January 24, 1984
Dear Robert Falcon Scott,
I often imagine your reaction when you received Roald Amundsens’s telegraph: Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen. And just like that you were in a race for the pole. How concise news can be. I never pictured the South Pole as an actual place, but I’ve learned it is located on a plateau beyond the sharp points of the Transantarctic Mountains.
My husband Seth used to talk about the site of your expedition as a distant abstraction. He would say that his father, whom he hadn’t seen for years, was as far away as the South Pole. That’s how it feels, he once said. Another abstraction, of course.
I should stop and apologize. I should not write to the dead. But ever since Seth died, I can only reach toward people who are not here. I hope you understand.
There is so much I can never learn from you, Mr. Scott. Here is what I know of your story. Amundsen beat you to the pole. In 1911, you’d been working toward your trip for twelve years since you were appointed leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition. You had Siberian-bred ponies instead of sled dogs, and you had to wait until Antarctic spring—in November—because you worried about the ponies freezing. As your group trekked south, you slaughtered them for meat. Four men would make the last leg of the journey with you, all of you dragging your gear in sleds and sleeping through the cold nights in reindeer skins, huddled in a tent.
My four-year-old daughter plays in the other room as I write you this. Outside, the snow keeps falling and I can scarcely believe it is the same winter it was at Christmas, when Seth died. Years have passed, it seems. The doctor who prescribed me sleeping pills told me it was normal to feel this way. Sometimes, I look at the calendar, and count the days one by one, back to 1983.
Paige, my strange and wonderful daughter, has blond hair and freckles and right now, she sits by the sleeping, shaggy retriever we have—Toby—and piles blocks on him until they fall down. They always fall down. With every dog breath Toby takes, they fall down. Paige is able to focus more on tasks like this lately. She stares so intently and scrunches her eyes as if she can will the blocks to stay where they are.
Paige and I both stay where we are lately. I tell her we are like the animals in winter tucked beneath the snow. When we did go outside more, in December, I would tell Paige to put her mittened hand up to her ear and bend near the icy drifts. “Can you hear them breathing?” I would ask her. She would always say yes.
You roamed, Mr. Scott. My husband’s father was an explorer of sorts, too. I never used to wonder what makes me different. I live so close to where I grew up. I have never felt the need to travel, or leave.
You failed, Mr. Scott. That’s what people say. There is historical speculation. Did you know that? Did you lead your team into certain death and devastation? Was it a lack of preparation? But you’d explored Antarctica before. In 1902, you traveled with Ernest Shackleton and went farther south than any group yet had.
When I look at maps, I trace my finger along your route, and Amundsen’s route, stopping at the Bay of Whales, wondering at the sites you’d seen. Shackleton named the bay in 1908 because of all the whales that could be seen from the shore. I read there are fifteen kinds known to live in Antarctica for part of the year. When Paige was first born, Seth and I decorated her room in whales. Cartoon whales with little plumes of water, a rubber ducky floating on the spray. Seth marveled at the silly, playful, impossibilities that we surround children with. We want them to live in these worlds that can never exist. I remember Seth remarking on the strangeness while spackling glue and patting down the wallpaper border. We were both only twenty—so young to have a child and yet near giddy at the surprise of this life we shared.
These days, I stay cooped up inside with my Paige. We watch the snow fall and fall outside. My sister Ellen calls and she wants us to come see her, to make the trip to the other side of town where she lives in student housing. “It will be good for you both,” she says.
We live in East Lansing, Michigan, Mr. Scott, a place you never went. Other explorers went here, but much earlier than you. You were an explorer of the twentieth century. You went after the few unmapped lands we had left. Ellen studies history at Michigan State University and she tells me about the history of exploration. She is the one who first mentioned you to me a couple of weeks ago. She learned about you in class.
On your expedition, your men grew excited near the pole because there was no sign of Amundsen. He, however, traveled light and fast and was already nearly back at the Bay of Whales by the time you reached your destination. There is a photo of your team outside Amundsen’s tent bearing the Norwegian flag. I study it for signs of disappointment. I showed Paige your photo and she said you looked very cold. “They need snow pants,” she said, as I always clip her into her insulated purple overalls before we go outside.
