Home Sweet Gulag

As previously mentioned, WinterOvers staying through WinFly until MainBody (translation: people who have been here since February and will be staying until October) have to either risk getting up to three new roommates or move to a different room and risk getting up to one roommate. On Saturday, we’ll have the first flight of WinFly (Winter Flights, a ten-day period during which we get in a few flights of new staff, freshies and mail, sweet, sweet mail. Many WinterOvers also leave at WinFly, but not yours truly). In anticipation of WinFly, most of us have spent the last week or so moving into new rooms and getting our old rooms ready for inspection.

This photo has nothing to do with the theme of this post, but here it is, anyway. Last week's full moon beside Ob Hill.

When it came time to fill out my housing preference form several days ago, instead of listing the dorms I wanted move into, I just wrote on every line “Please give me a single room” or “Please give me the smallest chance of having a roommate.” It’s not a question of being anti-social. I happen to be a selectively super-light sleeper. I can sleep like a baby in the wild when I’m camping miles from the nearest human being, but put me in any close proximity with another member of my species and I’m a mess. I wake at their every turn, sniffle and rustle. And don’t even get me started on snoring.

It’s a safety issue. When I don’t sleep I get tired and when I get tired I get clumsy and do things like cut off the tip of my thumb or stick my finger in an immersion blender and then turn it on. (Yes, I have actually done both things.)

So, anyway, last week it was time to pick up our new room assignments. When I got my key, Terry, the WinterOver handing them out, said “Oh. You’re the one.”

You know, any conversation that begins with “you’re the one” usually involves drama.

Turns out I was assigned to MMI, the smallest dorm on station and the furthest from everyone else. MMI (short for Mammoth Mountain Inn) and the neighboring HoCal (short for Hotel California) are at the southeast edge of McMurdo, down a hill, probably about a quarter-mile from Building 155 where I work (and where I had been living).

Home Sweet Home... note Mt. Discovery at far right.

Now, I don’t think a quarter-mile is very far, but to hear other people tell it, it’s the Siberia of Antarctica (which is already more Siberia than Siberia is).

Then Terry told me “you know, you’re the only one in the whole building. And there’s no one in HoCal.”


I won’t lie. I was thrilled with this news. But everyone I told (and then everyone who was told by everyone I had told, which means everyone in the station by the end of the day) seemed to think it was the most horrible thing they’d ever heard.

“You’re going to be all alone, with no one anywhere near you!”

Yesssssss, preciousssssssssssss.

“You’re going to hate it. You’ll have no one to talk to.”


“You can’t be there alone! It’s a safety issue! What if you slip in the shower?”

If possibly dying alone out here, my undiscovered corpse gnawed upon by scavenging skua, is the price I have to pay for the sweet, sweet solitude of not being kept awake because someone is boozing it up in the next hall or watching Pulp Fiction with the volume cranked or in the same room as me daring to breathe, well, so be it.

I made a joke out of it. Or tried to.

“It’s my Elba!”

Blank looks.

“It’s my own private gulag!”

Blank, nervous looks.

“It’s my own private Idaho!”

Some nervous laughter.

“I’m like Doc in The Thing!*”

Ah. Nods of understanding and light laughter.


(For those of you who haven’t seen John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, Doc, one of the Antarctic field camp dwellers, is exiled to an outbuilding away from everyone else because they suspect he may be the naughty shape-shifting titular character.)

Here's another photo that has nothing to do with this post. Last week we had the Winter Awards Ceremony, where everyone was a winner. All of us first-winters got medals, and those who had been here before got bars according to the number of seasons they'd served.

I trudged down the hill (lie. I actually skipped part of the way.) to check out my new digs and opened the door and…

Oh. Oh my.

Calling it a gulag was not far from the truth. In retrospect I should have taken photos for proof, but I was in too much shock. No one has lived in MMI since February and it appeared that its last residents threw one hell of a party before leaving. The place was a mess. The room I’d been assigned, across from the laundry and the bathroom and right off the building’s entrance, made some of the free backcountry huts I’ve used in New Zealand look like the Ritz freakin’ Carlton.

