I have been on those ships.
Frigid gales tore off the boiling gray peaks of mountainous swells and filled the bilges with icy brine as fast as we could pump. The sea crested the gunwales, saturating the dogs and ponies who strained against the ropes in their terror. I see Crean in the pitching, sliding from one side of the deck to the other while he tries to comfort the animals, explains the best he can why they have been taken from their homes to this alien world where the steel ground undulates and smashes everything against blue ice ramparts.
I have been on those ships.
I poured the mid-winter's rum while Macklin and Evans danced in drag, their images flickering in the candlelight against the darkness and the inevitable sadness of our self-imposed separation. We huddled in stove's yellow glow, filling the air with tobacco smoke, recounting the stories of our youth and the girls we'd loved and lost. I dressed in coarse Burberries, shouted, "Huzzah," when we sighted the ragged black peaks, and felt the shiver of God's finger when we touched the land which until us, has been his alone.
And like my crewmates, I was there not for the glory reserved for the chief, but to touch the wonderous that could only be dreamed, winning the greatest challenge anyone could put before himself and thus earning immortality. Forever I would be special among men. For in any crowd in any pub, I would be one. Children and old men would be brought to meet the man who had eaten his own death, and shake the hand that touched the ice.
Know them: Discovery. Terra Nova. Aurora. Nimrod. Endurance. Fram. These are the names we gave the wood and sail that took us to fight our demons. While men waged sinful wars against each other, we fought the holy battle against our creator, stood in his house with burning muscles and limbs frozen black, and showed him what we could do with the lives we had.
And I have been on every ship. On every expedition. I've man-hauled sledges and put down ponies with legs broken in falls through snow bridged crevasses. I've died with Bowers, Wilson, and Scott, frozen in the hurricane's scream on the ice shelf, eleven miles from rescue. I've stood with Amundsen on the nothingness of the south pole, and shot film with Hurley in the Weddell Sea, crawled out of crevasses with Mawson, wintered with Byrd.
At seventeen, there wasn't a book about Antarctic exploration that I hadn't consumed, and when I had finished them all, plowed into them again taking refuge on the ice from a world I didn't understand, didn't seem to need someone like me. My mind filled with dreams of hoosh and skis, dogs straining against the harness, struggling with tents against the wind, watching poor injured Oates walk into a storm.
That's how I wanted to die--disappearing heroically into an Antarctic gale.
While there were times when life's responsibilities demanded my attention, when I had to nurture a wife and family, when I had to rush to a friend's hospital bed, or bury those who loved me--these things lived along side a strange old idea. To live the dream wonderous. To feel the unfiltered flow of life by imprinting one's footsteps where no one else had, to touch those things which to everyone else would never be more material than an off-hand comment or a picture on a page. To speak to the world and hear it echo in your chest because you had reached the heart of everything, and so had found yourself.
So few places in the universe are inhabitable by mankind. Antarctica is not one of them.
But I had been taught to have dreams. I had been taught nothing was impossible, and so I was foolish enough to believe it.
Perhaps I'd tapped into the magic of the universe's soul. Perhaps my persistence paid off. Maybe it was just dumb luck. But I found myself with a contract to write a novel and any novel written by me would include some reference to the ice as a matter of existence. In fact, half this story would take place on the ice. Though I had plenty of background on 19th and early 20th century Antarctic exploration, I knew little about what was going on down there today.
I searched the web for reference material--found people on the ice who through the miracle of satellite technology had internet access and so could send me e-mail and digital photos. I struck up an e-friendship with several of them. Told them I'd love to come to the ice, and they gave me the usual spiel about how difficult it was to get there, but never discouraged me from trying.
One of the people I spoke to was a scientist doing air pollution studies. He went to the ice alone every year and after some discussion, broke the news to me one day that he'd decided to petition the National Science Foundation for an amendment to his grant which would allow him to bring a "team member", and that if it was accepted, would I agree to go with him?
I would have walked through thermonuclear fireballs to accept.
And so after a summer of relearning C++, learning IR networking stacks, warming up the soldering iron and writing programs for Win2K and PalmOS, I found myself sitting on a crowded Hercules C-131 over the south Pacific ocean, ogling icebergs below. For the first time in my life I was on board an aircraft with skis.
I'd left my family behind in a cloud of dust. They were happy for me, but nervous to see me embark on something so strange and potentially dangerous that the thought of accompanying me was ridiculous to them. I may as well be taking a trip to a garbage dump in Minnesota as the last above-water frontier on earth. This trip was something private. It was fulfillment of a dream no one could fathom.
"Why do you want to do it?" my wife asked many times.
Just as many times I had to answer, "I don't know. I just do." It scared her. How many more things "just had to be done?" I assured her there weren't any others I was aware of, and kissed her good bye at the front door when the airport shuttle pulled up. She cried, and I couldn't bring myself to turn around to wave and see her sobbing. When you've been married as long as I have, you don't need to say a whole lot to communicate. As far as I was concerned she was worried about ghosts and what-ifs. I could not turn away from this opportunity. I would not. And if I died on the trip, it would be with a smile on my face.
She knew it.
I'd read many of the on-line journals people had put up on the web, so I was well aware of the conditions that would await me on the military transport from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo Sound. My experience was similar to what other people had, but any discomfort was muted by a rushing images and rememberance. I'd already taken this trip in my mind. Now I was in it.
