Bruce Springsteen song for the subject line of this post may make some of you think I am not well, but trust me, it’s all good.]

Since I was a child, I have been a little obsessed with seeing the Northern Lights. I wasn’t always quite so, er, focused on the Southern Lights; first because I didn’t know they existed and then, once I knew about them, because I doubted I’d ever get to see them. It’s a lot easier to drive to northern Canada than to swim to Antarctica, I reasoned. How could I ever get to Antarctica? That was my thinking back then.

This is now.

I have seen the Northern Lights, by the way, twice. The first time was such a showstopping experience that I doubt it will ever be topped – flying from New York to Reykjavik in clear skies, I looked out my window at 35,000 feet and saw them swaying and shimmering and parting and merging like the stage curtains of an enormous theater during the encores. Or like a Pink Floyd laser show with overenthusiastic use of dry ice.

The second time was while camping in southern Iceland on a subzero late summer night. They were fainter then, but still magical. It was around then that I learned of an Inuit legend that the Northern Lights are the souls of women who died without marrying or having children. I don’t know if they consider it a curse, but I think, on the continuum of Things That Might Happen To You When You Die, becoming an aurora is pretty damn cool.

So, anyway, I looked for the Southern Lights both times I was in Chile, and while I was living in New Zealand, but never saw them. When I started my application process for this job, I swear my first three thoughts were: a) this will be my seventh continent; b) I may add three or four more penguin species to The List! (while living in New Zealand I developed a new obsession: to see, live and in person (or rather, in penguin) and in the wild, every existing penguin species. You gotta have goals. So far I’ve seen four, including two of the rarest, which is pretty good for someone who’s lived most of her life in the wrong hemisphere for penguin spotting.); c) Holy Odin, I am going to see the Southern Lights!!

Alas, the Southern Lights were not waiting to greet me when I stepped off the plane. Or the times I walked to Hut Point in the evening. Or the morning I woke up at 4 a.m. and hoofed it up Scott Base Road.

To make matters worse, it seemed everyone but me was seeing them. One guy even complained “the ones I saw last night weren’t as good as the ones the last three nights.”

Shutupshutupshutup.

Granted, I have been here just a hair over a fortnight, but still. I feel like a five year old: “everyone else is seeing auroras, why can’t I?” Waah wah wah.

So, last night after work, I suited up and again went up Scott Base Road. Scott Base is the name of the New Zealand station here, which, like New Zealand itself, is tiny compared to the US presence. The road to it is only a couple miles long, but you still have to check out at the fire station, take a radio and have a buddy with you. I’d called the fire station and bargained with them… if I go just to the edge of town, do I need to do all that? The guy said I’d be okay as long as I didn’t go past the tanks, so I was off.

Up the hill and into the darkness just at the last row of fuel tanks, Observation Hill a bluish, shadowy pyramid to one side, stars above me and infinity ahead. Well, okay, a road and a fuel line and, eventually, the Kiwi base ahead of me, but allow me to wax poetic for a moment.

The Milky Way was a chalky smudge arcing across the entire sky. It was so still and empty that the snow crunching under my bunny boots reverberated like an earthquake and when I paused to listen to the silence it felt like time stopped as well.

Clear skies, but no auroras. Still, it was so silent and beautiful that I did what any rational person would do, alone and in subzero darkness. I laid down on the snow to stare up into the sky.

Before you think “okay, she’s really lost it now,” note that I got the idea to do this from my boss, who strikes me as one of the most well-balanced people I’ve ever met. She said it was the best way to appreciate the night sky here, and she was right. Nestled cozily in my enormous red parka and wind pants, I was toastier than on many a night I’ve spent shivering in my tent in the wild.

Staring up at the stars, my thoughts turned, perhaps predictably (for me), to predators. I thought of other places I’ve lived – the Rockies and Moscow came to mind immediately – where I would never do this sort of thing due to the risk of being predated upon* by animals, human or otherwise.

(*I once read an article about penguins that mentioned their high at-sea mortality rates likely were due to “being predated upon,” which struck me as one of the odder euphemisms for ending up as Orcalunch.)

Here in Antarctica, I realized, there are no predators. Even if you’re unlucky enough to fall into the sea, hypothermia is far more likely to get you than a ravenous leopard seal or Orca. Yes, it is the harshest, least hospitable continent on earth, but there is no living thing that can kill you, aside from another human, and HR seems to have done a pretty good job screening out the nutcases.

Those of you who have seen “The Thing” or “Alien v. Predator” may beg to differ, but that is another matter.

The things of the natural world that can kill you here are all weather and geology related. The cold, the wind, the crevasses, the remote possibility of volcanic eruption and so on. I think that’s one of the things that adds to the feel of the whole continent being a living thing, aware of you the way we are aware of gnats and flies zipping about our heads in summer.

To swat or not to swat, that is the question.

Anyway, I was thinking these big things when a guy on a bicycle rode past.

No, really. I would remind you the name of this blog is “Stories That Are True” and I endeavor to be honest in every post.

I was sprawled on the ground, just off the road, when I heard, from a long ways away, a swishing noise, like someone cross-country skiing. I looked in the direction of town and saw a black shape gliding towards me. He shouted “is it a deer?” and laughed as he passed, did a U-turn just beyond where I was and rode back toward town.

Uhm. Okay.

It was too dark to see if it was a regular bicycle or one of the ones people have rigged with skis (I have yet to see one, but have heard about it), but aside from waving and shouting hello I was too surprised to do more. I don’t know if he was some random guy out for a ride just to the edge of town or a member of the fire department out to check up on the crazy person who’d called in earlier begging to walk Scott Base Road alone at night, but whoever it was, he was gone as quickly as he’d appeared.

I gave up on the auroras soon after and started the walk back into town.

Just before the first streetlight, I looked over my shoulder. And saw an aurora.

I turned around again and went back to my spot to watch it. It was not as impressive as the ones I saw in Iceland, but it was definitely there. Just a gray-green vertical plume in the darkness, its very tip undulating almost in a wave at me, as if to say “ha, I’ve been here all along and was just waiting for you to turn your back to make my appearance!”

I watched it for several minutes but it never got stronger. I headed back, sighting two more behind Ob Hill, long, slithering horizontal lines that might be mistaken for clouds at first. They definitely had that Haunted Mansion green glow to them, however, and after a few minutes they merged into one serpentine line before disappearing.

I went back this morning, on my day off, in daylight, to see where I had been. No auroras, obviously, but this time I was treated to a wide expanse of ice and snow that glowed in the weak light of a late winter sun. The Inuit may have 50 words for snow, or whatever the saying is, but I think we humans haven’t come up with a word that conveys the vastness of the Antarctic landscape. It was beautiful. As the wind was a bit, uhm, feisty, however, I didn’t linger long.

While the wait to see the Southern Lights seemed an eternity, it’s only been a matter of a fortnight since my arrival and I think I’m doing pretty well with my must-see list, having checked off both nacreous clouds and the coveted Southern Lights.

Now: bring on the penguins!

(They won’t be here till October, But I’m ready for them.)

Coming in after an evening of aurora hunting... frost from my frozen breath stiffened the fur trim of my parka hood and my gaiter, and coated my head lamp, but I was warm the whole time.

The Morning After... the view from Scott Base Road in the direction of the aurora

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