31 July 2008

Accelerate, pt. 3

The vista I see now is changing
Uncertainty is suffocating
A hope that's never felt so grating

It is July 31 and I fail to realize that I'm slipping into hypothermia.

The air temperature is a brisk 40-ish degrees at 10 am, and the wind is fierce and piercing. I never think about wind chill.

I go out to walk, with my usual winter Clima-lite gear on; I'm accustomed to running when it's in the forties, my only concession to the cold a pair of gloves. Having forgotten to pack gloves, I have a lightly padded jacket on because of the wind. After a mile or so--walking, not running--I remove the jacket to the astonishment of the bundled denizens out with me.

Fifteen minutes in and my mood has lightened considerably as I charge around in ovals. There is ice everywhere, and the air is clear with high, swirling clouds, a most impressive sundog above me.

I have fallen in love with icebergs. I know they've long been anathema to mariners, but I find them spectacular. Like clouds, their shapes are fantastic and ever-changing, looking now like a sailboat, now like a camel. The sound and fury of their calving is literally awesome, the deep rumble of imminent separation preceding the crack of the ice breaking, and finally the splash of the chunks crashing into the water. And their color is quite phenomenal: milky blue white, with deeper ice blue veining, the water surrounding them a clear cold green blue. It is fascinating to watch the smaller bergs rock in rhythm to the swell, but even larger ones have water lines that indicate movement, where I can only imagine they've been scoured by huge storm-driven waves. As they disintegrate into bird-sized chunks, the icebergs are trailed by debris, plant matter and soil torn from the rocks that spawned them.

In the distance now, I see what looks like a fantastic skyline, the rectilinear shapes of numerous icebergs, a frozen city on the sea.

I round the corner again, into the wind. I've traveled about three miles and should make a few more circuits.

I've traveled tens of thousands of miles, and will only travel about 10,000 more. From Puerto Rico in April to the southern coast of Greenland in July. I am nearing the end of this adventure, and the grief born of endings is setting in.

An Aussie lady on the kayaking trip turned to me on the bus as we left Onundorfjordur and said, "My pastor's wife always says, 'Every misadventure is an opportunity.'" The two of us then roared with laughter. Neither of us could readily identify the opportunity, but we both knew we had a story.

I'm still sorting what of all this has been misadventure. It's all been opportunity, if one appreciates absurdity, from drowning in my own sweat and exhaustion in St. Louis--so tired that I couldn't even remember where I was--to realizing this morning that my sleepiness wasn't exhaustion, it was bone-chilling cold--so cold that I wasn't shivering which meant I was far too cold. Coming to terms with my life on a Puerto Rican beach was enlightening, but difficult. Getting warm again today was excruciating.

I've seen and met a lot of people on my travels. Some, like me, are clearly on a mission, but others...I wonder why they bother. The experience seems to bounce off them. They are truly consumers, simply consuming this as they consume everything in their path, because it is there. They don't appear to gain anything from what they are seeing or who they are speaking with. A little city like Nuuk is an opportunity to complain, to compare it unfavorably to everything they know. They miss the shy smiles of people who take the opportunity to say "Hello" to perfect strangers because they are there. They miss the real wonder of the rocks they are standing on because they are so busy trying to shove everyone else out of the way to take a snapshot to prove they were there.

When I finish walking, I head up a couple of decks to the prow of the ship. I am still warm from walking, but I pull on my jacket again, knowing that my damp clothing will soon become icy. Since I'm alone--no one else is crazy enough to brave this cold--I spend a few minutes stretching, using the ship's railing like a ballet barre, before my muscles cramp up with the chill. I am watching the vista in front of me, the surreal skyline, drawing nearer. Some of these icebergs are truly enormous, larger than my house, whipped into incredibly shapes by sea and wind. Before long an hour has passed, as I just stand there, watching the evolving horizon, the sea so glassy that I can see the fulmers' reflections in it as they skim the water.

When I get back to my room, I am disturbed to see that my face is roughly the same color as an iceberg. My extremities resist attempts at warming them, and I head to the shower. The cold water hurts, and I don't dare turn it beyond lukewarm, which is agonizingly painful on my frozen skin. My hands look like white marble; there is no indication that blood has ever flowed through them. Ten minutes in progressively warmer water and I begin to shiver, finally, and my arms break into huge aching goosebumps. My hands and the ends of my toes hurt so much I could happily scream. I am frankly amazed that I could have gotten so cold without really noticing it. Misadventure, for sure, and an opportunity to never do it again.

Finally, out of the Clima-lite and into jeans and a cashmere sweater, I am warmer, though my hands still feel icy cold. We are passing Cape Farewell, and I head out to the top of the ship to say good-bye to the pointy rocks created by glaciers and volcanics, the stark beauty that I've been absorbing through my very cold skin. In more ways than one, this has been an opportunity of a lifetime--misadventures not withstanding--all of it, everything I've done, all that I have seen, everything I've shared with others in the last 4-1/2 months.

What is next? I wonder, staring out over the water, wind blessedly cold on my no-longer numb face, watching the birds flit alongside, settling on the waves for a moment, only to take off in awkward flight again, perfectly analogous to the last few months of my life. And watching them, I see that far below, the sun is casting my solitary shadow on the water. Once again, I find myself cheerfully hanging halfway over the railing, watching the play of light and shadow in the water.

The future may be looming, but for the moment, what's next will have to wait just a little longer.

Go listen to some good music: "Accelerate" from the album Accelerate by REM.

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