Remember to Breathe

Almost three weeks ago I was treated to a morning ride to the airfield, only to be turned back to station on account of mechanical problems (the LC-130s need a little adjustment time to get comfortable down here). I wasn't on the passenger list for the next day and carried on accordingly, walking to work the next morning. Not 45 minutes into the day, Christina walked out to the lumberyard where Rebecca and I were fetching plywood to let me know my transport was leaving in 30 minutes. I hustled to get my stuff together and about 10 of us were greeted at the airfield by a Basler, ready for takeoff. A bit more hustling from van to plane, a quick briefing from the pilot and off we went, 4+ hours away from the South Pole Station.

Our flight went smoothly along the mountains for about two hours when the cabin staff started hooking up tubes to the wall and handing everyone oxygen masks. No emergency at all, it was simply that the Basler has an unpressurized cabin and our altitude was rising to match the Antarctic plateau. The pole itself is at 9,300 feet and feels even higher depending on the weather. We landed on time, about 2:30 in the afternoon, and hopped out of the plane. It was bright. It was cold. It was dry. It took effort to get oxygen out of the thin air. And it took me a little less than a week to start sleeping normally.

My supply-comrade Max and I had been sent down to help the winter supply crew transition into summer while the full-season summer folks finished training at McMurdo. We worked in the food warehouse, shoveled out storage buildings, trained to drive tracked forklifts, rode snow-mobiles to fetch toilet paper, helped the meteorology crew release weather balloons and take air samples.

I loved it.

Not only did I like being at South Pole station itself, but it turned out I needed a little break from McMurdo. Arriving in August to about 350 people and growing to 1,000 felt a little suffocating at times. And being that this is my second season, the new car smell is gone. Consequently, I've spent time thinking about why I'm actually here. But I think I have a sense of why. Part of it is because going to Antarctica is pretty damn cool and there are tons of things I've yet to experience down here (like visiting the Pole, prior to this month). Part of it is because I have to pay for life somehow. But it became pretty obvious when I returned from Pole that part of it is the wonderful people I've met down here. Welcoming faces and "You're back!" exclamations reminded me that McMurdo is the place I've spent over a third of the last two years. It will never be home like Minnesota and Wisconsin are (20% of the last two years), but it's something of a home. And even if it gets a little stifling at times, what home doesn't?

Luck Shines

After clicking publish last Monday at 3am I decided to check my work email one last time and found a notification that I was to report for flight transport the next morning. Nine of us (including my roommate Amy) lucked into fuel cache duty, which meant flying out to Round Mountain to dig fuel drums out of the snow. After a short weather delay, we caught a van out to Williams Field and boarded the smallest plane I've ever flown on, a Twin Otter.

Over the course of two weeks, our pilots had flown this very aircraft from Alberta, through Central and South America, to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Pole, finally arriving at McMurdo for the Summer season. Our flight was much shorter, only about 35 minutes each way, but it was easily the most beautiful flight I've ever been on. Some of my favorite moments in the last few years have been when I felt the smallest (see here, here, here, here, and here). Flying through the mountains, seeing nothing but more mountains in the distance and knowing that we were less than 100 miles into a continent the size of the lower 48 whose largest settlement we had just left, makes one feel rather small rather quickly.

Before we landed we did a few "low and overs" to check out the landing conditions and Amy and I were sitting in the back of the plane eyeing the vomit bags, but we landed shortly thereafter and spent about 30 minutes at the fuel cache site before a 35 minute return flight.

Never His Mind on Where He Was, What He Was Doing

I guess a month can go by pretty quickly... Station has gone from 326 to over 600 and that's only 2/3 of the way to where it will be. Sunlight is becoming ever-present (it's late-duskish at 2:45am, don't ask why I'm up). My time in the freezer is up and I'm back to this view every morning from the carpentry shop (look past the lumber and shipping container):

Instead of being awash with new people and experiences, I've spent a lot of the season so far feeling out familiarity. It's not that I've got this place figured out (far from it, of course), just that familiarity is something I've run to and from a great deal the last few years and I'm wrestling with it a bit. After living in Thailand and traveling for almost 15 months, a return to the Midwest was comforting. After being in Antarctica for almost 5 months, a return to Thailand was refreshing. Now after 6 months of traveling and being in the Midwest, I'm back in a familiar place.

I hadn't thought about it like that until writing it, but I haven't been to a completely new place since leaving Antarctica last February. On one hand, that's a distressing thought given that I've made a conscious effort to seek new experiences since leaving Minnesota. But on the other hand, it feels completely natural to seek familiarity after bouncing around for what feels to me like a long time. (One of the nice things about being in a place full of transients is that there are plenty of people who are either experiencing similar things or have done so before.)

