Monthly Archives: December 2006

Landscape: The Royal Societies

The Royal Societies breed desire.  Part of the world’s longest mountain chain, their jagged glacial peaks–Kempe, Huggins, Rucker, Salient, Hooker, and Lister–punctuate the skyline across the frozen McMurdo Sound.  The Royal Society Range fascinates me more than any other landscape feature in the area, probably because I know that I won’t ever get any closer to them than I am on Ross Island, a good thirty miles of sea ice away from the continent’s shore.

Royal Societies from McMurdo Sound 

The Royal Societies are a segment of Antarctica’s Transantarctic Mountains, which ripple thirty thousand miles across the continent, Transantarctics dividing its ice sheet into two parts. In some places, the mountain chain is buried, but on western shore of McMurdo Sound, it provides a dramatic backdrop to life at McMurdo Station.  Perpetually covered in ice and snow, the faces reflect purple shadows when the sun is low on the horizon, and when the sun sets behind them in February, splashes of pink, orange, and gold will frame the range’s silhouette on the sky.             

Tucked into other mountains nearby are Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, which are ice-free valleys that get nearly no snowfall or moisture of any kind.  Royal Societies from Cape EvansScientists studying the area’s unique ecosystem and geological features come to McMurdo on their way to research camps that they establish there each year for a few months during the austral summer. The Dry Valleys are a short helicopter ride away from McMurdo, and I’ve never seen them up close.  But I imagine them as I stand on the edge of Ross Island and snap photographs of the mountains, which from here always feel a little too far away. 

Life: Icestock 2007!

Literature: Susan Orlean’s Kind of Place

“I view all stories as journeys.  Journeys are the essential text of the human experience—the journey from birth to death, from innocence to knowledge, from where we start to where we end.” –Susan Orlean, in My Kind of Place

Orlean's Kind of PlaceSusan Orlean’s My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere (Random House, 2005) took me out of my holiday funk and into a New Jersey backyard full of two dozen pet tigers…and then to the top of Japan’s Mount Fuji…and finally to Iceland on a quest to figure out what happened to the whale in Free Willy

Orlean, who is also the author of The Orchid Thief, demonstrates her strength as an essayist in My Kind of Place, which is a collection of thirty-three nonfiction essays from here, there, and everywhere.  She’s sassy.  And smart.  And even though she admits: “I travel heavy,” I can’t help but like her anyway.  Maybe she can’t pack, but she can write.  

Most of the essays in this collection have been previously published in The New Yorker, and Orlean presents herself as a curious, detail-snatching guide who gathers stories from around the globe.  Most vividly, she brings alive Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a buzzing place lined with a “jumble of small businesses—travel agencies, Internet cafes, souvenir stores, bars…and stalls offering bootleg tapes, bogus Teva sandals, Hindu-print camisoles, and flyweight silver jewelry, along with the hair braiders and the banana pancake makers.”  Orlean sees it all and writes so convincingly about Khao San Road in “The Place to Disappear” that readers can touch and smell the place as she strolls through. 

My Kind of Place might be the book for you if–
You’re trapped in a dungeon without a window to the outside world.  You don’t own a passport, but you like people who do.  You want to know where you can purchase a “commemorative eel cake.”  You, like Orlean, are a self-described “passionate voyager.”   

Merci, Madame
Thanks to The Sister, for her comment recommending Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa by Karin Muller (Rodale Books, 2005).  I want to read it.  (For those of you who don’t know, The Sister has good manners and good taste.  She mostly writes about food and travel.) 

Literature Saves
Feel free to leave a comment about the books that got you through…(the holidays, that nasty breakup, your latest transatlantic flight, …??!).  We’d love to hear.  

Life: Santarctica 2006

“…most of our small remaining stock of luxuries was consumed at the Christmas feast. We could not carry it all with us, so for the last time for eight months we had a really good meal—as much as we could eat. Anchovies in oil, baked beans, and jugged hare made a glorious mixture such as we have not dreamed of since our school days.”—Sir Ernest Shackleton, in South (1919)

Merry Christmas from McMurdo!

