Some children never want to leave their parents’ side and will cry when left with the babysitter. The opposite was the case with me, as I seemingly had wanderlust programmed into my DNA. In what I’ve been told was a somewhat common occurrence, I disappeared one day when I was 3-years-old. This particular time, my family had traveled from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to visit some friends who had a child the same age as me. One evening after dinner, the adults’ conversation abruptly stopped when it became apparent the house seemed too silent where energetic toddlers should have been running around.
Someone got up to check the next room where we were playing. It was empty. After searching the house, they rushed outside to continue looking for the missing kids. Anxious moments later, they found us several blocks away and wanted to know where we were going. Like a Super Bowl commercial, my response was, “We’re going to Disneyland.” A common theme in my youth carried over into my adulthood, as I always remained excited to experience, what was to me, the unknown. Still, I know that my travel bug infection is nothing unique.
Many people envision diving in crystal clear Fijian waters or trading romantic gazes while sipping wine in a Parisian café. Despite those dreams, less than third of the United States population could board an airplane simply bound for next-door-neighbor Canada, because they don’t own a passport. One of the main discouraging factors preventing Americans from international travel is the overall expense. My own middle class background didn’t present me the luxury of receiving a plane ticket after high school graduation to bounce around Europe for a summer. Instead, I took a job at the local grocery store, stocking groceries. To chase my daydreams, I would have to get creative and a little lucky.
After spending about a decade in the construction industry, I traveled a little when I could afford to but was still craving adventure. The more remote, the more fascination it held in my mind. My curiosity peaked one day when I learned that a former coworker had recently returned from a job out of the country. Only this job wasn’t just overseas, it was as far off the flagged route as one could get. It was in Antarctica. I had to learn more about it and immediately called to get the inside scoop. The more my friend explained, the more the wheels in my head started turning. Within days I was pecking out online job applications, though I knew I would have plenty of competition due to the lingering recession.
Weeks later, a supervisor from the National Science Foundation’s polar services contracting company called me for an interview. When we finally spoke, he asked if I thought I could handle working full day shifts in negative fifty-degree temperatures. I said I had never felt anything that cold but had worked outside in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains during winter months. He explained that I would also have to go through an array of medical and dental testing because the nearest hospital, from where I would eventually be stationed, was in New Zealand more than an eight-hour flight away. Days later, doctors were drawing my blood, hooking wires up to my chest before a treadmill spin, and looking at my heart with an ultrasound monitor. After I passed all of the requisite tests, the contractor formally offered me a job at the bottom the Earth.
In 1911, no man had ever set foot at the planets’ southern most location, The South Pole. Nearly 100 short years later, The United States operates a 65,000 square foot scientific research base complete with sauna, gymnasium, library and small greenhouse. Each austral summer about 250 assorted workers comprising of carpenters, cooks, engineers, scientists and more call Amundsen-Scott Station home.
I felt very honored to have been selected to put the finishing exterior protection on the building named after the first explorers to reach the location. Only rather than risk losing life (as all of Scott’s party did on the return voyage) or limb due to the bitter cold, I stepped out of an Air Force cargo plane and walked a few hundred feet into a heated building. Not only was I able to scratch my itch for adventure without breaking my bank account, I was also doing a very small part to promote the way in which humans understand their universe and their place within it.
Over the next two weeks in this blog space, I will look at the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the first humans reaching the South Pole, the space age scientific research that is occurring there right now, and my own experiences on “The Ice.”