I will not go into details, but I was also not going to move in there. Hells no. All of us have been deep-cleaning our winter rooms to pass inspection (our pay is docked if we don’t pass). I was not about to do the work the people who left in February should have done.

Granted, the final flights of the summer season in February were a bit crazy. Due to a storm here and the horrible earthquake in CHC, there were unexpected delays. But still. I don’t care if your flight has been delayed a day or two or ten. If you vomit, you should clean it up.

I’m just saying.

So, anyway, I sent an email explaining the situation to our housing folks in Denver. I received an ambiguous reply, which I decided to interpret as “choose a different room since the whole place is yours right now.”

So I did.

Instead of the first floor room I’d been given, with a view of a big snowpile and our firehouse, situated right next to the laundry, toilet and main entrance, I went for a second floor corner room with a view of McMurdo Sound and Mt. Discovery and the twinkling lights of the Pegasus airfield in the distance on the ice shelf.

Welcome to my new lair. Yes, the rooms are small, but I have a window. A window! And it looks out at something pretty!!

It is wonderful.

And, during the time I waited to hear back from Denver, our crack squad of janitors sprang into action, cleaning the place not so much for me as for the new people who will start arriving Saturday. Yes, it is my palatial country estate for now, though I will have to share it soon. Hopefully I will not be assigned a roommate, but if it happens, I will implement Plan B: stop washing and eat lots of beans.

The view from my window. Yes, that's our helo pad on the right, but the choppers don't start up for a while and won't run regular flights out to field camps till after I'm gone.

I moved in last night and slept like a baby, then did something I haven’t done in more than a year: I woke to natural light. Sigh.

(Yes, that means I slept in way past my usual 0330 alarm, since it doesn’t get light at all here till 1030-ish. But it was worth it.)

I may get a roommate. I will certainly get other people living in “my” building starting Saturday, but for a couple days at least, I feel like Miss Elizabeth Bennett at Pemberley. Or the Unabomber.


10 thoughts on “Home Sweet Gulag

  1. Then Terry told me “you know, you’re the only one in the whole building. And there’s no one in HoCal.”

    I read this and thought FUCK YEAH. Gosh, your co-workers really don’t know you.
    A+ for referencing Lizzie and the Unabomber on the same line. You’re awesome.

  2. Thanks, guys! And yeah, Z, it is amazing the number of people here who tell me they are “really good at reading people” and yet seem to be illiterate when it comes to getting me. Sigh. It just makes me more thankful I have good friends like you!

  3. Haha, the only reference I *didn’t* get was the one to The Thing, so thanks for ‘splaining!

    And oh my! A window! Solitude! (For now at least.) How wonderful for you!

  4. @ernie: MMI has been here forever (it’s actually made of wood, which tells you something… I believe in fact that Shackleton’s men built it :-P) but it may have been called the less-poetic “Bldg 188” when you were here. It’s right next to the chalet, overlooking the helo pad. I love the view from my room, too! But last night when I was supposed to be sleeping I kept looking out the window trying to see auroras. Never mind that it was foggy….

    @DrV: have you not seen “The Thing”??? It’s a wonderful B horror movie starring Kurt Russell’s pretty, pretty blue eyes.

  5. I know what it *is*, silly, and I probably saw it years ago — I just don’t remember it clearly enough for the reference to make sense. I should probably watch it again.

  6. Was looking for some pics of MMI since I maybe living there this summer when I came across your blog. Do the rooms have cable yet or mini fridges? last time I was down I was in 155. Thanks.

  7. David: You’re funny. “Do the rooms have cable yet?” hahahaha…. The dorm itself doesn’t even have a microwave. No tvs in the rooms but you can ask housing for a mini-fridge and find a corner to shove it into. We did just get new bunk beds and mattresses two days ago. There are also six or seven computer land line hookups in the lounge. Bon Voyage.

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