It’s nearing the end of January, and everyone is beginning to get worn down. It has been 22 days since the last shipment of fresh food made it to the South Pole, and just as long since mail arrived; a few people are still waiting for Christmas presents to get here. There are no more holidays or days off in sight, and the knowledge of this does not help with the general fatigue.
Bids for personal space and rest are becoming more common sights: Someone eats alone in the corner of the galley, reading a magazine; another sleeps in the small greenhouse during lunch break. Someone else drives a piston bully out beyond the limits of the station on a Sunday off, just to alter the environment for a few hours. Just to get “away.”
We’re starting to get a little bit stir-crazy.
People often ask me about the biggest challenge of being at the South Pole. It’s actually not the cold (though, as temperatures begin to drop again, that isn’t easy). It’s living and working in a small, isolated, insular community.
Unlike other jobs, where you leave work and co-workers behind for the weekend, we don’t say goodbye at the end of the day. We all live together. We watch movies, read, play cribbage or perhaps ski. If one or two escape outside to fly a kite, we all watch from the galley windows, the kite’s dipping form a tiny silhouette against the vast Polar Plateau.
Knowing that you are never truly apart from people is the true challenge of living at the South Pole. People imagine Polies to be hermits, drawn as we are to the bottom of the world — lighthouse keepers and solitary souls. Instead, it is adaptable, social people — those comfortable with close communities and little personal space — who thrive here.
Yesterday, a small fight broke out over a piece of lettuce. The little greenhouse was harvested and everyone was allowed to take a single lettuce leaf for their sandwich. Inevitably, one or two people misunderstood, and gleefully made salads. Words were exchanged — none of them mild. Later, one participant said, “It’s the end of the season. Everyone’s mad about something.”
With redeployment to “the real world” in sight, restlessness spreads like a contagion. Those who stay here for the austral summer season can count our remaining workweeks on fewer than two hands. The people who will be wintering here until next October are counting, too, but it’s a very different sort of count: How much time until there are only the 50 of them here, instead of 250? How much time left to get in the fuel and supplies they need for nine months of isolation — six of them in darkness — before cold weather prevents the LC-130 airplanes from landing here anymore? How much time before these stir-crazy summer people finally get out of their hair and go eat that Thai food in New Zealand that they won’t stop talking about?
Many hardships at South Pole are mental ones. That becomes apparent in the contrasts between those who are staying and those who are leaving soon. With the end in sight, patience wanes and tempers rise; yet those who will be staying are calmer. Mental preparation is everything.
And what is it, really, to be trapped in one place for months, or a year? Some people cheerfully spend entire lifetimes, not just a year, in the same small town, choosing routines as simple and as insular as ours. The difference lies in the possibility, in the mere option to get on a bus and leave town. When the last plane leaves at the end of summer, the option to leave goes with it, and that is what makes it truly hard.
When I get up in the morning, I see that the temperature has dropped another 5 degrees and I layer on an extra shirt, something I have not done since early November. My work boots are battered, and my pants are patched — I’m hoping that the knees make it through this final month. When I step outside to walk to work, though, I forget my aches and my restless thoughts as I look up in awe. A sundog — a gigantic, rainbow ring of light around the sun, covers much of the sky. This phenomenon is something I have seen only at the South Pole. Several others stop as well, pointing up at it. Once again, the Polar Plateau reminds me of its beauty. My shoulders loosen, and I’m ready for another day.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.