(This is from a "travelogue" e-mail sent out on March 20, 2008)
Well, things are just humming along down here on the bottom of the earth. Work has been picking up, and I’m learning more about radios and other mysterious phenomena. It’s getting darker all the time, and has been pretty cold for the last week—wind chill temps have been in the neighborhood of -20F to -50F. Right now it’s about -4F and calm, so it feels like a heat wave. My dorm is about a quarter mile from my work center, and there have been a few times when it seemed like an awfully long ways. I don’t like to don ECW (extreme cold weather) gear just to walk to work, but I’ve gotten a “brain freeze” a couple of times walking down the hill into the wind without the proper insulation. The cold wind on my forehead had exactly the same effect as gulping down a half-gallon of ice cream, with the painful brain freeze effect. Even with a down parka, fur hat, and gloves, I got frozen. We have tons of ECW issued to us when we come down, so it’s my own fault if I ever get cold. The proper way to dress for really nasty weather is the “big red” parka with the hood up, fleece neck gaiter, fleece balaclava, hat, goggles, wind pants, big gloves, and bunny boots. The big red is so huge and cumbersome I try not to wear it unless I have to, and it’s a drag to have to put on all that gear just to walk from building to building.
I had a great time last night playing trivia at Scott Base (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Base). The Kiwis have a very nice station, with a cool bar and dining area for get-togethers like that. There was quite a turn-out, about seven teams of five or six each, almost all from McMurdo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMurdo_Station). My team won, and the prize was a tub of real Kiwi ice cream for each member. There are a ton of social things like that going on, which makes it a lot easier to be here. Some of the social and recreational things sound really tacky and stupid, but I usually go anyway and have a good time. There is a big bulletin board in the galley building with all the week’s activities posted on it. Last weekend it announced that there were board games being hosted in the galley, and I decided to give it a whirl. I only knew a couple of the people playing, so it was a good opportunity to get out and meet some folks. We ended up playing “Apples to Apples” until late—it was a total hoot. I even went to Bingo Night the previous weekend. I had never played bingo before (and had never really had the urge to…), but it, too was a rowdy, fun time. Maybe there is something in our harsh environment that helps people to turn seemingly mundane entertainment into a riotous adventure. Quite a few people here turn into “room hermits”, and aren’t seen much. I get to spend a ton of time in my room playing the mandolin and reading, and I feel that it’s crucial that I get out sometimes and mingle. I don’t want to turn into Smeagol.
This is my first winter contract, so this is all new to me. I’m hearing a lot of buzz about how this winter is unusual—normally the station is closed by now, and there is no possibility of leaving. This season the USAP (http://www.usap.gov) is trying an experimental extended season. Instead of having the last flight and station closing in February, they’ve added another flight in April. This has allowed the winterover crew to entertain the possibility of bailing out, an option that never existed before. Typically a winter contractor would get here in February, and the station would close shortly thereafter. Only someone with a very bad immediate reaction to the place would dare turn around and jump on the last flight out, and it was very unusual for someone to jump ship. This time, we get to sample the weather and culture for two months. All it takes is a visit to HR to void your contract and bail. They don’t make it pleasant—I believe their agreement is to fly you as far as LAX, where you are unceremoniously dumped with your ton of baggage. There is also a stipulation that you are flown out of NZ on the next available flight, so you don’t get to hang out there (which would be a bummer). There is a betting pool going on now, where you pay to draw a name, and you win if that person decides to go home early. It should be interesting; I predict that five or six people would rather have a quick flight to L.A. than six more months of this. Not me—I’m ready to hang out. I miss my dog, Conan, intensely, but he’s in good hands, and it’ll be all the sweeter to see him again.
Well, it’s time to fix the radios. See you in the next installment.