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Coming and Going

The instruments on the C-17 jet are pointing north, even though we’re headed south.   Apparently, once the plane passes 60 degrees south latitude, it can no longer decipher whether it’s coming or going.  Sitting in the cockpit, looking out into a vast sea of white, fluffy clouds, we very well could have been flying north and I wouldn’t have known the difference.  The pilots offered no explanation for the anomaly, but the styrofoam airplane that was carefully stuck to a map of the southern ocean assured us that we were, in fact, aimed directly at Antarctica.

You can’t miss Antarctica, I guess.  It’s gigantic.  Even if you kept going north, you’d get there eventually, whether you wanted to or not.

I started thinking about coming, and going, and where and why, and whether I wanted to.  This is my third trip to the frozen south, and each of them has been different.  In February of 2008, I took off from the Las Vegas airport, leaving behind a warm, Mojave Desert spring.  Leaving Las Vegas that year wasn’t easy, because I couldn’t comprehend what I was headed for.  I knew my plane ticket was taking me to a place that I could hardly convince my brain actually existed, and that was unsettling.  What if I were flying into something harsher than the dusty Las Vegas heat?  What if I were doomed to freeze to death on some remote, unnamed glacier?  In spite of my fears, and in spite of myself, I not only survived, but also thrived in the barren Antarctic desert.  I managed to cram volumes of knowledge about science, the world, and myself into those few short months.

During my second trip to Antarctica, I felt what had been an exponential increase in the value of my personal experience start to reach a plateau.  That season, I lifted off from the Bozeman airport into sunny skies.  The Gallatin Valley lay below, with its’ fields tinted gold in their end-of-summer senescence.  That time, I didn’t have to be afraid of what I was flying towards, but I also couldn’t rely on the adrenaline rush of a new experience to carry me through – it wasn’t new this time.  Instead, I had to forage a true sense of purpose, realizing that the learning wouldn’t come without effort.  As much as I loathe having to admit it, I can’t deny that maintaining a sincere appreciation of my phenominal good luck in life took more work the second time around.   Still, when I finally stepped off of the C-17, and on to the Antarctic continent, I felt a rush of excitement and a familiar sense of place.

In October of 2009, I lifted off from Bozeman again.  It was grey and rainy, and a cold snap the week before had robbed the landscape of the subtle bits of autumn splendor that is could otherwise muster.  The trees dropped their leaves, brownish-green, by the masses and everything seemed caught between freezing winter, and calm cool fall.  The dreary weather fit my mood, because this year, leaving home was harder than it had ever been before.  The reason for that was simple:  I have more to look forward to at home than I have ever had before.   This time, as I stepped out of the heated interior of the C-17, I had to pointedly zip my red parka against the wind chill, which was far below zero.  No rush of excitement this time.  Even though I had expected that, it distressed me.  The last thing that I want is to lose the passion for my work.  Worse, I couldn’t forgive myself if I were to become ungrateful for the wonderful opportunities that being a researcher in Antarctica affords.  And yet, none of that changes the reality that being away from home, living out of suitcases, part-time in 6-person dormitory rooms and part-time in lonely tents, isn’t quite so easy after the luster of the new experience wears off.   So what do I make of it?  I will have to look harder and work harder to find the sense of fulfillment that came so easily my first season on the Ice, and now comes so easily when I’m at home.  But perhaps this is where the real learning begins.  I will no longer  view my experiences through the lens of an awestruck traveler, but instead have been instilled with a solid dose of reality that tempers the fantasticness of this other-worldly continent.  By not allowing it to lead me astray, as it seems to lead so many (think wooden ships crushed in the sea-ice…), I hope it can co-exist peacefully with the people and places that comprise my life.

As for coming and going – there are plenty of times, especially as a grad student, when it’s difficult to tell which is which.  But I know for sure, that when I come here, I’m actually going, because when I go back to Montana, I’m coming home.