“I have lots of things to prove to myself. One is that I can live my life fearlessly.”-Oprah Winfrey.
It’s often said that a big idea will change you. That not only will it energize you, excite you and motivate you, but that it even possesses the power to alter the chemical makeup within our bodies. This really got me thinking. Because if a big idea alone has the power to do all those remarkable things, then imagine how I feel today.
I’m in the midst of carrying out my biggest idea to date. I’m setting sail for my 7th and final continent, Antarctica.
I can honestly say that I’ve never pursued anything with such intensity and determination in all my life. Just thirty-one days ago I was in Florida and now almost incomprehensibly I’m headed towards the end of the earth. But this isn’t just about travel though, that’s only half of the story. It’s deeper than that. Because not only have I been trying to make it around the world overland, but also simultaneously I’ve been trying to transform my life to one that places creativity above all else.
Neither the travel nor the transformation has been easy though and I’ve given every single ounce of myself to both, sometimes willingly and other times not so willingly.
At least a few times a day I get this sensation that runs through my body, which puts me to the verge of laughing, crying, quitting and continuing all at once.
Ramakrishna, a 19th century Indian mystic and yogi once said, “Do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond.”
This is exactly how I’ve felt and exactly what it’s taken to have made it this far. And after 857 days of travel and transformation I can unequivocally say that I’ve been a man on fire. Now I’m not saying that I’ve fully tapped into the illumination Ramakrishna spoke of, but I was going to get to Ushuaia in time for my cruise no matter what it took, end of story.
And what it took was sailing through the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Panama Canal and then finally down the eastern shoreline of the Pacific Ocean to Chile before crossing the rest of the South American continent on a series of slow and plodding buses to get to here. And to have done all that in such a tiny window of time is almost unheard of (if I may say so myself), but if I wanted to turn my big idea into reality it was the only way.
Getting to Antarctica had became my singular focus, my obsession if you will, since I stood face to face with those cornstalks in Iowa about five months ago. Outside of the 3 magical days I spent with Hayma in Melbourne, today is perhaps the sweetest one of them all. It was just a short fifteen-minute walk down Avenue Maipú from La Casa De Tere to the Puerto de Ushuaia, which is where I met up with Dolores. She’s Antarpply Expeditions’ Marketing Manager and the one I’ve been organizing the details of our exchange with. The gist of the deal is that I’ll make a film, take photos and write a few short stories in exchange for my cabin.
Dolores met me at the front gate of the tiny port and walked me aboard the MV Ushuaia an hour before the other passengers boarded so I could photograph and film the cabins while they were still clean and empty. The MV Ushuaia is a modest ship. She’s dark blue at the bottom and then a worn white around her bow. She was built in 1970 and has enough room for just 88 passengers and 40 crewmembers. At 278 feet long and 51 feet wide, she’s a bit smaller than I was expecting and technically she’s more of a research ship than a fancy cruise ship.
She isn’t full of bells and whistles because she was built for the harsh Antarctic conditions we’re sure to face over the next two weeks.
There’s a basic dining room, an observation lounge that doubles as a lecture room, and a small bar and library-gift shop combo on the main deck. The panorama deck stretches all the way around the main deck and houses orange life vessels on one side and black zodiacs on the other. The zodiacs are those cool little inflatable boats that zip across the water and we’ll use them to reach land once we get closer to the continent itself. Below the deck is the infirmary, which I’m hoping to avoid altogether.
Built originally for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ushuaia served twenty years under the name The Researcher. The NOAA used her to warn of dangerous weather, chart seas and conduct research to improve the stewardship of the environment. From what I’ve read about her it sounds like she’s been a good servant, but she does have one accident on her resume that slightly concerns me. In 2008 she hit a rock in Wilhelmina Bay in Antarctica and a Chilean Navy ship had to evacuate the 100 passengers and crew that were on board.
I’m sure we’ll be fine though. Our trip, titled The Weddell Sea Quest, has been running regularly for years and it’s scheduled, weather-wise, during the best time of the year. Antarctica is actually in the midst of their Austral summer right now so temperatures shouldn’t dip too far into the negatives like they do during its insanely cold winters. The Ushuaia’s Argentinian Captain is currently navigating us through the Beagle Channel and the plan is to head south to the South Shetland Islands, then down the Antarctica Peninsula, and then loop over to the Weddell Sea where the National Geographic-esque tabular icebergs should be wading above water and waiting for us.
