So there I was, about five years ago, sitting on the living room floor of Brian and Gretchen’s house in Walsenburg with Beth. Beth Watson, kid sister of my high school prom date. Little Beth Watson, now all grown up now – thinking back, this may have been the first time I’d seen her since back in nineteen eighty something when Brian and I gave her a ride out to take the test for her drivers license.
But Beth and her sister Ellen – Ellen-of-the-spectacular-letters – were on a roadtrip of sorts; maybe coming back up from Albuquerque or Santa Fe or something, and Devon and I were on the homebound leg of a clockwise trip to Denver with the kids. And somehow we all crossed paths here, 50 miles north of the New Mexico border.
The kids were wreaking havoc somewhere while the rest of the grownups were chatting in the kitchen, as grownups are wont to do. And Beth and I somehow found ourselves sitting there on the living room carpet, catching up. I’d been doing too much of the talking, as I usually do, but finally thought to turn the conversation around.
“So – what have you been up to all these years?”
“Mostly I’ve been spending a lot of time at the South Pole.”
Just that simple sentence. Imagine the kid next door tells you he’s been kayaking the methane oceans on Europa and you have no reason to believe that he’s either lying or insane. To be fair, I don’t think Beth was planning to change my life, but when it became inevitable, she proved more than up to the task. I have no idea what my next words were. I suspect they went something like
Buuuh…buh…uhhh… … … … Wha?
Eventually I did manage to get a coherent sentence out, and, as banal as it sounds, I’ve since learned to recognize it as a positive sign.
“So. Wow. What’s that like?”
That was a slow pitch over the plate for Beth. She got this dreamy, faraway look in her eyes and said two words. Just two words: “Magnificent desolation.”
I called her on the Buzz Aldrin quotation and remember her conspiratorial smile when she said something like, “Yeah, when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut and work on the moon base. They haven’t built it yet, and the South Pole is the closest thing I’ve found.”
The rest of the afternoon was a vertiginous, giddy blur of questions, answers and tales of adventure in a world I could barely imagine. And when it was time to go, I remember Beth looking me in the eye – this was a look I learned to recognize later among fellow Polies – and saying, “You know, I think you’d fit in well at the Pole.”
The car was quiet on the way home – we were all tired.
Devon asked, “So – what did you and Beth talk about?”
Sex. No, the South Pole. Felt like the same thing at the time.
“Oh – stuff. Did you know she works at the South Pole?”
Silent puzzling. Like I’d said something in Swahili out of the blue, and Devon was trying to figure out what had just happened there at the end of the sentence.
I told her again: “The South Pole. Beth spends something like four months each year working at the South Pole station. Says it’s like a moonbase.”
Honestly, I had no idea what else to say. That was supposed to be the end of the conversation, before we turned to some practicality; something about J’s schoolwork, or M’s singing lessons.
But Devon was smarter than that. She looked over with that slow, understanding smile. “Well, you always did want to be an astronaut…”
In the months that followed, Beth guided me through the application process, made introductions and dropped not so subtle hints to help me find my way. It really was, as I wrote in that first post almost four years ago, like I’d discovered that I was part of a separate tribe hidden among us.
And then, when improbable chance turned my way and I actually got to go? (Yeah, yeah, rules of the pabloverse notwithstanding) Beth was there the whole time, looking over my shoulder from half a world away, giving everything from practical advice (“Buy the best, thickest, most comfortable socks you can find. Lots of them.”) to spiritual guidance (“You’re going to feel more liberated than you’ve ever felt in your life, but also more lonely.”). And – this must run in the Watson family – she was always, always, spot on.
Anyone who’s been following this blog for any length of time knows how that time at the Pole transformed my life, how it both literally and figuratively expanded my horizons. How it helped me realize that I really am a writer and a storyteller, and that the world is filled with so many different stories to be discovered and learned and told that it would be a shame for me to spend my life doing anything less.
I don’t think Beth meant to change my life that afternoon. I think she suspected she might, as I suspect she’s changed a lot of others along the way. But I’m deeply grateful for those changes and I hope – I really do hope – that I’m not the only one.
Thank you, Elizabeth J. Watson. (Oh, and Happy Birthday!)