At around six-thirty the next morning I woke up to the pitching and the creaking of the ship. We parted our stateroom curtains to reveal a dark, greenish-brownish mass of rock slide past us. Right on schedule, the ship was creeping toward the southernmost part of our journey, indeed the southernmost part of the world save for Antarctica: Cape Horn. Until that morning I’d gotten used to shuffling out of my stateroom much later in the morning, but the ship was planning to swing by Cape Horn for less than an hour before heading toward the Chilean fjords. So if I wanted to see the Horn above-deck, I had to get moving, and fast.
And what did I see? I saw a craggy cluster of islands, shrouded in mist, rising gloomily and forbiddingly from the white-capped, steel-gray ocean. The petrels that had so far followed the ship had largely abandoned us; the only bird I could see was a single giant petrel hovering in the icy air next to the ship. As I took in the beautiful desolation of this place after so many miles of travel – and so much anticipation to make it that far south – I got a strange feeling, a mixture of gratitude and sadness.
I couldn’t help thinking of a short story I’d read over twenty years earlier, back when I was taking my first baby-steps in the world of fiction: Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1982 short story “Sur,” in which the author ingeniously conjures an all-female expedition to the South Pole two years ahead of Roald Amundsen‘s historic 1911 discovery. LeGuin tells her story in language so clear, so vivid, that even today I have to remind myself the expedition never took place. I couldn’t help digging out the story after I got home from South America. And the story’s truth that I’d felt then seemed just as true as that morning on Cape Horn.
“To go, to see – no more, no less,” LeGuin’s nameless narrator says when explaining her intense desire to reach the Pole. But the harder she struggles to reach her goal, the more she realizes she’s making a mistake—“This is not a place where people have any business to be”—and by the time she and her fellow travelers climb and crawl their way to the Pole, where “nothing of any kind marked the dreary whiteness,” she regrets what she’s done. In the end she “lets” Amundsen take the credit for discovering the South Pole: a hollow victory.
We were still several hundred miles from the shores of Antarctica, but even so, looking out at the Horn, the ship pitching and the wind stinging my face, I got that same sense: the sense that this ship, this crew, we tourists had no business here. The place was cold and barren; the waves were knocking us around. Cape Horn was all but telling us to leave, leave, leave.
And yet, as I stood on the glistening deck with my feet planted firmly on the boards, I didn’t want to leave. Here I was at the bottom of the world, or as close to the bottom as I thought I could manage. And as cold as I was, I wanted to cling to that moment, unable to let it go. But then a bitter gust of wind nearly knocked me off my feet, which I took as a sign from Nature to get the hell back inside. I went inside.