MacTown

My first impressions of McMurdo are that, despite the inherent otherworldliness of the continent, it’s all manageable. That first breath of Antarctic air, walking across the ice runway to Ivan the Terra Bus? It’s cold but, this is not much below zero, F. I’ve had worse on a brisk February morning in Dartmouth. We’re walking on sea ice, roughly a quarter mile off the edge of Ross Island, with mountains of the mainland rising spectacularly off in three directions. The C-17 and two Hercs sit idling on the ice nearby, while a third comes taxiing in to park. I notice that he’s got his left outboard engine shut down and assume it’s to save fuel; I’m wrong, and discover the ramifications of this little detail a few hours later.

Looking out from the comfort of Ivan’s ski-shuttle interior at McMurdo up on the island, it all looks tractable. I can map everything I see onto something I’ve seen or experienced before. Yes, it’s surreal, but manageable. Ivan climbs slowly up from the ice onto and dumps us at the Chalet where we get – yes – another set of briefings. Where and when meals are, how to find the doc, how to avoid needing the doc. Where not to go. Chaplain’s hours. Then we’re given our housing assignments and cut loose. There are too many details to remember, but Ben shepherds me through the getting-settled steps: retrieving my bags, picking up linens, meeting my McMurdo counterparts and local POC.

And then? Once I’ve dumped my stuff off at the room, there’s nothing in particular to do. Halloween party is in a few hours, but from now on, I’m free to wander Antarctica, unsupervised. Without a map. It feels very much like that moment when you bring your first child home from the hospital. They see you to the car, make sure the car seat is strapped in correctly, and say “Okay, off you go, we’ll have someone check up on you tomorrow!” But you realize that, you’ve been handed off, and you’re now trusted – and expected – to just raise this baby on your own with no “adult supervision”? Yeah, that’s what it feels like.

I wander into B155, but big blue social hub of the base, which houses the galley, store, and a bizillion other functions. Tromp back to the door of my dorm, Hotel California (“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” – more foreshadowing here). Look up at Obs Hill, at the three massive wind turbines which now provide a big chunk of MacTown’s electricity, and then across the spit of sea ice to Scott’s hut, and the cross on the point. Wow, here I am.

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