It's probably stating the obvious, but I've been thinking a lot. Thinking about feeling just as busy down here as I often feel in the Midwest (a phenomenon of my own creation). Thinking about people I haven't seen in decades and wondering what they've done with all that time. Missing the States after not feeling like the roots got repotted last summer. Missing Thailand and spending the present anticipating the future.

Ultimately, all this wrestling with the same emotions in different locations is a good thing. It's a reminder that Minneapolis and my life there were never what made me feel restless. It's something I seem to come by honestly, regardless of context. And while all this movement in the last few years has given me plenty of "this is how I should be spending my life" memories, it certainly isn't as if the movement has erased the restlessness or developed into an answer of any sort. I suppose that means the restlessness isn't about location and answers don't wait somewhere for us to come find them.

But, lest you think I'm down here stewing in ennui, there is something exciting in addition to the wonderful people and beautiful scenery keeping me company: I'm scheduled to go to the South Pole station for a few weeks to help transition their supply department to summer season. So, one more place to go think about being restless while I miss home. Or, perhaps one more place to learn to be a little more present. Either way, expect my picture with said pole before Christmas.

And, by request, here's a couple pictures of me operating machinery (reorganizing crates of food in the freezer):

We've All Got a Job to Do

I came to McMurdo about six weeks earlier this year because I got a short-term gig re-organizing the food freezer. A combination of steady ordering and underconsumption last season meant that things were a bit extra packed-in at the end of last summer, so a little extra consolidation and reorganization will help create a bit more breathing room in the freezer.

Most days are spent in the aisles of the freezer with Christina, Sonya and Joseph, hand-moving food from one half-full crate to another, moving a cube of 192 crates from the middle of one aisle to another (making the first aisle accessible for the time being), and filling in the empty holes on the racks with full crates from yet another cube of 192 crates. It's physically tiring work, but it's nice to be working on a project with such tangible outcomes and the galley staff has been appreciative of us making more food accessible.

Life here is good with 326 on station, but in about two weeks, population will balloon by about 600 and the sun will stop setting shortly thereafter. So, for now, it's a good time to enjoy space in the galley and the beauty of the sun rising and setting.

Home, Sweet Remote Tundra

My plane landed last Saturday night and all 21 passengers aboard the C-17 were met by a couple vans that drove us into town. When I arrived last year, it was bright and white as far as the eye could see. This time, it was completely dark beyond the airfield lights and the glow of town 10 or so miles away (you can see the route on Google Maps).

From the flight in.

Saturday is a good day to arrive because you immediately roll into town with the next day off. So Sunday was all brunch, unpacking and reconnecting with folks. Although station population is only about 300/350 right now, there are plenty of familiar faces and it hasn't taken long for me to feel at home. In fact, sitting in an already made up room on an already made bed (my roommate was super good to me) on my first night in town felt really good; like I was in the place I was supposed to be in. It's similar to the feeling I get seeing the Minneapolis skyline for the first time in a long time.

McMurdo is simultaneously a complicated and simple place. It's a bit like a small college for adults in the middle of nowhere with work instead of education; we live in dorms, eat in a cafeteria, there are proportionally more bands than in real life, the local radio station is pretty damn good, even if few people listen, and the blending of social and professional politics is unavoidable. It's not as difficult to imagine life here as you might think, but it can be so damned difficult to navigate some days.

I'm wrestling a bit with how comfortable it feels to be back and disconnected from the rest of the world, almost feeling guilty for enjoying being gone. Surely I'll swing back to missing home in no time and then I can spend energy feeling guilty about spending my limited time here thinking about being somewhere else. Never satisfied with being satisfied, right?

Line at the gas pump.

The sun is shining, but the season and the hills mean it's only indirect. I haven't seen a temperature above zero yet, but if the wind isn't blowing (about a 50/50 proposition lately) it doesn't feel all that cold. I spent every day but Sunday this week working with a team in the freezer, consolidating and reorganizing so the station can access more food items now and stock more later this season. There's plenty of time to chat with my fellow weirdos and watch movies. Ultimately it's a really nice time to be here.  

Surprise, Transition!

