Lily Ann Fouts

South Pole Freethinkers

This last weekend Keith and I went to a Labor Day party and ended up doing an impromptu interview on a live podcast show called Dogma Debate.

Our friend, Darrel Ray, thinks it is utterly cool that we have worked at the South Pole and that we took his books (The God VirusSex and God) down there and donated them to the South Pole Library.

Darrel immediately led us over to David Smalley (the host of the show) when he saw us walk up.

“You gotta interview these two,” he said, an arm around each of us. “Keith started a freethought group at the South Pole and took my books down there, so now I have my books on all seven continents! These two are like my favorite people,” he said.

With that endorsement David asked us a few more questions and agreed to add us to the show.

The commotion all centers around Keith’s decision to start the South Pole Freethinkers group back in 2010, after noticing that this place dedicated to science had three religious events per week, but nothing specifically for non-believers.

Keith started a freethought group at the South Pole and took my books down there, so now I have my books on all seven continents! These two are like my favorite people,” he said.

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What bothered Keith most was that taxpayer funds sponsored regular visits from a chaplain for church services and ministry, in a place where it is estimated that the cost of transporting and maintaining a person costs upwards of $800 per day–and probably considerably more when that person flies frequently.

Keith contacted me—I was still in the U.S. at the time—and asked me to send down some secular videos—the lectures from the 2009 Atheist Alliance International convention—and other materials. He also contacted the president of American Atheists (David Silverman), who sent down a bunch of AA magazines.

When the materials arrived, Keith began a weekly gathering and added it to the station’s calendar of events. He put up posters advertising the meetup next to posters advertising the other events around the station.

South Pole Freethinkers Group

A poster Keith made to advertise the new South Pole Freethinkers group.

The new meetup was not well-received. Keith’s posters were torn down or graffitied every week.

Torn Freethinkers Poster

Torn Freethinkers Poster

As long as you could tell it was a Freethinkers poster, Keith left it up. The controversy began to arouse curiosity among station residents. Attendance started out with 5 people, then 7, then 17, then 30…

In the end attendance plateaued at 5-10 regular attenders per week–more than any of the religious gatherings.

After he returned to the States, Keith gave a presentation about the South Pole and his Freethinkers group to the Denver Atheists in Colorado, and asked for donations of secular materials that we could take down the following year. Several generous people brought us boxes of books, magazines and videos at the next meeting.

Denver Atheists Donations

Donations from the Denver Atheists.

I applied to work the next season as well—it would be soon after our wedding—and I was hired as an alternate, but no positions opened up for me. Keith told them he would not be going unless a position opened up for me also, but when none did they begged him to at least come for the first few weeks of the season so that he could train the new electricians, none of whom had worked at the Pole before.

We agreed and Keith flew south for six weeks. He continued holding the weekly meetups, and again his posters were frequently torn down or graffitied. A friend of Keith’s and regular attender took over the group after Keith left, and kept it going for the remainder of the season.

During the 2012-2013 season I had the privilege of obtaining a position at the South Pole, too. We took more secular materials with us and continued to offer the regular South Pole Freethinkers meetup, now in its third year.

B-3 Lounge

The lounge where we held our weekly South Pole Freethinkers meetups.

By this time, people seemed to accept the fact that a group of non-believers had come to stay, and the posters were left intact almost all season.

One day we were in the library and Keith noticed that almost all of the books he had donated were missing. We knew people might be borrowing them, but suspected foul play.

South Pole Library

The South Pole reading room.

Our usual weekly meetings continued. The format was generally a video (mostly lectures or documentaries) followed by group discussion.

A couple of weeks after Keith noticed the missing books he was again in the reading room and noticed the edge of a book peeking down from the back of the top of one of the shelves. He brought a chair over and discovered a whole stack of secular books had been hidden up out of reach and out of sight. He took them down and re-shelved them.

Kell, our most loyal and faithful attendee–who also became a good friend–was going to be spending the winter at the Pole and she vowed to keep the meetup going all year long.

We did not return the following summer, but Keith’s other friend–who had taken over in Year 2–kept it going after Kell left.

Several people—even some who didn’t attend our meetups—took time to thank Keith for making this option available to people who do not identify with any religion.

We look forward to returning to The Ice again someday and being involved again!

Several people—even some who didn’t attend our meetups—took time to thank Keith for making this option available to people who do not identify with any religion.

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The South Pole Freethinkers brave enough to stand in the cold and squint into the sun.

By the way, if you’d like to listen to the interview we did on Dogma Debate, we were at the very end of episode 201. CLICK HERE to listen to it on YouTube, starting at 1:26:26. Enjoy!

Want to read more about our time in Antarctica? CLICK HERE to see more of my Antarctica posts! And feel free to share your questions and comments below! (I do realize that religion can be a “hot topic” for some, but please keep it nice and friendly, ok? Thanks!)

Holiday Letter 2013

South Pole Marker for 2013

December 2013

Season’s greetings from Blackwell, Oklahoma!

