For five hours I had been sitting with 71 others in the long, green,
metal tunnel of a U.S. Navy Starlifter, being carried across the ocean
from Christchurch, New Zealand to Antarctica. We were a motley
crew--scientists going down to McMurdo to study penguins, the ocean
floor, seals, the ozone hole; janitors and plumbers and electricians
going to McMurdo to get the station running for the busy summer
research season; and I was the writer, going to Antarctica to see what
I could see. I was floating, being lifted and directed toward a place
that for me was utterly new, as impossible and improbable as the moon.
So new was this place, in fact, that I had very little idea of what it
might be like, only that it would startle me, probably confuse me,
almost certainly bedazzle me.
As we passed the point of safe return and later neared the Ross ice
shelf, the pilot warned us and we all began rebundling ourselves in the
clothing we'd been issued in Christchurch the day before--huge red
parkas with fur-ruffed hoods, bear paw gauntlets, face masks, goggles,
balaclavas. Everyone was in a hurry to cover up, make sure not one bit
of skin showed. I pulled my own neck gaiter on, feeling the soft fleece
cover my chin, my nose, my cheeks, feeling comforted, safe.
We landed in that immense plane as softly as one might land in a
regular passenger plane at the runway in Anchorage, quietly, gently
setting down on that ancient ice sheet several hundred feet
thick--setting down on this continent that for so long was called Terra Australis Incognita--the unknown southern land.
plane door fell open, the wind rushed in, the cabin was immediately
cold. I peeked as well as I could around the line of people waiting to
get out and saw out the door a wave of commotion--more people in red
parkas, some in green parkas, no one with their face showing, everyone
with their bodies protected against the cold. There was noise, some
shouting; someone said, "Welcome to Antarctica." Outside the door was
only white, swirling snow and moving bodies. As I stepped out the plane
door, my baggage in hand, I tried to pay attention, tried to look up
and around me, not wanting to miss anything, but my attention, sadly,
was directed at my feet. The enormous white bunny boots I'd been
given to keep my feet warm were so ungainly that I feared I'd trip
and my first contact with Antarctica would be on my face, on the ice.
So, I grabbed the railing, directed my oversized feet down the stairs,
and stepped onto the ice.
All I saw then was white--white, white, white, all around. And flat.
Around the edges of the white the sky was pink and peach and gold. The
pale spring sun of Antarctica hung along the horizon. It was as if we
were all moving in a cold fog. The air was flinty, dry like metal.
There was no smell, only the feeling of my nostrils burning with the
intense cold. We drifted, somehow, onto a big red bus called Ivan the
Terra Bus, and lumbered slowly over the ice toward McMurdo Station. In
the bus, with the heater on, we all began to peel back the layers of
our clothes--taking off hats, neck gaiters, gloves and mittens. The
windows frosted over. I leaned across and scraped a hole in the thick
white frost and peered out onto the moon-like landscape rolling by. In
the distance I saw the volcano, Erebus, with its plume of smoke and
steam lazily rising into the gold sky.
AnalysisWhat I tried to do in this 500-word piece is capture
just a few of my first impressions of a brand new place. I tried to pay
attention to details, especially the weather, the cold, the color of
the sky, the feel of the plane touching ground, and my feelings about
this adventure. The primary feeling I think I captured is one of awe
and confusion. I said that the landscape was "moon-like." I am relating
it there to another otherworldly place I've never been.
Writing ExerciseTry writing about your very first impressions
of a place. It doesn't have to be a far away place, or an exotic
place. It could be your neighbor's house, or a new schoolroom, or a
part of Alaska that was new to you once. Try to pay close attention,
when you write, to details that are sensory--smell, taste, touch,
hearing, and of course sight. Try to include something from each of the
five senses in your piece of writing. Also include a feeling, something
that comes from the inside (fear, confusion, joy)--but don't use any
of those "feeling" words. Include other people (or the lack of other
people)--you may want to write about what they are doing or saying.
Finally, somewhere in your piece, relate this place or your feelings
about it to another place you have been, want to go to, or have
fantasized about. Write no more than 250 words. What is the primary
feeling that you have conveyed?
Illustration above is "Mt. Erebus and the Ice Ridge."