Holiday Letter 2012
A few minutes before midnight, I left the cockpit of the C-130–vibrating on its giant skis, propellers buzzing–and placed my fat white boots onto the crunchy snow, blinking into the sunlight reflecting off the sea of white stretching ever outward to fall away with the curvature of the earth. In the foreground, a small crowd of winterovers in puffy red coats, anonymized by their hoods, balaclavas and dark goggles, waited anxiously for the opportunity to climb into the noisy beast and escape their 8 1/2-month (or longer) imprisonment from this center of science at the earth’s southern axis. Beyond them, several small buildings cluttered the landscape, dwarfed by the futuristic elevated Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station which we now call home. I had dressed warmly, so much so that with every inch of skin covered in thick layers, I could not feel the -52°F (-47°C) air, with a wind chill at -74°F (-59°C), and by the time we walked through the freezer-door main entrance to the Station, I had begun to perspire a little.
Keith and I have been living here for seven weeks now; it’s his fifth season and my first–the climax of a year drenched in several exceptional escapades. Last fall (2011), as newlyweds, we moved our possessions into storage and implemented the nomadic lifestyle we’d both enjoyed in the past, and dreamed of returning to. We followed Keith’s jobs: a two-week shift in Rifle, Colorado (January); three months in Bible Belt southern Arkansas (February – April); a pause in Kansas to work on our property and purchase a travel trailer; and then three months just south of Salt Lake City, Utah (May – July).
Sprite, our only child–a black and white Maine Coon–traveled with us; she glared angrily out the windows and hyperventilated during the long hours on the road but always settled into the next place quickly and happily, chasing her toy mice around within a day of arrival. While Keith worked I rode my bicycle to the grocery store, loaded up the basket and hind rack with food, and pedaled home to experiment with delicious new vegan recipes from the internet or my new cookbook, The Happy Herbivore. Between shopping, cooking, cleaning, and playing with Sprite, I spent many hours testing various internet-based business ideas, failing yet to chance upon anything profitable. For one brief period in Arkansas, I took on a temporary job at one of Keith’s worksites, laboring for 12-hour night shifts as a “Fire Watch,” waiting for hours, fire extinguisher by my side, for an exciting moment of “hot work” when perhaps a welder would coincidentally catch his clothes on fire and give me something to do. Such excitement never came.
Utah, infested with Mormons though it is, charmed us. Our RV park sat within view of the lofty Mt. Timpanogos and a 15-minute drive to numerous trailheads. We hiked every weekend. Over Memorial Day Weekend we drove down to the beautiful Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and backpacked through towering red canyons to the Escalante River and back. The level of education is generally much higher in Utah than in the south, and Keith enjoyed a number of intellectually stimulating conversations with his predominantly Mormon co-workers and with the post-Mormon meetup group we found–a nice change. We will definitely consider returning to Utah to work in the future. It was here that I received the call I had been waiting for since last year: I was hired to work at the South Pole Station! A series of medical and dental appointments ensued, wherein many professionals in white coats poked and prodded at me to ensure that I would be physically fit to endure the harsh and remote climate of Antarctica.
Our 3-month vacation began in August. We started out exploring the Moab, Utah area–Arches and Canyonlands National Parks–then towed our travel trailer to a friend’s house in Cortez, Colorado, where we were graciously allowed to park for several weeks as we ventured out, several days at a time, to backpack the 14ers (14,000+ feet mountains) of Southwest Colorado. Each new summit lavished us with fantastic scenery, wildlife, and a feeling of accomplishment. For our first anniversary, we took a day “off” and strolled around Durango, a town we may consider living in someday in the future. As August ripened toward an early fall, with a golden hint on the aspens high in the mountains, we drove east to Alamosa and tagged a few more 14ers, again staying with gracious friends. My birthday weekend was the most memorable of hikes there, when my mom joined us to backpack up to Blanca Peak.
Labor Day Weekend my parents and I drove out to Kansas and met my sister and her family for a few days of fun in Kansas City and on our lake property with the Fouts family. Keith joined us a few days later after attending the Ascent of Atheism conference in Denver. The next few days became a distortion of packing, shopping, and organizing for our belated honeymoon: Africa.
After a series of flights that took us through Dallas and London, we arrived in Nairobi, Kenya late at night and shuttled to our hotel. Early the next morning we caught the bus south to Moshi, Tanzania where we were met by a representative from Gladys Adventure, the company we had entrusted ourselves to for the next two and a half weeks and had selected in large part because of its certification from Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP). Their service was excellent and we never regretted our choice!
Our first tour took us into the coffee plantations in the foothills of Kilimanjaro where we spent half a day wandering in the shade of banana trees, learning how coffee is grown and participating in each step of the process–picking the berries, cranking them through a machine to strip them of their skins, washing the slimy beans, spreading them out to dry, pounding off the hulls, roasting, pulverizing, brewing and finally, sitting back with a local coffee grower to enjoy a cup of rich, delicious, fresh organic coffee.
The day also included a cultural tour in which we learned about the traditional life of the Chagga tribe, and a little of their fascinating history which involved hidden, hand-dug caves to protect family and livestock from the assaults of the attacking Maasai tribe.
