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Antarctic Commute

By March 16, 2006 No Comments
My morning commute to work at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, takes about five minutes–on foot. The occasional traffic of bulldozers and forked loaders is light, and the view stuns me more than the cold air in my lungs. As I walk from my shared living space in a crowded dorm to the building where I work maintaining communications with scientists at remote field camps, I like to think of the landscape as a theological topography–a construct within which the mountains, the snow, the ice, and the dirt are all there to tell me something about my relationship to God and about my place in the natural world.

The largest base for scientific research in Antarctica, McMurdo Station sits just off the continent’s coast on Ross Island,


Photo of Hut Point, Antarctica, courtesy of the author.

where its wind-worn and faded sheet metal buildings are cradled between some dark, scree-covered hills. It’s a busy town of about eleven hundred people at the height of the austral summer’s science season, which runs each year during the time that temperatures can climb up to thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit. All buildings at McMurdo are numbered, and most workers wear identical issued clothing–red parkas or sturdy brown Carhartt jackets and pants.Of a continent that is ninety-eight percent snow and ice, McMurdo represents the other two percent: rock and dirt. When it’s dry–as it is most days here, in the world’s southernmost desert climate–dust puffs up from my heels, and the wind quickly carries away the pebbles that my boots cut loose from the rocky path I follow to work.

After I climb up a few steps to enter the side door of my work center in Building 165, I stand on a platform that offers me a view of the solidly frozen McMurdo Ice Shelf, smooth and white, extending for miles until it hits the continent, where the Royal Society Range juts up sharply from its edge. Jagged glacial peaks twinkle in the intensity of Antarctica’s twenty-four-hour summer sun.

The Royal Societies are a portion of the Transantarctic Mountains, which ripple across the continent for over three thousand miles from one ice edge to the other. These mountains are distinct, regal, and impressive. Snow and ice drip from their pyramid summits punctuating the morning sky, and purple shadows define their long faces.

As a lover of the mountains, I find that this scene is bittersweet. While in it is lodged more beauty than I am capable of comprehending, I also know that it is the scene of something wholly inaccessible to me. As a contract laborer, I’m indentured to my work on Ross Island, an ice-shelf away from the mountains I’d like to approach. McMurdo’s Royal Societies aren’t like the ones I was able to ride my bike into from my back door in Colorado Springs; they aren’t like the ones I could walk into from the Chamonix Valley when I spent a summer in the French Alps. They stand apart from the other mountains I’ve known not because their magnificence is unparalleled but because they are untouchable.

It’s not hard to think of this spectacle–the Royal Societies, the ice shelf, and the dirt on which I stand–in theological terms.

I thought that going to Antarctica would be as close as I could get to taking a stroll through the Garden of Eden, but at McMurdo my feet are planted firmly in a crowded, decrepit, and dusty hub of polar science. In my move to Antarctica for these six months, I hoped that I would move closer to God. But my morning commute tells me of a different reality.

Even though Antarctica is the coldest, driest, whitest–and probably still the most pristine–place on the planet, it will never be otherworldly. Each morning, my stomach drops when I see the vast white space, an ice shelf of sheer hope and desire that exists between McMurdo and the most striking mountains I have ever imagined. In this scene, I’m reminded that the space between God and me is no less than it ever has been anywhere else. It’s just that from here, I can see it more clearly.

Freelance writer Traci J. Macnamara has spent two summers and a winter working to support science at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.