The long and winding road

So one of the reasons that I write these blogs so infrequently, is that I have a terrible short term memory. I mean, I’m not quite the dog from Up (Squirrel!), but if we just met and you told me your name, then I’ve very likely forgotten your name by the time we are done shaking hands. No, seriously. Thus, many times over the past 10 days in McMurdo, I have had a great idea for a blog post, and then an overwhelmingly laziness has spread over me (which really just means it’s Thursday, or Friday, or really any day of the week that ends in Y) and the idea is gone; thus the blogs go unwritten. This used to happen all of the time during the season, as I’d have an awesome idea while we were sweeping for meteorites (er…not that my mind isn’t on looking for meteorites 1000% of the time), and then all I’d be able to think of most nights were knock knock jokes and limericks.

Same thing happened today, as I was getting on the plane to head back into the world, I thought of the perfect quote to use for the title of this blog. Something fitting and witty and perfectly applicable to returning at the end of a long journey. Now I can think of about 10 different book or movie quotes, and none of them are the right one, nor are they as good as the first one. Maybe I shouldn’t have read “The Hunger Games” before I started the blog. I bet you think I’m exaggerating, here are subject line quotes I have just rejected: (1) Not all who wander are lost (a Tolkien quote seems a little on the nose when you’re flying into New Zealand); (2) There’s no place like home! (technically I am not home; also, I don’t look good in a dress or red shoes). (3) A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (are NASA employees even allowed to quote Chinese? Is that part of the ban?); (4) I’m leaving, on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again (and now I’m singing on the plane); (5) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (not really applicable, I’m just trying to pad my list…and pretend I’ve read Dickens); (6) Get to the Choppah (you can never have enough Arnold quotes); (7) What we have here, is a failure to communicate (okay, clearly we’ve devolved into me just writing down quotes from my favorite movies). Still, it’s nice that the one I used I can’t actually remember if it’s really a quote from something, a book or song title, or just a colloquial saying.

Note: Writing a blog where you’re trying to be funny, but not get yourself or your science program in trouble (Hi Ralphy!!) after reading a book about a post apocalyptic world with an all knowing and all seeing government is a little daunting. Doesn’t help that there’s a 3-star general on the plane (he’s in charge of the whole Air National Guard) and the NSF head of Polar Science. I think it is slightly inhibiting.

In any case, I’m sitting here on an LC-130 with 20 other folks, finally escaping from Antarctica. I spent 10 days getting to the field, 30 days in the field, and another 10 days in McMurdo (6 of those waiting to leave). It goes without saying that I’m looking forward to New Zealand, and even more to getting home to Houston. I think the top 4 things I am looking for tonight are (in no particular order): (1) That “green” smell of plant life and humidity (which I think is mostly chlorophyll); (2) darkness; (3) a good draft beer; and (4) arrrghhh…I forgot the 4th one…seriously…I may need a nap.

Note: Seeing the last Hobbit movie and using internet that runs at speeds higher than AOL will be nice, but neither of those were on my original list. Maybe I should try Ginko.

Okay, so it seems we have made excellent time, and we’re landing in 20 minutes, which is about 70 minutes early by my clock. I think the Chief who is our flight attendant is contemplating chucking me off the plane early, however. I mean, it isn’t COMPLETELY beyond the realm of possibility that there was wifi on the plane. Him watching me try to put my seat belt on for 5 minutes probably didn’t help either…I didn’t quite catch what me said but it ended in “…ing beakers”. So I guess I’ll have to continue this later, but I’ll spend the rest of this blog summarizing the last 10 days or so since Jim and I left the field. I’m guessing much of this has already been covered in the blog (what, we don’t read it either), but I’m sure my version will be much funnier, if not nearly as factual.

So we (Jim and I), were the last ones out in the field. I have to be honest, that was both very cool and very surreal. Now, obviously Johnny is nearly always the last person standing when it comes to pulling out of the field, for the obvious reason that he’s a control freak and wants everything done exactly his way (also known as the only right way). Oh, and maybe it has something to do with safety. Unfortunately for him, this year the circumstances of our pull out necessitated going through CTAM and caching a large amount of material for next year…which he was also the only person able to do that correctly. While John is a man of many many super powers (oh no, I forgot to divulge everyone’s super powers…oh well, they’re secrets are safe for now), being in two places at one time was not one.

So Johnny and Brian pulled out one day, and then the rest of us pulled out the following day on 6 twin otter flights (3 to CTAM, the other 3 taking us back to McMurdo via CTAM). If that seems like a lot of Twin Otter flights, that is because it is. The way we accomplished this was by having all three of the US Antarctic Program twin otters come to Davis Ward…at the same time. When we told the story back in McMurdo, all we got were blank stares of incredulity…or they were staring at my magnificent beard (I saw it’s 50:50). Not only that, we had the Basler stop by as well to check out if they could land our runway. So if you’re keeping track at home (and of course you should be, as there will be a test at the end), that means we had 2 twin otters on the ground and a twin otter and a basler circling overhead (this represented about 80% of the non-LC130 air power of the Antarctic program in Antarctica). I was seriously advocating that we stage a hostile takeover from McMurdo and starting running flight ops out of Davis-Ward, but the Flight Ops people’s manical laughter and “Have fun” comment made me think maybe it was a bad idea.

