By Christopher Michel
It’s 2am on frozen Gould Bay under a bright Antarctic sun. I’m laying on the snow between two icebergs frozen solid into the bay. Just a few feet away, a group of 50 or so emperor penguins are considering who should be the first to dive into a small lead that’s opened up in the ice. They pause for good reason as these openings to the sea are prime hunting spots for Leopard Seals.
It’s cold and I’ve been on my belly for hours with my Nikon and wide-angle lens hoping to catch an emperor fly like missile from the sea.
Although I can barely feel my fingers, I couldn’t be happier. My heart is singing and I can’t help but smile.
My most treasured memories seem different than others. They don’t usually involve other people. They are almost exclusively when I am someplace very remote and very alone. I might also add they always seem to be in cold places (correlation not causation).
I’ve been to both Poles, made seven trips to Antarctica or the Arctic, explored Patagonia, the high-Himalayas, and once ventured to the edge of space in a U-2. I’m happiest in The Far Away.
Friends ask many questions about my polar obsession. Why do you like it there? What are you running from? How cold is it?
The most honest and visceral answer I can provide is that travel to The Far Away makes me feel incredibly free. In the always-on, built-world, the metaphorical hamster wheel of life seems very real.
In the Far Away, the internet doesn’t work. Nature rules and you survive at her pleasure. Rewards come from living with nature and not nearly as much from extrinsic sources.
The contract we have in the default world has many tenuous parts — fair work, fair pay, seventy years of life, safe streets, safe spaces, safe ideas. In the Far Away, you’re operating without a safety net and have to pay attention. Too close to an iceberg, and it might just flip over.
This need for deep awareness of your environment cleanses the system — itresets your brain, your senses, your reflexes. You notice so much more. You slow down (except when being chased by a Fur Seal). You consider your footfalls — do you really want to end the life of that 100,000 year old lichen colony? Is that a crevasse? Am I prepared if the weather changes? Mindfulness isn’t an app — it’s a way of life.
Yet, however dangerous The Far Away can be, it’s also equally beautiful and rewarding. Sit quietly at the North Pole and you’ll only hear the cracking of ice and the wind on your face. If you’re still, reindeer, penguins, & seals will often approach to within a few feet to check you out. Beauty is all around you — pods of whales surfacing between giant blue icebergs while lenticular clouds dance in pink Antarctic skies.
The hardest part of visiting The Far Away is that moment when you’re about 50 miles away from civilization and your phone starts to come alive, beckoning you back into the Matrix. People who attend Burning Man often talk about the difficulty of returning to the “Default World” — it’s the same idea.
The first thing you notice about returning home is how the entire world is conspiring to get your attention. The world’s best minds are in an arms race to control your eyeballs, brains, egos and wallets. It’s overwhelming, disturbing, and almost impossible to resist.
But it’s inevitable and before I know it, I’m back on social media, back consuming, back worrying about things that really don’t matter. It’s not all bad — it’s wonderful to have so many comforts of home — friends, family, fresh water, hot showers, good food, etc. So many things to appreciate.
A small ripple in the water appears and out shoots a large emperor just 2 feet away from me. We both surprise each other. She awkwardly stands up, faces me, and just stares. I can imagine her thinking, “You’re an odd looking penguin.”
Back home, Trump is all over the headlines. A new iPhone is out. The Giants are winning. Meerkat is dead; long live Houseparty.
I don’t care. I’d rather be in the Far Away with the Penguins.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot