“What is it?”

Penguin about Town asks his brother, Roy.

What_Is_It

After a moment or two of silence, Roy clears his throat and, in his best ever imitation of Scotty in that ‘By Any Other Name’ episode, replies, “It’s green.”

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Preparing for the Camino

imagesThe first I had ever heard of the Camino de Santiago in Spain was in an article published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler, written by actor Andrew McCarthy about his experiences with conquering his own fears and vulnerabilities through travel. I thought, I’d like to test myself on that same road one of these days, but it wasn’t high on my priority list so I pushed it aside in favor of other, more remote, destinations like Antarctica. But – as I wrote a couple weeks ago – my friend Xina (journeytaker) recently invited me to accompany her.

While I admit I was a bit surprised that she’d decided to undertake such a journey – even if she had to do it alone –  I realized I shouldn’t be, nor should I be surprised that she came up with a destination already in the back of my mind. Xina is no shy, passive, creature. She takes risks, whether it’s convincing her husband, Dave, and daughter, Brandy, to go on some outrageous month-long canoeing expedition or walking up to a complete stranger (me) in a room full of other strangers and – after eyeing my name tag – says “Hi! I’m in the same writer’s workshop you are!” And only a couple years after that, as we sat eating breakfast in a SoCal Denny’s one day, she asked where I wanted my next vacation to be. I said Antarctica. I remember two things: the way her eyes and face lit up as she exclaimed “Me too!” and the look of abject horror on Dave’s face. He was clearly thinking “Oh god, someone who’s insane as my wife.” Brandy, who was maybe 10 at the time, said, “But Mommy, I don’t want you to go, it’s too dangerous.” So I reassured her with, “Don’t worry, when the killer penguins attack, I’ll throw myself in front of your mother so she can come home safe to you.” We didn’t get to test that promise. Xina wasn’t able to go on my Antarctica excursion, and I managed to narrowly escape those hordes of killer penguins…just barely….

So now with less than a month to go it’s time for us two crazy women to prepare. Xina lives in Southern California and has been out there hiking and walking, testing her shoes and her pack. Me, I live in Northern California, land of the never-ending drought and the onslaught of allergy season which strikes earlier and earlier every year. My attempts to get out doors have been met with misery and despair. red and watery and burning eyes, runny nose, and a sluggish river of gunk draining down the back of my throat. (Don’t worry if you should find me lifeless, looking as if I’ve been asphyxiated – it wasn’t murder, only phlegm.) I must retreat indoors to a treadmill where I’ll have to satisfy myself with adjusting the incline. (Sigh.) It’s no substitute for real hiking, but if I am to survive long enough to reach Spain, it must be done. I’m hoping that past experiences, where removing myself from my normal environment alleviates symptoms, are true in Spain. If not, do they have better antihistamines over there?

And when I get back I’m hoping to catch up with reading the last six months’ issues of Nat Geo Traveler stacked neatly (too neatly) on the end table…I’m sure I could find some other tantalizing destination to ferment in the far corners of my mind until some friend or relative says, “pssst…hey…wanna go here?”

Oh, and Brandy, that promise still goes: when the killer penguins attack us in Spain, I’ll throw myself in front of your mom.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part II)

Two years ago this week I was in Antarctica, the place of my dreams, stark and cold as it was.  This past week, I’ve watched my trip DVD a couple of times and been wanting to go back. It is a place which possesses a mystical lure that can’t be explained or understood…unless you feel it too.

This week I also took a chance and submitted a name proposal to the United States Geological Survey (specifically, the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names). Yes – you can propose names for geological features (glaciers, bays, inlets, coves, etc.) in Antarctica which do not already have one. But there are rules. And they’re very strict. I knew that when I submitted my proposal. I knew it would be rejected for violating their rules, but I did it anyway. One never knows for sure what the answer is until they ask the question.