The next morning, one year and one month to the day after our wedding, our official honeymoon began with the ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our 7 porters, chef, and two guides met us at the Gladys Adventure office and we all pressed into the van with the driver for the 3-hour ride to the Lemosho trailhead. We climbed for 7 days, passing through jungle to moorland and alpine desert, higher and higher toward the 19,341-foot glaciered summit of Africa’s highest mountain. We saw Colobus monkeys, malachite sunbirds, black and white ravens, alpine chats, and every day, the clouds farther and farther below us with Mt. Meru poking its head above them in the distance. On Day 7–summit day–we rose at midnight and began climbing the last 4,000 feet. What a thrill to reach our goal just after sunrise! The cloud-covered valley stretched out forever while the rising sun bathed the glaciers in golden light. We took photos and celebrated the moment, then began the descent. We hiked most of the way down before our last camp, and completed the hike on Day 8.
We rounded out our honeymoon with a 5-day wildlife safari that took us through Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater, staying mostly at luxury tented camps along the way. We saw elephants, buffaloes, leopards, lions, rhinos, hippos, zebras, giraffes, a serval cat, many varieties of deer and antelope, baboons, vervet monkeys, cheetahs, wildebeests, and dozens of species of marvelous birds. We watched a lioness stalking a gazelle, cheetah cubs playing by their mother, vervet monkeys trying to steal food from us and others, hyraxes climbing trees, lions mating, elephants bathing in the river, and so much more. So many special memories!
We lingered in Tanzania a few days longer, spending some time exploring Moshi and playing with the children at the school next to our hotel. Keith gave the kids a presentation about the South Pole and they loved it.
Soon we were on the long ride back to Nairobi, where we spent our remaining days in Africa with Keith’s friend and college roommate, Samir, his wife, and their cute 5-year-old twins, a boy and girl. The family showed us extraordinary hospitality and we really felt honored to be their guests. In Nairobi we explored the Nairobi National Museum, the Bomas of Kenya (huts built after the traditional styles of the various tribes that live in the country), the Giraffe Center, the Karen Blixen Museum (she authored the famous book-turned-movie, Out of Africa [as usual, the book is better]), a bead and pottery factory, and a wildlife center for young orphaned elephants and rhinos.
From Africa, we traveled to England, spending a couple of days exploring the streets of London before riding the train up to Cambridge to visit friends Carel and Mona, who in turn drove us to Chester a day later to run a marathon–my first. The marathon course, flat and at sea level, is a great starter course and a pleasant run through the green English countryside and historic town of Chester. I achieved my goal, just barely, of completing the marathon before they closed down the course. I limped along with considerable difficulty afterward, but within a couple of days my legs had reclaimed their utility and I felt proud to have accomplished another life goal. Carel and Mona were so gracious, taking time from their busy schedules to prepare delicious meals and show us around historic Cambridge. We greatly enjoyed our visit with them.
We returned to Kansas for two rapid-fire weeks of unpacking, organizing and repacking, shopping, and digging a very deep hole on our property. This hole will have the questionable honor of one day residing under an outhouse, which is our next building project. We poured the concrete foundation the night before our next flight–this time one which would take us through California to Australia and finally New Zealand. In Christchurch, a city still recovering from the earthquakes of two years ago, we attended our orientation at the Antarctic Center and picked up our extreme cold weather gear at the Clothing Distribution Center. With only an evening left, we explored the town and walked back to our hotel through the beautiful botanical gardens, enjoying the fresh spring flowers and green plants we would not get to see again for several months. The sunset was not much to behold on this gray and cloudy evening, but it would be our last one for a very long time. Before sunrise, we were shuttling back to the airport for the flight to our 5th continent in under a month: Antarctica–where the whole year is one long day and one long night.
Our C-17, a hefty aircraft flown by the US Air Force, landed on the sea ice near McMurdo, Antarctica after a 5-hour flight. Thanks to a combination of weather delays and mechanical issues, we remained in McMurdo for nearly a week. I began work the day after our arrival, mopping floors, washing dishes and scrubbing industrial-sized pots in the large galley. On my off time, Keith showed me around the Station, out to the historic Discovery hut (from which point we observed several seals out on the sea ice), and up Observation Hill. Finally, the day came for our final flight to the South Pole, and here we are, at the bottom of the world. It still amazes me when I think about it. Every day the sun makes a large circle in the sky, the only hand on a giant 24-hour clock face with us at its very center. We’ll celebrate Christmas with the people we’re becoming friends with–mechanics and cosmologists, heavy equipment operators and meteorologists, plumbers, atmospheric scientists and astrophysicists. It’s a magnificent and matchless group of people from around the world–America, China, Germany, Chile–and the environment is suggestive of a summer camp for adults, except where most of the day is taken up with chores and the dance, yoga, and Kung Fu lessons, the writer’s club, Freethinkers, game and movie nights, Bible study, sports, science lectures, parties and tours of the telescopes and science labs are relegated to Sundays and evenings–our only time off. Although the outside environment is harsh and potentially lethal, we want to come back again.
The year 2012 is dying and we stand facing a new challenge. How can we make 2013 a great year? What kind of difference are we going to make in ourselves and the world? Here are a few words of insight, stimulated by the excellent article, Top Five Regrets of the Dying (a very worthy one-minute read):
- Live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect of you.
- Don’t work so hard–instead, enjoy time with the people you love.
- Don’t be afraid to express your true feelings.
- Stay in touch with your friends.
- Allow yourself to be happy! Follow your dreams.
I hope you all have a beautiful year, cherish each moment, and live life to the fullest!
Happy wishes to all,
Lily (and Keith!)