SantawichMeet Santawich, the mastermind of McMurdo’s holiday celebrations. Santawich should not be confused with Santa, who resides at the North Pole and who likes cookies and milk. As Santawich knows, the guy who delivers us presents down here likes Spam and thawed-out chocolate doughnuts—because that is what she left outside of her door, and not a crumb remained on Christmas morning.

In 2003, Santawich first came to McMurdo as a dishwasher. That year, she distributed sixty Santa suits to her galley coworkers and friends to inspire McMurdo’s first Santarctica, which ended up being a bunch of people running around with kazoos and a tuba in red felt costumes. This year, Santawich again spearheaded the Santarctica movement, spreading merriment around station and as far as the Stellar Axis site (see last post). When not in holiday garb, Santawich goes by the name Sandwich.

SantasOf Santarctica 2006, all I have are foggy memories. While I was sleeping, I remember by roommate running in and out of our room in an elf costume with jingle bells somewhere attached. Because I am currently working the night shift, I worked on Christmas Eve and then slept straight through Christmas Day. This evening, I woke up and saw Santawich in the hall while I was on the way to brush my teeth in our dorm’s communal bathroom. After my brief encounter with the source of all holiday cheer, I walked over to the coffee house, drank four double lattes, and watched the Jim Carrey version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Landscape: The Stellar Axis

“I’ve always been interested in doing works on a scale that would make people think about themselves from a larger perspective and consciousness.”  –Lita Albuquerque, July 19, 2006 in the LA Times

Cece the Snowmobile GymnastThis week, the summer solstice—December 22—provided an opportunity for me to view some interactive landscape art.  This was exciting because, well, how often does a person get to interact with interactive landscape art?  My roommate, mountaineer and (former?) gymnast Cecelia Mortenson, invited me to snowmobile out to the site with her…and to make sure that the installation, which is located between two ice runways, was anchored securely in its place on the Ross Ice Shelf.  


The project, “Stellar Axis: Antarctica” is the brainchild of LA-based artist Lita Albuquerque, who is the recipient of a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program.  “Stellar Axis” is an installation of ninety-nine bright blue spheres, which are aligned with the stars over the South Pole, as they would be positioned on the eve of the summer solstice.  The spheres are proportionately sized and named according to the stars that they mirror.  Albuquerque sees her work with star alignment as an activity that “engages the whole planet.”  At least, it engaged me in thinking about STARS…something that I haven’t seen since I left New Zealand at the end of September.     

Stellar Sun

The spheres range in size from ten inches to four feet in diameter and have been positioned on the ice shelf in a circle of about eight hundred feet in diameter.  In order to execute the project, Albuquerque gathered an international crew of four others, including a French photographer, a British filmmaker, an Italian-based cinematographer, and an English astronomer.  Albuquerque is a pioneering member of the first generation of “Earth artists” and is known for her large-scale installations and landscape interventions that have geographic, scientific, and spiritual significance. 

Stellar GymnastIn you’re in the northern hemisphere, December 22 marked the winter solstice.  Up there, the solstice means that warmer weather and longer hours of daylight are on their way.  Down here, it’s the opposite.  Today’s high of 32-degrees Fahrenheit is about as warm as it’s going to get.   

For more “Stellar Axis” photos and developments, check out the “Stellar Axis: Antarctica” blog

Life:  Santarctica 2006

Literature: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Road

“Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection?…Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need.  Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.”  –John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (1962)

True LoveOn the right wall beside my twin bed hangs a map of the world.  On the left, a map of the United States.  Above my head, a map of the Chamonix valley.  Lately, I can’t keep my fingers from tracing lines across the western portion of the United States, across its blue highways that spider out like veins.  

