The South Pole
My mother and I would share a cabin in Antarctica but we appeared separately on the ship’s manifest because we did not want people to get the wrong idea. I first read this list of our fellow passengers from the comfort of my futon, none of their names saying, “I am the love of your life.” My futon was my only piece of furniture besides a desk, a chair, and a rowing machine on which I’d logged some four thousand miles, or roughly two-thirds the distance from my futon in Baltimore to our point of departure at the tip of South America.
No one liked my apartment or my daily schedule: get up at six and drink a pot of strong coffee, sit in my chair or pace until the fog in my head cleared and I could write a few hundred words, then go for a row, then try to kill the time till bed without drinking alcohol or reading the newspaper or talking about writing with my students or my fellow teachers in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University—activities that made the next day’s fog especially thick. Sometimes from despair or just sheer boredom I would row a second time. Rowing was itself very boring but I would play little games like trying to make the whole machine slide toward the bathroom, shortening my trip to a long hot shower. Why row? Why not jog around the ghost town of Baltimore with its abandoned factories and blocks and blocks of empty, boarded-up row houses? Perversely, rowing made me glad that I was no longer a member of a crew team and would never again have to feel my hair freeze to my head as I jerked back and forth with seven other gangly guys in a scull, its oarlocks hung with icicles.
My family worried for my health and sanity. My few friends from high school could not believe that I did not have email. They believed I had email but kept it a secret so I would not hear from them. The Macintosh Classic II on which I had been writing since the early ’90s would soon be featured at an exhibit of old and obsolete computers at the Smithsonian. I didn’t like my life either but it was the only way for me to get writing done. After several years of this I had almost finished a novel about a doomed love affair between two Scrabble prodigies when my mother called and asked what I was doing for the holidays. I had planned to spend them holed up in my apartment, cooking pasta twice, on Christmas and New Year’s Day, because my favorite restaurants would be closed. She invited me to go to Antarctica with her. The ship had a library and a little gym, she said, as if I’d need to hew to my daily schedule. This touched me and made me feel that the trip would be OK. She knew I might prefer the gym and a book or Scrabble game to the penguins or the whales or the sight of our ship crashing through solid ice.
Despite my mother’s low expectations, I made a poor companion. Our flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, was delayed for several hours and as my ten o’clock bedtime came and went and as more than one of our fellow travelers in their bright red parkas made a face on hearing that my mother would be rooming with her grown son, or heard I was a writer and asked if I’d been published, I actually suggested that we check into a hotel and make our own way to the ship. She told me to sleep on the plane and gave me Roland Huntford’s Scott and Amundsen (1979), a book about the race between Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen to be the first man to the South Pole. Amundsen had actually been sailing north to be the first man to the North Pole when he learned that Robert Peary had already been there, so he turned his ship around and headed for the south. Both men kept diaries and if Scott lost the race, arriving at the pole to find a cheeky note from Amundsen and a pile of fur mittens that he and his men desperately needed, Scott was the better writer with the better tale to tell, in part because he had been so ill-prepared. Amundsen skied as much as thirty miles a day and hauled his food and fuel with dogs and made the round trip with barely a case of frostbite. Scott brought horses that sank into the snow and motorized sledges that failed to start, none of which mattered much because he’d actually planned to have his men haul their sleds themselves. He brought skis but didn’t know how to glide efficiently and believed in using one pole instead of two. Scott hauled too little food and fuel for his final, four-man assault on the pole, then made things worse by bringing a fifth man to share the glory.
My knees raised above my head and my feet falling asleep—I could only fit in my seat on the plane by assuming the fetal position—I began to feel that Scott’s greatest mistake was keeping such a detailed diary. Walking to the cockpit and opening the door, I would rather find the pilot flying the plane than writing about our flight. I loved the book and spent much of our all-day tour of Santiago slipping away from my mother and the group to look for a copy of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys (1994), her novelization of Scott’s trip, but had to settle for The Catcher in the Rye in Spanish. On the first page, Holden’s line about his parents having “a couple of heart attacks apiece” if he were to write about his life had been changed in translation so that they each had just one attack.