When you returned to the coast, you had to climb down the Transantarctic Mountains, hike over the Beardmore Glacier. That’s when Edgar Evans fell into an ice crevasse and died fifteen days later. You trudged on with Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, and Henry Bowers, hiking on the Barrier—400 miles of sea ice between your team and Camp Evans on Ross Island. Then, the cold spell deepened, reaching forty below for long, unbearable stretches. During a blizzard, your team all holed up, Oates, who had been struggling with frostbitten feet, walked out into the snow and never came back. The last thing he said to you: I am just going outside and may be some time.
What made you want to go to the very bottom of the earth?
Fifteen days later, you died alongside Bowers and Wilson, just eleven miles shy of a depot with supplies. In the end, it was frostbite and hypothermia. You were hungry. Your last journal read, For God’s sake look after our people.
When I read books about you from the library in town, I find little outside of your career and death. I want to know about your family.
One thing you must not know about exploration—men walked on the moon when I was nine years old. I watched the broadcast with my sister. When they took those first steps, Ellen grabbed my arm and pinched me. She’s always had a way of marking the momentous.
I don’t think you failed, Mr. Scott. You walked to the bottom of this world and, for a little while, you walked back out.
* * *
February 11, 1984
Dear Rebecca Smith,
Two years ago, you were found frozen in New York City. The title of the newspaper article said: One of City’s Homeless Goes Home—In Death. I wanted to tell you that I found this headline disrespectful, Mrs. Smith. The article does go on to detail how you ended up in such a predicament and who you belonged to. I was glad to read about the people out there missing you.
When you were found in your cardboard shack on 10th Avenue, no one knew immediately who you were. You had no address. No identification. But people were looking for you. They were watching for word of your whereabouts. Your nephew heard news of you on the radio. You were identified—a Virginian woman estranged from her family. They say you were beautiful. I hate to read the parts of the article that judge your appearance as if it means something to say you had beauty and that it had faded.
You had a husband and a daughter once. You left them after you were diagnosed with schizophrenia, after you were released from a mental institution. They say you believed you had marks on your face after shock therapy, that you covered these invisible tracks in the heaviest makeup.
I have a daughter and lately she looks at me and asks me questions I will never be able to answer. I hate to be her dose of reality, but she wants too much of me. Always, she is coming into my bedroom to ask me questions and I can’t play and pretend like I used to. Paige wants her stuffed animals to wake up at night; she wants to run out into the snow with no clothes on. She wants to bring the dead to life. She doesn’t understand the dead and I try to explain what happened to you. I try to show there are other people out there who don’t come back and there are those who miss them.
For ten days, people from the Human Resources Administration tried to relocate you to a hospital or a city shelter. You refused to be confined. Your daughter explained how you wanted your freedom. I learned more about you, Mrs. Smith. You had twelve siblings and you went to college. You were the valedictorian at Hampton Institute. You played piano. For a while, after leaving your family, you lived with your sister. Then, twelve years ago, you decided to go it alone, to take care of yourself. Your daughter sent you money, but often you lost it. She wanted you to see a doctor, get more help, but you lost your public assistance because you refused medical examination. You have two grandchildren. Did you meet them before you died? Your daughter made sure your coffin didn’t have a latch. She said she would never lock her mother up.
You began having nightmares, the article said. What were they? What happened, Mrs. Smith, when you closed your eyes?
These days, I can’t sleep much. The doctor has prescribed pills, but I don’t always take them. But Ellen says to take those instead of drinking. Seth and I would always celebrate good news by toasting a gin and tonic. The piney, sharp carbonation is a comforting reminder now. Ellen doesn’t understand.
I have a sister too, like you, and she also helps me. We help each other and she says I can’t hide away forever. She brings our groceries each week. She brings me books. Sometimes, though, Paige and I go just to the edge of the driveway. I bundle us up in all our heaviest clothing. We wear ski masks and down coats and mittens and hats and snow pants. We quickly turn around when the first gust of wind brushes my neck.
* * *
March 1, 1984
Dear Kathleen Moyers,
You were an acquaintance of my mother’s and you died in Ohio six years ago, in the Great Blizzard of 1978. I couldn’t find much beyond your obituary. My mother mentioned you after what happened to Seth. She’d cut it from the paper and saved it and she left it on the kitchen counter for me to have.
