I awake in the explorer’s house. Body heavy with sleep, sated, reluctant, but I get up. I am too curious. Sun filters through the autumn colors outside the window; I slide the glass door open (the sound reminds me of my childhood) and step onto the deck. The dew on the cold wood is refreshing under my toes, its grain rigid. Outside the air is humid, thicker than on the island, rich with all the scents of forest and decay. I descend the stairs into the yard and walk the length of it, stopping at the edge of the lawn.
I stand, looking at nothing in particular, wet grass underfoot. I feel the sun warm on my bare arms, my skin so pale already – how will it be when I return? I imagine Alex or his father, happening past the window, seeing me here. A strange girl from far away, alone and motionless in the yard in blue moose-print pajama pants, boxed in, in this little urban garden. Early morning and already I am investigating the perimeter.
I linger for a few minutes, listening. Soon this will all be so distant, another world.
I go back inside, around the dinner table where, the night before, we had gathered. Placemats and melted candles lie about in disarray. I rest my hands on my belly, still swollen from too much wine, and let the night’s events flood back.
The journey there: bicycle, boat, and an hour riding slowly along a winding recreational path, drenched in foliage, underneath towering highways and industrial magnitude. The path was a haven, old vines devouring trees and forming canopies over rivers, secret ravines and ponds and hiding places. Always, yet, the sound of traffic. A few times I passed people walking along with their cameras and the only word that filled my mind was searching. I thought I sensed the slightest air of desperation in their steps and wandering gazes.
Arriving at the house, being welcomed in, family. Being in a home, showering in the hot water of a private bathroom. These are sacred things, you will learn. I was let into a bedroom to change for dinner, where (though trying to be respectful) I couldn’t help but notice the walk-in closet of parkas and polar expedition gear. Maps of Antarctica fallen to the floor. Something about it, as I stood barefoot in my towel, stirred a deep sense of kinship. Behind all our adventures, the roles we must fulfill at sea and on the land or simply out there – behind the stories, the leadership, the thing itself – behind it we are all just people. Just people who have families and loved ones and live in houses and perhaps own a few more jackets than most. We travel a great distance, but we are formed of the same fiber that unites all of humanity. I had always looked up to Alex as my expedition leader, teacher, mentor, somehow above me. Now I could see we were the same.
There was something about that dinner that took the tone of a secret meeting to me, a joyous and liberating one. The company was unparalleled, some of the most legendary of polar expedition leaders mixed with family and friends and team members, all of remarkable accomplishment. From the corners of a city through which we masquerade as full-time civilians, cautious not to speak too extensively of our professions (for the sheer length of explanation it demands), we had gathered. Safe inside the walls of this home, amidst the libraries of polar literature that lined the walls, we were free. The social ease and the sense of belonging that overtook me can only be called relief.
The deep magic of polar travel, its graceful omnipresence throughout the trajectories of one’s life, can feel harbored, contained. Where we sat at the table it flowed freely between us, pouring forth, the stories going around and around with energy and laughter, free of all inhibition. The sea, the ice, the animals, the people, the ships, the land. They are threads, luminous and pulsing with life, that connect us all.
It was a last meeting. We embraced and well-wished and compared our departure dates (three days, one week, six days). To the ends of this earth with bright eyes and high spirits and that magnetic force drawing you back, time and again. I was the only one going North; the rest would chase the sun.
Now, in the quiet light of morning, I move carefully about the house. I notice post-it notes in the kitchen reading Sisimiut, Iqaluit, Ushuaia; names I have come to known intimately, as casual on this refrigerator as they could be on mine. And the books – what a library. Explorers and anthropologists, travelers and poets, philosophers and doctors and ship-builders alike. The Arctic. The Antarctic. They circle each other, interweaving, the magnetic poles of this earth. I pull out a volume about the Idea of North. I am still poring through its pages when they wake up and find me there.
I leave the explorer’s house with a renewed sense of self, community. I am going to Baffin Island in six days, but I am not going alone. Not really. The maps of our shared experiences, our similarities, our love, fasten together like the fabric of some shimmering coat that I don, with a new confidence, and make my way into the future.