We flew to Ushuaia (a city name that could redeem an otherwise disastrous Scrabble hand) at the tip of Argentina and things were looking up as my mother and I climbed aboard the MS Caledonian Star and dumped our bags in our small cabin at the waterline. I had a large dinner of steak and potatoes and the first of many iceberg lettuce salads whose limp leaves amazingly got no limper during our two weeks at sea. Because we would be out while the date turned from 12/31/99 to 1/1/00, someone at our table asked the captain how long we could survive if the Y2K computer bug destroyed the rest of the world on New Year’s Eve. “About a month,” the captain said. My own fear, as the only passenger between the ages of twenty and forty, was how I would find a date for New Year’s Eve.
I went to bed at ten with the sun high in the sky and woke the next morning when the ship rolled me up and over the wooden rail on my bunk. My mother was not there but a book was on her bunk—The Endurance by Caroline Alexander (1998), which told the story of Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, during which his ship was trapped and crushed by pack ice. My mother’s last book got me through the flight and I tried to read a page but the words made me sick.
Climbing with the stairs falling away from my feet, then rising to drive my knees into my chest, I made it to the dining room, where my first sip of coffee made me want to puke. Staggering downstairs, I met my mother coming up, and was about to ask her how long till Antarctica when I remembered that we were going to the Falkland Islands first. This was such bad news that I crawled into my sleeping bag and actually slept for a while, then spent most of the next twenty hours staggering to the bathroom or trying to rest in the brief intervals between being slammed against the side of the ship or the side of my bunk.
My mother, made of stronger stuff, spent the crossing getting to know the other passengers and taking blurry photographs of a big white bird who followed us the whole way, and letting everybody know how seasick her son was, so that a series of old men and women came and patted me on the shoulder when I finally emerged to take a sip of juice and eat my first solid food in more than a day. Also, people thought I was a professor of English Literature and a champion Scrabble player, mistakes I tried to correct the first several times, but which I then let stand against what were sure to be further embarrassing lies or truths about my life. One man introduced himself as a writer, too. He went on exotic trips that he wrote off as business expenses as they became the settings for his murder mysteries.
Our cabin had an intercom and a man came on and invited us to go ashore to New Island. My mother went. I stayed in bed until that afternoon when a woman with an English accent came on and invited us to go ashore to Carcass Island. Amanda was her name. I put on my long underwear, Gore-Tex pants and wool hat, and huge yellow boots that came up to my knees, and clomped to the ship’s gangway, where the same woman was taking people by the hand and helping them into a wildly bobbing Zodiac raft. After helping me she turned around and used my arm to step down into the boat. She had gray eyes and the best teeth I’d seen on an English person—not too crooked, almost white. Fat and red with baggy hips, we all looked like characters from a children’s TV show, and it was impossible to guess at the rest of her. She told us not to touch the penguins or take rocks from their nests, or walk inside areas fenced off with string because these were minefields laid during the Falkland Islands War—advice I took to mean not to leave the path at all. I’d never been so glad to walk on land and eagerly followed her on a three-hour hike. She had a lovely voice but narrated everything—constant description being the tour company’s policy—and I fell behind to watch some chinstrap penguins living in a minefield that offered no protection against a white bird diving and trying to pluck their fuzzy chicks from their nests.
My mother and I played Scrabble in the library. People stood around to watch and I did not disappoint, using exotic words like cwm. My mother played skua, the bird I’d seen above the rookery, but I challenged her and won because skua was not in our Scrabble dictionary. I had a sore throat and was feeling sick even though the water in my glass was level with the horizon for the first time in days. I let a ten-year-old English girl (who told me “You must be mad” for playing the word aa) take over my half of the game and went to the gym to fend off what felt like a cold.
