To March with Penguins

The journey of a lifetime often begins with a single step. For me, the journey began with eleven words, spoken by our friend Jan over dinner last August in Nipomo.

“You’re going to hate me for this,” she announced, the hesitancy clear in her voice. “I’m going to Antarctica.”

Antarctica. Jan had said the magic word. She was flying to Argentina in January, boarding a cruise ship and heading south. Eleven days. Ten nights. Chasing whales. Dodging icebergs. Marching with penguins. Jan and I had both had that dream for years, but she had decided to finally seize the moment and actually go. After all, Jan was retired. She had the time. She had the money.

I took the news quietly, happy for my friend and impressed by her initiative, but also more than a bit envious.

What happened next is hard to explain. Perhaps it was my Attention Deficit Disorder kicking in again. Or the little movie that started playing in my head, jammed with all the dreams I ever had about visiting Antarctica. Or maybe it was just that second glass of Pinot. But in only seconds, the clouds parted, the waves subsided, and I knew with complete clarity what I needed to do.

“I’m going with you,” I told Jan. At which point my wife leaned in to the conversation and, in a special moment of marital harmony, agreed. “Of course you’re going,” she said. Just like that.

Now to fully appreciate this moment of bravado, you have to remember that at the time, we were about 42 days into having our house in Atascadero on the market, an uncertain market at best, while already living in the new house in Nipomo. There wasn’t a dime to spare in our budget, and certainly not enough to cover a costly cruise to the bottom of the planet.

And except for a few quick trips to Canada and Mexico, I hadn’t left the country since visiting Great Britain in 1976. So here I sat in the restaurant, a penniless travel neophyte, self-assuredly signing on to one of the biggest, one of the most expensive, trips anyone can make. 

But I had no choice. We all have those mental lists we keep; places we want to see, things we want to do, before we die. Hike the Grand Canyon. Attend a Broadway play. Travel the Inland Passage in Alaska. Well, for as long as I can remember, the absolute top of my list has been to visit Antarctica, the last great wilderness on earth.

From San Luis Obispo, it is a journey of four different planes, three different countries, six different time zones, and three full days on the open water just to reach that distant shore. Only 200,000 people have ever set foot in Antarctica and I guess that’s a large part of the appeal. It is a faraway land of mystery, of adventure, quite unlike any other journey on this planet — one of the few relatively unspoiled places left to experience.

I am 53. Yesterday I was 43. Tomorrow I will be 63. That’s how quickly time seems to be passing. My parents are dying. Close friends have already died before their time. It’s all over in the blink of an eye and all-too-soon your dreams become regrets. So I bought my ticket and stocked up on the thermal underwear and layers of warm clothing.

Everything fell into place. The house sold. We made enough money off of it to cover my ticket. The boss okayed extra time off. Local stores offered incredible sales on winter clothes.

By the time you read this, I should be there. Finally. Sitting in the Zodiac, clutching the side, as we zoom towards shore from the cruise ship, dodging the tiny chunks of ice. The harsh wind whips in my face, but I don’t care. Ahead of me, as far as the eye can see, stands a colony of Gentoo penguins, numbering in the thousands, a special welcoming committee. Just for me.

In that one moment, my dream will come true, making it worth every minute, every dollar, every mile. So what is number one on your list? And what are you prepared to do in 2007 to make it happen? Whatever, wherever, your journey begins with that single first step. Take it. Enjoy.

And send me a postcard.

SLO City News (January 2007)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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