Guess What, Antarctica?

As of today, we’ve been together a year. Can you believe it? Me neither. My time with you seems to have done the same crazy corkscrew as the path the sun takes around the sky in summer here… it started slow, then sped up and now suddenly is nearing its end.

A little over a year ago, when I sat and pondered what I expected from you (mostly as a means of procrastinating on packing), I really wasn’t sure how it would work out between us. I had hopes, but I could never have imagined what a wonderful time we would have together.

From all I’d heard, I knew you would be special. I love that you belong to no one. Any flag planted on you is temporary. I love that you are full of secrets and surprises, from an active volcano with an open caldera at its summit to dinosaur fossils and entire ecosystems living beneath meters of ice with neither light nor even oxygen.

You are a windblown cemetery that has claimed the lives of many men called great, as well as countless other unknowns. I love that you do not suffer fools. I love that international treaties–forever may they stand–mean you will never be sullied by the presence of a resort casino, missile silo or fracking operation.

I’ll never forget how I felt when I first laid eyes on you. You took my breath away. No, really. It was cold that night, and the air was so dry that I felt for a moment the way I used to feel when swimming speed laps at the Y in Colorado, perched at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. My lungs squeezed themselves flat from the shock of you.

Since that night, you have never failed to amaze, delight and humble me.

You trotted out all the wildlife: badass skua, plump seals and their pups, both kinds of penguins in these parts–especially my favorites, the wee Adelies. I didn’t get to see the Orcas that came through the Sound when we had open water, but that’s okay. I’ve seen whales in Norway and Newfoundland and have to say they’re not that exciting. Give me a little Adelie waddling about or a skua glaring at me any day.

You dazzled me with displays of Aurora australis that made the Northern Lights I saw in Iceland seem like a kid shining a flashlight by comparison. You filled the sky with otherworldly smudges of nacreous clouds and sundogs and Alpenglow. And oh, the Fata Morgana. You wily trickster you, teasing me with a shifting horizon of false mountains, spaceships and enormous stacks of pancakes. I love it when you lie.

You’re even lovely when you’re angry, throwing snow and wind at me with howling fury, and when you’re stressed, sending up great castles of translucent blue pressure ridges where sea ice meets your permanent shelf.

You humored me when I hiked across your sheets of ice and slopes of volcanic rock,  when I sawed a coffin-shaped hole in you and slept (or tried to sleep) under your very skin, when I jumped into your watery black depths or made snow angels on the rare soft drift not yet dessicated into something resembling Styrofoam.

But I’ll be honest: living with you has not been easy. You’ve sucked the moisture right out of me, leaving me with hair like hay, scaly skin and fingernails that never need trimming because they just shred to nothing. I who could once roll out of bed and touch my toes with ease now struggle to get my hands below my knees. Thanks to you I have regular, rather messy nose bleeds, a digestive system that may never again tolerate food that isn’t canned, frozen or powdered, and a brain that is all mushy and forgetful, especially of late.

Wait… what was I saying?

I’m told all of these ailments are temporary, and will clear up when I quit you, but if having to shove wads of single-ply toilet tissue up my nostrils a few times a month is the price I have to pay for the time we have together, I call it a bargain.

Now, with less than two months of time left to spend with you, I feel the sand–or rather, the volcanic fines*–sliding through the hourglass ever faster. The returning light, while I welcome and wonder at it, is a daily reminder that summer is coming, and so is my departure.

I know I’m just one of thousands of puny humans who have had a relationship with you. I know that when I leave in October, you won’t shed a tear. You won’t even notice. You’ll carry on as you have for millennia, not so much undaunted as indifferent to us, an unforgiving place of black rock, white ice and open sky, all on a scale that mocks anything my species could ever hope to build.

Don’t go changin’.

(*Antarctic insiderspeak: we have no dirt here, and can’t use salt or sand on the roads due to environmental concerns and treaty restrictions. We do, however, have an awful lot of ice, as you may have noticed. To prevent vehicles and pedestrians alike from slip-sliding all over the place, they occasionally blow up small areas of the volcanic ridge behind McMurdo to create a black and gray gravelly powder called “fines.” Fines get spread on icy roads and walkways to provide some traction. Fines are also stored near building entrances and, coincidentally, near designated smoking areas, in bins labeled “FINES” of all things. For my first couple weeks here, I wondered if smokers who strayed from the designated huff’n’puff areas were supposed to put money in the bins to, you know, pay their “fines” and, if so, whether anyone abided by the honor system. Yeah, I know. FNGy–another localism, meaning “F***ing New Guy/Girl.”)


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