The Endurance was the talk of the ship—apparently Caroline Alexander would be on a different ship in Antarctica when we were there—but my mother loaned her copy to someone else. Given this book or anything else to do besides lie shivering in my bunk, I may not have announced that I was jumping ship in the town of Stanley and skipping Antarctica. My mother shrugged and told me that this was absurd. I didn’t know how much I’d hurt her with this remark until she told everyone at our table that night (and every other night) that I’d wanted to jump ship and waste her ten thousand dollars. Each time she did this I hoped the English girl would reappear to say that I must be mad.
From somewhere she found me a patch of Dramamine and another copy of The Endurance, and I spent our turbulent crossing of the Drake Passage curled up with the book. After the ice trapped and crushed their ship, Shackleton and his men marched and drifted on the pack ice for several weeks, only to find the remains of the camp they’d first pitched by their sinking ship, the clockwise rotation of the pack having brought it north, too, so that Shackleton and his men would have traveled just as far by sitting still.
Amanda woke us with the news that we were in Antarctica, and a man proceeded to read the names of all the passengers who had now been to all seven continents, my mother among them. At breakfast I heard that a passenger had fallen and broken her hip. The Chilean Army had a helicopter that could fly down and rescue her for thirty thousand dollars, so she had decided to ride out the remaining ten days in bed instead of paying such a sum. My cold was now a full-blown flu and I was sorry that I’d come until I saw the terrible Elephant Island with its glacier-capped peaks rising into the clouds, and another rookery gathered around their god—a small blue bust. Who was this? Shackleton left his men on this rocky beach and sailed a twenty-foot dinghy back across the Drake in what Alexander calls “one of the greatest boat voyages of all time.” The bust turned out to be the Chilean captain who brought Shackleton back here for his men.
Before and after James Cook confirmed its existence in 1773, the idea of a great southern continent has been a blank canvas onto which people have projected their fantasies. Believing that the northern aurora borealis was caused by gas escaping from a hole at the North Pole, the U.S. Congress in 1838 voted to fund an expedition that would look for a similar hole at the bottom of the earth. The discovery by the explorer James Ross of the live volcano inside Mt. Erebus helped inspire Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931). A misanthrope back at home, I would for the next few days linger over any little sign of people that I could: a penguin sitting facing the corner of a hut where a Swedish expedition had been forced to overwinter when its ship was crushed by the ice; a sailboat in which I saw a man reading by a light; an actual souvenir store on Weinke Island on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula where two British fellows lived and sold T-shirts and postcards that got picked up twice a year from their bright red mailbox.
Our ship had two hulls and I gained a third layer of insulation as fluid filled my ears, my flu becoming a double ear infection, the sound of our bow bashing through the pack now faint as a bartender chipping ice. The last book I read before sinking into a complete stupor was Ha Jin’s Waiting. This is how it happened. I was eating breakfast with a man who was learning how to speak again after suffering a stroke. He said the difference between the English and the Americans on our ship was that the English thought a hundred miles was a long way, while the Americans thought a hundred years was a long time. Then he said he didn’t know how his wife put up with him. Feeling that he and I were kindred spirits—I may as well have been brain damaged, too, for all I contributed to conversations with my mother or our fellow passengers—I found his wife in the library, a tall, attractive woman in her late forties, and asked her how she was enjoying the cruise. She rolled her eyes, which I took to mean “seasick” and “sick of the gorgeous scenery,” then told me that “waiting” was saving her life. I did not understand—waiting to get off the ship was making me crazy—then realized she was talking about the book.
