by Collage of public domain images
With such tragedy of the Newtown, CT event, I cannot begin to give enough love, care, concern and empathy to all those families suffering from the loss of loved ones. Just for a moment, let us take a deep breath, gather our hearts and send everyone in Newtown our prayers, our love and our hopes for a better tomorrow.
So, this Christmas, I turn my quill to a happy story about the endless joy and amazing experiences that await all of us wherever we may roam on this planet. From "Bikes in bloom" to "A moment frozen in time", let us rejoice life and all its possibilities.
During my bicycle travels of 125,000 miles across six continents, I have encountered amazing and strange creatures in the Amazon jungle, Australian Outback, Tibetan plateau, Alaskan wilderness, Himalayan Mountains and the Arctic.
When a family of monkeys screamed at me from the rainforest canopy in Brazil, I pressed on the pedals a little faster. In Australia, I cranked alongside an emu, a flightless bird akin to an ostrich, who had befriended me in the searing heat of the Outback. Some animals startled me like the frilled lizard that flashed his "frill" at me one morning when I poked my head out of the tent in the Northern Territory of Australia. If you remember that creature that "frilled" the guy who stole the test tubes filled with dinosaur eggs in the movie "Jurassic Park", you might get an idea of the shock value. That lizard scared the daylights out of me.
One morning in Alaska on the Russian River of the Kenai Peninsula, I awoke to a grizzly bear, not three feet away, looking at me through my mosquito netting. By sheer luck, he didn't eat me. In Norway, 700 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, I listened to the cuckoo bird serenade me all night long with, "Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo"."
But nothing beats the amazing moment when I rode my bicycle in Antarctica to meet the most unlikely creature on the planet.
For a six month period of time, I lived, worked, camped and bicycled on "The Ice Continent." Of all the creatures that I have met in my world travels, this meeting may be the most profound moment in my life on two wheels. The story of a moment frozen in time:
In the morning, a whiteout howled across McMurdo Station, Antarctica with 125 mile per hour winds and minus 80 degree temperatures. I had been confined to my barracks for two days as a "Condition One" storm worked its way over the ice-pack before me.
By late evening, the weather turned placid but a biting minus 20 degree temperature kept most people inside. I, however, bundled into my cold weather gear--insulated boots, heavy mittens, four Thermax layers, fleece, three hats, face protection and ski goggles. I headed out the door to ride my bicycle over the frozen road to the ice runway where the supply planes landed each week to provide food for the people working at the research station.
Yes, we enjoyed a fleet of bicycles at McMurdo during my stay in Antarctica. Over the radio, Mac Ops reported some Emperor penguins on the ice. I had to see them no matter what the cold. I jumped on my bike looking like an overstuffed teddy bear wearing cold weather gear. My breath vaporized as I rode toward the ice-covered ocean. My lungs stung with each inhalation of polar cold. About a mile around the cove, the setting sun glinted off the roof of Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut. He had died 100 years ago on his last attempt to reach the South Pole. The hut had stood on the point of McMurdo Sound since 1902. It gave mute testimony to the courage those men displayed in their polar adventures. When Scott neared death on his run to the South Pole, he shouted, "Great God! This is an awful place."
Nonetheless, I rode along a path that led toward the pack-ice in the sound. It's hard to describe pack-ice, but it's jumbled, broken ice chards being heaved and smashed into multiple shapes--triangles, domes, squares, tubulars, and wedges--like an Erector Set gone crazy. However, near the shore, it was reasonably smooth with a thin veneer of snow from the blizzard.
Above me, a golden-purple sky glowed brazenly in its final glory into the crevasses of the Royal Society Range across the sound. For once, a rare quiet softened the bitter edge of the crystal white desert before me. One of the glaciers, more than ten miles across at its terminus radiated liquid gold from the setting sun. Pedaling through some shallow snow drifts, I got stuck so I pulled my bike through and gained the edge of the ice. Even with polar weather gear protecting my body, the numbing cold crept through the air, as if it were trying to find a way into my being.
The bike frame creaked at the cold and the tires made a popping sound on the ice I pedaled over. The big boots made it hard to keep on the pedals. But I persevered and kept moving forward. About six miles onto the ice, I looked through the sunlight and saw four black figures approaching. I shaded my eyes with my gloved hand. They drew closer, their bodies back-lit by the sun on the horizon. A family of Emperor penguins waddled toward me. I dismounted from my bike. From our survival classes, I learned to sit down so as not to frighten them. By appearing smaller than them, they might find me interesting.
Slowly, I lowered myself into the snow, cross-legged, like an Indian chief. Minute by minute, they waddled closer--straight toward me. Three big birds, about 80 pounds each kept moving dead-on in my direction. The smallest followed behind them.
Another minute passed. They waddled to within 30 feet of me. The lead Emperor carried himself like a king. His silky black head-color swept down the back of his body and through his tail. A bright crayon yellow/orange streaked along his beak like a Nike logo. Under his cheek, soft aspirin-white feathers poured downward, glistening in lanolin. His wings were black on the outside and mixed with black/white on the front. He stood 40 inches tall and his enormous three-toed feet featured a gray reptilian roughness with blunted talons sticking out. He rolled his head, looking at me in a cockeyed fashion, as if I was the strangest creature he'd ever seen.