So I proposed naming the glacier at Brown Bluff (our last stop on the frozen continent) Turtle Glacier in honor of my beloved cat.  As you can guess though, pet names are one of the big no-no’s on their rule list. But like I said, I tried it anyway. For Turtle.

It took them two days to reject it. So be it. At least I tried.

As I once saw on the internet somewhere: “cats operate on the principle that it never hurts to ask.”  So…kisses to you Turtle. I miss you.

Dance when you can, and always ask questions…even when you know the answer is no.

And now…to a replay of “Dancing in Antarctica – Part II”  I hope you enjoy.

Our first landfall on the Antarctic Peninsula was later the same morning as my first time on the ship’s treadmill.  As I walked back to my cabin, exhilarated for the first time in days, I didn’t think I could feel more light-hearted than I had a few minutes earlier. But when the door closed behind me, my iPod – which I had switched to shuffle mode – began to play “Hey, Hey, Hey” by Michael Franti & Spearhead.

I stopped to listen as the song reached its chorus: “Hey, hey, hey, no matter how life is today, there’s just one thing that I got to say, I won’t let another moment slip away.”

I began to dance. Not a metaphoric dance like on the treadmill. A real dance. I kicked off my running shoes and danced all alone there in the privacy of my cabin. Head bopping, feet tapping, arms waving, fingers snapping, hips swaying.  When the song stopped, segueing into some other tune I don’t remember – I hit reverse and danced some more.

Dancing 1 I think it was the chorus, not just the beat, that struck a chord in me.  Even as I refused to give in to the hope that my beloved pet was still alive and waiting for me, I knew there was nothing I could do. I simply had to have faith, and allow myself to do just what the song said: “not let another moment slip away.” I’d come all this distance, spent all this money. I needed to savor every minute, every second. To that end, I made another decision.

So, after breakfast, when I dressed in my fleece and parka and big ole’ waterproof boots, I put another piece of equipment in my pocket: the iPod. Following a short zodiac ride to shore there at Neko Harbour, I pulled out my iPod, put in my earbuds, and hit “play” to again hear Franti’s “Hey, Hey, Hey.”  And I danced. Yes, right there, in front of the other tourists, the ship’s crew, and…the penguins. With one colony of gentoos on my left, and another up the hill, and who knows how many penguins waddling and tobogganing past me, I danced. I didn’t care if I looked like a complete and utter fool, or if my dancing wasn’t graceful. Hey – it’s not easy dancing in knee-high insulated boots. I certainly got a lot of attention. People took pictures of me; the National Geographic videographer shot some footage. (Yes, I ended up on the final cut of the video provided to the guests – to their amusement or maybe their annoyance – who knows which).

Dancing 2 I didn’t care about any of that. My feet were on Antarctica – the mainland (peninsula), not just on one of the islands which, depending on ice conditions, is as close as some tourists get. I had made it, made my dream come true. I was happy, finally happy.

By the way, no, I’ve never seen the movie “Happy Feet.”

So I kept dancing, for a little while longer, the honking of the gentoos punctuating the musical notes, before I put away the iPod and took out my camera. There were penguins to photograph…even if they weren’t dancing.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part I)

In honor of the two-year anniversary of my Antarctic odyssey and its tremendous emotional impact on me, I’d like to repost some older entries. If you’re a new follower, I hope you enjoy. Let’s explore – our minds and our world.

It’s a bit tricky to jog on a treadmill on the deck of a moving ship.  The pitch, the roll, your stride, your rhythm. You have to anticipate, to compensate as your foot lands short when the deck pitches upward, or extend your stride when the ship pitches down into the troughs.

I’m not talking about those massive cruise ships with their massive stabilizers.  I’ve never been on one and, quite frankly, have no desire to ever go cruising with 4000 of my closest friends.  My preference is for smaller vessels, which usually advertise themselves as eco-cruisers or expedition ships, like the 367-foot long, 148 passenger National Geographic Explorer.  The Explorer, too, has stabilizers of course, but the ship is small enough for you to feel the ocean, to connect with it in a way impossible on big ships. That may not always be a good thing – barf bags anyone?  But when the swells are just right, it’s like being rocked to sleep in a hammock while the slap of the waves against the hull, the faint hum of the engines, and the cries of the trailing seabirds become your background music.