We have just had our first snowfall and the ground outside is all sparkly under the bright sun.  By the end of the day it will all be gone and the brown winter landscape of the Oklahoma plains will appear once again.  It contrasts sharply with our landscape 12 months ago–all flatness and whiteness extending out beyond the curvature of the earth, with the exception of the South Pole Telescope, the Atmospheric Research Observatory, and a few other buildings in the foreground at the South Pole station.

From late October until mid February, we worked in Antarctica–an experience reminiscent of summer camp, with 60 hours of work (per week) thrown in.  After hours we enjoyed many good social activities, game nights, dance classes, Kung Fu classes, carnivals, parties and good conversations, plus fascinating tours of the world-class science facilities.  Unfortunately their budget cuts were such that we were not able to return this season, but we’d both like to go back again in the future.

We left The Ice for New Zealand on February 13th and immediately enjoyed the luxury of long, hot showers (we were limited to two 2-minute showers per week at the South Pole), a fresh salad (we hadn’t had freshies in months!), and the next day we celebrated Valentine’s day by strolling through the botanical gardens and enjoying the lovely green grass and sweet-scented flowers that we had missed for the last several months.

Botanical Gardens, Christchurch, New Zealand

We spent the next few nights with couchsurfing hosts in Christchurch–a lovely family of 4 with several wonderful pets (another thing we had really missed at the Pole)–while we plotted our plans and prepared to tour the South Island for the next 6 weeks.   We purchased bus passes and hut passes, loaded up on food, put our excess luggage in storage, and set out for Wanaka for our first hike.   We spent the next nine days hiking from hut to hut through the wilderness of Mount Aspiring National Park.  One would be hard pressed to find more breathtaking scenery in such a small region.

Bridge across a river on the first hut-to-hut hike in Mt. Aspiring National Park.

A typical view along the trail in Mt. Aspiring National Park.

Steep mountains, glaciers, beautiful forests and crystal clear rivers everywhere.

We returned to Wanaka to re-stock our supplies, and then hitchhiked to another trailhead which, after several days of hiking, would put us into Queenstown.  This hike was perhaps the most beautiful of all the hikes we have ever been on.  One section, called the Cascade Saddle, provides views of two steep valleys and an awesome glacier.   The hike, incredibly steep, is worth every step.

Stunning view near Cascade Saddle.

The primary downside to certain areas of New Zealand is the sand flies.  These little creatures deliver a nasty mosquito-like bite (except you really feel it when it happens!) and they are annoyingly persistent.  Only the strongest and most disgusting DEET spray will keep them away.    They aren’t too bad as long as you keep on moving, but the moment you stop to pull something from your pack, they swarm around you.   We arrived at one hut on a gloriously beautiful day to find all the hikers huddled in the hut instead of outside enjoying the day.  It soon became clear why.   Sand fly hell.

One section, called the Cascade Saddle, provides views of two steep valleys and an awesome glacier.

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Once in Queenstown we arranged for a kayak tour of Milford Sound.  This place, long on Lily’s bucket list, is a fjord where lush peaks jut straight up out of the water, 5,000+ feet into the air.  It is often foggy and overcast and the morning of our kayak tour was no exception.  However, as we paddled along, spotting penguins and seals and oyster catchers, the fog began to lift in a move dubbed “The Milford Strip Tease” by the guides.

Kayaking Milford Sound

By the afternoon the sun was out and as we walked along the shore we could see the top of Mitre Peak– the iconic mountain jutting from Milford Sound to a height of over a mile–through the clouds.

Mitre Peak

We continued up the west coast of the island.  We spent a full day at Franz Josef Glacier, hiking up the mountain for another stunning view.

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

We proceeded to Punakaiki–Pancake Rocks–for the unique rock formations along the coast and a beautiful hike to a cave.

Punakaiki - Pancake Rocks

Punakaiki - Pancake Rocks

Cave near Punakaiki

Exploring a cave near Punakaiki.

The Stargazer Hut

The Stargazer Hut

We stayed in a unique hostel with a small “Stargazer Hut”–just big enough for a bed–with a clear roof so we could see the stars at night.  Enthralled, we decided to build a similar loft in our storage shed back in Kansas.

Next, we continued on to Nelson.  We loved the town of Nelson, on the northern coast of the South Island.  It is famous for its beautiful weather and has both ocean and mountains nearby.   We found some of the best priced food in New Zealand there, at the farmer’s market.

Lily had her first paragliding experience there, with a New Zealand record-holding paraglider pilot.  The weather conditions were not ideal for flying, but it was still an amazing experience!  We are now hooked on the idea of becoming paraglider (or possibly hang glider) pilots ourselves.  We may even go back to Nelson to get the training–it seems to be an ideal place to learn the sport.

Paragliding

Paragliding above Nelson, New Zealand.

Video of Stu (the pilot) and me taking off in the paraglider.

Our last hike was in Abel Tasman National Park.  Most people choose to hike only the coastal track, but we decided to hike the inland track as well for a big loop.  We were so glad we did!  We saw almost nobody on the inland track, and had all the huts completely to ourselves.  We were also rewarded with stunning views of the coast and surrounding countryside.