In the middle of such wanderlust, I spotted John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America on my roommate’s book pile, so I read it, and then—wanting more—I checked out Jack Kerouac’s On the Road from McMurdo’s little library.  Of course, I probably should have read it by now, and my friend Bill warned me that “…after high school, it’s a hard book to like.”  But both books gave me what I wanted—a feel for the road—though I can’t say that they soothed my longing for it. 

On the ROADPublished in 1957, On the Road is Kerouac’s novel based on many of the author’s real-life experiences road tripping across the United States and Mexico with fellow “Beat Generation” pal Neal Cassady, who becomes the model for the book’s character Dean Moriarty.  Sal Paradise narrates the adventures in which the people he encounters become more compelling than the road itself.  Ultimately, Dean Moriarty drives the story, one of the irresistible “mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”  Kerouac begins and ends his story with Dean Moriarty.  In between, he gives us life on the road. 

Travels with CharlieSteinbeck—by contrast—begins and ends his story with the road.  In between, he gives us a French poodle.  That’s right, Charley is Steinbeck’s dog, and Travels with Charley, published in 1962, is the true story of how Steinbeck (with canine companion) sets out at age fifty-eight to rediscover his own country.  He names his truck Rocinante—after Don Quixote’s horse—and demonstrates in his wanderings how “we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”  From New York to Wisconsin to California to Louisiana and back again, I found Steinbeck’s book to be more about place and the natural world than Kerouac’s, and maybe for that reason I prefer Steinbeck’s, but I quite liked the process of reading both of these books back-to-back—and I recommend doing that more than reading one instead of the other.  

Honorable Mention
Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996) also makes a good road read.  It’s the story of Krakauer’s journey to discover what motivated the late Chris McCandless to spend a winter alone in the Alaskan wilderness, where he was found (dead) four months later.  

Across the pond— 
I’d say that these books are distinctly American.  Anyone out there have books in mind that define and/or offer insight into another culture’s definition of travel or adventure?     

Life: Morning at McMurdo

“By Antarctic standards, McMurdo was a city.  Ever since 1956 it has been, and still is, the largest settlement on the continent.  Ramshackle and desperately untidy, it resembled a frontier town that had grown up with no attempt at planning.”  –Charles Swithinbank, polar scientist and explorer, in An Alien in Antarctica (1997)

McMurdo's Main DragThe current temperature at McMurdo Station is 18-degrees Fahrenheit.  Current population: 933.  Winds are blowing from the southeast at 11 knots.  The next sunset will be in exactly two months.  Until then, the sun remains in the sky, as it is now—at 1:06 a.m. 

I’ve successfully transitioned back to the night shift (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.), so my job has me monitoring a number of different radios and communications devices for emergency/distress calls from the field.  Let’s hope that it remains hoot-owl quiet in here for the next four weeks.  I have a lot of reading I’d like to do.   

Earlier today, I took a walk up the hill to catch a few photos of this place.  I didn’t want you all thinking that Antarctica is just big and open and white.  Part of it—the part of it that is McMurdo Station—looks quite like a dump.  We live and work in battered sheetmetal buildings, and cargo lots sprawl along a half-mile stretch from Observation Hill to Hut Point Peninsula—the two land features between which McMurdo Station sits.  A central dirt road runs through town, and while there are no stoplights, two stop signs mark the intersection.      

In three frames, here it is.  McMurdo Station: 

McMurdo South

McMurdo Central

McMurdo North

Some of the original buildings were erected in 1956, when the U.S. Navy established McMurdo as the United States’ “gateway to the Antarctic.”  Its purpose, as it has always been, is the peaceful advancement of polar science.  During this time of the year, scientists and contract workers regularly work six days a week to take advantage of the balmy temperatures and the 24-hour sunlight.  Last week, I logged 63.3 hours at work.  Some people here did the same, but outdoors.  In the winter, the population will shrink below 200 people, and only essential personnel will remain to keep the place warm for the next year’s science season. 

