An Abrupt End to Summer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Dallas, the sun’s gone down, and the monitor says it’s still 90 degrees outside; it’s mid-thirties and snowing in Punta Arenas. But here, sitting on the ramp in what is ostensibly AA Flight 945, there is no weather, no sense of place. We’re climate controlled and timeless, without a tangible, tactile sense of where we are, or when we’re going to get on our way to where we’re going. There was an announcement about a half hour ago about mechanics coming to look at “an issue” of unspecified nature. Final credits have already rolled for the single inflight movie slated to appear on our august 767’s half-dozen CRTs. I’ve already received three online updates for flight delays, each more pessimistic than the last.

Also, ever the inveterate Helpdesk alum, I’ve loaned out a power adaptor to the stressed-out, high maintenance woman two rows up who seemed irate that there was no seat-back entertainment, and whose iPad had run out of battery. And I’ve handed pens around to folks filling out the immigration forms and set up wifi tethering so the nice young lady behind me can email her boyfriend our new arrival time. (The power adaptor is of little help, alas; its borrower somehow snaps the plug for her headphones off in a jack and consoles herself by playing games without sound).

All that being said, I’m not going to complain: Once we do get airborne, it’s an almost 10 hour flight two-thirds of the way down to the bottom of the Southern hemisphere, and I’ve got an entire center row to myself. As soon as they dim lights, I’m going to stick in my ear plugs, slip on my eyeshades, go horizontal and sleep, stretched out across three of American Airlines’ cheapest airborne seats.

Back at home, in Palo Alto, I’ve left behind the dog days of summer; ahead, where the spine of the continent curves east and drops into the sea at its southern tip, it’s the middle of winter. I’m pretty sure that makes this my shortest summer, nipped in the bud at, letsee, 51 days. But I can’t complain: back in 2010-2011, I fit three full summers into two just years, even if that middle season at the South Pole put Mark Twain’s boast about San Francisco’s notorious summer temperatures to shame. In Twain’s time, folks weren’t even sure that there was a southern continent down there.

Morning, and we’re descending into Santiago against the western edge of the Andes. I realize that I have little, if any cultural context for Chile; when I grasp at images, I inevitably come up with Peru, or Argentina. My sole reference is the pretty and gregarious young lady in the row behind, with whom I chatted for much of last night’s ground delay, but the country could do far worse for a spokesperson.

Below, the mountains seem endless, everchanging, like fractals carved from rock and ice, stretching out to the horizon. There are no signs of life in them, no trees, no roads, no evidence that humans have ever set foot here. From here, we could be descending into Antarctica, or the moon, for that matter.

Sean and I have a few hours here, hanging out in the sterile wifi-enhanced confines of the USAP’s local office before catching our connection to Punta Arenas this afternoon. By all accounts, the ship will already be there when we arrive, and the work begins in earnest tomorrow morning. Summer is over, in more ways than one…

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