Abel Tasman Inland Track

View from the inland track in Abel Tasman National Park.

The coastal track is also amazing and well worth the hike.  We enjoyed access to beautiful beaches all along the way.  However, as one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand, there are always lots of people.  If we do it again in the future, we might take a tent and camp on the beaches rather than staying in the expensive and crowded huts.

Abel Tasman Beach

A swing on one of the many beautiful beaches along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

As usual, our vacation ended too soon and we returned to Christchurch for our flight back to the U.S.  We spent two more nights with a couchsurfer there and then headed back to Kansas.

Loft

A "stargazer hut" of our own.

While in Kansas visiting Keith’s family, we fulfilled our dream of building our own little stargazer hut–a loft in our shed.  We love having our own cozy little space to call “home” there!

We spent a few days visiting Lily’s family in Colorado, and then moved to Evans for the summer while Keith went back to work.

Lily began working hard on her online business.  An opportunity to start a travel magazine came up, and being in the travel writing industry has been a dream of Lily’s for years.  Travel Beyond Excuse magazine is now on the Apple Newsstand and steadily growing its subscriber base.  This coming year the magazine should be expanding to include Android devices as well.

In September Colorado got hit with flooding.  Our house was safe, but the route between the house and Keith’s job required a boat, which most of the workers did not have, so work was canceled for several days.  The floodwaters demolished houses, threatened bridges, and washed out roads within a short distance of where we lived.   The city enacted a “no flush” ordinance to protect the overtaxed sewer system, and expected the ordinance to be in effect for no less than 10 days.  Being unable to flush toilets or take showers or work, we decided it was time to move.  The job was almost done anyway.  We loaded our little cargo trailer and Keith drove back to Kansas while Lily and her mom headed west for a conference in California.  After the conference, Lily spent several days visiting friends in California and then rejoined Keith in Kansas.

Travel Beyond Excuse Magazine

Travel Beyond Excuse Magazine

Building our RV shelter.

In October we moved to Oklahoma for the last job of the year.  Keith selected a job close to Kansas so that we could work on an RV shelter with extra storage space on our property during the weekends.  Sometime next year we plan to buy a motorhome to make our many moves much easier, and when we travel overseas we will store it in this shelter.  This is the first time since college (14 years ago) that Keith has lived closer than a 9 hour drive from his family, and it was great being able to spend Thanksgiving with them even though Keith only had one day off.

Our poor cat, Sprite, puts up with all our moves.  She hates riding in her cage, but within hours of arrival in a new place she has explored everything and is ready to settle in happily.

Sprite's palace in our Blackwell house.

She has now lived in Leadville, CO; Rush, CO; Bastrop, LA; Crosset, AR; American Fork, UT; Ottawa, KS; Evans, CO, and Blackwell, OK, with a few weeks at various points in between. She stays with family when we are out of the country.

Speaking of which, on January 21 we will be moving to Ecuador to wait out the remainder of the winter.  We have our tickets!   Keep an eye on on this blog for details.

We hope the year has been happy for you and wish you the very BEST for 2014.  Live life to the fullest!    ~ Lily, Keith and Sprite

What is it like to live and work in Antarctica?

South Pole Crew 2012-2013

The South Pole Crew, summer 2012-2013

 

I recently answered this question on Quora.com and thought I’d reproduce my response here along with some photos.  Enjoy!

My husband and I worked at the South Pole Station; I have been there one season and he has been there 5 seasons (all summer seasons).  About half the population is scientists and half is support staff.  We were support staff.  Scientists seem to work seven days a week as much as needed; support staff typically work 54 hours per week (9 hours per day, 6 days per week) and most have Sundays off, but that varies depending on the job position. […]

Say Again?

I really wish I could hear like a normal person.  Usually my hearing aids do a tolerable job of making up for the deficit, but there are notable exceptions. […]

South Pole Marathon 2012

“Tell your boy that I’ve got a six pack on him and he’d better win.”

Eric eyed me through the dish pit window as I scraped egg remains from the breakfast plates in the South Pole galley.  The marathon was coming up and bets were flying as to who would finish first.  Eric and other local gamblers had a special interest in the outcome of the race as they calculated the odds and bet money and six-packs of beer on their favored contestants.

My husband, Keith, 34, was a top contender. […]

Ladies Night at the South Pole Telescope

Invitation to Ladies Night at the SPT.

Invitation to Ladies Night at the SPT.

“Hello, ladies!  Have you heard about Ladies Night at the South Pole Telescope?”

I turned to lend my attention to the bearded speaker who maneuvered his lean, tall frame into a chair next to us, fixing his smiling eyes on each of us in turn.  I recognized him as the cosmologist who had given last Sunday’s science lecture on the Big Bang and the discoveries being made by the 10-meter telescope here at the Pole.

“My name is Brad.  I would like to give you a personal invitation to come and enjoy chocolates, fine wines, slow dancing with a cosmologist, and an intimate tour of the telescope.  What color do you like?” […]

Holiday Letter 2012

C-130 lands at the South Pole, Nov. 1, 2012.

Our C-130 lands at the South Pole, Nov. 1, 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. […]