A few days ago I was asked to drive someone out to our airfield to board one of the last scheduled flights of the "winfly" season. This person hadn't planned on leaving, in fact they had just arrived a week or so earlier but something happened (that I won't get into) that required them to leave station. They may or may not return in a few weeks when the main season gets fully into swing. This is just trivia though, facts random.
We left town early to make sure we met the plane as it arrived but it turned out we left a bit too early. We made excellent time, traveling in a van we found the 14 mile long road, really a trail of heavily packed snow, to be in good condition. There were few drifts and for the most part we lightly bounced along as if we were on a paved road back in the states. We beat the plane to the airfield. And we waited for a lot of cargo to be offloaded before my passenger could board.
I didn't know this person though I had seen them around town both this season and the end of the last season. We had some time to chat. We talked about our backgrounds, our experiences on the ice and why they were leaving. Through this the desperation behind their words became apparent, of how deeply they didn't want to leave the ice. How strongly they wanted to stay and would have stayed if they could.
This is powerful.
And it isn't unique to this person. So many of the people that come down here do so out of great personal sacrifice. We say goodbye to our loved ones in the states, we trade the security (?) and comforts of the "modern" world for some town carved out on the edge of the world whose very existence is ludicrus. I have known people to work through harrowing injuries, gritting their teeth, working through pain that would send someone in the US back to bed, calling in sick, because they didn't want to be marked as a slacker or sent home early. There is a desperation in all of this, a need to belong. A need to be here.
After almost three years I still don't understand what "here" means. I just know that it is special.
In a strange coincidence on this same morning, hours before I was asked to drive out to the airfield, a link to a story started appearing on the FB pages of many people at McM. It was about how HBO was developing a new TV series based on the book Big Dead Place, which tells the tale/adventures of someone who worked down here for a bunch of years in the early to mid 2000's. I am torn by this news. On the one hand I have long thought that life down here would make for a rather interesting TV show but on the other hand I don't feel comfortable about BDP being the inspiration for our life in pictures.
Some of you might have read this book. It's probably the most popular book about working in Antarctica and specifically for the US program. I read the book before I came down here for my first season and it almost made me not come. There is hilarity in this book but there are also moments that paint an unfair picture of the program, of this place, of this community. Sure parts of it are true but at the same time the book focuses a lot on the negative dramatic moments. I distinctly remember sitting in a bookstore reading this book and thinking to myself "do I really want to join THIS community?"*
I had my doubts.
Luckily I still came down and quickly discovered that everyone's experience down here is unique. Those depicted in BDP have no more meaning than I choose to give them.
It's a place those who stay come to love. It's a family, a community, carved into the most extreme enviornment in the world. And I hope this is something that comes across in this TV show if it ever gets made. Sure we have some silly things that go on and yes we have lot's of bureaucracy. But once the allure of "antarctica" fades after your first season there is a reason people keep coming back. There is something real here, something permanent in this transient community of ours. It's not something that is easily portrayed for TV and it is my fear that this won't translate well.
I hope it does. I hope it captures the desperation to be here. I hope people watching this show get to see the same things I see, get to see how strongly people want to be here, how leaving fills one with sadness. I hope it shows that when you strip away the bureaucracy, the corporate culture that tends to pop up more and more you still find something real. It might not make for good TV but it makes for good life.
For this is what makes this place special. This is why I return. This is why Antarctica is Home. For me and many many others.
*After reading the book I had assumed that the author had long since stopped coming down. I was rather surprised to find him still working here when I came down for my first season.