Jonathan Franzen Travels to Antarctica

Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) went on a three-week expedition to Antarctica and wrote about his experience in the latest issue of The New Yorker. I’ve always liked Franzen’s depictions of life, and this piece delivers:

I’d never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. A trip that had seemed unreal to me beforehand had taken me to a place that likewise seemed unreal, albeit in a better way. Global warming may be endangering the continent’s western ice sheet, but Antarctica is still far from having melted. On either side of the Lemaire Channel were spiky black mountains, extremely tall but still not so tall as to be merely snow-covered; they were buried in wind-carved snowdrift, all the way to their peaks, with rock exposed only on the most vertical cliffs. Sheltered from wind, the water was glassy, and under a solidly gray sky it was absolutely black, pristinely black, like outer space. Amid the monochromes, the endless black and white and gray, was the jarring blue of glacial ice. No matter the shade of it—the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers—I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a color from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief. Immanuel Kant had connected the sublime with terror, but as I experienced it in Antarctica, from the safe vantage of a ship with a glass-and-brass elevator and first-rate espresso, it was more like a mixture of beauty and absurdity.

This commemoration of Ernest Shackleton on the voyage seems excessive:

There wasn’t even a good field guide to Antarctic wildlife in the Orion’s library. Instead, there were dozens of books about South Polar explorers, notably Ernest Shackleton—a figure scarcely less fetishized onboard than the Lindblad experience itself. Sewed onto the left sleeve of my company-issued orange parka was a badge with Shackleton’s portrait, commemorating the centennial of his epic open-boat voyage from Elephant Island. We were given a book about Shackleton, PowerPoint lectures about Shackleton, special tours to Shackleton-related sites, a screening of a long film about a re-creation of Shackleton’s voyage, and a chance to hike three miles of the arduous trail that Shackleton had survived at the end of it. (Late in the trip, under the gaze of our videographer, we would all be herded to the grave of Shackleton, handed shot glasses of Irish whiskey, and invited to join in a toast to him.) The message seemed to be that we, on our Lindblad, were not un-Shackletonian ourselves. Failing to feel heroic on the Orion was a recipe for loneliness.

And this encounter with an Emperor Penguin:

I fetched Captain Graser, who took one look through the scope and let out a whoop. “Ja,ja,” he said, “emperor penguin! Emperor penguin! Just like I was hoping!”

I’d already made a quiet, alienated resolution not to take a single picture on the trip. And here was an image so indelible that no camera was needed to capture it: the emperor penguin appeared to be holding a press conference. While a cluster of Adélies came up from behind it, observing like support staff, the emperor faced the press corps in a posture of calm dignity. After a while, it gave its neck a leisurely stretch. Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other. And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.

The piece reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s epic essay on his first time experiencing a cruise.

Heartbreak at the Edge of Mongolia

Ariel Levy’s piece “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is agonizing, riveting, and devastating. It’s incredibly well-written and recounts her choosing to travel to Mongolia while pregnant:

People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.” I wasn’t truly scared of anything but the Mongolian winter. The tourist season winds down in October, and by late November, when I got on the plane, the nights drop to twenty degrees below zero. But I was prepared: I’d bought snow pants big enough to fit around my convex gut and long underwear two sizes larger than I usually wear.

To be pregnant is to be in some kind of discomfort pretty much all the time. For the first few months, it was like waking up with a bad hangover every single morning but never getting to drink—I was nauseated but hungry, afflicted with a perpetual headache, and really qualified only to watch television and moan. That passed, but a week before I left for Mongolia I started feeling an ache in my abdomen that was new. “Round-ligament pain” is what I heard from everyone I knew who’d been pregnant, and what I read on every prenatal Web site: the uterus expanding to accommodate the baby, as he finally grew big enough to make me look actually pregnant, instead of just chunky. That thought comforted me on the fourteen-hour flight to Beijing, while I shifted endlessly, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt my round ligaments.

No spoilers here. Just read the whole thing.

Traversing Provence by Foot

In a blog post titled “Pilgrims in Provence,” Matt Goulding realizes his dream of vising Provence, France.

