Welcome to the Ice

On top at the bottom of the world

Standing on the edge of an ice runway, shielding my eyes from a sun that shone like frozen lightning, I watched the last Air National Guard LC-130 maneuver into place on a pair of massive skis, pause, and then leave me at the bottom of the world. Trailing a cloud of swirling snow and exhaust, the gray-and-orange plane rumbled across the ice, gradually gaining speed and then rising, almost imperceptibly at first, into the air. Even airborne, it moved slowly, and I watched a long time before it disappeared into perfect blue skies. By now, the only sound was the cold breeze blowing past my face. I stood there for a moment. This is it, I thought. I'm really here. I am spending the winter in Antarctica.

My life in Costa Mesa had already gone south. I was jobless, for one thing, since the company I was working for had gone out of business in the fall of 1997, and the prospect of another employment search seemed incredibly unappealing. But there was a deeper restlessness within me, too. For 22 years, I had lived in Orange County, working everyday jobs, spending too much time on the freeways only to pay bills that ate up entire paychecks. It seemed there must be more to life.

The farthest I'd been away was Mexico. And so I complained. One of these griping sessions was dumped on a friend who had been to Antarctica. She asked me: "Why don't you go down to the Ice?"

The thought had never occurred to me. Not just that I could go to Antarctica, but also that I could do something so spontaneous. Now it was a revelation. I could have an adventure. I could visit a strange land. Suddenly, I was invigorated. I wanted to look for a job-in Antarctica.

I called Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) in Englewood, Colorado (800-688-8606), where an automated message told me how to go about applying. (There's also an ASA Web site at www.asa.org.) They sent me a packet in the mail with job listings and information. There are many different jobs, and people especially skilled-for example, in plumbing, carpentry, electrical or heavy equipment-have a better chance than people like me. So I relied on enthusiasm, making it clear that I would take any job available, even a janitorial position. Once I got in touch with a human being at the Denver office, I called him every week just to say hello. I went through my physical and got all the papers filled out quickly and returned them to Denver. My strategy was to be so persistent that they'd have to give me a job and send me to Antarctica just so I'd stop bugging them.

What is typically a difficult process-some people wait years for the chance-was surprisingly easy, as if by some coincidence of timing, one door had closed as another opened. Soon afterward, on a November morning, I received a phone call from Denver: in two weeks, I was to be on a plane headed toward the continent at the South Pole, all expenses paid. The call was so exhilarating that when a cop ticketed me for running a stop sign on my way to the store, I didn't care. It would be my last ticket for a long time.

The next two weeks were a blur. I threw the meager contents of my apartment into storage and said my goodbyes. At my going-away party, I was given a large lumpy package. Tearing away the paper and ribbon, I found a big bag of ice.

After a tearful farewell with my mother at John Wayne Airport, my first stop was the New Zealand headquarters of the U.S. Antarctic Program. By the time I arrived in the city of Christchurch after 14 hours in the air, it seemed the world had been rearranged. These turned out to be only the typical realizations of a first-time traveler-cars traveling on the left side of the road, English spoken in lilting Kiwi accents, my blow dryer useless because its plug didn't work in the electrical outlets.

But the next day's changes were anything but typical. At the U.S. Antarctic Program headquarters, they wasted no time getting down to the crux of what life in my new land was going to be like: I was issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, including a huge down-filled red parka with a fur ruff around the hood, and layers upon layers of polar-fleece garments. A day after that, I was on a military plane, seated shoulder to shoulder in cargo-strap seats, outfitted in full ECW gear. After an eight-hour flight, the LC-130 landed on the frozen seas of McMurdo Sound.

I'll never forget stepping off the plane and laying my eyes on Antarctica: it was the purest white all the way to the horizon, where it collided against a blue sky so bright you couldn't look at it without sunglasses. Jagged mountains 100 miles away were visible in perfect detail. And there was the wonder of stepping directly onto solid, bluish ice.

I immediately went to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program, a mostly scientific mission that brings 1,200 people to McMurdo during the austral summer. Those who aren't scientists are part of their support crew. The job that had lured me to the bottom of the Earth? I was an attendant in the galley.

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