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1. First Impressions of a New Place
By Gretchen Legler
Genre: Non-fiction
Year: 1997 Category: Student Examples

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. Mount ErebusThe 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.


What 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 Exercise

Try 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." Copyright 11.24.97

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