Reinvent Your Life

Marisa VanDyke, shown along the Cape Armitage Loop in Antarctica, found a new life on a new continent.
Marisa VanDyke, shown along the Cape Armitage Loop in Antarctica, found a new life on a new continent. ( )
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

The dart hit Montana. So that's where she was going.

After years of corporate monotony as a database specialist in Northern Virginia, Marisa VanDyke was ravenous for excitement. Every day was the same: wake up, go to work, eat dinner, go to the gym, go to bed. To prompt destiny, she threw a dart at a map and suddenly had something to look forward to. She told her bosses she was quitting. They didn't understand why she'd give up good pay. It was tough to tell her parents, who were happy with her stability. But VanDyke simply stepped off the first rungs of the corporate ladder.

She chucked the idea of Montana and instead drove well beyond there -- to Cooper Landing, Alaska, to be a waitress. No health insurance, no safety net, nothing. Then a friend tipped her off to a job in Antarctica.

Why not?

She applied. She got it. The woman who had spent her post-college years in a cubicle was now slinging from one planetary pole to the next.

"The first day I got there, the plane lands on an ice runway," says VanDyke, 27. "You get off and look around, and there's nothing for miles. It was negative-80 degrees with the windchill, and my first thought was, 'Oh, [bleep].' "

People start over. It feels right. It feels exhilarating and stupid and like the beginning of something great, moving from one place to another, geographically and psychologically. From enervation to ecstasy. From Virginia to Antarctica, by way of Alaska.

Next week, VanDyke returns to Antarctica's McMurdo Station for her third six-month stint as a scheduler in the station's housing department. The Herndon native gets half of the year off, time she has used to travel across the United States and New Zealand. Her vocabulary is rid of the phrase "PeopleSoft help desk, how can I help you?" She's happy she gave up life as she knew it to find something better, even if the initial step was a plunge into the dark void of doubt.

"I think that not knowing is the best way to do everything," VanDyke says. "There's no point in researching it ahead of time and trying to figure out everything. It's more fun to go and experience it. And now I'm not afraid. I'll go anywhere and do anything. And I will make it work, because what else can you do?"

Deep Change

Five years ago, Sue Skeith called her husband of 29 years from Heathrow Airport to say she was leaving him, her two grown daughters, her best friends and an outwardly perfect life she'd built for herself in the county of Dorset, England. She felt invisible, her marriage had imploded, and the resentment, fear and anger she'd sublimated manifested in a one-way ticket to Washington.

On the plane ride, she was wracked by disbelief and trepidation.

"I was tortured because I felt guilt-ridden that I'd caused so much pain," says Skeith, 57 and now living in Gaithersburg. "I am so close to my daughters. I had been this earth mother, and all the kids used to come over to the house. It was a shock to everybody that I could behave in such an out-of-character fashion."

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