Ice People

October 2002

I'm doing this again. Once is luck. Twice is stupidity. Three times is an obsession.

I'm only to the stupid stage. Perhaps there's hope.

With my last trip to the ice now the safe distance of eleven months in the past I've begun to regain the ability to examine my behavior with the same clarity of mind I had before I left. Or is it that clarity has once again abandoned me, and what I mistake for rationality is really a fragile edifice I've spent a lifetime building?

Something happened to me in Antarctica last year. I remember the moment as if I lived it only a minute ago.

I remember staring at my feet as I exited the Hercules military transport. The Kiwi flight crew said, "Watch your step," and I took them at their word. I watched my feet.

Taken in tiny visual chunks, anything is digestible. The three steps on the plane's folding ladder ended on a patch of white snow. There was nothing remarkable about it. I grew up in the northeastern United States. We had snowy winters. I know what it feels like to walk on it.

I have been on numerous skiing vacations. I am no stranger to the white stuff.

So when my bunny-booted foot touched down on the ice I knew where I was but had no comprehension of the place. And the fact the ice was slippery forced me to keep "watching my step" for the first few tentative strides. My orange duffle was over my shoulder and the weight made me unbalanced. There was redistribution to tend to.

It wasn't until I looked up. It wasn't.

I know I've mentioned in prior missives that I'd wanted to go to Antarctica for as long as I can remember. Someone versed in reincarnation might suggest I'd been a polar explorer in a prior life. Someone versed in psychology might suggest a fixation--a complex arising from a nearly-forgotten event in my childhood. Someone who understands silicon valley business might suggest I simply wanted to escape reality. My family would suggest I needed to "play".

Whatever the reason for wanting it, I'd been dreaming it for the ever that is me. While some people dream of stardom and others immeasurable wealth, I'd dreamed of Antarctica. From the beginning of my life.

Mt. Erebus rises in a gaussian curve above the horizon. It is a massive blue beast, the size of the sky itself. Its slopes are smooth. It rises in a slender curve the way a river bends or a swan curls its long pipe of a neck. A perpetual cloud of volcanic gasses and steam issues from its summit the way it has since dinosaurs walked.

I have dreamed of Erebus. And when my own eyes told me I was in the presence of that great earth god, everything I had been shattered to sand and blew away on the katabatic winds. The person left piloting my body was the same person who had been born into this life, now standing without the aid of 40+ years of shielding, defense mechanisms, the costumes of roles I'd played in life. It was all gone.

Suddenly I wasn't an engineer anymore. Nor a CEO. Nor a taxpayer. Nor a philosopher, musician, writer, existentialist, Buddhist, Catholic, New Ager, psychic, entrepreneur--nor anything I had ever tried to be.

In that one life-altering instant having my greatest dream realized turned me back to the soul I was when I was born. With the single exception, perhaps, of seeing my children born, there has never been anything in my life that approximated that feeling of being so fortunate, and so honored to possess a life. Not one other thing I have ever witnessed or done has brought me close to that, and it is my suspicion there are many people in this world who never get to that point of ephiphany.

The closest thing to that feeling that I can relate is that of falling in love-that moment of utter terror when you realize you've made yourself completely vulnerable to one other person, and then the sheer elation when you know that by letting them close, you can actually feel them.

That state of mind altered my perception of my world and my life. It altered the way people thought about me. It changed the way I looked so much so that even though I had only grown a small beard, my own wife didn't recognize me when I got off the plane back home from that trip. It is only now, eleven months later, that I have begun to settle back into the familiar patterns of the past forty years or so of my living and friends will say, "The old you is coming back."

I don't know if that's good.

Antarctica is a geographic challenge. It's another mountain for some to climb, and another notch on some traveller's belt. It's remarkable, though, how few people down there treat it that way.

For the most part, the people in Antarctica feel about it the same way I do. Like Roy Neary in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" they dreamed about the ice for most of their lives and they were torn to pieces by the energy of their own life force when they arrived. There are very few people on the ice who weren't "called" there by their imagination. Nobody is there who doesn't want to be.

They keep going back. It's as if when the continent wants you, the universe aligns to bring you there. These people don't know why, but the opportunities keep coming up and they take them. They stand there at Hut Point and touch the weathered timbers of Scott's shelter and know they're part of a long history of people who for reasons they couldn't articulate, simply had to be there.

New agers would suggest we're all reincarnated Atlantians. We're all idealistic dreamers unable to face the pressures of modern society. We're all melodramatic, hopeless romantics locked in the nineteenth-century anachronism of polar exploration.

We're ice people.