It was somewhere between the airport terminal and the Siberia known as economy parking that I realized I am a fragile human being. For the previous few hours, during a cross-country flight, I had been listening to an audiobook titled In The Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides. It’s the true story of the voyage of the USS Jeannette, a wooden ship that set off from San Francisco in the summer of 1879 carrying 33 men who hoped to be the first explorers to reach the North Pole. But less than two months after departure, the ship became trapped in thickening sea ice where it drifted helplessly for the next 21 months. The pressure ultimately crushed the Jeannette, forcing the men to abandon ship and unload their equipment and provisions onto the ice. The story then turns from one of expedition to one of survival, as the men set out on foot, hauling hundreds of pounds of supplies over half-frozen seas to the mainland that lie over 1,000 miles away.
But now here I was, more than 130 years later, pulling a rolling carry-on bag across yards of asphalt, and about to burst into tears because it was starting to drizzle. While the crew of the Jeanette faced sub-zero temperatures, starvation, and disease, I had to contend with the fact that the blue-suede driving moccasins I was wearing were practically brand-new, and getting ruined. And that my car, with its remote start and heated seats, was still at least a three-minute walk away.
Two days later, I was again reminded of the crew of the Jeanette and their frozen trek through hundreds of miles of violent obstacles. I was at the mall and the escalator was broken. It was not undergoing repairs, it was simply stopped, which meant it was stairs. But I was carrying several shopping bags, so I located an elevator. A similar incident occurred later in the month when my car refused to start. I assumed it was the battery so I called my friend Scott who came over in his German sedan along with a set of jumper cables. An hour later we were still standing in my driveway, each holding a pair of the clamps as far apart as the cables would allow, convinced electrocution was inevitable if we touched them to a battery. I finally called AAA.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the story of the USS Jeannette is that the men never complained. Despite the harsh circumstances, the men were content, and oftentimes actually reveled in their roles as explorers and survivors. What would those men think of someone like me, an able-bodied, middle-aged man who has more than once been injured trying to unfold his attic ladder? Is it generational? Were the men back then just made of stronger stuff? Men who dug canals by hand and built skyscrapers without safety nets. Men like my grandfather who chopped his own wood, fixed his own truck, and killed his own food, usually with a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips. I’ll ponder that question while I wait on the kitchen timer. I’ve got scones in the oven, and the guys outside raking my leaves just love them.