Penguins leave trails like snakes that have been sunning in the paleolithic summertime.
I have walked this trail before. I have seen Erebus with my own eyes hundreds of times. I am familiar with the need to call the clouds at the top "gasses" and not steam. I know molten rock in its cauldron turns the clouds bright orange in the winter.
And I can't stop. Feeling something.
More than that, and you have go backward in time to the six days of creation to find any intelligence here.
"Is there a marked trail?"
"Are you kidding?"
"How about, no?"
"They catch us here, we're in a little trouble."
"How much of a little?"
"Breaking the Antarctic treaty? The sign says twenty-thousand dollars and two years in jail."
I hadn't seen that sign.
"We came up the back way so we didn't pass it."
"The back way?"
"The back way. The way you're--"
"Not supposed to come up. Shit. I remember this now. Didn't they tell us about coming here in the in-brief?"
"You want to go somewhere else?"
Sometimes it's whether you kiss her or not. Sometimes it's whether you get the parking spot close to the door.
You have to look into their eyes when someone else is at your moment of truth. Look hard. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Look for that light that says their soul is burning white with life. If you take some of it for yourself, it can hurt. You can wind up in all sorts of bad bad, totally meaningless trouble.
But you won't be disappointed.
"Well?" she asks me, hands on hips. Would be tapping the chocolate brown volcanic rock with her boot toe if we weren't on a hillside.
"Um. This is okay." I said.
Ross Island is a pile of deep brown ejecta from volcanic Erebus. The rocks are sharp in places. Glassine porous pumice. Steep sided hills crowned in ice and crosses, the human remains of human remains.
From the hills on Ross Island, Erebus dominates the view. It's hulking blue white, capped with a wisp of cloud that strings out in the upper atmosphere like the tassle on a skiers knit cap.
Penguins don't come up here. The sides of the cliffs are too steep for the seals. This ridge of volcanic rock runs all the way from ObHill and Cape Armatige, up to Cape Evans. It surrounds Winter Quarters Harbor, where the Discovery wintered, just off Scott's hut.
The great explorers named these places.
We're in a world of primaries. Blotches of color. An impressionists canvas. And it has been exactly this way, for almost ever.
"Stop looking at the ground," she says.
"There are Erebus crystals here," I say. Erebus crystals are arrowhead-shaped, shiny black rocks. Perfect crystalline feldspar. They only exist on the slopes of Mt. Killimanjaro in Africa, and Erebus in Antarctica.
"You should bring one home for your wife," she says. "They'll shine them and mount them on a chain for you in Christchurch. If i was your wife, I'd think it was the perfect gift."
Yes, we both would.
"Now look. You can only see this from here."
Human-sized pyramids of snow poke upward from the permafrost. When we get closer, we can see they're composed of a crumbly, light brown, almost-rock. Concrete that's sintered in the wrong way.
The volcano made these.
"Follow me," she says. Our footsteps sound make hollow tapping sounds . The ground under us is simply a bridge over the lava tube that's long since emptied.
They have these in Hawaii. People fall into them. All the time. And die.
But we don't.
The stillness of the Antarctic, the line of hills, the sinuous division between sky and land is broken by two giant radomes, product of the U.S. Government. These shelter satellite antennas.
One allows us phone calls. One brings these bits to you. That dome is white.
The other dome is not to be approached for any reason. That dome is not white.
We turn from those. If you look away from the buildings and antennas and flags, you can still see what Scott saw. Shackelton. Mawson. Ross.
We're seeing things most people can't see. We're breathing air most people can't get to. We're living life, white and bright. We're following the trail made by no one. People who were never here.
We were never here.