Well, things are back to normal. I'm back at home in Cincinnati, and have already dealt with ordinary things like cleaning up cat vomit. I have been so sleep deprived that last night I slept almost 14 hours; I hope to do as well tonight. My journey home was over two days: the first, a 5 hour flight on a C17 into Christchurch, and yesterday, a 31 hour test-of-will that included four flights, a six hour layover in Auckland, customs and immigration (which went pretty well this time), and the usual cramped airline seating. Of course, it was Tuesday the whole time because I crossed the International Date Line. (My Tuesday lasted 44 hours, I think, while the Friday I lost on the way down only lasted four hours.) I did manage to score some excellent blueberry pancakes in Auckland during the layover, so have a happy memory there.
My last full day in McMurdo was spent doing a last few fun things. I slept in, and went to brunch at ten. The day was grey and blustery. None the less, a group of four of us went hiking towards Castle Rock, a large formation on top of the peninsula leading to McMurdo from Mt Erebus. The conditions were the most Antarctic-like that I have experienced. Any exposed skin was in danger of frostbite. Fortunately, the gear we are given is exactly for conditions like this, and all of us were fine. I had to turn around for "bag drag" at four, before we reached Castle Rock. After that, there was dinner, and a few games of RummiKube in the Coffee House. At ten that night, we had reserved some time in the bandroom for the last hurrah of the Long Drops, our little CREST band of lots of guitars, a bass, and a vocalist. We played all our not-quite-ready-for-prime-time hits (including our very own "MacTown Girl"), and had lots of fun doing it.
At 3AM, it was time to get ready for transport at 4AM to the Pegasus airfield for the flight out. Weather was good, the C17 was definitely on its way. After a week of weather delays, there lots of people eager to get out of Antarctica, myself and my roommate (who was supposed to leave last Thursday) included. We stood on the ice shelf for a couple hours, getting cold toes, before the plane arrived. The Prime Minister of Norway disembarked with much pomp and ceremony and cameras, there to celebrate a century since Amundsen reached the Pole in the famous Race that led to Scott's death during his return, after learning that Amundsen beat him to the Pole by a month. We watched the unloading and loading of the C17 for another hour. Finally, we embarked, and thus began my long journey home. As a final gesture of defiance from Antarctica, our plane was loaded with ice core samples that had to be kept frozen, so the temperature in the plane hovered around freezing the whole way home. We stayed in full Antarctic gear for the whole trip back to Christchurch.
McMurdo is a bit like summer camp: a small campus, lots of planned activities, hiking and biking (no swimming though). The people who sign up to work there in support of the science missions (cooks, dishwashers, janitors, mechanics, aviators, fuel handlers, etc) all have some sort of amazing back story. They are adventurers, easy going, and very accepting of each others oddities, which become quite apparent in such a cooped up spot. Not everyone can take it - I met a guy departing on the same plane who had been fired and sent from the continent. He was going loopy with the strain of the small place. Cabin fever can be brutal. All in all, I find McMurdo to be a nice break from reality, the sort of place that's nice to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Others feel the opposite way. They return every year. There are many 20 season veterans there whose job is to drive a tractor over snow. They love being there. It is absolutely incredibly beautiful in good weather. It's definitely special. Someday, I might return. But not next year. Nor the next....
As a final comment, let me mention that it was a pleasure to be somewhere that cell phones did not work. There was a not a constant background hum of ring tones, nor shouted one-sided conversations impossible to avoid. No one could forget to turn off their phone during an activity. I could tell the new arrivals. They stood forlornly by the entrance to the cafeteria with phones in hand, staring at them, trying to conjure up a few bars of signal. No such luck, and I hope none for a long time. Keep McMurdo cell free.
Thanks for coming along on this journey with me!