But there’s no closing your eyes, losing yourself in any music, when jogging on this treadmill. (Yes, I like to jog with my eyes closed. That’s why you’ll find me inside on a treadmill and not outside, bothered by those pesky worries about running into traffic…or off a cliff.)  But even when safely ensconced on a treadmill, there are times when I won’t, or can’t, close my eyes.  Sailing alongside the Antarctic Peninsula is one of them.  If there was ever a vote taken for best jogging scenery, I think Antarctica would win.

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Imagine yourself up on the Explorer’s Wellness Deck, just below the Bridge Deck, your feet rising and falling with the ship as it runs through the waves, gliding past dark, jagged peaks coated in striated patterns of snow scarred by avalanches. I dare you to close your eyes.

I only wish I had discovered this joy sooner than halfway through the trip.  As I wrote in an earlier posting “Healing Through Horror” I’d been very upset by leaving behind my terminally ill cat, Turtle, and it took me many days to recover my emotional stability, to truly revel in this adventure I had embarked upon.

But finally in the darkness of my cabin one night a tiny voice came to me telling me that Turtle was still alive despite my certainty that she had already passed. I dared not admit to that hope – lest I be disappointed upon returning home.  But it was enough of a spark to get me up early the next morning, grab my iPod, and get on that treadmill.  There to discover the joy I had been missing: music in my ears, Antarctica outside the window.  Despite the turmoil of my emotions, I found myself running to the rhythm of the waves, kicking my heels back, with a smile spreading across my face. It became a carefully choreographed dance between my feet, the ship, and the waves.  A trio of partners intertwined.

It may sound strange to many, but my favorite music genre is movie soundtracks. (I still remember the odd looks that admission earned me during a lunch time conversation with co-workers years ago.) There is no better music when it comes to motivating you to pick up your pace.  No, flowery rom-com theme music won’t quite cut it; heroic action scores – that’s the thing. And think of the irony of blasting the theme song from “Hawaii Five-O” while sailing past giant tabular icebergs ten times the size of your ship.

Still, that morning, the music – its daring, hero-infused notes – couldn’t have been more contradictory when it came to the scenery: Star Trek [2009], scored by Michael Giacchino.  But maybe not. What could seem as alien, as far away as outer space to the average person? Antarctica. More importantly, it fit my soaring mood.

Give the full soundtrack a listen. Especially the End Credits. See if that rise, the way the music crescendoes at the 4.5” mark, doesn’t make your feet faster, your breath quicker.  All the while surrounded by a myriad of seabirds: albatrosses, petrels, gulls, fulmars, and shearwaters, who fly past the windows, wheeling and diving, dancing – like you – with the joy of freedom in Antarctica.

Fellow Travelers (Part II)

ImageKeeping with last week’s theme of introducing you to some of the folks I’ve met on my travels, this week I’d like to introduce you to Bruce Fryxell and his Flickr pages.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/bfryxell/sets/

Bruce was one of the “Houston Nine” as I called us – the unlucky few to nearly miss catching our ship to Antarctica back in 2012. An accomplished photographer, Bruce also took the same Baja trip I just recently did, but in 2013. While Bruce doesn’t yet have his Baja photos up on Flickr, I strongly encourage you to check out his Antarctica work. And be wowed.

 

(That’s Bruce – standing – in action in the Falkland Islands.)

Chasing Shackleton

http://www.pbs.org/program/chasing-shackleton/

Just a quick and rare mid-week post to alert my readers that PBS is airing a three-part special “Chasing Shackleton” about a modern-day attempt to recreate the famous 1916 journey of Ernest Shackleton from Antarctica to South Georgia Island to effect the rescue of his stranded crew.