In any case, people started disappearing like it was a horror movie (don’t go into the woods by yourself…it isn’t a hard rule). Every time I turned around, two more people (and all of their gear) had just disappeared. Finally at the last it was just Jim and I sitting there, with a pile of gear, looking at each other going, “the last plane is coming back right?” and “You heard him say he was coming back, right?” Eventually they came back.

Getting back to McMurdo after 5 or 6 weeks in the field is a bit of a jarring experience. I mean, you go from having 6 neighbors to having a 1000 neighbors. I hesitate to call McMurdo civilization, but it sure beats living in a tent. Of course Jim and I had our priorities straight. We got back to MacTown after dinner, but we took care of the necessities in order: (1) Pizza and Coke sitting at a table with a real chair (all three of these things were important), (2) a couple of beers at the bar, (3) showers (to be clear, these happened separately), and (4) sleeping in real beds (again, this was a separate activity). You never know how good a shower is till you haven’t had one in 33 days.

The next couple of days were a bit of a whirlwind of activity. We have to take all of our gear, sort it, clean it, and return/store it. Now, we have a lot of gear, and much of it is pretty rank (try sleeping in the same sleeping bag in the same clothes for 35 days; or imagine what a stove looks like after 35 days of continuous usage without cleaning). Still, we powered through the lot of it in about 2 and a half days. Lots of thanks to the lovely ladies at the BFC (Bija, Anna, and Mari come to mind) for helping us get everything situated so quickly. And then the waiting game began.

We were all scheduled to head north on January 28th, but we arrived in McMurdo on the 20th, and were done with everything by the 23rd. Normally NSF can’t get people out of McMurdo fast enough. If there aren’t planes available, then they start trying to get creative, talking about Sling shots and Catapults (think Wiley Coyote only worse). This year we had to beg to get moved up, and most folks got rescheduled to head out on the 25th (and left on the 26th), while I stayed on my original day, and finally made it out on the 29th.

Now if you’re wondering what there is to do with yourself in McMurdo, the recreation options are fairly limited. There’s a few hiking trails, the coffee shop/wine bar, two dive bars, bad mouthing Ralph when he’s not around (you’d think that was an ANSMET only activity, but not so much), and what I believe is the worlds largest active collection of VHS tapes. These activities do start to wear a little thin, however, especially at the end of a long season where you’re just tired and you want to head home.

One sad note, Frosty Boy is no more! He hath passed away, never to be resurrected. Luckily we were able to attend the Memorial Service for Frosty Boy (there was no booze nor any fights, so it couldn’t have been a wake). No seriously, they played Taps, there was a (fake) honor guard, the flag was folded and given to the head chef, and then there were a series of speeches. There isn’t time or space to go into too much detail here, but I can give the most important things I learned about Frosty Boy in the executive summary: (1) everyone who worked on or with Frosty Boy hated that machine…with a passion; (2) Sriracha flavored frosty boy was a bad idea (this really happened); (3) and it’s the navy’s fault that Frosty Boy was in McMurdo, and it was considered old in 1987. Now, fear not that McMurdo’s “ice cream” needs are being neglected. Frosty Boy has been replaced by not one but two smaller versions of the same machine (I call them Sons of Frosty Boy), and in the first two weeks of it’s existence, they have been broken more than they have worked. The frosty boy legacy is in good hands.

Note: What doesn’t wear thin is watching bad movies with people who can’t handle them. The better I got to know Shannon over the course of the season, the more I came to respect her, but 5 minutes of her bashing Goonies undid most of that respect. Also, watching Vertical Limit (perhaps the least realistic climbing movie of all time, and that’s saying something with Sly Stallone’s Cliffhanger out there) with two Mountaineers was comedy of the highest order. Johnny’s eye just kept twitching…but I think it was like a car accident for him…he just couldn’t look away. It was nice seeing ANSMET veteran Shaun Norman’s name in the credits!

Complicating our departure from McMurdo, and complicating our recreation activity options, was the EVOLUTION (and yes, I think it always needs to be capitalized). If that sounds like a grand plan to take over the world very very slowly, it isn’t. It’s the grand name they have given for the 8 day plan to unload the one cargo ship that comes to McMurdo Station each year (there is also a fuel ship that comes later). This brings much/most of the food and materials that the station needs to survive for the next year. This year’s EVOLUTION was particularly important, since last years EVOLUTION was interrupted mid way through by a storm breaking the ice pier and almost running the ship aground (it left empty, meaning there is two years of trash to offload).

