Looking back, it's bizarre how some of the most mundane afternoons have the potential to be transformed into storytelling magic. That happened to me during my sophomore year of college. I was a nineteen-year-old skeptic, staring at the ground on a routine climb of the septic, antiquated staircase of my university’s Fine Arts building.

While headed to the darkroom to churn out my weekly assignment, a snarky but loveable professor asked me, "How'd you like to go to Antarctica?" Assuming he was luring me into his usual confusing small talk I answered, "That'd be just fine." He snorted and quipped, "Bring me back some seal meat!" He was a real connoisseur.

Fast-forward six months through innumerable nightmares of scenes from The Shining transposed onto an icy wilderness: I was going to Antarctica. Unbelievably to me, I had been hired to work as a darkroom technician for two months for a relatively famed scientific expedition. As far as I understand it, our project extracted earth core to learn how Antarctic ice formations behaved during previous periods of global warmth as a way of better explaining Antarctica’s past (and potentially future) impact on global climate change.

Each year scientists from around the world and hundreds of supportive staff from the US, fly to Christ Church, New Zealand to await transport to McMurdo Station. There is a complicated queue that determines who gets to fly out of Christ Church first. Generally the scientists skip to the fore every time. When we arrived in Christ Church, the weather in Antarctica had been terrible for weeks. Whiteouts (blizzards) had created shit visibility and it was too dangerous for the pilots to land because they couldn't differentiate the sky's end and the land's beginning. This meant throngs of scientists and support staff (electricians, snow shovelers, cooks, plumbers, social planners, you name it) were stranded in Christ Church awaiting a flight. Everyday we would report to Antarctic head quarters to see if this was the day we could fly. The buzz of anticipation was intoxicating.

Our crew, benefitting from the scientific position in the Antarctic hierarchy, was put on the first flight out. After touring a museum about life in Antarctica, replete with a live penguin exhibit, we (and at least a hundred others) had to report to the gear post where we tried on all of our assigned survival clothing. The month was October, summer in the southern hemisphere, and it must have been 90 degrees in that warehouse. Imagine trying on long johns, a snow bib, woolen socks, fleece pullovers, down jackets, hats, ski goggles, and impossibly oversized gloves. In addition to the heat, there was a frantic and immodest quality to this gathering similar to a 75% off sale at your favorite thrift store or the Running of the Brides. Everyone knew there was a finite selection of gear and you needed the best fit because once on the Ice, that was it. No more shopping.

With all of our gear in tow, we piled into mini-vans and headed back to our respective hotels to pack up and fly out the next morning. Again in the blistering heat we had to suit up in full snow gear and wait at headquarters (an extensive navy flight yard) to board our massive army-green Hercules planes, or Herc in the vernacular. (You had to wear the full gear in case the plane crashed or there was some emergency and you were stranded on the ice. Not so comforting.) After several hours of waiting, the officials grudgingly announced the weather was too bad on the ice and we would try again in the morning. This happened for the next two days.

On the third day weather was good enough and we giddily boarded a giant Herc cargo plane with no windows. All of the gear was stored in the back of the plane and the passengers were seated side-by-side in four rows facing each other. Piled in like sardines, we were given earplugs and brown bag lunches. The flight would be eight hours. About four hours into the ride, I felt a strange lurch in my stomach and the plane seemed to make a massive U-turn in the sky. I had a sinking feeling and remembered the war stories of former passengers talking about the boomerang phenomenon, where the plane turned around mid-flight due to poor weather conditions. Sure enough a crackly and tired voice announced over a loud speaker that weather conditions were not suitable for landing. We headed back to New Zealand as the cargo plane let out a collective cry. Strike one.

Once on the ground, we got word we were up for flight two the following day. Halfway into flight two came the same stomach lurch, same crackly voice, same collective sigh. By our third flight, we were on pins and needles, casting bets to see if this would be our lucky flight. Halfway through the trip a voice came over the radio and there was again that collective sharp inhale and then a tremendous release as the pilot announced weather conditions were great and we would be landing in Antarctica. The normally reserved and buttoned-up scientists began hooping and hollering with total abandon.

Unfortunately I can't recall the landing because I had just discovered someone had accidentally thrown away the three hundred dollar pair of sunglasses my aunt purchased for my trip (as southerners and total strangers to snow, my family and I were convinced I would suffer blindness, frostbite, and cabin fever, so every effort was made to ensure my personal safety). Devastated but hopeful I could recover them, I climbed to the back of the plane while a stream of passengers pushed past me to get out.

When I got back there all fresh faced and nineteen, I matter-of-factly told the military personnel someone had erroneously placed my sunglasses in the trash therefore I would need to go through it to find them. They looked at each other and then looked at me as if I were from Mars and stated it was a felony offense to open any trash in Antarctica and I would most certainly not be able to do so.

I negotiated and said well how about I feel on the outside of the trash bags and if I find the sunglasses, I could just shift the trash around and squeeze them out through the hole in the top. Again they looked at each other, looked at the 100 plus bags of trash, looked at me and exasperatedly shrugged. I scuttled over boxes and cargo seats and climbed into the trash pit as my chin started to quiver. I knew the odds were against me—that I would never find my sunglasses again, but I couldn't let those Navy guys win. I felt every damn bag and burst into tears at my own absurd determination and symbolic loss. I finally gave up.

Still sniveling and bleary eyed, I crawled back to center of the plane to collect my belongings. I had missed the group transportation and had to wait for a ride with the Navy crew's mini-van. Humiliated and defeated, I ambled off the plane and gasped as I peered out at the vastest sheet of piercing white quiet I had ever encountered. My tears froze to my face and it hurt a little to blink, but I was spellbound by the view of the Ross Ice Shelf, nestled against the stark black Transantarctic Mountains. I was humbled by the confrontation with a beauty I would never be able to explain and its utter indifference to my peonic presence, and I knew I was so lucky.


Bonnie Price lives in Brooklyn.


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