The expedition team has just introduced themselves in the observation lounge. They seem like a kind-hearted, but somewhat serious group. The team is made up of six Argentinians, which all either have or are pursuing their PHD’s in marine biology. They’re all wearing blue bubble vests with the words “Expedition Team” sown into the back of them and they all have on the kind of cargo pants that have eight million tiny pockets in them. Besides keeping things in their pockets, they’ll be tasked with important things like keeping us safe, guiding us once we reach land and lecturing us about the plants and animals we’ll see. A few of the team members mentioned that they’d also be conducting research along the way as well, which gives this trip a more scientific vibe than I’d expected.
The expedition leader Julieta, first in English then Spanish, begins going over the rules onboard. She’s covering simple things like the fact that we must always wear shoes while walking around the ship, to much more serious things like what we can expect from the Drake Passage.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to cross it if we want to get to Antarctica, there’s no way around it. It’s the biological barrier where cold polar water sinks beneath the warmer northern waters. The positive is that this creates a surplus of nutrients like plankton and krill, which sustains the biodiversity of the region, but the negative is that this coming together of warm and cold waters creates the most dangerous and roughest sea to sail across in the entire world. I read that even Charles Darwin was sensationally seasick while rounding Cape Horn. Now I’m sure that the ship we’re on has evolved since then and that we’ll be moving much faster and living in far greater comfort then he did in the mid-1800s, but at a minimum, Julieta tells us that it’s going to take 36 hours to get across the passage.
One of my friends sent me a link the other day called, Crossing the Drake Passage – A Survival Guide, but once I read that rolling swells could reach as high as 12-13 meters I quickly closed the link and tried to think happy thoughts.
After Julieta finishes her briefing, the two bartenders that have been standing by begin to fill the empty champagne flutes that are lined up on top of the bar. I grab a glass with my left hand because I’ve already started working on my end of the agreement and my camera is glued to my right hand. Once every passenger has a flute in his or her hands, Julieta raises her glass towards all 60 of us and says, “to Antarctica!”
I forget to toast my glass with any of the other passengers because her words take me back in time. I think about how much of a miracle it’s been for me to actually have bartered my way onto a ship that’s currently on its way to Antarctica. I would have never been able to afford this leg of my journey and so I don’t know if it’s fully sunk in yet. Things still feel a bit surreal, like Antarpply Expeditions must have made a mistake or something and that someone onboard is going to realize it soon and turn the ship around so the Captain can drop me back off at the port.
I say this because the odds of getting to Antarctica seemed so impossible and so hopeless when I set out to go around the world 857 days ago, that I didn’t even think to include it as a continent that could even be traveled to.
And as much as I want to, it’s almost impossible to take credit for all this. I’ve got to believe that some forces are at work on my behalf that are far beyond my comprehension. But I think that that only speaks to the power that dreams and big ideas carry with them. They’re special, they just are. Doors open up, courage multiplies and adversity singles you out and tests you, but it only does so for the purpose of strengthening you. And then there’s these cosmic levelers. Now of course we can’t see them, but they’re there too. And they mysteriously get pulled at just the right moment to make sure that you stay on the right track should you have the faith to do just one thing. And that one thing is to just keep going, no matter how hard the going gets.
At times moving forward has felt damn near impossible. I’ve risked my life savings, my most important relationships, and I’ve even put my very life on the line a few times, but I’ve never stopped trying to scratch and claw my way forward. Sure, at times those attempts to keep moving forward have been excruciatingly small and I’ve even slid backwards on more than one occasion, but I’ve never stopped doing one thing, which is trying.
So as I hold the flute up to my lips, I pause to think about all the effort that’s gone into my entire journey and then I remember the night way back in Chicago when I had blindly emailed all the companies that sail to Antarctica. As I was getting ready to go to bed, I felt the sudden urge to go out that night in Chicago for a few drinks because the Cubs were in the playoffs for the first time in God knows how long. The city was so alive and electric that night and it seductively rattled up against the window of my hotel room like a charming stranger who had a bag full of my favorite candies. But I didn’t let it lure me in and instead I decided that I should stay in and stay focused and that I’d celebrate if I ever actually made it to Antarctica.
Well now is that time and this is that moment. If this sip of champagne isn’t proof that anything and everything is in fact possible then I don’t know what is.