It's been a while so please bear with me as I remember how to express myself in written form. But here's the quick run down:

March, April, and May were spent in Thailand, Vietnam, and Thailand respectively, with a 24 hour stop in Singapore jammed in for good measure. I did some "traveling" here and there (including a second tour of Vietnam with traveling partner extraordinaire Steven J. Brisk), but mostly I spent time just enjoying living in Southeast Asia, walking the streets of Hanoi, playing frisbee, visiting friends, finding cheap guitars to leave behind and brushing up on my Thai. There were plenty of times I had to grant myself permission to not spend the day following travel book recommendations, but practice makes perfect.

Then after a week in the Bay Area and Yosemite, I flew to Madison to surprise mom on June 3. And thus began my summer at home in the Midwest. Just as it was in 2015, the familiarity and faces and embraces gave me the brand of comfort that energizes. I made my 2nd annual pilgrimage to Lake Adelaide, spent quality time with beloved family members (including my nephew's first birthday), played two Briscoe shows (thank you, thank you, thank you if you were able to make it out), scheduled endless happy hours, dinners and brunches, and even made it back to Manitowoc for the first time in at least 5 years.

I also ended up working for 2 months of the summer at what I lovingly refer to as "my last regular-ass job." While it was great to see the familiar faces there and watch my bank account grow, it also cut into my ability to reconnect with as many people as I'd intended to while home. Working was the responsible and right decision so I don't regret it, but I was super stressed out the last couple weeks in town trying to get at least a couple hours with everyone I wanted to see (especially since I left about 5 weeks earlier this year).

Eventually, I began the 53 hour journey to Christchurch for pre-deployment activities on 8/20. It was a bit of a nightmare, what with my first flight being delayed enough that I knew I'd miss my connection in LA before I walked up to the check-in counter. American put me up in LA for the night and I rebounded the next day by meeting a friend in Beverly Hills for some drinks and a stroll down Rodeo Drive. My new route was longer (18 hours via Melbourne, rather than 13 via Auckland), but I made it to Christchurch the afternoon of 8/23.

Instinctually I skipped the baggage carousel in favor of the Baggage Enquiries desk and knew it was a bad sign when, while helping the customer in front of me, the man working the desk looked at me and said "Are you Douglas?" Luckily, my bags showed up a day later, but 54 hours in the same set of clothes was suboptimal.

So now I'm in Christchurch having finished orientation and gear issue, scheduled to fly out tomorrow morning (Saturday 8/27) after a few days of weather delays. I've been trying to binge on fruit and veggies so I think I'm ready for this tail end of Antarctic winter (ambient high of -2 in the next 10 days). I'll be at McMurdo until February, unloading and reloading the freezer for 5 weeks or so before moving up to the carpenter shop again.

But, truth be told, this summer was a little rough. Despite all the good things listed and omitted above, my goal to reconnect with all the people I know and love in the Midwest ultimately went unfulfilled. I still love this lifestyle and haven't yet foreseen its end, but the tradeoff becomes painfully obvious when I leave home feeling like important relationships have taken a hit. Just gotta keep getting better, I reckon. Practice makes progress.

Side note, I hear Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins are on a 10th Anniversary tour (Minneapolis 9/6, Milwaukee 9/7). Go see them for me:

Glai Bpeuun Thiang

I feel myself pulling out of transition and into Thailand. I've already been here 10 days, but between the familiarity of visiting school and the pointless trip to Patong (should've seen that coming), I'm finally able to take a slow pace in a not-too-familiar place. And who doesn't love a time-lapse video, compressing the time we move too quickly to see down to something we can grasp? Always love a time lapse.

The sun rose threehours ago here in Phuket Town:

My favorite noodle shop is still here, but my favorite coffee shop is now gone. The sun still thickens the air by 7:30am, but I'd forgotten the streets were more interesting beforehand.

I haven't forgotten the little Thai I know, but I have forgotten not to agree without fully understanding what I've agreed to.

Two more time lapses from Sam's barge in Australia:

Away We Go

Today's the day to fly away from New Zealand and get this show on the road. The (always tentative) agenda:

  1. Finish out February in Australia on a 100-ton concrete barge. See here.
  2. Fly to Phuket to visit the students and staff at R35 and revisit my favorite spots in southern Thailand until the end of March. See here, here, here, here, and here.
  3. Quick stop in Singapore to see Dave.
  4. Fly to Saigon on April 1 and spend 3.5 weeks making my way to Hanoi. Some familiar stops along the way, some new. See here, here, and here.
  5. Fly to Bangkok the last week of April, spend time visiting friends there and in northern Thailand.
  6. Fly to San Francisco the last week of May and go to Yosemite with Chris (see here). Train back to Chicago.
  7. Home, sweet, Upper Midwest by the second week of June.

