by Traci Joan Macnamara
After I’ve clawed my way back to the top of the hill, shoes slipping with every step, I meet my just reward.
I’m running tonight in the black face mask I bought last week for $18 from the only store in McMurdo Station, Antarctica. It’s got a closure that fastens behind my head and a beak-like projection that covers my nose, a ring of holes like a colander’s over my mouth. The thing’s scary, and if I saw someone running toward me wearing it on a jogging path in the States, I’d be looking around for the nearest club-sized stick. I suppose, though, that giving in to function over fashion during the winter in Antarctica is inevitable.
Savoring the sun’s final rays that glow yellow low across the ice shelf, I head for Scott Base, the New Zealand Antarctic Station on Ross Island just about two miles up the road from McMurdo. Hilly, windy and cold, the out-and-back run is challenging and uphill, with a headwind on the way out, followed by a sharp descent just before the turnaround.
Besides the wind and the hollow thud-squeak, thud-squeak of my shoes touching down on a snowdrift that has blown across the grated dirt road, Ross Island is eerily quiet. The McMurdo population has plummeted in the past three weeks from 1,200 to an official over-winter count of 191; after saying a thousand good-byes to a rowdy summer crew of scientists and support staff, I don’t mind hearing the wind scream past my ears or feeling my lungs burn from the desert-dry air as I crest the top of the last hill before Scott Base – alone.
With each joint-jarring step down the road strewn with rock and ice, orange lights on a cluster of buildings huddled together at the edge of the sea ice grow larger, and Scott Base comes into view, twinkling in the evening light. I reach out and slap the sign marking a fork in the road before pivoting around and heading up what I’ve just descended.
After I’ve clawed my way back to the top of the hill, shoes slipping with every step, I meet my just reward. Tonight, from the highest point on the road, I face an explosion of color – pink, orange, gold, deep blue – like a blanket tucking itself around the Royal Societies, lulling the purple mountain majesty to a sound winter sleep.
In a few weeks, it will be too dark and too cold to make this run. Even the facemask, which is crusted-over with the remnants of my crystallized breath, can’t scare away an Antarctic winter.