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just another day on the ice

We’ve gained nearly four hours of daylight in the two and a half weeks that I’ve been here.  25 minutes per day.  The official sunrise for today was 8:52 AM; the sunset was officially over at 4:55 PM, an hour ago.  But, as the sun itself has yet to make an appearance above the horizon, “rise” and “set” are terms without a great deal of meaning.  Dawn and dusk stretch on for hours on either side of the day.  The former is generally cloudy, dull and featureless; the latter is a vibrant being, a painted gossamer scarf that waves against the northern sky, shifting and breathing colors onto the landscape.  The invisible sun is a bright pinkish-orange halo on the edge of the ice shelf from which soft purples, pinks and oranges drift upwards and outwards.  We haven’t had a clear day in two weeks.  No blue sky, no open canopy of stars.  Occasionally the clouds will lift from the peaks sixty miles away, on the other side of the ice shelf, allowing us breathtaking glimpses of mountains that seem buried to their rocky peaks in windswept snow; even rarer: a night like tonight, when the clouds conspire with the sun, clearing in time for the dying, colorful light to first illuminate and then silhouette the distant, icy mountains.

I am still at a loss to contextualize or explain my existence or my thoughts on being here in any coherent sense.  So we’ll leave off with thoughts or intellectualizing, and deal with simple facts.

I wake up.  I’m working the morning shift, so my alarm goes off at 5:12 AM.  The air in the room is dry.  My humidifier has run out of water overnight, and the dry air makes my sinuses and throat and nose feel clogged.  Dry, dry dry.  I live in the desert.  A frozen desert.  My hair has gone straight because there’s no moisture in the air to make it frizz or curl.  I no longer need to wash my face twice a day, because my pores have stopped producing oil.  I roll out of bed and look out the window.  I can see vehicles moving, working on building the sea-ice runway: blinking yellow strobes and red guiding lights bright in the sea of night.  If I’m lucky and it’s clear, the moon sits framed in the center of the window.  My roommate is already awake and down the hall, in the bathroom.  I dress in my uniform: a layer of thermals, top and bottom; black elastic-waist chef pants; a blue, collared, short-sleeved shirt; and blue baseball cap.  Socks, shoes, and my big red parka.  I tuck my hands into the sleeves and stuff them in the pockets.  Can’t be bothered putting on gloves just to walk across town.  At the end of the dorm hallway, I turn the doorknob and stand in the entry way, where snow has drifted in around the outside door, sitting in small cold piles around the trash cans.  Exiting the building involves sliding a sturdy metal latch out of the way, then slamming and re-barricading the door from the outside.

One breath is all it takes to evaluate the current weather conditions.  The slightest variation of temperature or humidity is immediately apparent, the Antarctic climate acting as an intense magnifier.  Most days the temperatures hover around -15 Fahrenheit.  We haven’t seen zero degrees or above yet.  Two days ago it was -5, and snowing!  The fine, almost substance-less crystals were The Topic of Conversation for the entire community that day.  I walk the three minutes up the hill to the galley building, where I spend ten hours and more each day.  The road is regularly graded and plowed, but the hard, rough, apple-sized lumps of volcanic rock require careful foot placement, and in areas the snow has been so compacted that it has turned to ice.  I walk like a penguin: short, shuffling steps.  The red parkas we wear (affectionately termed “Big Red”) are incredibly warm, and chock-full of pockets.  I can regularly carry my 1,000+ page copy of “Atlas Shrugged,” my Nalgene bottle, a candy bar, hat, gloves, notebook, and other cold weather gear, and still have room for more.  The fur-rimmed hoods are marvelous wind-stoppers, but also act as mufflers and blinders.  The sound of my feet on the snow and my arms rustling against my torso make it impossible to hear, and the hood’s edges effectively cancel any sense of periphery.  A person could be walking not two feet away from me and I’d never know it.  The weather changes rapidly, unexpectedly.  I may walk to work in stillness, and a half hour later take out the rubbish in 20mph winds.  Very strong winds require creative walking.  Moving directly into the wind will freeze your face faster than you can say “frostbite.”  Instead, we tilt our heads down and to one side, letting the insulated hood catch the cold blasts, marking our progress in quick, upward glances.

5:30 AM: I’m at work.  The day quickly gets boring from here.  I work in a cafeteria.  I make coffee, I clean up spills, I restock cereal and juice, I wash dishes, I wash pots, I mop floors.  I’m a supervisor, so I also make schedules, assign daily chores, teach, train, plan programs and attend meetings.  I like working in the dish room during meal times; I greet each person as they drop off their trays of messy plates and sort their silverware into soapy buckets.  It’s a very visible job, and I’m making friends quickly.  On the morning shift, I work until 4 PM, and escape into the bright day as it starts to turn towards evening.  I visit friends, I go to the gym, I enjoy the fact that my shift ends an hour and a half before the rest of town; this is precious, precious alone time.  Evenings, if I’m not wiped out and asleep by ten, I go to the coffee house for hot chocolate and Bailey’s or a glass of NZ wine.  Some nights I do yoga.  I read, I write, I cross another day off the Appalachian Trail calendar I found in Skua (skoo-ah) Central (named for the native scavenging birds, Skua Central is an impressive collection of former McMurdo residents’ discarded effects: clothes, shoes, hats, alarm clocks, toiletries, Tupperware, humidifiers, radios, costumes, books, rock climbing ropes, toys, games, boots and fabrics – all free for the taking.  It’s an wondrous system, rather like treasure hunting.  My most prized skua-ed item: an electric kettle!  This means I can have tea in my room whenever I want without needing to go upstairs to the lounge to use the microwave!).

What else can I tell you?  What do you want to know?  It’s just my life, some days brilliant, others dismal, but every day something new, something to remind me to quit my bitching and enjoy the moment.

Send me questions.  Everything, anything.  Leave me comments; send me emails.  I’ll run this like a Q and A session until I get my bearings.  What can I tell you about life on the highest, driest, windiest continent??

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