I'm fiddling with pictures at a coffee shop rather than finishing packing, mailing a suitcase home, booking rides for today, or confirming with a clinic that I don't have TB (standard test for Antarctica next season). But that's alright, I'm sure that will all have before 5 this evening.

Packing felt like a foreign experience, separating things to send home from things to put on my back for three months. On one hand, it's odd considering I did the same thing just about a year ago and packed for Antarctica only 5 months ago. I've got too many shoes. Contact solution is heavy but expensive in SE Asia. Pray my laptop survives being shipped home. Do I have enough socks? Will I be cool (both senses) enough in these clothes? Blah, blah, blah. It worked out well enough last time, so experience tells me to fuggedabaddit. Forest, trees and that whole thing.

I'll probably be incommunicado for most of Australia, so please enjoy these photos from Mongolia last spring that I finally uploaded instead.

Recalibration

Two days.

That's how much lying around in a hotel room it's taken to get some energy back (or put differently, how much lying around in a hotel room I can take). Maybe it was last night's revelation of steak and a Rob Roy for dinner. Maybe it's the stellar recommendation and gift of a Murakami book from a friend. Maybe it was Skyping with a near two year-old who shouted "UNCLE WAN!" when she saw me for the first time in five months. Maybe it's a combination of all of them. Maybe it's none of them. Maybe it's that inflection point in most transitions that makes sliding toward the next thing feel closer than climbing away from the last thing.

Whatever it is, I've got three days left in Christchurch and I'm not just ready to be out of Antarctica, but I'm ready to be here. I don't remember the last time warm breezes and the smell of flora hit me so hard. I have a breakfast joint within walking distance of my hotel. Parks and a museum and some medical tests await. And I've got time to sort out mailing stuff home and the next couple weeks of travel tickets. Then I'll be ready to be in Australia.



Stop Signs of McMurdo

Still here, delayed departure to Saturday. So I've got some time on my hands that I'm obviously making the most of:

End In Sight

Last we checked in, the station was awaiting the annual supply vessel. It arrived a day later than initially expected, on January 26th. Our crew of volunteer line-handlers showed up that evening and got the vessel attached to the ice pier in relatively short order (I'm told 4 hours is pretty good time). That meant it was time to start unloading the next morning, which ended up taking about 4 days of around the clock work.

The 2016 McMurdo supply vessel pulls into port.

Flatbed trucks delivered sea container after sea container to our team's staging area (one of two) where some of us emptied the containers into the lot and the rest of us delivered the contents around station. I was one of the latter, driving Kathy the IT-28 on just 7 deliveries the first day (sea containers didn't start showing up until late the first day), 31 deliveries the second day, 41 deliveries the third day and 57 deliveries the final day. The last day included 20 runs from our staging lot to the beverage warehouse, carrying the precious beer, wine and liquor supply for the next year. A spill would surely put me at the receiving end of a vicious hail of boos upon entering the galley, so Kathy and I stayed in first the whole way.

Then after the Waste department loaded the season's return cargo, the supply vessel left and the Maersk Peary fuel tanker arrived with its 45,000 cubic meter capacity. Mooring her was a bit of a task since the high winds forecasted meant a ton of lines needed to be tied. But they were a cinch to unmoor a few days later.

In the last week or so I played three shows. My friend Collin and I played a couple songs at the annual Carpstock, dance pop sensation Naked Party played what, in my humble estimation, was the show of the season (on a Tuesday night no less), and face-melting power trio Sex Bolt (name taken from an actual piece of carpentry hardware we have in stock) played its final show. I've played in front of a crowd six times this season and suffice to say I'm grateful for the number of musical opportunities here.

Charlotte and Cody have excellent artistic abilities and a decent sense of humor. I finally have a campaign poster.

Charlotte and Cody have excellent artistic abilities and a decent sense of humor. I finally have a campaign poster.

So now you're all caught up and here's the deal as of now: Friday is my scheduled departure date. Airfield conditions are preventing C-17 flights, so the smaller LC-130s are being employed. That means I may be delayed as smaller passenger capacities bump me back. But that depends on what part of this small town rumor mill you believe.

It's fair to say that after 130 days here, I'm rather ready to go. That's not to imply that I regret coming or I've had a bad time in the least. In keeping with the purpose of social media, this blog has selectively highlighted the genuinely exhilarating, touching, and momentous experiences I've been afforded here. I've done things I couldn't have done anywhere else, I've made friends for life, and I signed up to come back next year.

