Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Last Trailer Park on Mars

The Strange Magnificence of Marble Point Refueling Station.

After visiting field camps in the Dry Valleys, I was dropped off at the refueling station called Marble Point. On the map, there is an actual Marble Point (with real marble among the rock strata) but the Marble Point Station that exists today is closer in location to a place called Gneiss Point (gneiss being another kind of rock). Why did the military name the Gneiss Point base “Marble Point” if it’s by Gneiss Point, not Marble Point? Who knows. Maybe like some geologists, they could not decide if it’s pronounced “nice” or “neese.” (The dictionary says that “gneiss” should rhyme with rice and Zeiss and do-it-in-a-trice.)

No matter what rock you name it after, this location was used a staging depot by the Navy in the 1950s and 60s, and then in 1970s it was considered a potential site for the relocation of McMurdo Base, complete with a projected 10,000 feet of paved runway—big enough for a 747. Maybe they even were going to have a McDonald’s and a Cinemark 22, who knows. Plans were drawn up and budgets drafted, all to come to nothing.

We’ve seen this before, around AVC. Older Antelope Valley residents will remember the grand plans for Palmdale Airport and adjacent properties. Out here, we were to have replaced the too-small LAX site as the main Los Angeles regional airport. We would all get rich on the real estate boom and the twenty-buck-an-hour jobs at the terminal and from being tour guides for the Japanese vacationers wanting to experience the Mojave Desert firsthand. Of course, nope, never happened. Now the gates are locked. After the final few-days-a-week schedules to San Francisco and Las Vegas, that airport is once more shut down.

Marble Point, by contrast, still has a role to play. True, the grand McMurdo International Airport never came, but in trade it’s small but cozy, and highly functional. Just the essentials here: fuel storage tanks, a generator for electricity, a mobile-home unit to cook in and where the staff of three sleeps, and an adjacent bunk house—converted from an old walk-in freezer—for weathered-in pilots. Water comes from melted snow and the waste water such as from washing dishes (called in the recycling trade grey water) is evaporated away in a special outdoor still. No leach pits or cesspools, so the outhouse is self-service: bag it and take it to a bin for disposal. A funny note on the instruction sheet says to show your baggie of #2 to your supervisor first, to demonstrate your productivity.

Three people live here: the station manager and a cook, here for the full field season, and a fuel tech who rotates in from McMurdo on a two week cycle. Marble Point is an odd little collection of buildings in the middle of an odd landscape. When I stepped off the helicopter, I said to myself—with all affection and wonder—welcome to the last trailer park on Mars.

I said there were three people based here, but because of bad weather, this past week the base had four, not three, since they had to put up with me for four unexpected days. Of the four of us, I got the better end of the deal, since these were three fabulous human beings. I think they represent a typical cross-section of who comes down to make science happen here in Antarctica.

Take for example Tonya. I think in HR on her contract she’s called a Lead Fuel Technician, but down in the ‘hood she and all the others are just called fuelies, and on average, they are a proud and independent bunch. Tough folks: think about working outside in a climate like this all the time. Like many support staff in the polar program, even though she has what’s often called “just” a blue collar job, Tonya’s background includes a Master’s degree in geology. Among other passions she supports various sports teams, and for football her college team is Auburn—if you ask her at the right moment, she’ll confess that once upon a time she was a cheerleader. I arrived on the same flight bringing in the tivo’d copy of the Auburn-Oregon bowl game. It had played the day before over Armed Forces tv, and somebody had copied the game for her and sent it out with a delivery of food and spare parts. That night as a cozy little family we all watched the tape—the game went down to the wire, but just in the final seconds, Auburn won by a field goal. Go Tigers!

The Station Manager is Bodie from New Zealand. (Yes, he knows there is ghost town in California with that same name up past Mono Lake, and yes, he’s been there and thought it was cool.) His parents represent two former British colonies—one parent is Australian, one American—and they split the difference and made a home in a third former colony, New Zealand. Bodie was raised off the grid as we say now, eating organic food and being taught that Oreos were the work of the Devil. Being on his own or making do with simple options suits him fine. Long duty list to be stationed here. He keeps the generators going, maintains the com links with helicopter ops, drives the bulldozer, checks the weather, and even can make a darn artistic plate of lobster sushi. Like others working in the Antarctic program, he has been all over the world and has been a fisherman in Alaska as well as sold Christmas trees in Orange County.

The cook, Karen, is (in my humble opinion) the most essential person on station. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana and helped to establish a butterfly sanctuary that by delightful coincidence I will be visiting in April. While in Africa she had a pet pangolin, an animal few people even know about, let alone have touched. (It’s sort of a slinky, ant-eating armadillo. I would dearly love to see one.) She too has been all over the world but is wondering if Alaska might be the place she finally buys a little home. There’s an openness there—wide spaces, literally and socially—that she finds fits her personality. That’s true for many people who come here, be they scientists or bush pilots or even just the cafeteria workers. (It’s even true for me; I have been to Alaska three times, and the first two times I just took my ice axes and a backpack and hitchhiked around. The third time I stayed with an Inuit family on an island halfway between Siberia and Nome. No wonder Antarctica feels good to me.) One night Karen felt we should celebrate and so we had a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, including homemade hard cider. I especially liked this since I had been traveling this past Thanksgiving and in Botswana it’s not a holiday they celebrate. It felt good to be sharing this special occasion now, albeit just a few months late.

