Normally, Sundays are our weekly day off. Usually fate has cold, clouds, and wind in store for Sunday hikers-to-be. But, on rare occasions (even more so during the tumultuous weather of winfly) the skies clear, the winds die, and that big, beautiful sun warms the air with its generous rays. We were lucky enough to experience a Sunday like this recently. This particular Sunday held a temperature of around -22° with no wind chill. Now, that may sound like a ludicrous temperature to hike around in, but considering that the day before held ambient air temperatures of below -40°, 30mph winds, and a -112° wind chill, it felt like the 4th of July. So Liz and I, along with our friend Gabriel, went for a hike.
We decided upon taking a trail that climbs Observation Hill, a high point that sits on the southern-most tip of Ross Island and makes up the southern boundary of McMurdo Station. On a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles in almost every direction. You can see the contrasting monoliths of White Island and Black Island to the south, an alley between them pointing straight to the South Pole. The vast, frozen reaches of the McMurdo ice shelf to the east. To the west, the harsh blue and white slopes of Mt. Discovery and the Royal Societies, sitting among the otherworldly landscapes of the Dry Valleys. Looming in the sky to the north is the overwhelming presence of Mt. Erebus, the southern-most active volcano on the planet. Amongst this epic natural landscape, one of the most unique and awesome this world has to offer, sits our sleepy little hamlet: a dusty, industrial pockmark that contrasts starkly to the environment around it.
From the slopes of Observation Hill you can gain a perspective of McMurdo that can only be gained from looking at something from above. Suddenly the hustle of bustle of a town busy at work fades away. A 40-ton loader with a diesel engine and a blaring back-up alarm transforms from a screaming yellow beast into a silent little insect, moseying along on its way. Little ants in big red coats slowly meander from building to building, their tiny dramas unfolding as they walk, while puffs of warm breath melodically escape into the air above them. Structures that impede the view from ground level melt away to reveal what somewhere else might be called “urban planning,” but here the term just doesn’t quite seem right. Sitting atop Ob Hill lets one look down ponder this little community, sitting on the fringe of human reach. You can see the life the town itself holds. Not the people that live there, but McMurdo itself. You can see it 100 years ago, as it trapped the old heroes of Antarctic Exploration. You can see it 50 years ago when it was being run by the Navy, infrastructure beginning to take hold. You can see it now for what we all dream it still is and always will be: a little village at the edge of the world.
The tiny town of McMurdo, Antarctica is unlike any other. It has the same small town charms and nuisances that any other small town has, but in an extreme way. Not only do you say hi to the person that lives next door, but you use the same showers and toilets, eat in the same place for every meal, and cross paths with them at least five times a day, cheerfully greeting them those five times every day. In this way, McMurdo becomes a bit of a bubble, where every little drama is discussed at length and any little hiccup has the affect of an earthquake. Adjusting to this lifestyle last year was a little jarring for me and in order to accept it for what it was I had to pretend that there had been an apocalypse and McMurdo was all there was left.
Despite its close confines and the occasional feeling that its impossible to escape other people to have a moment of solitude, magical things happen here. There is a sense of community that is unmatchable, comprised of a highly intelligent, adventurous and creative group of people. The art, music, and science that is generated out of this population of 1200 rivals that of big cities.
This past Sunday, our day off, Kevin and I took a walk around town. I was still feeling slightly suffocated and a little trapped by being back down here; people and work were annoying me. We walked up by the Carp Shop which is busy preparing for the party coming up Saturday night that is going to be combined with a craft fair in which I’m selling shrinky-dink earrings. We strolled past the waste water plant that currently has just one employee, Poobacca, who had played his ukelele the night before at Open Mic, adorned in a flannel shirt and a top hat. We trudged down the icy slope leading to the big gym where we play basketball some nights with our boss. Since it was such a beautiful day, we decided to hike to the top of Ob Hill.
I did some serious bundling, yet still felt chilled for most of our little trek. By the time we were done, I could barely keep my eyes open as my eyelids had grown quite heavy from the formation of ice on my lashes. But standing at the top of Ob Hill, looking back at the dwarfed industrial wasteland that is McMurdo provided just the reframing I needed. Town is simply a tiny little microcosm in the huge, deadly, gorgeous expanse of Antarctica, of the world. We kept discussing how lucky we are as we slid back down the snowy, rock free patches on our bums. Looking out over the piercing white and blue, I was reminded of just how special and unique our current home is, and how privileged I am to be experiencing this amazing place.