Antarctica is a strange place, a very strange place, and the particular corner of Antarctica that John, Demian, Robert, and I are about to set out for might be the strangest and most alien part of it all. And thus, wedged in with excitement and perhaps a sliver of apprehension, comes a feeling of bemusement: as much as I’ve heard or read about the McMurdo Dry Valleys, I know there’s nothing that’ll quite prepare me for the sight of it. And ultimately, I’d say that I’m quite blessed to be able to do this, to visit and study a place so utterly alien to human experience.
One of my housemates, who says it’s something of a personal goal of hers to visit every country, someday, described it as not a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, but rather, something somehow even scarcer and more unique than that. I can’t really argue with her point, and I’d say that it’s true both in regards to life experiences, in general, and as it relates to geology. Perhaps it’s not exactly a place that encourages a human presence (to say the very least), but it is indeed a place for geologists to dream about: if you think of geology (in general terms) as unearthing and deciphering the information in some very, very old time capsules, then those buried capsules buried in the McMurdo Dry Valleys are especially enticing. Consider: no vegetation, virtually nothing in the way of weathering, little deformation since the end of the Ross Orogeny, virtually no destruction at the hands of humans and, perhaps most importantly, much more work remaining to be done on it, simply because of its sheer remoteness.
So perhaps it’s fitting that such a time capsule be in such a strange place. As an example, just about everybody I’ve spoken to has, upon finding out that I’m going to Antarctica, gotten excited at the prospect of me seeing penguins. I’m definitely hoping to come across them when we’re all at McMurdo Station itself, since, according to my birder friend Carlos, a decent number of people have recorded sightings of them there, but I suppose it goes to show that the McMurdo Dry Valleys are, truly, a strange place, even relative to a place as strange as Antarctica.
John was kind enough to let me know that there are indeed some springtails and lichens that make there home there, but there’s otherwise hardly even any flies there, much less penguins, and given how little water and how little life there is in this place, you might as well be on Mars. Perhaps it’s ridiculous for me to compare this to space travel, given that there’s ultimately nothing that’s quite comparable to that experience, but it’s likely the closest I’ll ever come.
When I’ve traveled long distances before, especially when I’ve gone to new or to especially remote places for long periods of time, I’ve reflected on the fact that such an adventure has always begun with something as small as a train or taxi ride from my parents’ house, or from my college dorm, the last touch of the “familiar” world I have for some time. And something similar will happen this Monday, as I leave behind, for a few months’ time, all of those who’ve supported me in this and all of those who guidance has let me come as far as I have: an Über ride will take Demian and I from our houses in Goleta to the tiny Santa Barbara Airport. And thus it will begin. –Nick