On my way back down the hill, I passed some of the station’s choice vehicles:  a Sno Cat, parked outside of McMurdo’s Vehicle Maintenance Facility, and “Ivan,” the Terra Bus, picking up scientists for their morning commute to an environmental research site located out on the ice shelf.  The three doo-doo brown buildings in the background are dorms, which is where we all live…with a required roommate of our choosing.

Ivan the Terra Bus

This morning was a “morning coffee” day, so I walked over to my favorite place at McMurdo—the coffee shop, which is in a way-old structure called a Jamesway.  At night, the coffee shop doubles as the station’s wine bar.  Beakers (scientists) fill up the place, but it’s cozy and fun. 

McMurdo's Coffee HouseBesides the wine bar, McMurdo also has a smoking bar called Southern Exposure, and a pub called Gallagher’s.  The station store sells stuff like booze and bar soap and chocolate from New Zealand.  There is also a bowling alley here, two warped wooden lanes.  I don’t bowl, but I suppose it’s a good option when takeout pizza, movie theatres, grocery stores, and swimming pools are lacking.            

Literature:  Road Trip Picks

Landscape: the big picture

First things first: acknowledgement and reverence go to Matt (Chamonix, France), Kevin (Deleware) and Ken (Colorado) for collectively answering the last post’s literary trivia question. Correct! George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. Check out their comments…and thank you. Now, for the post:

“Great God! This is an awful place…”     -Robert Falcon Scott (1912)

Snowmobile ViewOn Wednesday afternoon I took a “morale job” moving snowmobiles from their location near McMurdo Station to a mid-summer parking strip further south on the ice shelf. Besides giving me the chance to zip around outside, the trip offered a good opportunity for reflection on the Antarctic landscape—the big picture, that is.

Ten of us met after lunch by the row of snowmobiles and set off into the never-ending whiteness on a groomed snow road, the bamboo-staked flags marking our route snapping horizontally in the wind. We left the confines of our sheetmetal workcenters and crowded dorms behind us at McMurdo and cruised out into what Antarctica mostly is—an infinitely unfolding landscape, frozen and white.

Snapping flags

The driest, windiest, and coldest continent, Antarctica is 98% snow and ice and only 2% rock and dirt. McMurdo Station, where I live and work, sits on Ross Island—a mound of volcanic rock that sticks out on this otherwise pristine continent like a little black smudge. Ross Island is 800 miles from the South Pole (where the U.S. also maintains a station), and 2,400 miles from Christchurch, New Zealand, which is where I drank my last good latte before arriving here during the first week in October.

Ross Island, a smudge

Before parking the snowmobiles in their new location, we inspected the site of the Pegasus aircraft wreckage, which still remains exposed since its crash in 1970. The plane was a C-121 Super Constellation, and none of its passengers died when it went down near what is now called Pegasus Field—McMurdo’s late-summer ice runway. After drinking some hot cocoa and standing around in the wind, we bundled up and buzzed back to Ross Island.

PegasusThis entry has done little to dispel the notion that Antarctica is nothing more than a huge chunk of ice at the bottom of the world. And it is 98% just that, so I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion of the place—just yet. All you need to know for now is that at McMurdo Station, there is much, much more to the story…

Literature: orwell’s down and out

Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is the source of this blog’s name, so I thought it fitting for his book to be the focus of my first “Literature” entry—

“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” –George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)  

George OrwellFor the past three years, my participation in the paid workforce has been spotty. The idea has been to do some contract work in Antarctica, and then live on the savings while writing, climbing, and cycling. This plan has been somewhat successful—until recently when I found myself in England, slogging through the rain to buy groceries on my credit card. I had run out of money ten weeks before my next work contract would start.

