Back home, then to the South Pole

Posted Oct. 09, 2008, at 10:20 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:53 a.m.

My life is about to change 150 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m exchanging the scorching deserts of southern Arizona for the frigid, polar desert of Antarctica. From temperatures in the triple digits, I’ll soon be back in the subzero climate of the South Pole.

The word “extremism” does come to mind.

Amundsen-Scott Station is, without a doubt, an extreme place. On a continent touted as the highest, driest, windiest and coldest place on the planet, the South Pole’s average temperature is minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Our science research station is locked in the middle of the continent, 800 miles from the coast, at the center of the vast, flat, polar plateau. I’m returning as an employee of the United States Antarctic Program, providing support services to science research stations.

“Why are you going back?” is a question I have heard frequently, in tones ranging from curious to flat-out incredulous. I no longer can claim the “just for the sake of new adventure” motive that I cited a year ago. After all, last year I lived at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for four months, and another three months at a remote field camp on the Antarctic coast.

I’m returning simply because I fell in love with the striking, desolate beauty of Antarctica and with the character of the people who are attracted to work there.

It is hard to explain the power and pull of the Antarctic landscape. It is an environment that does not sit quietly in the background, easily ignored and appreciable by turns; rather, it makes demands of you, both mentally and physically. Because the environment requires so much from you, you never stop engaging with it. The vast, frozen, and still largely unknown landscape has a charismatic and magnetic pull. In Antarctica, you do not have the choice to forget about the natural world. It doesn’t allow indifference.

And, when I return to the South Pole this year for my second austral summer, it will be to a familiar world with some dear and familiar faces. The group of people attracted to the bottom of the Earth is a quirky and adventurous team, as pragmatic as they are free-spirited. “The people make the place,” they say, and I can’t wait to see old friends.

Before I go, though, I lessen the shock of a 150-degree temperature change with a much-needed week at home in Maine. It’s time to see my family and friends, unpack and repack, and iron out those humdrum little life details like, “What’s this important-looking unopened envelope here?” and, “Say, do you reckon I still have health insurance?” (Parents love questions like that one.)

It’s amazing how those “little details,” which seemed unimportant when off traveling for months at a time, catch up with you on a brief visit back home. You see, “being there” means, generally, not being here. And not being here means that I miss a lot of the small yet important things. Such as Thanksgiving. And the dentist.

The whirlwind of suddenly attending to several months’ worth of appointments, unopened envelopes and bookkeeping has become so familiar that my parents have affectionately dubbed my one-week visits home “Hurricane Meg.” Thanks to many sympathetic and helpful people, I got everything sorted out in time. The Holden Town Hall even called to let me know the absentee ballots had arrived so I could vote in the presidential election — just three hours before my plane left.

For the second consecutive year, I will spend the holidays away from my home and family.

To make up for that, we decided to hold Thanksgiving early so we could celebrate it together. “Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be limited to a specific date in late November,” I suggested. We’re thankful for our bounty and blessings year-round.

Celebrating the holidays early with my family was a much-needed breather between the Arizona desert and the South Pole. We spent a day together cooking; taste-testing so much food that eating lunch wasn’t necessary. While there was no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to watch, my sister showed stunning photographs of her summer trip to Alaska. I got to catch up with people’s lives and soak up the rhythms of everyday life at home.

Our early Thanksgiving was nourishing in more ways than one. These are the things that power adventures. If it weren’t for the haven of family and friends to come back to, I mightn’t be so willing to throw myself out into the world.

Before I knew it, I was headed back to Bangor International Airport. My possessions for the next five months come down to less than 40 pounds — a favorite shirt, a pair of sneakers, a laptop and little else.

I’m headed off again, bound for the South Pole.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday.

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