Rather than come home after five months working at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, I decided to stay another six months. It was hard to secure a job, but I finally got a spot as a mechanic's helper for the U.S. Antarctic Program working on snow cats, bulldozers and a fleet of Ford trucks.
The first time I opened an oil drain plug under a truck, I positioned a 55-gallon drum to catch the oil. It was a big Delta truck with 5-foot tires, so I wrestled a bit to loosen the plug. When it finally gave, a stream as thick as a garden hose shot out and hit me right in the chest. I scrambled out of the way, moved the pan under the stream, and lay there for a second in a puddle of oil.
Then I looked up at the mechanic.
"I'm hit," I said.
The winter season here is pretty different from summer. During summer, it's full daylight for five months straight, and there are about 1,200 people. Planes fly in almost daily, arriving from and departing to Christchurch, New Zealand (the main hub), to science camps around the continent and to South Pole Station, another 800 miles south.
Now, there are 240 people at McMurdo and only 66 women. We had gender-specific meetings with the doctor the other day, and he told the men to lay off the ladies because they "feel too much pressure."
"It's not hunting season, guys," he told us.
When the last plane left for the winter, most of us got off work early for a champagne toast. We crowded onto the wooden porch of the National Science Foundation "chalet" and held plastic, long-stemmed glasses in the cold. The flags of 30 nations rolled gently overhead while we made happy small talk in our parkas and sunglasses.
We cheered as the massive C-17 jet banked hard above us, rocketing past with a wobble of the wings and disappearing over the hills to the north. I pictured my bundled-up colleagues riding in the fuselage at more than 100 mph, and dreamed of the plants, children and shorts they would soon be enjoying. The next plane is expected around Aug. 20.
For now, the big excitement here is watching the sun go down. It dipped below the icy horizon for the first time at about 11 p.m. one night in late February, and it's gone down about 10 minutes earlier each day since. I saw my first star in five months last week. It will soon be dark all day, every day for about four months, the veterans say.
One of the coldest, nastiest days in weeks was the day of the marathon. Six of us finished the running race, and one woman skied it. The recreation department set up three "aid stations" with water dispensers on unattended tables. They looked surreal out there on the ice shelf, where there is nothing but flat snow as far as you can see. The water spigots quickly froze so we had to unscrew the tops to drink. Anything you spilled on your shirt turned to ice.
Because of a driving headwind for the first 10 miles, we ran in single file and took turns leading, with the rest "drafting" like Tour de France cyclists. Halfway through, our faces were crusted with ice on the left side. On the horizon to the north, we could see the shape of the Russian icebreaker hired to cut a shipping channel into our station.
Strange to think we were running on an ocean.
Marathon Tours and Travel claims to offer the only marathon on the seventh continent, but the small group of runners who finish on the Ross Ice Shelf each year prove that's not the case.
I felt great until about mile 22 when, with my coffee buzz gone and wet gloves, I just wanted to stop. The others drifted ahead, and I walked alone on the ice. Luckily, the recreation department van came by, and I got dry gloves with chemical hand warmers and a handful of Gummi Bears - enough to push me over the finish line in four hours and 20 minutes. I haven't jogged since.
I miss the fun friends I made over the summer, many of whom are sharing their exploits in New Zealand with me now via e-mail. Working as "dining room attendants" in the kitchen for five months, we passed the time with invented games like "Would You Rather?"
That meant asking each other if we'd rather do A or B. For example: "Would you rather work as a dining room attendant for six years, or be in a minimum security, white-collar prison for three?"
Everyone chose the prison sentence.
Another was, "Would you rather work as a D.A. for five years, or have a half-inch of your middle finger cut off?" The answers to that one were evenly divided. Finally, a chef shut us up by asking, "Would you rather be a D.A., or in combat in Iraq right now?"
There were other funny things like the Phil and Debbie Party, which was a party for everyone at the station named Phil or Debbie. I didn't get to go, but it sounded fun.
There were 11 films released at the annual McMurdo Film Festival (including a lot of neat time-lapse stuff and a striking short story about a creative girl who works as a pin setter at McMurdo's two-lane bowling alley built by the Navy).
That same girl, Sandwich is her name, was the brain behind "Santarctica," which included 25 of us dressed in Santa suits marauding around town. We jogged on the treadmills in the gym, played a game of shuffleboard in the bar, and swarmed atop a passing firetruck. Then we "Ho-ho-hoed" into the town Christmas party, where we posed for pictures with Santa himself. Wow.
We all felt good about the community effort to raise money for the tsunami victims. In the two weeks right after the waves struck, our little town donated more than $12,000, which we sent in a money order to AmeriCares.
But all that was part of the summer - last season.
So for now, as winter rolls in, I'm working on being a heavy-equipment mechanic. I have a long way to go.
Last week, one of the operators asked me to help bring down a giant Caterpillar 966 loader from up on the hill. I jumped in his truck, and we drove up there. I figured he would drive the loader and I'd drive the pickup, but he asked me to take the loader.
Excited, I climbed the ladder into the cab. I followed him down "the gap," a shortcut straight into town, down a steep, narrow canyon. At the bottom, riding along 8 feet above the ground, I laughed out loud at the feeling of power and the dramatic Antarctic surroundings. Then I went over a bump, and suddenly the machine's air horn was sounding - from right under my seat. I stopped the rig, heart pounding. I pulled back on the center of the steering wheel, thinking I bumped it, but it didn't budge, and the horn was constantly on.
This was the kind of horn a steam ship would have, and I was right on the edge of town, blowing it nonstop for more than a minute. I felt my cheeks blush with shame. Finally, I figured out I was standing on the horn - it's a little button near the left foot.
That's one of those lessons you remember. I guess there'll be more of those by the time that plane arrives to take us north again.
n Karl Horeis left the Nevada Appeal to work at McMurdo Station, the largest research facility on the Antarctic continent. He worked as a copy editor and as the features reporter for the Appeal.