The plane was crowded, but once we were allowed to move around, climbing onto freight boxes and hanging hammock-style in the cargo netting was fair game. I'd been issued my program Emergency Cold Weather Gear, and so was in the uniform of the modern Antarctic explorers. A picture of the continent on the left breast pocket of my bright red parka told me and everyone else I was part of it. I would be what I'd always wanted to be. I would be taken by the ice. Parts of me would die, other parts born so that in the end I would join the society of those who held dear the memory of those great explorers and called themselves ice people.
Our ears were stuffed with yellow molded cylinders that kept out the ear splitting rattle of the four propellers. Communication was impossible except through hand gestures and facial expression. Once in a while one of us would put his mouth to another's ear and scream a sentence of two. But for the bulk of the 8-hour transit, we were alone with our thoughts.
Mine were of Shackelton, Mawson, and Scott. And when the loadmaster got on the intercom and shouted between bleats of feedback that it was time to get seated and belted for landing, my heart rattled like I was on the last mile of a marathon.
The plane maneuvered, thrusting my stomach from ceiling to floor, fouling my inner ear: events that on any commercial passenger flight would send most people scurrying for the air sickness bags. But none felt the slightest twinge of green. And when the skis thudded and the props feathered, I knew the gravity that held me in my seat came through the bottom of the earth.
We stood in single file, heads covered in red down hoods ringed in coyote fur, our hands buried in glove liners under mittens, picked up our carry-on bag and walked to the hatch at the front of the plane and the stairs that swung down onto the ice.
And I counted my steps. When I stood in the hatchway and looked down and saw nothing but white, I knew how Neil Armstrong felt staring at the gunpowder gray dust of another world.
One step. Right. Two steps. Left.
"Watch yourself," the loadmaster said to me. "It's ice."
I don't know what I expected. Three steps. Right. I don't know what I was thinking except when it happened...
...touchdown, left, it was my left foot that first touched the sea ice off McMurdo. And I was plugged in. The lines of elemental electricity that animate meat to bring life surged through me.
I stepped out and ran straight into Edward Wilson, Mount Erebus, filling my eyes.
And I knew that it was Mount Erebus. This was not a picture in my mind driven by 90-year old words from yellowing pages. This was not Evans's or Scott's description, but my own. It was mine in my eyes. My own eyes. My own heart. The great and mighty Erebus, a column of volcanic gas issuing from his caldera. Its blue and white slopes rose like a great gaussian curve, pressing the horizon upward into a sky that faded from gray-blue at the horizon to nearly black at the zenith. Before me was a plane of ice, so pure and infinite I knew it extended from me to forever in all directions. And there upon it the Royal Society Range. Mount Discovery. There White Island. There Black Island. There are my most private and honored dreams, and these my own hands and feet, now immortalized in the same frame as those who had gone before.
I became nothing. Could barely breathe. For the first time in my life my mind had come to a standstill so that it was not only free of thought, but free of the capacity of thought. I was small and nothing. And so was everything.
"The bus is over there," said a young woman with a bright knit hat.
I don't remember what I said to her, but I'm sure it was incomprehensible.
She said, "That's okay. It happens to all of us. It can be a bit much to take, just being let out on the ice like that. It hits you all at once."
"How long does it take to get over it?" I asked her, certain that if I had to go through life feeling this way I'd become non-functional. No piece of my life was relevant anymore. I'd have to construct a new one.
"Get over it?" she said, laughing. "You don't get over it. This is the ice. You're an ice person now."
I loved her immediately. I loved the ice, the bus, the plane that had taken me. I was in love with the whiteness that shot ice flames into my eyes and the frigid wind that burned my cheeks red. I was in love with my life, every moment. All around were people who in "Close Encounters" fashion felt called to the ice and had gone for science, to get away, to work an unusual job--all of them moved with visions of sledges and storms in their heads. We were a family of people who had never met, united by the common desire to be where we weren't supposed to go.
When your dreams come true, they take you away and leave nothing but crumbs.
As my time passed in Antarctica, I was sure to plant my feet where I knew the great explorers had walked. I felt the rough, weathered wood Scott had hauled to the ice from Australia in 1903. I touched the frozen carcasses of seals shot by Evans for food and fuel. I held nuggets of coal that would have been burned for warmth in their stove. I touched all of these things so that I would know, and keep with me that everytime I saw my own hands they would be the hands of someone who'd touched the same beams Scott had, my feet would be the feet of someone who trod upon the Ross Ice Shelf, stood on blue ice glaciers, and climbed Ob Hill where Wilson once painted.
I slept in a Scott tent, no more than 30 miles from where Scott perished, no more than 20 from One Ton Depot. When I woke in the eternal Antarctic summer sun I knew at that moment there people clawing their way up car-choked freeways to spend a day at work, while I breathed the air of my heroes, the cold against my back, inside my own dream.
On my last day in Antarctica I went back to Scott's hut for one last visit. I'd taken with me one of my father's white golf tees, and I planted it in the ice beside the wooden structure. A piece of me is there now. A piece of one who taught me to have dreams and follow them.
I looked up into the blue nothing overhead and shook my fists in all the movie-frame glory one nearly meaningless man could muster.
And I was inside a dream I had when I was a child.
"Look where I am now," I said to my dad in the sky inside my own world. He had been a rabid golfer during his life, a passion like that is never extinguished. So I brought my passion to his, pressed his golf tee into the snow with my boot.
I said to my dad, "You have a good lie from here. Straight over the ice shelf, up the Transantarctics and onward to the pole. It's not impossible. Three-wood, I think."