The EVOLUTION turned out to be something of a let down for me. I’m not sure what I expected, but while it was undoubtedly interesting to watch a cargo ship unload ~400 pieces of cargo over three days, it basically just translated into watching a few more trucks drive slowly around town hauling cargo containers. Probably the most interesting part of the EVOLUTION was getting to tour the only US heavy ice breaker in operation, the Polar Star. This bad boy is Coast Guard Cutter with 6 engines (3 conventional scres and 3 jet engines) and 75,000 horse power, a 5 inch thick hull, and the ability to cruise continuously through 6-7 feet of ice, and smash through up to 21 feet of ice. Go outside and look up at the eves of your two story house (for those of your with a one story house…start saving up for a real house). That’s about 21 feet. There was also the slight problem that the ice breaker didn’t quite clear out the ice pier as much as I’m guessing the cargo ship would have liked, which in the end required them ramming their way through several feet of intact ice to make it to the dock (oh to hear the radio conversation just then).

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and I finally escaped today. Even better, there were only 21 of us on the plane, and basically no cargo except our baggage, meaning we had tons of space to sit and move around (compared to coming down with 45 people and 3 pallets of cargo). I even let them bring the DVs on my flight. I mean, they asked me if it was okay (I think they were worried I might not have 4 seats to myself like I normally require), but I was feeling magnanimous so I gave the okay. I mean, the secretary of the Air Force and the Lt. General in charge of the Air National Guard (and their peeps) seemed like good people, I was happy to cut them a break. I mean, I even saw the general schlepping his own bags off the plane and across the tarmac. As a smei-professional schlepper myself, this made me happy.

Thus, I’m the last one leaving the ice. You know, except for our mountaineers (both the senior and junior varieties). Our Junior Mountaineer (he LOVES this title) is scheduled to head back into the world on February 2, and our Senior Mountaineer (not sure how much he LOVES this title) will be following him a few days later. It will be nice spending a couple of days tramping around the South Island (what? That’s what they call hiking here!), hopefully I’ll get to stop and see Shaun. I’m looking forward to driving on the wrong side of the road (I’ll definitely be channeling my inner Kevin Kleine from A Fish Called Wanda).

I can’t promise this will be the last blog post of the year, but I can promise it will be my last one. Thanks to Ralphy and Jimmy for having me down, and thanks to my hundreds and thousands of loyal fans out there for reading along and following my comings and goings…er…OUR comings and goings. Oh, Oh, I just remembered the phrase I was going to starting the effing blog post with…but to go back and change everything would take forever. I know, I’ll just end with it: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish! (Doug Adams).

– Ryan Zeigler, McMurdo, Southern Ocean, Christchurch, Thursday 1/29/2015

Image Caption 1: Panorama of the camp site as we load the last two planes! Talk about no trace camping (pay no attention to the yellow stains behind the curtain)!

Image Caption 2: This was a new one for me. Flying in “formation” with the Twin Otters on the way to CTAM (they aren’t nearly as close as they look with my lens zoomed in).

Image Caption 3: You thought I was kidding? The lounge in dorm 208 had two working VHS players as well as a working dedicated VHS rewinder…which of course we used because “Be kind, rewind”.

Image Caption 4: Want to know what a room full of gross looks like? This is a good example. That’s a 10’ x 8’ x 16’ pile of dirty sleeping bags, waiting to be laundered. Anna for scale (and for the record, I sort of promised Anna I wouldn’t use her picture in the blog, so lets no one tell her it’s here…I needed the scale).

Image Caption 5: Here’s the US Coast Guard vessel Polar Star, our only heavy ice breaker. She’s tied up to the “ice pier” which is the brown rectangle she’s, you know, tied to. An ice pier is just what it sounds like…a ~12 foot thick pier of ice (made 4 inches at a time over the Antarctic winter) with dirt on top.

Image Caption 6: This is what a years worth of cargo for an entire continent (sort of) looks like!

Image Caption 7: You have to admire a machine that has already inspired signs like this, in its second week of existence. Apparently people keep “accidentally” turning it off, causing it to melt down and need to be cleaned/serviced/yelled at to get it going again.

Image Caption 8: View into the “rising sun” (this is technically correct) as we fly home in the morning.

Image Caption 9: Many many many bits of pack ice floating around, waiting for Antarctic explorers to trap!!

Image Caption 10: An ice tongue (where a big glacier comes down off the continent and into the ocean) along our flight path back to Christchurch.

Image Caption 11: A purttty mountain and clouds as we headed north along the coast of Antarctica.

Image Caption 12: Ever wonder if a granola bar (or other inanimate object) is cooler than you? Sure you have. And now you have an answer…YES. This granola bar went to all 7 continents this year. When was the last time you left the county? (And for the record, I just ate the granola bar, so I’m even more cool than I was before.)

P.S. Xin chào đến người vợ xinh đẹp của tôi một lần nữa trong ngôn ngữ của riêng bạn! Không thể chờ đợi để nhìn thấy bạn một lần nữa chỉ trong một tuần. Safe đi trở lại Houston! Tôi yêu các bạn!