Antarctic Diary -- November 13, 2003
Every word of this happened.
"Everyone has an Antarctic."
There's a feeling I have no name for. It's somewhere between laughing and crying, love and terror. It's being afraid of something so wonderful it could consume you and you'd cease to exist.
It's the way heroes feel the instant before they die, knowing and not caring, focused on accomplishing the impossible without regard to catastrophic pain and suffering, because the future has become meaningless in light of their brilliant goal.
There's really no sense in trying to explain it anymore. I've written about it enough and people who think they get it, can't, because I know I've been inept in the description. It's best when I try to explain it in person, and when I've done that, I've at least seen my words on someone else's face. And it melts to something like concern. Once or twice, on the ice, the feeling of it gets absorbed and echos back like something out of a book I might have written if I was better at it. That dark orange hazy bar light that makes everyone's eyes glow as if we were all angels under costumes.
"I'm not trying to come on to you, I'm just trying --"
"You don't have to explain."
"I'm not doing this right."
"It's okay. Really."
"No. No, it's not."
Then I have to turn it off somehow and it doesn't work for weeks. Or months. So I forget about it but every trip it comes back again. A reminder. He, the cosmic "He", wants me to remember. This is how He gets me to believe when I start drifting. He makes impossible things happen, and I'm supposed to go on as if there's nothing unusual.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
Every year it's someone for everyone. This year "she" is an old friend, someone I met years ago when the ice was still my unattainable personal daydream, like going to the moon or collecting my Nobel Prize for literature. That back-of-the-head fantasy. Dating cheerleaders. Being popular, once.
I asked her via e-mail: "How do you get to the ice?"
And she gave me the long-winded yet perfunctory standard response. Apply for jobs. Beg borrow steal.
It means pray. Pray. Pray. She never said the truth. You get to Antarctica by closing your eyes and imagining the future cannot occur without you being there. You stop envisioning your life is one where long shots happen to other more lucky people. You feel the ice under your boots. You see the pictures and you put yourself in them in your mind. Smell the air. Taste the cold. Lie in bed and feel the elevator stomach drop as the helo lifts you to a mountain top in the valleys. Imagine the horizon that cuts the universe in half.
Smile and know that someday they'll capture that picture, the grin on your face, the edge of your teeth just below your upper lip, the tear in your eye when you know you have done something completely impossible. And you don't believe it, yourself.
You imagine yourself screaming on the top of a hill so cold and ancient it absorbs the sound of you and puts it beside the earth's memory of dinosaurs and cometary impact.
You make yourself know it will happen and then it does. Because the entire planet spun for you long enough to make a line between your life and something bigger than all of human history.
That's how you get your Antarctic, whatever it is.
Everyone down there has done it. Miracle workers with calloused hands that smell of Jet-A.
I met her in the galley. My boss introduced me to her. He knew we'd been conversing by e-mail.
"Joe, this is Kris," he said. And she stopped and looked straight through me the way ice people do.
"It's me," I said. I shrugged and she got it. Almost dropped her food tray.
"That's incredible. You made it. Nobody who has to ask makes it," she said, narrowing her eyes as if by squinting she could make me a mirage.
But I was so goddamned proud. She didn't know who she was messing with. I could make the earth go backward if I wanted.
"That's because you don't tell them what they really have to do," I said.
I smiled and said something about begging. She laughed.
Four years later she walked me into the mouth of an antarctic hurricane.
"Ever do it?"
"It's freaking condition two, out."
"Ever been out in it?"
"Duh. No," I said, trying to be sensible in the middle of an interaction that had abandoned logic seconds before. "It's cold."
"Duh," she said. "Get your stuff. It's time to feel cold."
I followed her into a fifty mile per hour wind. We took the road past Ob Hill to Cape Armatage. She brought a camera. Wanted to take my picture with ice in my beard. Only way to do it was to live a storm. Be alive in one.
We talked about silly things while we walked. The first time we thought of going to the ice. Camping. Exploring. Because we're human we talked about relationships. Where we met our respective spouses. How we knew we were in love with them.
When we got to Armatage I could barely speak for shivering. Second stage of being truely cold. When I became morose we'd know I was over the edge. But she told me she wouldn't keep me out in the dark gray air too much longer. Took a picture of me smiling, clenching my teeth, Black and White Islands in the background as if I'd just stepped off the Terra Nova.
Scott's hut offered some shelter from the biting wind. She'd put on her balaclava. Because the trip had been an impulse, I didn't have mine. Probably one or two too few layers of clothes.
We stood in the lee of the hut and looked north toward Cape Evans and big razorback. I warmed up a bit and we walked to the top of Hut Point, by Vince's Cross. I started to freeze again.
"I'll stand behind you and block the wind," she said, putting her hands on my shoulders and pulling up close to me so my back was warm.
I looked out on the steel gray clouds that turned the blue mountains black. I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream and I would have if I could have figured out what to say.
"What are you thinking?" she said.
"I got here by miracles." And I was too cold to explain the chain of coincidences. An e-mail being seen by someone who posted it in an office where someone saw it and mentioned it to a scientist who happened at that moment to need someone with exactly my qualifications for reasons that had nothing to do with the project, but everything to do with the way the NSF had changed its grant-writing procedure.
She said, "We all do," and I had that falling feeling on her last word. There is no physical outlet for that feeling. Laughing. Crying. Coughing. Nothing adequate lay in my repetoire. I was never good at improvisation, but I could follow an impulse.
"And now I'm standing at Scott's hut in a storm, with a woman I met by accident by electronic mail, and would you mind if I yell something?"
She didn't answer for a second. Her hands tightened on my shoulders while she figured it out.
"I guess not," she said.
So I looked at a bright patch in the clouds. I thought about everything that had happened to me.
I took a breath of air so cold it felt like water.
I yelled at the bright hole in the sky because I knew not one single person on earth could see or hear me but her.
"So I'm here," I said as loud as I could. Then yelling, "What the hell am I supposed to do now?"
I didn't know what to expect. Would Ezekiel's machine descend from the heavens? An angel appear before us? A magic book falls from the clouds. The ring revealed. The Grail discovered. Excalibur rises from the frozen sea in the fist of the ice goddess.
But there was none of that. There was only the frigid gale that howled like the disembodied spirit of the dying earth. The gray sky. Ice blue mountains turned black. A rickety wooden building built my men doomed by their dreams. At my back, the warmth of a woman fate brought to me.
"Why do you need to know?" she asked, so quietly I could barely hear her above the wind. "Isn't this what you want? Isn't being here enough?"
"I just want him to know, I know. That's all."
"He knows everything."
"Ya gotta say it. It doesn't count if you don't."
She thought for a second then tugged my arm and said the only sensible thing either of us had uttered for nearly ninety minutes.
"Let's go back. I'm freezing my ass off out here."