Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Antarctica has got me jaded. Believe it or not I have tired of seeing these jagged snowy peaks, the crystalline waters, this unhindered serenity; I am sick of the smell of penguin shit baked day after day against coarse volcanic rock, and the novelty of their “cute” blubber black and white little bodies waddling across the snow, or even of their smoothly synchronized feats under the water, bobbing and diving together like an orange-beaked band of Cirque de Soleil water dwarves, no longer thrills me. Can you believe I now have little desire to ride in a zodiac to observe up close the azure purity of glacial ice, floating in monstrous towers and surreal, inhuman shapes? My appetite, whetted after twenty-five years of lore and curiosity, to witness first-hand the wonders of this untamed, unequaled, indescribable and by many accounts unchartered wilderness has not ceased to exist, but rather I am found craving more of what I had longed for and less of what the limited means of an Antarctic tour can provide. I want to lose myself in these mountains, sleeping under the endless day in the nooks and crannies of its wild, to experience in full force the regality of such a vast, untouched frontier. I want to experience the cold of its waters, for its icy chill to grip me by the spine and squeeze, clenching and clamping every negative degree of frostbit extremity into the blood of my veins; I want to lie in the unresounding silence of dormant snow, to bask in the glimmer and magnitude of a frost-buried terrain; I want to experience Antarctica on its terms, not mine, to allow my body and soul to be raged against by the fury of nature’s every whim, and therefore by the serenity and beauty of its sedative state. I want to bury myself in its reality, charge with full force at everything it has to offer and receive with open arms its returning blow, the kiss upon my face that will be its icy breeze. My time here, short though it has been, has instilled in me the desire—nay, the necessity—to immerse myself in this glorious continent, from peak to peak, from bay to bay, from channel to glacier to interminable sunset, every facet of its dominating world. While Antarctica has fulfilled a long-awaited dream, it has inspired so many more.
Not that I dislike the rumbling sound below as the ship churns through the ice field, breaking what was only recently a solid frozen plane. The mountains rise dauntingly on either side of the channel, glaciers pouring down their valleys; the glaciers end in steep, fifty-foot cornices along the length of the water, the snow and ice calving occasionally with deep, thunderous roars. The giant icebergs grow even larger as the channel advances, the water turning a brilliant blue along their base; its turquoise translucence is that of a serene Caribbean bay, but there are no palm trees here, and the water is treacherously cold. This is where explorers and pioneers have become stuck for winters at a time, locked amid thickly frozen layers. Even now, as the ship makes its way through the channel the ice we have pushed aside in our wake slowly moves back in to reclaim the waterway, removing all signs of our having passed. In another day and time, one could disappear down this channel forever, gone into the sunset without a trace.
And the sunset… An Antarctic sunset is like the gradual unfolding of a flower: sky-wide layers peel back to reveal swathes of amber and rouge, palatial hues of pink and tangerine, wisps of silk and cotton grays encompassed by a magnanimous plate of blue. The colors unfold over what feels like hours in the late-night sky, revealing themselves naked and sheer over a rocky spine of whitened peaks that bathe and bask in their pastel light. As we ride into the sunset, I think about all that I have seen here, wondering what will be become of this great white continent, and wondering if I will ever live in its glory again.