From 77 degrees south, I’d like to extend a new year greeting to you! I’ve been living at the bottom of the planet for two months now and I wanted to take the time to extend a very large “hello” before the holiday season wraps up entirely.
I hope that this note finds you happy, healthy, and ready to dive into a brand new year as we all continue to spin around the sun.
This year has been as rewarding as ever for me as a travel junkie. I began the year in East Saint Louis, a place that feels like a second home to me at this point, where I worked as both a middle school science teacher and ran a computer lab in a housing complex for underprivileged youth at an after school program. Each day there was an adventure and an eye-opening experience. When the school year wrapped in June, I moved to Yellowstone National Park with my brother for two months where we worked at a restaurant located in the heart of the park. This gave us direct access to all of Yellowstone’s natural beauty, breathtaking animals, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails. In August, I departed Yellowstone for the Omega Institute for Holistic Learning in upstate New York where I camped in a tent next to my mother for the remainder of the summer and worked in the campus’ dining hall. The experience was highlighted with beautiful, heart-opening people, a plethora of meditation, yoga, and spirituality classes, and the chance to spend quality time with my favorite person. When the season wrapped up in early October, I drove to Michigan for a friend’s wedding, then packed my bags and flew across the planet to New Zealand where my current adventure began on Halloween.
Life here in Antarctica has been a trip, to say the least. I awake each morning to a brilliant, constant sun, and I head to bed each night with that same brilliant sun shining in my window the same as if it were three in the afternoon anywhere else in the world. This differs from summers in Alaska only because in Alaska, there was at least a period of twilight, even on the longest day of the year. There was still a small amount of time where the day would seem to reset itself. Here, that isn’t the case. The sun just spins around the horizon constantly, disappearing only for the occasional overcast day or snowstorm. Antarctica, being a desert, receives very little precipitation throughout the year, making these occasional storms quite uncommon. At present, as I glance out my window, there is a rare, steady stream of snow falling from the sky, which is so pleasant to experience from inside. For the most part; however, the skies are blue and the sun is constantly shining.
Temperature wise, I have yet to experience anything too extreme. Upon arrival in October, the temps seemed to be a little lower than they are now, but for the most part, living here during the summer time seems to be quite doable. I normally run from my dorm room over to work in just a sweatshirt. When I go out skiing or hiking, I shove my “New York winter coat” in my pack, just in case. But mostly, the only times I’m all decked out in the $1000 coat and bunnie boots that I was issued prior to my deployment is when I’m going on some sort of excursion far away from town in which it’s required that I bring anything and everything that can keep me warm. There have been a number of days, that I’ve noticed, where it is warmer here than it is back in New York state.
My day to day routine here is TRULY a routine. It’s the same thing, over and over again. I refer to it as “the treadmill”. And I always follow up this statement by making sure it’s known that this isn’t a bad thing–it’s just the same thing. I’m excited to inform you that each of my days here at McMurdo Station begin with my alarm going off at 7:30 and me dragging my bones out of bed in time to run over to the local radio station and broadcast “Matty in the Morning” from 8 until 10. I have returned to the airwaves after a 4 year hiatus and it is FUN. Now that it isn’t my full time job to work in radio, all I have to do is chat it up to the people of McMurdo and pick which song to play next. It has honestly been like riding a bike, it’s all come back to me almost immediately.
At ten in the morning, I wrap up the show and walk down the hallway to the galley where I begin my day of work. My official title down here is Steward. I’m basically a dining hall attendant and dishwasher. Clearly, I didn’t come to the bottom of the world to wash dishes, but there are so many perks to being here that completely outweigh the fact that I’m not stretching my brain while I’m at work. I work with amazing people, all of whom are doing the same things here that I am. They’re adventurers, chasing the high that comes with living in an exotic place. They’re rock climbers and mountaineers, teachers and yoga instructors, business owners and construction workers, musicians and pilots. We all come from completely different walks of life and from completely different corners of the world, but we all have a love for Antarctica in common. After just two months together, I feel close bonds with the majority of my co-workers and find myself contemplating how fortunate I’ve been to make such terrific friends so quickly.
