“Happy Thanksgiving.” I said yesterday to a diver whose been coming down here for 40 years.
“No,” he said with an important pause, “Happy McMurdo Thanksgiving.”
Yesterday, Saturday, was the day McMurdo celebrated with a 5k Turkey Trot (see photographical evidence of me participating in said organized event) a formal Thanksgiving meal (the vegan gravy was boss), and some live music at Gallagher's (McMurdo has 2 bars, if you’re wondering).
It is weird to see friends and family and strangers back in the U.S. on social media celebrating Thanksgiving, or simply trying to get through it. A scientist here from China said to me, “This is a strange holiday. This is very American.”
You have no idea, I thought.
I was struck by this passage by Gala Mukomolova recently posted on Nylon:
For the symbolism, and for sentiment, we gathered with friends new and old who had broken away from the traditions of their families and broke bread with us instead, ate candied yams. And, there were those amongst us who took the opportunity to speak of genocide, named this day a day of mourning.
I’ve been thinking about America a lot down here, at least, the America I’ve experienced. To step outside of your country and look back at it can be revealing.
But what about gratitude? Isn’t that the word for this time of year? McMurdo is a close community that seems grateful for a way of life that is both simple (no cell service, no grocery shopping to do, no traffic to sit in) and unique.
Last night at the bar, people asked me, “So what do you think of this place? What do you think of us?” Maybe this is code for: What are you writing about us?
Most of my time in Antarctica wasn’t spent outside, but in this town, in these buildings, getting to know people. For a lot of them, especially those who’ve been coming here for many seasons, it is a significant part of their identity. The living and working conditions are up close and personal. The station is old and quirky and full of stories. People seem more committed to this place, their work, each other, and their projects than other communities I’ve been in recently.
Humans are messy creatures, but we can carve connections out of the sparsest or oddest of circumstances. I’m reminded of how social of an animal we are. I’m reminded of how much I like to see people who are close, stand nearby that sort of glow, but don’t always feel like I will have access to those kind of bonds. Seeing this community, even just passing through, has been valuable.
I’m leaving in a few days, flying from McMurdo—Christchurch—Auckland—San Francisco—Seattle and then driving back into the Cascades. Mountains to mountains. Perhaps the highlight of my time in Antarctica is a day trip I took recently to Lake Hoare in the Dry Valleys. When people talk about the Dry Valleys, they usually lower their voice in awe.
“Oh, you’re going to the Dry Valleys? That is a special place.”
What is the big deal? I wondered.
As usual—I didn't know the scope of it. We took a helicopter over the sea ice and flew into the Transantarctic Mountains. The Dry Valleys are one of the most extreme deserts on the planet, and the driest place on earth. There is very little snow, but lakes and glaciers carve out the landscape. This area was thought to be devoid of life. As Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists explains:
Not surprisingly, explorer Robert Scott, who discovered the Valleys in 1903, looked over one of them and called it “a valley of death.” This was, of course, before scientists arrived. Today, we know that Scott was wrong.
Researchers have discovered that the Dry Valleys are home to a variety of extremophiles (organisms that live in extreme environments). Among them are lichen and mosses, communities of microbes (including cyanobacteria), and nematodes (microscopic worms). Researchers continue to find and study these and other organisms and their adaptations, which allow them to survive in one of the most punishing environments on the planet.
Mike, my guide, and I climbed along the Canada Glacier over moraine, snowfields, and ice. There was no technical climbing, but we did a fair bit of scrambling. At the top, we laced our crampons and walked across the glacier’s blue surface. As we walked, our crampons chipped out little pebbles of ice, which clinked as they slid down the immense glacier toward Lake Hoare.
Here I am on the glacier. Apparently, this is my go to pose for being in awe of a place.
This day was a lesson in the complexity of ice.
One new friend I’ve made here, Stephanie Krzywonos, shared an essay she wrote about Antarctica and spirituality with me. In it, she speaks of ice:
Yet the ice that covers Antarctica is not singular-one great, big slab of run-of-the-mill freezer ice; it is manifold and takes on myriad forms. There's the ice cap, which is related to ice sheets and ice fields, which turn into ice shelves that break off into icebergs. But don't confuse icebergs with ice floes (which may have once been fast ice) that turn into ice packs, otherwise known as drift ice. Then there's blue ice, white ice, sheathing ice, pancake ice, feather ice, moat ice, grease ice, brash ice, platelet ice, anchor ice, ice caves, ice fields, ice flowers . . . the list goes on.
[…] It is not what we see that inspires awe, but the knowledge of what lies beyond our view. We see only a few miles of ruffled snow bounded by a vague wavy horizon, but we know that beyond that horizon are hundreds, even thousands of miles which offer no change to the weary eye. . . One knows there is neither tree nor shrub, nor any living thing, nor even inanimate rock. . . Could anything be more terrible than this silent, windswept immensity. . . ?
As Mike and I climbed/slid down along the Canada Glacier I kept thinking about, feeling really, the presence of the glacier, how much force and agency it has. How much of a thing it is (with a lifespan and significance and weight and impact all its own), that is far beyond our human understanding of thing-ness.
As the sun went behind the mountains to our left, the glacier to our right was in shadow. It started creaking and making noises with the temperature shift. I laughed, “I think the glacier is talking to us.”
So we stood there and listened.