Life here is simple but not always luxurious. To avoid contaminating the frozen soil, we have to containerize all waste, from granola bar wrappers to our morning pee. Behind the pilots’ bunkhouse was a simple, open-air urinal: you stand on the steps and use the funnel, right into the pee barrel. It reminded me of when Hemingway and Picasso were together in Paris in the ‘20s. There used to be cast iron open-air facilities then, sort of a fountain surrounded by a half wall, so men could do their business in the middle of town and then go on to the next bar or cafĂ© to get ready to write the Great American Novel. Maybe these features will make a comeback, as I recently found this reference online: “In the south of England, cylindrical pissoirs which are hidden during the day, telescope out of the ground at night, for the relief of marauding drunken hordes.” I’ve not seen this myself; it may be more essential on days when Manchester United is playing. Also according to the Internet you can order a replica pissoir for your own back garden, though I suppose zoning laws may be some cause for concern. Here at Marble Point, things are direct and utilitarian. For those of you who remember the tongue sticking to the flagpole in Christmas Story, yes, this is a plastic funnel.

Karen was the one who found the penguin tracks on the beach and, during a break in the storm, took me there. We dropped down off the plateau through a rocky, snowy kind of tundra (a tundra that has soil only, no grass and not even any lichen), ending up a few miles away at the shoreline where the sea ice had pulled back a few yards to leave a moat of open water and clean, grey sand beach. We could see one lone penguin far out on the ice, bopping around and maybe wondering what those two tall ugly things were on the beach. The tracks though told us that more were around, just that we couldn’t see them. Maybe they had dived through an open lead in the ice to go fishing.

For me this intersection of sea ice and land ice, soil and snow, air and water was a magnificent landscape full of vibrating potential. Even with windchill pushing the temps down towards zero I came back the next day anyway, just to be able to linger among the twisted shapes and gorgeous colors. This shot below shows a chunk of chandeliered sea ice that has been left on the beach by a falling tide and later will be picked up and taken somewhere else once the tide comes back in. For now just call it found art, the gift today to enjoy a fabulous and all-natural sculpture. Philosophers tell us each day is gift; scenes like this easily confirm that truism.

On my return trip no penguins were visible but I did have one companion, the only bird besides penguins that makes it this deep into Antarctica. It’s called a skua (a good word to remember when playing Scrabble) and it’s a cross between a seagull and the playground bully. On its own it can and will catch fish, but it prefers to scavenge around seal kills and, further north, to chase regular gulls and try to bash them so that they vomit up their last meal, which the skua then pirates. Get too close to their nests (some of which are just a mile from the Marble Point base) and they’ll dive-bomb humans, going for the head with a very vigorous determination. This one seems indifferent to me though and didn’t mind that I sidled ever closer in order to get a full-frame shot. It did not even swoop at me, hoping I would produce a handy pile of vomit. Skuas might be useful birds to have following those drunken hordes mentioned above, the ones urinating all over the landscape while looking for the hidden, pop-up bathrooms.

Those of us past a certain age will remember “the old days,” and one aspect of that distant past was the fact that lots of things came in cans—motor oil and tomato juice and Schlitz beer for example—but those cans had to be opened with a one-two punch with a bottle opener. First you made a small hole for the air to escape then rotated the can around and made the larger hole for drinking. In 1964 in The New Yorker novelist John Updike wrote a farewell to the old cans, as pull-tops had by then begun to come in. He asked, “Who can forget the small, symmetrical thrill of those two triangular punctures, the dainty pfff, the little crest of suds that foamed eagerly in the exultation of release?” Hiking back from the ice sculpture beach I found a bit of cast-off military debris in the form of a 1950s beer can—a fun connection to my childhood. Mom did not approve of drinking but sometimes on Sunday afternoons Dad was allowed one beer (though usually one only). For me to see the hand-punched holes is to be a kid again, marveling at the elegant simplicity of the opener itself: squared off on one side for pop bottles and then with a downward curving beak—the weapon side—that could bite like a pterodactyl into any can in the pantry. We all still have them, though most people don’t know what that sharp part is for. This can reveals how essential that pointy part used to be, even in the military—lose your opener and you’ll be trying to open your beer with a bayonet.

Do we think of the military guys knocking back a six pack or two when we think of Antarctica? Probably not. Yet their service is history too. So many landscapes are like this: we have one clichĂ© (the “desert” for example) and then we have a reality that is infinitely more complex (and infinitely more interesting). In Brazil, a well-known brand of beer is called Antarctica, pronounced “ohn-urr-TEE-cuh.” Penguins are one symbol (and a popular one at that), but the visual complexity of Southern latitudes is much more interesting than just the too-easy symbol of black and white pelagic birds.

Just to prove that assertion, this next shot is from the same beach as had the penguin tracks; it may just be me, but I think these stalagmite layers of ice are way, way cool, maybe even as cool as—or even more cool—than the penguins themselves. (Maybe most people wish they were in a tropical bar in Brazil, ordering a glass of Antarctica and being nowhere near his little bay and its wrecking yard of has-been icebergs. Makes sense. But I still think this looks cool.)

After four days at Marble Point the weather lifted and helicopters began to fly. Bodie was going back to the main base too but graciously told me to go first. It may not have been gentlemanly but I accepted—since I didn’t have a toothbrush or even a clean t-shirt with me, I was ready to come back to the relative decadence of McMurdo, a place with hot showers and dry socks and where my little dorm room had about ten clean shirts waiting for me. In the afternoon the sun came out and at last I could hear the bugle calls of the cavalry coming to rescue me . . or more exactly, I could hear the whappity whap of approaching rotors, which meant the same thing.

Good bye Marble Point, hello bright lights and big cities (or at least the “city” of McMurdo Station).


  1. By the way, just a private note from Hood to Bodie: I am sorry your picture sorta didn't turn out. (I had taken a second one, but it was out of focus!) I was going for the backlit halo look, what is sometimes called in the portrait trade a key light, but messed it up completely. Next time I will do a better job....

  2. Bloody amazing people. In admiration.