thanksgiving aboard the icebound cruise ship.
this past weekend, mcmurdo station celebrated thanksgiving, that splendid profusion of food, football and handprint-shaped turkey decorations that commemorates the saving of the first settlers' collective ass by the generous native peoples of the eastern seaboard.
thursday and friday were normal workdays, but everyone (except for the poor galley workers, who were slaving over hot cauldrons) received saturday off, and a stupendous meal was served in the dining hall. because the entire population cannot fit into the dining hall at once, thanksgiving dinner was served in three increments -- at 3:00, 5:00, and 7:00 pm. people signed up for one of these time slots, and were also given opportunities to sign up to volunteer in the kitchen. because of my odd shuttle schedule, I had three days off in a row -- friday through sunday -- and, feeling quite blessed, I volunteered for two hours on friday and one hour on saturday. the chefs put me to work wiping down serving areas with soapy water and disinfectant, peeling and chopping a fifty-pound bag of red onions (the ventilation system in the kitchen is so fierce I only teared up once), and washing dishes in the pass-through window with a hand-held spray hose while wearing a full-length rubber apron and elbow-length rubber gloves. (apparently I look good in green rubber.) there are tricks to washing dishes in an industrial galley setting. when the dishes start to accumulate, you spray a little water into the side of the stack, which gets in between and loosens up the food until you can get to it. (this is a good thing to do when people bring back crusty dishes that have been in their dorm rooms for several weeks.) also, you have to angle the spray in the sink so that it gets the food off, but doesn't spray (and thereby anger) the person standing across from you. and due to the vibration of Big Bertha (the dishwashing machine), stacks of trays placed near its opening will 'walk' off and fall on the floor, so trays should be put in as they stack up.
but back to thanksgiving dinner. the food was amazing. most of what we eat down here is pretty good anyway, but the galley outdid themselves for the holiday -- turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, fruit-and-cheese platters, several kinds of fresh-baked pies and gallons of real whipped cream, and complex salads. there were bottles of wine on every table, and real tablecloths! it was strange, and yet lovely, to see everyone out of their work clothes and dressed up for the occasion. I gorged myself silly, to the point of not being able to breathe, rested, and then gorged some more.
sunday, the day after the celebration, was a truly stunning day -- about 25F, sunny and clear, with no wind. four of us decided that we ought to try to negate the effect of what we'd eaten the day before, so we set out to hike Castle Rock -- a there-and-back to a rock formation 3.6 miles from mcmurdo (see it in the background, right). the trail also offers spectacular views of Mr. Erebus, an active volcano and one of only a few in the world that actually has a permanent pool of molten lava in its bowl. most days, there is a plume of steam rising lazily from Erebus' peak, but yesterday it was steam-free.
we filled our water bottles, slathered on the sunscreen, donned long underwear and windproof outer layers, grabbed some trays from the dining hall for sledding, and checked out with the firehouse. (in the event that your party doesn't check back in on time, the firehouse sends out a search-and-rescue team. it is considered bad form, and is quite embarrassing to boot, to forget to check in and have them come after you for nothing.) we also had one of our party (a production cook in the galley) make us leftover filet mignon / bell pepper / provolone sandwiches for our lunch. and we were off.
we followed the well-flagged trail up and out of town and toward the rock, following the footprints of hikers who had gone out earlier. the first couple of miles were uphill, and a light powdering of fresh snow had fallen, which made for gorgeous views (see photo, left) but difficult hiking. I found myself slipping and sliding in my snow boots, and wished I had a trekking pole (or, at the very least, a didgeridoo) for stability.
a few miles in, we came upon an 'apple' (so named for its shape and color), one of the wilderness survival structures placed along the trail in which hikers can rest, warm up, and (if necessary) eat emergency rations or use the telephone. there was a sort of guest book in the apple, in which people had left comments such as 'glad to be not working in the galley today. kevin and keith.'
outside the apple was a yellow flag, which was surrounded by patches of yellow snow. because antarctica is so sunny and dry, dehydration is a constant threat, and hikers are encouraged to drink insane amounts of water, 'copious and clear' urine being the objective. judging by the fact that I could see exactly where previous hikers had voided their bladders, there was lots of dehydration going on.
here is our hiking party. from left: zeke, the production cook from maryland; jessica, the general assistant from virginia; me; and jeff, the dining assistant from somewhere in florida, I think. we all met during deployment.
once we got to the rock (which, of course, needs to be spoken in a Sean Connery voice), we climbed up it and relaxed for a while. jeff suggested we do a 'christian rock band' photo, based on his observation that every christian rock band seems to have an album cover featuring the members of the band standing very seriously and looking out in different directions. quite an observation for a jew. here it is:
in addition to the fact that one can hike toward an active volcano and pee at a communal flagpole, one of the craziest things about Life at McMurdo is the seemingly boundless cornucopia (notice use of thanksgiving-themed metaphor) of extracurricular activities offered on station. today I was standing on Highway 1, the main hallway in Building 155, along which are posted notices and sign-up sheets for all sorts of goings-on. I found my eyes glazing over at the sheer number of offerings. there were fliers for:
requests for volunteer shuttle drivers for the weekly 'American night' at the Kiwi base
electrical skills 101
ross island yacht club (whatever that is)
guts 'n' butts
a lecture on solar heating and energy
independent-film screening at the coffeehouse (this week: Japanese Story)
stitch 'n' bitch
a presentation on vintage tractors
live music at gallagher's pub
a tour of Scott's Discovery Hut (a historical site about .5 mile from town)
the annual Turkey Trot fun run
disc golf tournament (I have no idea what disc golf is)
christmas choir practice
a travelogue of one woman's trip to the Himalayas, and
annual firehouse expo.
keep in mind: this is one week's worth of recreation options. during the holidays, yes, but still, good god.
someone compared life at mcmurdo to being on a cruise ship, where there are activities at every turn -- shuffleboard, ballroom dancing, and other things that white people like. it's sometimes overwhelming, and one feels an urgent desire to withdraw and lock oneself in one's room with an iPod and a plate of brownies.
work is going really well. I've been driving Ivan more these days, and just last sunday I had to drive him through Derelict Junction, which is a kind of parking lot / courtyard in the center of town, while taking a load of Air National Guard guys to their dorm. I momentarily interrupted the rugby practice going on there, and several players stood back and watched, wonderstruck, as I skilfully maneuvered the orange beastie next to the ANG dorm, past the parked trucks and a skua that refused to get up, and back out. or maybe they were just peeved that I interrupted the practice. hmm.
my new work schedule, which started monday -- 7:00 am to 7:00 pm -- is indescribably lovely compared to the previous 5:30 am start time. I can actually socialize, read, knit, or whatever past 8:30 pm! woo hooooo! last night I went to the stitch 'n' bitch, to the coffeehouse, and then to a birthday party at gallagher's (the nonsmoking pub). out of control.
it's time to fold my laundry.