An acquaintance of mine is heading to Antarctica next week, and I long to join her. It is the same longing that I feel when, in my youth, I read about some boy stealing away from home on a raft. Or, in more adult reading, an adventuresome Casanova making another conquest. I don’t mean that the longing feels the same, I mean there’s same distance between the experience that I long for and what the reality would be like.
I’ve always held high romantic notions about grand empty places, such as Antarctica or the deserts of northern Africa, notions sparked by movies such as Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure (in IMAX) or Lawrence of Arabia. In such picturesque films, even the worst of storms look absolutely inviting. Of course, how much hardship will a professional cinematographer endure just to get his shot? No, the nasty truth is better found in the written word, because to in order to write about something, you need only to survive it. Or, at the minimum, leave your journal in a place where it will be found.
Take The Worst Journey in the World for example (the title proves to be a bit of an understatement.) The book details the hair-raising, Scott-led expedition to the South Pole. It is a chronicle of death that would put SAW V to shame. Nearly everyone dies, to almost no purpose. Scott himself, along with three members of his party, did manage to reach the South Pole—but only to discover that he wasn’t, as planned, the first person to arrive there. No doubt chilled by disappointment, his party froze to death on the return trip.
This isn’t really the stuff dreams are made of. I went over to Amazon and clicked the “Surprise Me!” button for the book and, just by scanning my randomly-picked page, I found this gem: “The temperature was -47f., and I was a fool to take my hands out of my mitts to haul on the ropes…I started away…with all ten fingers frost-bitten.” Having read the book, I can tell you that—from the moment they set foot off the boat—there isn’t a page that doesn’t contain some hardship words struggle to describe; this little bit of frostbite is nothing compared to what comes later.
Another work of warning is The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence’s 784-page tome about his time in the desert during World War I. It is the book on which the movie Lawrence of Arabia is based (and, by based on, I mean, used some of the wittier lines, not necessarily in context.) While the movie does depict hardship, it is a dramatic hardship, the overcoming of which bringing about great glory. For example, the capture of Aquba. In the movie, Peter O’Toole sets out with fifty men on a terrible march across The Nefud, a flat stretch of desert referred to by the locals as “God’s Anvil” because of it’s destructive heat. Upon accomplishing this impossible task, O’Toole doubles his glory by turning back into the desert—just as the sun rises, mind you—to recover a stray member of his party. His reputation as a god-head now secure, he converts a huge army with a single speech and they over-run unsuspecting Aquba in a glorious manslaughter.
In truth, the journey is a lot less dramatic. There’s only a few men at the start of the long journey, a campaign through a string of villages along which they try to convince anyone they meet to join them. Their army is slowly raised as they make their way to the coast, without any epic battle against the heat or the desert. T.E. himself barely participates because he is clutched with fever the whole time. What he describes instead is the never-ending rashes he endures (in the worst places imaginable), and then how the constant thirst makes the rashes seem calming. To top it all off, camels reportedly smell really bad, as does everyone on them. As for crossing God’s Anvil, they apparently never went anywhere near The Nefud.
So I should know better. But when I imagine myself in Antarctica, I see myself wandering alone in the complete peace that is only possible when you are hundreds of miles from even a hint of civilization. The snow is packed hard and flat, and the sun is warm on my back. I wear the lightest of backpacks because around mid-afternoon—when I’m a little peaked—I plan to stop at a coffee shop, curl up and do a little reading. I’ll sit around until I’m bored, then refill my Arctic-grade Thermos (the one that can keep coffee warm for hours at -47f—and such temperatures aren’t really that bad, you know, once you get used to it.)
So this Antarctica of my mind doesn’t really exist. The reality is, if I went there, I would be crowded in some shelter, small and cramped because it takes a lot of fuel to warm the place, and fuel must travel a long way to get there. Outdoor tasks would be determined by lottery, with the loser earning the privilege. And, since I agree with Baron Munchausen that is better to live in a happy fantasy than a bland reality, at the same time my friend is flying around the globe for her remote adventure, I’ll be seeking my own down at the Grand Lake Theater.