Working in the galley, although not the most glamorous of jobs, has proven to be vital when it comes to being part of the social scene here in Mactown. With a summer population settling in around 750, there is a surprisingly large amount going on here on a day to day basis. There are two bars, a library, a coffeehouse, a medical center, a firehouse, a radio station, a craft room, a sauna, and a computer lab. There are also some of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met, who are constantly coming up with creative things to do with their time. I had one friend schedule a town-wide game of hide and seek just last week, while this weekend, we’ll ring in the new year with a 9 hour “Ice-Stock” concert which will be played on a stage outside of one of the bars.
One of my favorite social pieces to being here is that there is no cell phone service. People don’t even bother carrying their phones around with them here because they’re useless except for taking photos and waking you up in the morning. This means that the social game in McMurdo has essentially brought me back to what life was like prior to about 2005 when the cell phone industry exploded. People look you in the eye down here, they tell you to meet them at a certain place at a certain time so they don’t lose track of you, they swing by your dorm room to see what you’re doing, they leave you notes taped to doors if they want to send you a message. It’s fascinating and wonderful to take this dive back in time socially. It just feels right, there’s so much more connection.
The work day sometimes drags, but it’s broken up into chunks by a number of breaks, which all of us stewards seem to look forward to. The job may involve way too much mopping and changing out hotel pans of food, but the other people I’m spending my time with day in and day out have made the work experience worth it. At 8pm, we all run out of work as fast as possible and wash the muck and grime of the day off. Some evenings, nothing happens, which is necessary, but for the most part, there’s always something going on. There are hikes to be done, ski trips to conquer, lectures and presentations to attend, a coffee house to hang out in, bars to avoid, and a lot of other things. I cannot emphasize enough how fun the group of people I spend my time with are. Everyone has a story, everyone seems to be here for a common purpose, even if there are varying degrees of this commonality.
We get one day off per week, a day normally dedicated to catching up on sleep and laundry and attempting to do a longer range hike or ski trip if the weather cooperates, which it often doesn’t. Even now, being in the peak of the summer season, the temperatures and winds still have a mind of their own, and we are consistently reminded of this.
For the first three weeks of my time on the continent, I was assigned to room with a crane operator from Florida who has come to McMurdo for 16 years at the beginning of each summer season to instruct people on how to better operate heavy machinery on the ice. He was an adequate roommate, and I was sad to see him go, especially since I didn’t know who would be thrown into the room with me as his replacement. Fortunately, having gotten to know many of the people in the housing department here, my friend Drew and I were able to work out a way for him to move in with me. Now, I almost feel like I’m living dorm life all over again, which is kind of fun. I’ve gotten entirely too little sleep since he moved in, but it’s been an adventure worth having. I don’t think the hours between 2 and 7 in the morning have ever been so fun. This being said, it is a bit of a challenge to pull by bones out of bed for my radio show, but once I’m up and in the studio, I’m thankful for having something fun to do to kick off my day.
I realized today while I was out on a quick hike around a nearby hill, that I’ve managed to spend the entirety of my adult life living in great places and volunteering or living in great places while making money by doing seasonal ‘crap work’. No one wants to wash dishes everyday, but because I’m washing dishes everyday, I get to be in Antarctica, so I’m grateful.
All of a sudden January is upon us. The summer season is more than half over and the time for travel planning has begun. Everyone keeps throwing out ideas about where they plan on traveling and what they’re hoping to experience while they’ve got this great chance to play on this side of the world. Between February 15th and 25th, almost the entire station will leaving the ice. Apparently, January is often called “Plan-uary” down here, as everyone is trying to figure out what to do next. Since all 750 of us have to exit Antarctica via New Zealand, I’m curious to see how many USAP folks I run into in New Zealand between late February and early March.
At some point, I’ll have to become a part of “Plan-uary”, but for now, I’m just going to keep living the day-to-day life down here as happily as I have so far. The future always works itself out anyway.