One cannot travel to Antarctica without immediately thinking about those who came before. And one name in particular always stands out: Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose adventures through the ice are some of the more iconic expeditions of all time. Andrew Evans reflects on retracing Shackleton’s footsteps, and the nature of exploration now.
Maybe I’ve mentioned him a few times.
I don’t want to be presumptuous, although merely mentioning his name in my blog already presumes too much.
People keep publishing books about him every year; keep retelling the story over and over, each new author trying to keep the echo of the first storytelling alive. And it is an amazing story, the only one like it.
On board the National Geographic Explorer, I reread the entire unabridged version of South, the original story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s journey in his own words, without annotations or introductions or retrospective retellings. Now that I have been to each of these places, his words mean more to me. I had a mind full of backdrops for each new paragraph. In some minute way, I can now understand his frustration with the way ice behaves.
Sometimes I wonder how he would feel if he knew that his epic near-death experience through ice floes and lifeless islands and across a tormented open ocean is now the most well-waged tourist path in Antarctica. That nowadays, people pay a dear sum of cash to trace his journey in person, making their pilgrimage while being fed on bountiful Filipino buffets and sleeping under goose-down duvets in warm, dry cabins fitted with sleek Scandinavian plumbing. A white picket fence surrounds his grave on South Georgia Island, a stony grave littered with tacky wreaths of red plastic poppies and drenched in rum splashed from recyclable paper cups of tourists like myself. Nearby lie sailors who died from typhoid and whalers who died from the cold, and a single Argentine casualty from the Falklands conflict.
Gentle snow fell while I was there and a ring of mountains reminded me how cut off I was from the rest of the world. A half-mile from his final resting place, somebody was jangling keys and opening the gift shop in anticipation, knowing that even stubborn, anti-commercialist me would eventually wander in and inquire about the T-shirt with his name on it or else see the limited edition South Georgia stamps emblazoned with Hurley’s photographs and simply buy them to take with me because I can. We have turned him into an enterprise. Even his grandson makes a living in Ushuaia selling his watercolors signed with his famous last name.
Part of me wants to scream, “Leave him alone!” but I know that I am part of the circus. I am already guilty of introducing him into my journey, comparing our respective packing lists, and even going so far as to insinuate that I was also some kind of explorer.
But I’m not. A Scottish sea captain once told me (after inviting me to sail with him to Greenland) that “Explorer” was a sacred honorific and that anyone who used the title in these modern times was a charlatan. I have yet to come up with a convincing counter-argument.
I think we long for that heroic time when men and women set out with little knowledge and lots of courage, then dealt with each day as it came to them, braving both hell and high water. These were people who moved across the globe for the sake of curiosity and knowledge, then returned to a disbelieving world. Together, they made the world round and granted us Antarctica, Mt. Everest, the North Pole, and the Amazon. They gave us an attic full of National Geographics and a healthy desire for more.
We travel because of them and then attach their names to the places we travel to. Our children do school projects about them and then grow up wanting to follow in their footsteps. They shout “Marco” at one end of the pool and then move blindly through the unfamiliar water, chasing sounds of “Polo.”
Explorers inspire us to find out what’s on the other side. They also teach us how to travel. If there is anything I’ve learned from reading Shackleton’s words, it’s to keep going on, no matter what. The open road throws a whirl of misadventures–bad things happen–but the point of the open road is that it’s always open. We must keep on carrying on until it gets better.
But my bundle of platitudes fails to add any glory to one of the most glorious characters in Antarctic history. All I’m trying to say is that I’ve been there now. I’ve seen Antarctica and thanks to these travels, I feel like I understand the man just a little bit better. I’ve walked on the same paths and met the same barren view.
Somehow–for me–the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton has become even more remarkable.
Andrew Evans traveled 10,000 miles–by bus–from Washington D.C. to Antarctica for National Geographic Traveler and tweeted about his travels at @Bus2Antarctica. Follow the map of his journey, bookmark all of his blog posts, watch videos, and get the full story on the project here. Video by Andrew Evans.