December Antarctica Update
When I last wrote, it was October. I was nearing the end of an eight-day quarantine for testing positive for Covid. I had just arrived at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica after a chaotic week riding out hurricane Ian and spending a couple of weeks in Christchurch. It has been a blur since that update. My days are full. I usually leave my dorm around 6:30 in the morning for breakfast in the galley before work. I typically return to the dorm in the evening around 8:00 after the evening meal and conversations have settled. I’m generally in bed an hour or so later; before I know it, the day begins anew. Repeat this six days a week. Give yourself one day to recover before doing it again. Welcome to McMurdo!
Many describe McMurdo as a mining town combined with a college campus. In the 1950s, the United States government started building the base on the remains of an extinct volcano. The dirt is volcanic, dark brown, and the nearly constant wind lifts a fine dust that settles onto every surface inside and out. I wear sunglasses to protect my eyes from the jagged volcanic dust. Scratched corneas from blowing dust are common. I wear a stocking cap, hooded sweatshirt, and down hooded coat and gloves to protect me from the cold, and a base layer is a constant indoors or out. The sun, clouds, and wind are the three weather factors determining whether it will feel cold. It is always cold, but sometimes it feels warm when the sun is bright.
One day the sun was shining, and the wind was low. I had unzipped my parka and sweatshirt as I walked across the base. I took off my gloves. I told a friend how surprised I was by how warm it was. When we looked up the weather report, the actual temperature was minus 4 degrees F! The sun makes that much of a difference. If it is overcast with no sun and windy, then you bundle up tight. There have been days I’ve worn my full ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear and days I’ve gotten by with a sweatshirt. It is summer here, and temperatures have slowly risen since I arrived over six weeks ago. Early on, we had one day when the wind chill was -42 F. That was a cold one. A few days ago, it was 37 F and sunny. I didn’t even wear my stocking hat.
Since the station is built into the hills, I cover several miles of terrain adjustments daily as I hike between buildings for work. Janos clean all the public bathrooms on the base, so my job requires a lot of walking. After getting out of quarantine, I jumped all in with the new position. However, I could tell my body was struggling to catch up to the physical demands of the job. After a few weeks, I developed painful shin splints on my left leg. I could hardly walk and was limping everywhere I went. Finally, I went to medical. Since it is impossible with my job for me to quit walking around, they recommended physical therapy and had me switch out my composite-toe work boots for regular sneakers. I started icing three times a day and taking prescription-level Ibuprophen.
I was seeing steady improvement and was grateful for the relief. Then, one day while helping the store with beverage stocking, I pulled a cart loaded with several hundred pounds of product over my right foot, crushing two toes! I felt like such a klutz. I told my friends I was just trying to keep everything in balance. Now I was limping on both legs. The irony was rich. If I had been wearing my composite-toe boots, they would have protected my foot. In the evening, I iced my left leg then switched the ice to my right foot and repeated. The good news is that both issues are almost fully healed. I am grateful.
McMurdo is a difficult place in many ways. It is challenging physically and mentally. There are few things you have any control over. Often, it feels chaotic. Physically, aches and pains heal slower for some reason. And the climate is determined to kill you if you give it a chance.
Chaos seems to run rampant through the administration level as well. Decisions made in Denver and Washington have significant consequences for the team here, often without any input from us. Sometimes, it feels like logic is non-existent. Leadership makes some decisions because of political issues, which makes sense since they receive funding from the government, but it is confounding nonetheless. These decisions can drive you to the edge if you are not careful.
Despite this, I have chosen to guard my attitude carefully. It is possibly the only thing here I can control. I don’t control what time I show up for work, what task my supervisor gives me, or what I eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I don’t control when the hot water runs out in the shower. I don’t control if I get shin splints. I don’t control where I live or who my roommate is. (I’ve changed rooms and roommates twice.) I don’t control the Covid policy, whether I have to quarantine for five days or eight or when and where I must wear a mask. I don’t control if the wind will close down all activities, if we are in condition one, two, or three, or if fog shuts down the airfield. I don’t control if my pager goes off in the middle of the night, waking me from sleep. There is almost nothing I control except my attitude. And that, I guard with all my might.
For example, we are currently under a mask mandate, and we are required to wear masks in any area where more than one person is present unless we are eating or drinking. Currently, there are no cases of Covid on base. Yet we still wear masks. Grumbling commences. I told one friend, “They can make me wear a mask in the shower, and I will still be the happiest guy here.” Why? Because I chose to only think about positive things, things that are good and kind. I choose to be the most positive person here. It is the only thing I can control, so I guard it carefully. I wear blinders on my mind, blocking out the white noise on the peripheral.
I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the early church in Philippi. In the letter, he wrote, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” That’s good advice for working in Antarctica or living an everyday life anywhere else. We get to choose what we think about. It may be the only thing you can control. Choose wisely, my friend.
One day, I walked into our business office to get some supplies. I was grinning from ear to ear. One of the staff members asked me, “Why are you smiling?” I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I said, “I don’t know. I just chose to be happy today,” and walked out of the office. There was no particular reason to be happy. I was just happy to be here. I was delighted to walk from my dorm into work that day with the Royal Society Mountains gleaming in the Antarctic sun across the frozen Ross Sea. I was happy to feel the icy wind battering my face as I pulled my hood tighter around my stocking cap. I was pleased to have made many new friends – wonderful, kind, adventurous souls. I was happy for a hot cup of coffee in the galley. I was happy.
I love it here. It is everything I hoped it would be. It is a grand adventure full of ups and downs. Every great story has some sort of trial that the main character overcomes. It is no different here. But the people here are astounding. Truly the best part of being here is the people. With few entertainment options, I spend hours every evening hanging out with friends, hearing their stories, sharing their struggles, and sharing my love for the Father while introducing many to him. I feel so full of the love of the Father from the time I spend with him on his lap. That love overflows into many lives. That relationship with the Father is the one constant in my life. As he fills me up, I pour it out. It is such a privilege.
So, my friend, I hope this finds you full of joy, full of peace, and full of love. As the chaos of Christmas descends upon us, I hope you choose to guard your mind, to focus on the good and the kind as this world spins out of control.
I will try to get another update out soon. There is so much to tell, and I have little time to focus on sending updates. Thank you for your patience. I appreciate it.