Sunday, October 9, 2011

I'm in Antarctica!

Hey! I'm in Antarctica!
Well. I had all these ambitions that I was going to write some sort of thoughtful summary of everything that came out of riding my bike across the country, but one thing led to another and now I am solidly in the middle of the next adventure and can’t seem to summon up much retrospective contemplation at the moment. So instead I will just briefly say—it’s been a wonderfully crazy year, and I feel extraordinarily grateful for all the marvelous adventures and partners in crime that have entered my life since I decided to throw myself out at the world to see what would step up to catch me. These past seven months feel like they’ve held at least a few years’ worth of inspiration and joy. And now I’m in Antarctica!
I’m currently writing this from the coffee shop (yes, there is a coffee shop; it also serves wine and whiskey) at McMurdo Station, where I’m working as a cook until February. It’s hard to know quite where to start in describing this place, so I’ll begin with my most frequently asked question: Why the hell did you want to work in Antarcitca?
There were a few reasons I wanted to come down. The main one was the simplest. To quote the explorer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to scale Everest: “Because it’s there.” I applied for this job while I was still riding my bike, at the time, I felt like the last thing I wanted to do was just get a day job and settle into some sort of normal living environment. So this seemed like a good middle ground. It wasn’t traveling per se, but it certainly wasn’t the anemic domesticity that I’d been living in before and that I desperately wanted to avoid returning to.
It seemed like the perfect way to experience a strange and fascinating place-and its equally strange and fascinating populace- while fostering a temporary sense of home and roots. And, after spending so much time being an itinerant painter, I was pretty excited at the prospect of a steady paycheck.
I was also curious to see how I would respond to the isolation and the weather. For those of you who know me personally, you are probably well aware of the fact that I hate the cold. Not just a little bit, but a lot bit. Kind of to the extent that it is one of my defining personality traits. Somewhere between Los Angeles and Maine, my bike ride began to foster a fascination with testing my own limits--with seeing how many second, third, and seventeenth winds I had in me. I have always been an extremely stubborn person, and I find some measure of perverse joy in putting myself in situations where I have bitten off more than I can chew and am then forced to rise to the occasion. So I figured I’d get myself to the coldest place on earth. Thus far, I’m doing fine, but it’s apparently quite warm for this time of year. It was 12 degrees when I landed, and the coldest I’ve thus far been outside for (I’ve only been here two and a half days) has been -2.
So I applied while I was on the road: I sent in my application from New Orleans, and my written interview from DC. I had my phone interview from New York, and found out that I’d got the job while in the mountains of Vermont. I’d had to hike up a ridgeline to get cell phone reception, and it somehow seemed very fitting to be doing my excited holyshiti’mgoingtoantarctica dance in that setting. 
And then I came back to Seattle for two months, and completely fell in love with a city for which I’d previously harbored nothing more than grudging apathy. The universe basically slapped me in the face with all the things that I’d complained that Seattle lacked, and I left feeling like I had many things that I wanted to stick around and explore. It was certainly funny timing to be dashing off on this crazy adventure at one of the few points in my life where I was actually full of curiosity and excitement over where I already was.
Alright, enough of this rambling backstory stuff. So! Antarctica! 
Actually getting down here involved a truly stunning amount of bureaucracy. I won't go into the details, but I think I probably heard at least 25 safety lectures, all of it covering the same material. I understand where they're coming from-- we are, after all, working in an environment where you can actually die of exposure quite quickly if you go out unprepared and all... Anyways, after about 3 days of lectures and informational videos in Denver, we headed out to Christchurch, NZ and were issued our cold weather gear. We are provided with everything we need for the outdoors, and out most noticeable layer is our Big Red, which, as you can see, is an enormous red parka. Everyone who works down in Antarctica is issued one of these, so at times the station looks like a pack of red penguins waddling from point A to point B.  
Sitting in a lecture at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch. A sea of red parkas.
 We also got issued these things called Bunny Boots, which are enormous, insulated boots with valves on them so you can regulate the inner air layer. They are HUGE, and remind me of those ads for moon boots that used to be on TV when I was a kid. Anyone else know what I'm talking about? They were like little trampolines for your feet....
Here's my bunny boot next to my shoe for a size comparison.

We flew down on a military transport plane. The cargo bay was crazy loud, so we all had to wear earplugs and couldn't really have conversations.
Most people opted to just curl up in their Big Reds and go to sleep.
These are the transport vehicles down here. They all have nicknames and the insides are covered in stickers, and riding around in them makes me feel a bit like I'm in a science fiction movie and am in the infantry on some foreign planet and about to step out and wage war against strange creatures. Most things here make me feel like I'm on a foreign planet.
Antarctica is a place of contradictions. The sparse landscape is every bit as impressive and daunting as one might think, but McMurdo itself is gritty and industrial and everything that goes into actually living and working down here is... uh... well. It's not austere and romantic. It's greasy and poorly organized and slipshod and generally looks like a construction site.
A view of my home. There are a bunch of weird sculptures lying around, I'll post more pictures later.

The people down here are very much my peoples-- no one can really give a straight answer to the question of "Where are you from?" so instead everyone asks, "Where do you store your stuff?" It is lovely to be in a community where being a vagabond places you solidly in the majority. I'll write more about the people later, I have to dash off to work now. I'm working ten hour days, six days a week, so I'm kept pretty busy. Hilariously, they're serious about uniforms here, so six days a week I'm wearing an immaculately white doubled breasted chef's coat. I'm going to try to update this blog fairly regularly (heh, we'll see how that goes), but in the meantime, I would love to hear from everyone back home! Email me and say hi: Also, send me mail! If you write to me, I'll write back and I'll draw you pictures of strange things I encounter down here on the ice. Flat mail gets here waaayyyyyy faster than package mail, so either send two dimensional things, or use a padded mailing envelope. I can be reached at:
Tessa Hulls, NANA
McMurdo Station
PSC 469 Box 700
APO AP 96599

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