“Do you remember that blizzard?” she asked me while folding my laundry. Lately she and Ellen have been coming over to help me with chores. “Do you remember how cold that winter was?”
“Of course,” I told her. I was eighteen at the time of the blizzards and about to graduate from high school that spring. I slept at a friend’s house and got stuck there during the snow. I remember feeling like a voyeur—temporarily stuck in another life.
My mother had few details about you, Kathleen. She said you met when my father and your husband were working together at Chrysler in Detroit. She said you’d lost touch by the time you died. My mother described the photos of the snowstorm—the drifts nearly up to the tops of power poles and rooflines, the rows of buried, stranded cars. Your car was outside of Cleveland when you were found. You did have a family, but my mother knew little about them. You had kids around my age and a bit older. You had one grandson.
By telling me about you, Kathleen, my mother could try to connect. I know people don’t know what to say to me. They know I don’t want to leave my house and they come over and tiptoe around and try not to do or say anything upsetting. Ellen brings me lots of books and old magazines so I can do my research. I know she spends late hours in the library when she should be working on papers for school. She takes careful notes on newspaper articles, scrolling through the microfiche. Everyone is trying to be so helpful.
I’m going to tell you something, Kathleen. I suspect I always loved Seth more than he loved me, that perhaps I was always a bit more certain that what we had was right. Since I’m only twenty-four, I guess I’ll love again and then I can compare that to this love. Maybe levels of love are always different. With Seth, though, it didn’t matter, because he eventually caught up to me. Seth liked our quiet life in Michigan just as much as I did—our small house and garden, our beautiful girl.
It was the search for his father that made Seth want to leave and find more. He’d been gone in the Upper Peninsula the whole month of December tracking his dad as if the man were some injured animal in the snow. Theo was a natural wanderer, you see. He was a meteorologist, but he up and quit one day when Seth was six. He left his family and his job; Seth never heard from him again. I’d like to blame everything on Theo.
This is a lot of information about me to tell you, Kathleen, but I wish I knew more about you. There weren’t many articles in the library that Ellen could find about your death and my mother was short on information. In the cold snap of ‘78, lots of people froze in their cars like you did. The weather the day before you died was relatively mild, but then that night the barometric pressure began to rapidly drop. People began stocking for disaster, preparing for the worst. Maybe you didn’t do that and were heading out to grab some food for your family. It had been a cold winter, and perhaps, like others, you thought this snow would be more of the same—a nuisance, not a danger.
I read that the snow fell fast, accompanied by brutal winds. It didn’t fall in fat, wet snowflakes, but felt more like sand on the skin; it was horizontal and grainy and sharp.
The term freezing to death isn’t very accurate, though, I’ve learned. I’ve read about the differences between frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite starts in the extremities—killing tissue, allowing death to move through the body by beginning with skin. Hypothermia killed you by lowering your body’s internal temperature. You shivered and became tired and slow when your body temperature dropped even four degrees. At 93 degrees, you began to experience deeper confusion, amnesia. When you reached 90 degrees, you no longer cared about yourself or your fate. If you did move, you would have staggered through the air, unable to coordinate your own failing body. At 90 degrees, everything cascaded and began shutting down. Even your heart slowed; your blood thickened as it flowed and failed in your body. You hallucinated. Maybe you thought you heard music or smelled someone cooking dinner nearby. Near the end, your skin burned due to the burst of blood sent from deep within the body to warm your limbs.
Why were you trapped there on that side street a few miles from your house, Kathleen? Did you consider setting out and braving the dry snow and wind and drifts toward the warm light of home?
* * *
March 15, 1984
Dear Willie Watts,
We have the same last name, though as far as I know we’re not related. I get very sad thinking about your death in 1955, as you were only sixteen. You were part of a trip to Banff with the Wilderness Club of Philadelphia. You made the road trip from Pennsylvania in a station wagon and an old hearse with twenty-one other boys from ages twelve to sixteen. There were two supervisors with you in their late twenties and early thirties. William Oeser, one of the leaders, was a teacher from Baltimore who was afraid of heights.
Of all seven boys who died on that trip, only you have my last name. So I’ve decided to write to you. I saw a letter to the editor from your older sister’s boyfriend asking for more details on the event. What really happened and who was to blame?
