My journey seems more like a dream every day. As I sort through photos and correspond with my new trip friends, I’ve realized that skills and habits honed over two weeks on a small ship sailing through the Antarctic Peninsula are serving me well in California’s “safer at home” lockdown.
During the first onboard meeting, on Valentine’s Day, our expedition leader stressed what she called “protection of the herd.” We were asked to inform the crew about any changes to our health. We were a small group — only 72 — but it was critical that any illness be contained, lest we all succumb. The sea took away our ability to keep our distance, and so we became avid hand washers and elbow sneezers. We availed ourselves of hand sanitizer around the ship and obediently held out our palms for an extra spritz before meals.
While our own health was important, so too was the health of the fragile environment. Before stepping foot on land, we presented our clothes for inspection and a thorough vacuuming of any seeds that might take root and compete with indigenous lichen and grass. We washed our boots in a disinfectant solution just before leaving the boat and again when we returned. We followed a line of flags set by our guides, walking sometimes in single file to avoid close contact with penguins and seals. We tried to walk mostly on rocks or snow, so as not to leave even a footprint on the land.
At first, all this vigilance was difficult. The enormity of this foreign world flooded my senses. How could I take in the thunderclap of glacial ice cracking or the cacophony of a penguin rookery and still watch where I was going? How could the tiny orange flags set by our guides compete for my gaze with the bleached bones of a whale laid out on the sand or the air ballet of the Wilson’s storm petrel? Bundled and clumsy in our fleece layers and rubber boots, we toddled around like children.
But quickly, and with guidance, these habits of caution and cleanliness became second nature. We swiftly understood that our adherence to the rules would be rewarded with pods of orcas, the briny spout and dark fluke of a humpback, and silent spans of water and ice in ten thousand shades of blue. We fell in love with the land and with each other and this made us more and more careful.
Every day, we dressed for comfort, for climate, and for action. I rotated through a few wool pullovers, a fleece, some undershirts. The addition or subtraction of layers was done without an eye to fashion. We grew adept at dressing quickly, donning base layers, mid layers, snow pants. We walked with sure steps while zipping coats, buckling life jackets.
That mix of speed and practicality got me dressed today. My dogs were happy to see me up, and we went out and walked the empty streets near my home. With fewer cars on the road and fewer planes in the air, the sky in Los Angeles was particularly clear. Mourning doves wooed each other from the treetops, and a hawk made a few lazy swoops overhead. When I returned home, I left my shoes on the stoop and washed my hands.
Since my return to the States, I’ve been walking a lot. My car stays in the driveway. Without a need to see anyone or go anywhere, I’ve begun to dress as though I’m living out of a suitcase. My wardrobe is soft and flexible and layered. It lends itself to walking and writing and curling up on the sofa for reading or napping or watching TV.
Our world changes daily. In the short span of a week, toilet paper has become a precious commodity, bookstores have shuttered, the performing arts season has ended, hospitals are filling up, medical supplies are insufficient, my kids (all kids) are out of school. I’ve been asked to stay at home for an as-yet undetermined time, and with every breath, I consider the working order of my lungs. These events are as outsize and strange as those in a dream. If my dogs started speaking tomorrow, I might not be too surprised.
I’m grateful to Antarctica for expanding my comprehension of the mysterious and incomprehensible. If I had not recently walked on snow red with algae or floated in a Zodiac alongside an iceberg the color of Windex, I might find all this more unbelievable. My trip to Antarctica provided a dual reminder of the enormity of the world and of the close proximity we all share. As I review my photos, I see my new friends, silhouetted against the sun, small as ants as they follow tiny flags across vast fields of white snow. I see them in their ship-issued red jackets sprinkled like confetti over smooth, dark beach rocks. I read their emails and imagine them hunkered down in Israel, Singapore, England, France and Argentina; in Naples, Fla., Austin and Sandia Park, N.M.
Our last night on the ship took us across the roughest part of the Drake Passage. The winds were gale force 9, the waves were 20 feet high. The ship rolled and bucked like a wild animal. In my cabin, cabinet doors flew open, hangers rattled in the closet and toiletries rolled and clattered around the room. At times, I had to hold on to the edge of my mattress to stay in the bed. I focused on breathing. I counted to four with each inhale, each exhale. I tried torelax into the upheaval. When that failed (and it did), I tried again.
The power of the water and the wind was astonishing. It was impossible not to be impressed, just as it was impossible not to admire the power of the ship and, also, the good cheer of my fellow travelers the next morning at breakfast. Some of us were a little pale. Others nibbled tentatively at toast or crackers. Some, unaffected by the storm, filled their plates with bacon and eggs. Together, we hoped for calmer waters.
Goodman is a writer in Los Angeles. Her website is tanyawardgoodman.com. Find her on Twitter: @campfiresally