A journey to the bottom of the world in search of the purest thing.
A dozen or so of us were packed into the beluga-shaped DC-3, snorting oxygen through plastic medical tubes to make up for the thin, 20,000-foot air in the unpressurized cabin. The Antarctic plateau slid beneath us 10,000 feet below, though without the visual reference of trees, mountains, buildings or roads, it appeared to be close enough for a sharp tip of the wing to scratch the surface of the snow. Far off in the distance the horizon hinted at the curvature of the earth.
Gates makes his way down the Ice Runway on the Antarctic Plateau. Photo by Haley Buffman.
This is an article from our December 2012 issue.
Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan was sitting on my lap.
It was opened to a dog-eared page that had caught my attention days earlier when I had just arrived on the continent. “We can offer you an opportunity to think about your native planet,” Vonnegut wrote, “from a fresh and beautifully detached view point.” The offer was for a low-ranking position in the Martian Army rather than a low-ranking position on Earth’s last continent, and no less applicable.
I had an ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend to thank for getting me into that airplane seat. Our mutual ex-girlfriend’s lack of creativity in choosing her mates ensured that we were more similar than different and all the more likely to get along. He talked in sentences made up of soft, shapeless mumbles and punctuated them with an abrupt laugh. Like me, he was svelte and quiet with a socially awkward tendency that was either masked or nourished by entire months of solo wanderings. He was an eight-time finisher of the Boston Marathon, and I accepted his assurance that running at the South Pole was, at the very least, possible. Curtis Moore had introduced me to Chef Brown and led me through the mountain of paperwork and bureaucratic hoop jumping one might expect with a four-month contract at a government station at the furthest of man’s terrestrial reach.
And it was Curtis who had told me about Race Around the World.
I had been stalled out on Ross Island, 2500 miles south of New Zealand, the week prior.
Locked into the Antarctic mainland with a permanent shelf of sea ice, the island was home to seals, penguins, a 12,000-foot active volcano, Mount Erebus, and McMurdo—a station five times larger than any other station on the continent. As a stop-over gateway for Antarctica, McMurdo maintained that shifty and volatile feel I would have expected from an old-west town or a Lucas-inspired deep-space station. It was best described to me as a sheriff-less coal-mining town run by a frat house.
Tractors, snowcats and countless other rumbling machines drove about the dusty roads that separated the sterile buildings from one another. Thieving and violent seagull-like skua birds patrolled the skies while the ever-present wind whistled. I idled my time away with Vonnegut, and when I tired of him, I found reprieve running the many trails surrounding the station.
From the Ross Island trails, I watched ash and smoke rise from Mount Erebus above me. In the opposite direction, across the frozen Ross Sea, the Royal Society Mountain Range stood proud and out of reach. The volcanic cinder that crunched beneath my feet would be the last dirt I’d see, hear, smell or touch for several months.
Passengers and snowcat enroute to Antarctica. Photo by Haley Buffman.
I sucked at the tube for more oxygen.
Beyond the frosted window, the scene was a two-toned blue-and-white painting—the blue stealing wisps of white from the ground and the white reflecting the cerulean sky back into the atmosphere. Rothko, I remember thinking. This is a Rothko painting on the magnitude of a Midwestern state. Beneath us the shadow of the plane floated about the masterpiece like a speck of dust.
Following a smooth ski landing and brief taxi the door opened from the outside. After descending a short ladder I stepped onto the styrofoam snow and watched my breath hit the ground before me, bursting outwardly like an inverted mushroom cloud.
At 67 degrees below zero, breath becomes a sharp thing, with both mass and volume. The first inhale is taken in quickly, haphazardly. Your nose hairs freeze. Then your tongue lurches and your lungs reject the needle-y air. You cough it out like poison and take in the next one measuredly. They’re all measured after that. Once you learn to breathe again, you note the smell of the Antarctic Plateau: the virgin fragrance of nothing at all.
Before me stood the Elevated Station. It was propped up on I-beams 15 feet high to prevent the slow buildup of dense snow that had buried the two previous stations. At that moment it looked to me like one of those tall, walking war machines from Star Wars, but elongated, frozen and static. Within the football field of a building rested my raison d’être—dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned. With over 15 years of restaurant service behind me, “Dining Room Attendant” stood alone as the one job I qualified for at a research station that was synonymous with specificity.
As the weeks went by the sun climbed to a height in the sky that would be considered “late-afternoon” to most civilized latitudes. It circled around like the hand of a 24-hour clock. Exactly like a 24-hour clock, actually. The ebb and flow buzz of tractors, airplanes and snowmobiles, however, ensured that the station was a human creation and 4 a.m. felt like 4 a.m., lunchtime felt like lunchtime and Christmas felt like Christmas. The zombie-like winter-overs had vacated the station and taken with them their excess of malaise. They were replaced with fresh firefighters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Reaganites and anarchists; loose women, prudish men, jocks and queers; Nobel smarts and perfect idiots. Job titles had been politically replaced with the disambiguating titles of “specialist” and “technician.” Still, the modern rolls of society were represented just the same.