My first dreams of Provence came as a teenager, when I stumbled across a picture of a local market in one of my mom’s glossy magazines. The village was tiny and cobblestoned, dappled with a gentle light so perfect it looked like it had been painted onto the page. Everything in that picture seemed impossibly vivid: the Technicolor tomatoes and eggplants, the farmers with dirt still crusted on their fingers, the cafe on the side of the plaza with the chalkboard menu listing untold treasures du jour.

That picture drove me wild with wanderlust. I wanted to be there to smell those tomatoes, to pepper those farmers with questions, to wander back to a small country house with nothing but a dog-eared journal and an armful of ingredients. I’ve been carrying those images around in my head for the better part of two decades, waiting for the day when I could transpose them on to reality.

All of this sounds warm and fuzzy and ripe for disappointment, but the great majority of Provencal cliches exist primarily because it is exactly that fairy-tale region you imagine it to be. To paraphrase Bourdain, it’s what Martha Stewart sees when she closes her eyes.

Having spent some time in Provence (mostly in Avignon) a few years ago, this description is apt:

Avignon is the kind of town that brings Provence’s virtues into sharp focus: the old part of town, circumscribed by an ancient city wall, is home to leafy avenues, a sprawling central market housing the building blocks for historic feasts, and the types of cafés you’d sacrifice unspeakable things to have in your neighborhood back home.

On navigation:

No, your best friends in this mysterious new world are the maps you procure from the local Tabacs shops (or from excitable outdoorsmen in Avignon) and the colored lines that mark the trails at every turn: red and white for the GR 6, our path for much of our time in the Luberon, red and yellow for the long-distance GRP trail, and so on. It takes a bit of getting used to, but soon you learn that an x means you’re going the wrong way, that a 90-degree angle indicates an imminent turn, and that the absence of any color at all for more than, say, 100 meters means you’ve gone rogue.

A convincing paragraph on why it’s better to travel on foot than by car/bus:

Maybe it’s the rosé talking, but there is something undeniably magical about approaching a town on foot. You are invariably greeted by a host of intense, deeply conflicting emotions: elation (over the fact that you won’t be sleeping under a rock tonight), exhaustion (because you haven’t exercised this much in many years), hunger (because that pack is heavy and bread and cheese and sparkling wine only go so far) and, above all, wonder (at just how beautiful and poetic it can be to watch a town towering on the horizon grow closer and closer until the road between you and it has disappeared entirely).

A wonderful essay. Highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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(hat tip: @legalnomads/@MikeAchim)

 

Eric Schmidt’s Daughter on North Korea

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie has posted a lengthy account with photos of their recent trip to North Korea. Some highlights from a post titled “It might not get weirder than this”:

  • The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of “killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
  • None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
  • The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
  • Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
  • The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service.

This was my favorite highlight from her trip:

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village…

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

Sophia’s takeaways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2.  If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3.  Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Worth reading in entirety, especially for the photos. The only thing that sucks is the formatting of the post (google sites, what the heck?).

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Also worth seeing: these photos from North Korea.

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

The New York Times recently unveiled an interactive story titled “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” It’s an experiment, and is thus presented under the “projects” sub-URL of the Times. The story is about survival after an avalanche in the Cascade Mountains:

The Cascades are among the craggiest of American mountain ranges, roughly cut, as if carved with a chain saw. In summer, the gray peaks are sprinkled with glaciers. In winter, they are smothered in some of North America’s deepest snowpack.

The top of Cowboy Mountain, about 75 miles east of Seattle, rises to 5,853 feet — about half the height of the tallest Cascades, but higher than its nearest neighbors, enough to provide 360-degree views. It feels more like a long fin than a summit, a few feet wide in parts. Locals call it Cowboy Ridge.

To one side, down steep chutes, is Stevens Pass ski area, which receives about 400,000 visitors each winter. To the other, outside the ski area’s boundary to what is considered the back of Cowboy Mountain, is an unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a “powder stash,” known as Tunnel Creek.

An interactive overview of the Cascades.

An interactive overview of the Cascades.

