I have so many things to tell you about pole. They all get in the way of each other and nothing comes out. Sights and sounds, of course, but so average. Smells, once in a while.
All kinds of feelings, all of the time.
This morning I woke up. Before I opened my eyes I imagined I had to go downstairs and walk the dog. But then I opened my eyes and I remembered I was at the south pole.
So, this is a feeling -- that you can sleep so soundly here you forget where you are.
Cold, yes, cold is what they have here. Minus -30F today, well above the polar average. So polarly balmy today I saw a guy driving a snowmachine wearing only his fleece and a cap, blasting by at 20 MPH, face unprotected.
He was smiling, of course, which is what you do when you're here. Keep smiling, someone says.
Someone is Jerry Marty, the famous Jerry Marty. Helped build the Dome and now in charge of construction for the new station for the past six years, he passes us on the stairs outside the building in the -30F. This former marine, this current cheesehead mentions Wisconsin once per paragraph, says to us as we pass: "Great day , gentlemen, isn't it? How's yours going? Living the dream? Drinking in life?"
I tell him, "Of course," because what else can you call this? Drinking in life. Living the dream. You can't pass Jerry Marty without catching fire.
"How's it going, ladies?" he says, passing a few polies on his way across his personal acre of the polar plateau. "How about this life? This is called living it, don't you think?"
The sun circles overhead. It never gets dark. The clouds come and go. There are no birds or contrails crossing the sky. No overhead planes that don't land right next door on the skiway. There are no insects or voles or cats or dogs. The only plants are grown in the greenhouse to harvest for lunch. All the others are plastic.
Every book on station has been read at least once. No uncracked spines.
Pole station is a place where you can get excited about being loaned a chainsaw. Paddy told me I could use hers. She winked and smiled in a way that made me believe she trusted me with her prize possession. And now I am nervous I will cut iceblocks the wrong way and dull her blade, or worse, cut off a limb and get blood on her clean housing.
The pole is a place where a girl's most valued possessions have power cords or gas tanks. The pole is a place where a man tells you that before he came to pole he taught math at Columbia, and before that he was with a theater crew. He starts reciting Othello, and is interrupted to give someone a finer point about the emission of nitrogen monoxide from the snow. Did you know snow emits NO in bright sunlight? Of course you didn't. It's a UV effect, apparently.
At Pole station you have to recharge the toilet paper rolls in the public bathrooms. Yourself. You have to go find the refills to the soap for the handwash station. You are asked to help wash the dishes for everyone.
At Pole station you will bump into everyone once. People you don't remember will call you by name and tell you what you did yesterday.
And there will be someone who is interested in your life's story. And there will be someone who won't mind you're wearing two different kinds of sock.
At pole there is a marker where an astronomer wintering over dropped dead in his tracks in the minus 80-degree night. It's a Kiwi flag with a plaque remembering "Rodney Marks, friend, astronomer, humanitarian". And in a classic geographic turn of events, that spot became the south pole for a small part of a year. Because the pole. Everything is in motion. All life in flux. Mine is disintegrating and reintegrating as we speak and I'm speaking from here, where Amundsen got first and Scott died walking and where Shackleton never got.
I swear -- walk out of the station, walk for ten minutes in any direction and the horizon is razor fine, white, unbroken. What kind of guts does it take to keep walking across that for what must be ever? Who were these explorers? We don't hold a candle to them. We're not brave in our space-age parkas and poly pro. We're just regular folks living a dream.
I can walk out of this room and put my foot on the geographic south pole of the earth, then go inside for hamburger day. Or pizza day. Or "The Last Polar Party", which is the last of the summer. Get drunk. Dance. Laid. Dumped. Married. Divorced. At pole a person could experience every significant human life event in one evening.
This is not the life the other six-billion people on earth are living, and most of them wouldn't want it.
The Hercs go in and the Hercs go out, four or five per day. And if they stop you have no life line. It's eight hundred miles to McMurdo. It's another three thousand to New Zealand. You are not Shackleton. You will not survive the day the planes stop.
Meanwhile, we have internet. Meanwhile, I have a phone I can dial and talk to people. I'm in a heated room eating a variety of foods watching young people trade tongues in the hallways and playing pool amid beer cans and booze bottles.
If you're not in the galley, everything at Pole smells one of three ways: like nothing, like diesel, like sweat.
It's a construction zone that runs three shifts in summer. You walk between buildings dodging D9 bulldozers, cranes, and snowmachines. In every direction there's something emitting streams of smoke.
You eat dinner with physicists, chemists, astronomers, writers, army generals, congressmen, senators, and random nobodys. Last week John McCain the senator was here for four days. Everyone met him and spent time with him.
My friend Brien is wintering over again this year. He told me this story: Last year there was a guy who for fun would get completely smashed on various ethanol beverages, and then snort random substances. As there are no hard drugs on station, he took to snorting seemingly benign things. From Tobasco to diesel fuel to urine -- someone else's.
Would he have told that story to McCain? Welcome to the adventure.
Yesterday Stephanie the NOAA lady told us how she went from working on a Hawaiian cruise ship to doing science support in the Bering Sea as tech on a research vessel, to becoming a polie winterover. She said, "My boss at the Mauna Loa research station offered me the job. I thought I needed an adventure."
This is me: "So, how is it working out for you. Are you having an adventure?"
"Oh yea," she says. "How about you?"
I don't have an answer because I haven't spoken to Jerry Marty yet. I don't know the words.
This week I'm here and everyone will spend time with me, though not as willingly. I have "double deployed". This is a rarity in the polar program. Hardly anyone comes to the ice, goes home, and then comes back. So now I have that certification. Now that people have seen me attain the pole more than once in a single season, I must be someone. I am spoken to. I am dealt with. Joked with. Smiled at. Eaten with. Walked with.
Tomorrow I may have to start digging a snowpit with Paddy's chainsaw. All kinds of minus thirty outside but I'll be operating dangerous equipment. Sawing through the plateau with a woman's favorite power tool.
I have crossed a polar barrier. If I wanted, I could be a polie now.
I am living the dream and I need to start acting like it. These are the flames Jerry starts.
This is called living life. This is the dream we're living.
This is my polar adventure.
- South Pole Station - Feb 2, 2006