It’s eight hours in an LC-130 Hercules from Pegasus Airfield, at the edge of the ice shelf off Ross Island, north to Christchurch. A C-17 can do it in five, but for reasons of logistic arcana, the Hercs are all we’ve got access to right now. It’s fine, comforting, even – there’s something iconic about the LC-130: it’s a sturdy, stalwart and ungainly compromise between irreconcilable forces that somehow manages to do a job nothing else has ever been able to. In a way, it’s a perfect metaphor for the whole program, and for the crazy people who come down here to keep it working.
Morning out at Pegasus was made for National Geographic: glistening flat ice, no wind, and a wisp of smoke rising from Erebus as if someone had left their cigarette burning in some cosmic ash tray at its summit. We rode out on Ivan the Terrabus – no, just look it up – and lolled around on the ice, clowning around in our regulation-issue Big Red and bunny boots until the boys from the Air National Guard were ready for us to climb aboard. Climbing aboard always seems like a moment that, if it were a movie, they’d do in slow motion, to emphasize the gravity of the moment. And they’d zoom in with the music rising as you paused, looking out at Erebus, then turned and disappeared inside. But there are 38 of you awkwardly lugging your ECW and boomerang bag, and you’re wearing clown shoes and trying not to trip and go ass over teakettle into the machinery.
You come in single file around the side, drop your ECW, strap into the webbing and stick your ear plugs in – once the four windmill-sized props are going – there’s no point in even thinking about conversation. Everyone either pulls out a book to read or buries themselves in Big Red and tries to sleep through as much of the slog as they can.
I am surrounded on all sides by extraordinary people, all weary and headed home from the ice. “Home” is all over the world, but away. We’ve had a month together, and I haven’t even begun to tap all the stories I want to hear from them. And as our hours together have waned, the stories have taken on a different nature: what it’s going to be like getting back, trying to resume what passes as “normal” life for us back wherever we’re from. The line from BladeRunner comes up more than once: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” Yes, they have, and now I have, too. I’ve spent a month trying to find the words to capture what we’ve done and where we’ve been, and I’m grateful for you having followed along on the adventure.
We’re descending into the darkness – the first real night any of us has known since December – near Christchurch when the air fills with a sudden sweetness. It’s the same sensation as you get when walking past the open door of a bakery, except that scent is one of lush verdancy. We know that when the sun rises tomorrow, we will find ourselves in a world impossibly green, impossibly alive. And it’s going to be a hell of a wakeup. Add the urban crush brought on by the World Busking Festival that Christchurch is hosting this week, and it all adds up to a bit of a shock to the system.
I’m taking a few days in NZ before continuing home, hoping to decompress and de-toastify myself a bit before Devon and the kids have to put up with me. No actual plans yet, but I’m hoping it’ll be less eventful than my last time in Christchurch. I’m also guessing that the blog will go silent for a bit, other than a new Antarcticana story I need to put up for my faithful Patreon supporters (you guys rock!). So until I next write: thank you for following along, and see you back on the other side of the dateline.