Pale, thin, wild-eyed myself, I clearly needed saving, too, and Waiting, with its picture of a long black braid on its cover, soon appeared on my bunk. Books had saved me before—The Catcher in the Rye during boarding school, or anything by Kafka during a short but grueling stint as a data entry clerk in San Francisco—but Antarctica was different. Here I would have been grateful for a computer and a typing job to take my mind off the nothingness. Ha Jin’s plot is simple: Lin, a doctor in the Chinese army, spends eighteen years trying divorce his wife so he can marry Manna, a nurse with whom he’s fallen in love, the army forbidding sexual relations between unmarried personnel. Their sacrifice is horrible—Lin and Manna watching the best years of their lives go by, Lin’s wife hoping that he will change his mind and come back to her—and perhaps meaningless, for Lin at the end has another change of heart. Now living with Manna and their two young sons, Lin visits his old wife and thinks, “He would prefer a peaceful home. What was better than a place where you could sit down comfortably, read a book, and have a good meal and an unbroken sleep?” Trapped on a rolling ship at the bottom of the earth, this was how I felt. I didn’t need to find the love of my life here or, perhaps, in Baltimore. I just needed to get back to my apartment. Drunkenly, Lin tells his old wife that Manna will die soon and he will come back to her. The cruelty of this occurs to him the next day, but now his old wife will never give up hope.
Waiting was beautiful and my flu got better, but after ten days on the ship, I had stopped drinking coffee or exercising or trying to read anything, including little wooden tiles pulled from a canvas bag. Amanda seemed never to sleep, and three or four times a day would announce a landing where we would see penguins. The most indifferent passenger would by now be familiar with the macaroni penguins with their dashing little manes; the chinstraps, whose black stripes running under their chins made them seem to be wearing helmets; the Adelies, who are just black and white; the king penguins, whose plumage makes them seem to be wearing orange bibs. Amanda said the vigilant might sometimes spot a four-foot emperor penguin floating by on an iceberg. I never did but am more than satisfied with Bainbridge’s description of Scott’s party hunting them: “I thought them peculiarly and disturbingly human, in that when we lunged forward to plunge a knife into their breasts, and missed, they waddled further off and then stopped to look back, standing there in an attitude of saintly reproachfulness. I couldn’t decide whether they were stupid or possessed of superior intelligence, and prayed it was the former.”
A few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was standing with my mother, gazing up at a series of ice ledges called “The Stairway to Heaven.” Champagne was being passed around and there were just minutes to go when Amanda took my arm and led me belowdecks and through a door marked crew only into a room with the lowest ceilings yet, and people dancing to deafening technopop. I’d wanted a New Year’s kiss, and as a kid believed that what you’re doing at the stroke of midnight determined what you would do for the year. I’ll spend this millennium dancing while trying not to put my head through a ceiling tile.
I had breakfast with the man who’d had a stroke, neither of us saying much. Heading back across the Drake with a long way to go yet, my mother asked me what I thought about our trip. I thought the trip was beautiful and wanted to answer her but could not find the words. In “The Sores,” a chapter in Harry Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (1960), three survivors of a plane crash in the Arctic begin to fight among themselves until one has been shot and one bludgeoned to death. The lone survivor walks south, starving, snow-blind, and losing the ability to pronounce the “ion” in words like ambition and salvation—abstract nouns whose meaning has perhaps also been lost to a man who knows he’s going to die.
I didn’t have the words to describe my trip, but I almost found the act. We survived the Drake Passage, walked between the land mines on Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, then got off the ship for good at a town in Argentina. Now some people were landsick—accustomed to the rolling of the ship, they became queasy just from standing on the ground. We drove to the airport and were trudging through security in our bulky red coats when I thought I saw our group reflected in a mirror. But standing behind a thick wall of glass, also wearing their red coats, were new passengers on their way to the MS Caledonian Star—a vision of ourselves as we were two weeks ago. They looked a lot like us only cleaner, fatter, happier, and my heart went out to them. What if they had a rough crossing and someone, like me, had not brought Dramamine? What if the flu, still traveling through the ship’s crew, infected them and forced them to spend most of the cruise in their bunks? Who would look after them and, if necessary, give them a book to save their lives? I pulled Waiting out of my bag. The wall had a few airholes along the side, but there was no way to slide my book into the past.