But there's something about living with roughly the same people in such a confined place that's bound to wear on me. We share workspace and living quarters, eat in the same galley two or three times a day, walk the same halls, go to the same three bars. And I'll happily come do it all again next year. But lately I feel like a high school senior waiting to leave their small hometown. 

Maybe the restlessness is a feeling I probably need to embrace though, rather than trying to fight or run from it. I did the math (yes, in a spreadsheet, always in a spreadsheet) and figured out that I spent just over half of 2014 in Thailand and about a quarter each in the Midwest and traveling. In 2015, I traveled for 30% of the year, spent slightly more than 25% each in the Midwest and Antarctica, and a bit more than 15% in Thailand. And this year, I'm planning on half the year in Antarctica, 30% traveling and 20% in the Midwest.

As anybody who's lived this lifestyle longer than I have can attest: regularly moving and lacking a permanent home base can be exhausting. There are times when I'm not sure I want to keep moving. When I left Minnesota in September, it felt like I had just arrived and wasn't quite ready to go. But I supposed summer flies by no matter where you are and I'd be back soon enough. Part of my readiness to leave McMurdo points me back to home, but I'm already all the way over on this side of the globe (read: the bottom), so I might as well spend three months in Southeast Asia before heading back stateside, right?

The fear of missing out (FOMO, they call it) is something I've often wrestled. When I walked the path of home, career and marriage, no matter how successful those things felt at times I always wondered to some degree if I'd be happier doing something else, living some other life. And now that I'm living another life I've had a dozen or so moments of deep peace where my heart swells and I think "Yes! This is how I want to be spending my life."

But I still think about whether I should go back, plant roots and build a life in one place. I envy friends with children and marriages and contentment, not because they seem perfect but because their lives are built on a consistent foundation that grows over time. That's a beautiful thing. Mine, on the other hand, is built on continually building something new in new surroundings with new people. That's exhausting.

It occurs to me now that the reason I leapt into lifestyle upheaval was because the thing I most feared missing out on was *my* life. Not the life my friends enjoy and not the life so many other nomads would be more than happy to prattle on about (don't even get me started on some of those jabronis). It wasn't that 15 years in Minnesota wasn't my life, though. In fact, it's just as much my life as the last two years have been. And at this moment it's certainly more my life than whatever the future holds.

So I'm not ready to settle back down and live in one place yet, if ever. I can't wait to get back to Thailand and Vietnam. I can't wait to get back to the Midwest. Soon enough I won't be able to wait to get back to Antarctica. But I'm grateful for getting to come to this place I'm ready to leave. I'm excited for what's next. And come to think of it, when anxiety and self-doubt are stripped away, I wasn't missing out on anything before I left Minnesota. I was just living my life, same as I am now.

Big Week. Big Week.

Monday

The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star came into station. Since I volunteered to help line handle, I got a page to come down to the wharf and help pull ropes for this beaut:

Tuesday

The Polar Star was opened up for tours, so I went down to go see what all the fuss was about. You can also catch a glimpse of the wharf and the pier to see where the vessel will begin offloading this week.

Wednesday

I won a recreation trip by lottery and joined a group for an evening of playing in the snow (still got the 'ole snowball arm, well-timed ducking is still the best defense), setting up a Scott tent (it was super easy), building an igloo (I mostly watched) and hot chocolate (I had two cups). It's not the most prestigious of trips and I was already feeling a little worn down by midweek, but just getting off station and doing something different for the evening was revitalizing. And it was snowing the entire time, adding to the isolation effect.

Thursday

Bartended. Bartending has been one of the best decisions I've made down here. I've already made the equivalent of 3 weeks of pay.

Friday

So. Tired. Tried to sleep, tossed and turned.

Saturday

No really, so tired. Actually went to bed early because...

Sunday (Today)

This turned out to be my lucky week, because in addition to winning the evening out, I was asked to be a guest on a trip out to the base of Mt. Erebus. On snowmobiles.

Snowmobiling for the first time in my life, in Antarctica, made for a lovely Sunday morning. On the ride back I found myself laughing out loud inside my helmet at the thought of "I'm snowmobiling in Antarctica." Even caught a glimpse of open water. Miracle of miracles. 

Monday (Tomorrow)

The cargo vessel is scheduled to arrive in the afternoon. So I'll head down for line-handling at about 2pm. The offload isn't likely to begin until the night crew comes on at about 6pm. Then it's 12 hour shifts back and forth with them until the vessel is empty (about 460 sea containers). And *then* the boat gets loaded with about 350 waste and retro containers. I'll probably be dead tired, but I'm excited.