So far, only the first part of the story is available online. And it’s a delight. From the text, to the in-line photos and videos, this is a top-notch media experiment. I highly recommend clicking through and reading/partaking.

Update (12/21/12): The whole story is now online.

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(hat tip: @KathrynSchulz)

The Cats of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum

Sally McGrane writes a wonderfully quirky piece on the cats of the Hermitage Museum, certainly the most famous museum in St. Petersburg and perhaps all of Russia (I visited it in 2007).

First, the obligatory history:

There have been cats in the palace since Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, issued a decree, in 1745, that the biggest cats, capable of catching mice, be sent immediately from Kazan to the court of her imperial majesty. Catherine the Great is thought to have favored Russian Blues as indoor palace cats; under the last Czar, the royal family’s pet cats, who were left behind in the palace, fared better than the dogs, who were taken along to Yekaterinburg with the family to their deaths. During the three-year siege of Leningrad, all of the animals in the city died—except for the rats, said to have been so numerous as to form a gray, moving mass in the streets. When the blockade was lifted, Haltunen said, as we continued our walk beneath the museum, Russians sent their cats to the city to help fight the vermin.

On the variation of the cat names:

Stepping into the little cat hospital, a cozy, cluttered space that the oldest and sickest cats call home, Haltunen greeted Irina Popovetz, one of the volunteers who looks after the cats. Then she greeted Kusya (“Oh, this one has no tail!”), Jacqueline (“Look how fat we are!”), Sofiko (“You are very old!), and Assol, a tabby named for an impoverished literary heroine who waited at the seaside for a man sailing a ship with scarlet sails to come for her.

The cats aren’t allowed in the galleries, but that hasn’t stopped them from proliferating around the Museum:

The cats themselves, who are no longer afraid of people, have a positive effect on staff morale, she said. “People here become kinder, because they have the possibility to show this kindness,” said Haltunen, as we made our way back outside, where an orange cat was asleep in the sun beneath a classical statue. “It is very good when you have the possibility to show your best qualities.”

Earlier this year, Hermitage Museum even dedicated an entire day to the cats dubbed “Day of the Hermitage Cat.” Since April 21 fell on a Saturday, this must have been the ultimate Caturday of the year.

Do you know of any other examples where a public place is inhabited by animals, but the people not only accept it, but love it?

Why Do So Many People Die Trying to Summit Mount Everest?

Grayson Schaffer’s “Take a Number” is an excellent piece in Outside Magazine, profiling the challenges climbers face in ascending Mount Everest in the modern era. As he notes, scores of people die attempting to climb the world’s highest peak not because of weather conditions, but due to other elements (overcrowding, for-profit-companies that won’t refuse the cash, etc.):

What I saw was a situation that resembled ’96 in some respects but in most ways did not. As happened back then, some of the 2012 teams lost precious time waiting in long lines in the Death Zone, above 26,000 feet, and summited too late in the day. But 2012’s victims weren’t caught by a freak, fast-moving storm. Their deaths were the result of exhaustion, climbing too slowly, ignoring serious altitude sickness, and refusing to turn around—which is to say, the steady toll of human error. Nobody was killed by the mountain’s roulette wheel of hazards such as rockfall, avalanches, and blizzards.

This matters because it points to a new status quo on Everest: the routinization of high-altitude death. By and large, the people running the show these days on the south side of Everest—the professional guides, climbing Sherpas, and Nepali officials who control permits—do an excellent job of getting climbers to the top and down again. Indeed, a week after this year’s blowup, another hundred people summited on a single bluebird day, without a single death or serious injury.

But that doesn’t mean Everest is being run rationally. There are no prerequisites for how much experience would-be climbers must have and no rules to say who can be an outfitter. Many of the best alpinists in the world still show up in Base Camp every spring. But, increasingly, so do untrained, unfit people who’ve decided to try their hand at climbing and believe that Everest is the most exciting place to start. And while some of the more established outfitters might turn them away, novices are actively courted by cut-rate start-up companies that aren’t about to refuse the cash.

Worth reading in its entirety. And if you’ve never read Jon Krakaeur’s Into Thin Air, you must put it on your reading list.