During that time, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London read like a textbook, his characters like companions. “My money oozed away…” Orwell says. I knew the feeling. And I felt reassured when one of his scrounging friends proclaims: “‘Tomorrow we shall find something, mon ami, I know it in my bones. The luck always changes…’” And it did.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell—a young, struggling writer—takes readers into society’s underworld and exposes the poverty there as he tries to eek out a living, first as a plongeur (a restaurant slave) in the basement of Paris’ “Hotel X.” From Paris he returns to England, where he thinks that a job will be waiting for him, but he arrives to find that his employer has moved abroad. Instead of getting work in London, Orwell moves from spike to spike along with the other tramps who are allowed to stay for free at these poorhouses but are obligated to move on each day.

The Sister shoots ParisAt times, the narrative may feel a bit disjointed, but Orwell has an amazing ability to bring alive the people he encounters on his journey: Boris—the Russian waiter, Valenti—the Italian, Charlie—an educated runaway, Paddy—an Irish tramp, and Bozo—the pavement artist. Orwell’s hodgepodge crew keeps the story alive until the end, and “That,” he says in his book’s last line, “…is a beginning.”

Still want more? Then keep reading… Orwell, who is better known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, wrote Down and Out in 1930. His first book, it was promptly rejected for publication by Jonathan Cape in London, and later T.S. Eliot also refused it for Faber and Faber. Orwell continued to scrape by and had moved on to his next project—Burmese Days—by the time that the new Gollancz picked it up as “Confessions of a Down and Out” and published it in 1933. Orwell was 30.

Some might like to debate whether the book is autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or fiction. Penguin Classics calls it a “vivid memoir,” and Orwell says “I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting.” He admits that some of his characters are “intended more as representative types than as individuals.”

Orwell's Down and OutDown and Out in Paris and London is a good book to read when:

you’re broke. you’re feeling down and out but you know that you’ve got back-up plans a, b, c, and d. you might like to pawn your clothes. you’re sick of your slave-wage day job.

The details: George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. Originally published by Gollancz in 1933. Now available as a Penguin Classic.

Literary Trivia: Anyone out there know what George Orwell’s real name was?? Yep, “George Orwell” is a pseudonym.

Post your answer as a comment, and please include your name so that you may be acknowledged and revered. NO INTERNET SURFING allowed. You may use life-lines or consult real, live BOOKS.

Life: on ice

“You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic.” —Thomas Pynchon, V

Flying SouthWelcome to “Down and Out,” a new blog (my first) being written from the down, down, down and out-est part of the world: Antarctica. It is true that I am here at the United States’ McMurdo Station, working a contract in communications for the polar summer’s science season. My current job has me chatting each day on HF radios, Iridium phones, and VHF repeaters to scientists working in remote field camps. The point of this activity is a.) to make sure that they’re still alive out there and b.) to get them the resources they need to conduct cutting-edge polar science—stuff like determining why the fish around here don’t die in really cold water, why the ice shelves are melting (they are, by the way), and why the world’s weather does what it does. 

McMurdo from Hut Point RidgeAntarctica’s Boomtown:

McMurdo Station, the largest station for scientific research and exploration in Antarctica, is a rowdy and crowded population of about eleven hundred people right now. The sun swirls around the sky and never sets. Outside, it is currently twenty-eight Fahrenheit, and the skate skiing conditions are most-excellent.

 My first nine-month stint at McMurdo in 2003-04 involved physical labor in the outdoors. I stayed that winter and worked as an assistant in a mechanic’s shop for heavy equipment. The sun set for four months, and it was too cold outside to breathe deep breaths. Last year, I returned for six months in this communications job, and now I’m back for another five, making December 2006 my eighteenth month at McMurdo. Next week, I will begin working on the night shift, listening to crackling radios while I read, ears tuned for any distress calls from the field.  Landing on McMurdo Sound

For the next ten weeks, at least, I will continue to live and work and write dispatches from this wacky place that I love. By the time that I leave in late February, you may be sick of the Ice—as we call it here—but I promise more tales from: The South Pacific. The roads of the western United States. The French Alps.



Literature: George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London