You can read more about “The Boss” in my earlier blog posting “A Toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton”

A fascinating look at what the typical Antarctic tourist will never experience!

A toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton: the Boss

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A year ago today, myself and the rest of the Houston Nine, along with the other passengers and crew of the National Geographic Explorer stood – cups of rum in our hands – at the grave, of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), one of the principal figures of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

ImageAfter Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911, Shackleton set out – as leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) – to become the first to cross Antarctica on foot. The mission was struck by disaster when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea and subsequently crushed, leaving the 28 men marooned with no hope of rescue. One might think this story would become forgotten as a horrible failure, or at least a lesson in the perils of polar exploration. Certainly, you’d think Shackleton would not be considered a hero. But he is.

Because no one died. Despite a 20 month ordeal of little food, injuries, conflict, depression, frostbite, below zero temperatures, and the total darkness of the Antarctic winters, every crew member of the Endurance returned home. Shackleton’s leadership abilities is credited for this miracle. Known as “The Boss,” Shackleton had a forceful personality and was also a keen judge of men. A frequently cited example is Shackleton’s division of the group once they reached the inhospitable Elephant Island -using lifeboats – about 100 miles out from Antarctica. Knowing they would never be rescued, Shackleton chose five other men to sail with him in a 20 foot open boat (which they christened the James Caird – a replica is shown below) Image800 miles to South Georgia Island where there was a whaling station at Stroemness. (It was an incredible feat of navigation.) He did not choose his right-hand man, Frank Wild, to accompany him; he left Wild in charge of the refugees on Elephant Island. Instead, he selected two of the crew’s biggest troublemakers to be part of that six man team. His reasoning: they would be under his watchful eye where their rebellious natures would not undermine the cohesiveness and survival of those left behind.

And because he never gave up: not only did the James Caird nearly capsize, they landed on the wrong side of South Georgia; they were forced to cross the treacherous mountains of the island on foot to reach Stroemness; and were repeatedly turned down or turned back by the sea ice conditions when they attempted to retrieve their men on Elephant Island. It wasn’t until the end of August, 2016, that Shackleton, with the help of Chilean sea captain Luis Pardo, that Frank Wild and the others were finally rescued.

We sailed past Elephant Island three days later. As you can see, the weather was not the best. The tall object on the right hand side is a statue dedicated to Captain Pardo.

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Shackleton later died before he could begin another journey to Antarctica, on board a ship anchored at South Georgia. Knowing that his heart truly belonged to the frozen southern ocean, his widow declared he be buried there rather than returned to England.

Shackleton’s saga is a tale oft told in books and film. ImageConsidered to be the best of the written accounts is Alfred Lansing’s 1959 “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” – a highly recommended read!

There is even a business guide which details Shackleton’s advice on how to lead people: “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.

Kenneth Branagh was the most recent to portray The Boss on film, in the 2002 A&E mini-series “Shackleton.”

(Side Note: There were reports that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were going to produce a new movie titled “Race to the South Pole” about Shackleton’s contemporaries: Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, but I’ve seen no updates on that project since 2012.)

It has become customary for visitors to South Georgia Island, and its capital of Grytviken (now a research station and museum – complete with gift shop!), to visit Shackleton’s grave and to show respect to The Boss, drinking a toast to his memory. As snow flakes drifted down upon us, we raised our cups, drank, and then let the remaining droplets of rum fall upon his grave, and that of Frank Wild – whose ashes are interred just to the right (Shackleton’s right-hand man into eternity).

There is a quote, attributed to different sources and now found on t-shirts sold at the Grytviken gift shop, which neatly sums up Shackleton’s capabilities:

“For scientific discovery, give me Scott; For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amunsend; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

I don’t usually drink rum – it’s not my favorite liquor – but today I had a sip and again toasted The Boss, and to my memories of Antarctica, to my memory of my beloved cat Turtle who nearly died while I was away, and to the hope that I can one day return to the frozen continent.