You boys set out to climb 11,636-foot Mount Temple and the only one of you with any climbing experience was your friend Tony. With his family, he’d done some guided climbs while on vacation in the Alps. You were wearing jeans and a windbreaker and you had on baseball cleats; your friends had running shoes with crampons. Your group brought with you one ice axe, a topo map, two ropes, and a basic travel guidebook.
You began climbing the southwest face of Mount Temple around 11:00 a.m. and your group stopped for lunch just after cresting the snowline. Six of the boys stayed behind there and Oeser put you and Tony in charge of the group because you were the oldest. At 4:00 p.m., at around 10,000 feet, the group rested on a snowpack. The late afternoon sun was warming everything around you and Tony, concerned, pointed out an avalanche in the distance. The eleven of you stopped on a snow bridge that ran over a stream and roped yourselves together. “For practice,” you said. Rather than roping yourselves in multiple groups, you roped all eleven of you in one long line. You were the anchor and Tony was in front with his axe.
Before the avalanche, you heard the sound of it swishing, approaching. Tony’s ice axe saved him, but the rope broke below him, sending the line of you boys tumbling with the snow. One boy, Peter, felt the rope tighten around his neck and was able to pull it off, saving himself.
Your friend Tony survived and when the snow left everything quiet, he began to search for all of you. He pulled one person out of the snow by a shoe. The sky darkened as night came on and it began to send down a slight rain as Tony searched. Peter headed down for help. Oeser, from farther down the mountain, heard the calls for help, and headed up, sending the boys for more rescuers. He, too, started digging.
The advance team of rescuers climbed out to the location of the avalanche. At this point, after thirty minutes, your survival was highly unlikely. They found a couple of injured boys trying to make their way down the mountain. Using flashlights, they found you at 11:00 p.m. still roped to the others. You survived the avalanche, but died of hypothermia. Your body was carried down the mountain on a pack horse in the dark, a line of rescuers and their flashlights trailing their way down Mount Temple. Your leader, Oeser, was so upset by the deaths—yours and the other six boys’—that he threatened to kill himself and needed sedation. Afterwards, there was an inquest, and the survivors all testified, but the newspaper accounts are muddled and difficult to read. The boys’ story changed; their memory was altered from all they’d seen and couldn’t piece together.
You would be forty-five years old now, if you were alive.
* * *
April 28, 1984
It is spring now. Everything looks completely different than it did in December. It was a particularly cold winter. December especially—they are saying 70% of the month was colder than average across the country. We’d gotten so used to mild Christmases. But even down here it was covered in white snow.
Seth, I’ve been reading about others who froze to death. People think of it so simply, if they think of it at all. But it can happen so many ways—death by exposure. That’s what they call it. I read about a group of boys who died in an avalanche. I learned about polar explorers who died in the harshest landscape we know. I read about the record-breaking blizzards of ’78, which was right before we met. What were you doing then? You were living in Traverse City and the snow drifts would have piled high and the temperatures dropped, but that time you were tucked safely inside.
Ellen worries about my research, but still she helps me. I spend hours with the books and notes she brings. I make notes from her notes and I make folders. I label the folders by person and year and place. I occasionally write letters, but always I am reading and learning about people. I want to find them and remember them all.
Ellen says Mom will take Paige for a while. They think I need a break. They think I am drinking too much. They think I need time to myself, but I know I will be fine. I promise I am looking after our Paige. I wake up every morning and get us both dressed and fed. We are safer here inside. And it’s getting warmer now and I might soon feel like going out. I can hear the birds and I miss the apple blossoms and the walks outside we used to take through the tree-lined streets of student housing and onto campus. I never mind hearing the shouts of students though, even now. I find their yelps of distant merriment comforting.
I’m so alone here, of course, but I also don’t want to be around anyone else. Not really. You hated it when I got like this, when I wanted to seclude myself away. If you had lived I would have traveled with you. I would have left this place. I promise.
The police officer was so brusque, so concise when he told me the news. He told me you died only feet from a family’s house. You were heading there for help. The family was oblivious inside with their Christmas Eve celebration, their lit room and hearth at their lakeside house. I have met this family since. They have a son who plays the cello and I imagine him practicing that night, his parents leaning into each other and listening to his music.
The fourteen-year-old son is the one who found you the next morning, frozen face down.
I blame myself, Seth. I should have gone with you. I should have been more concerned about safety, how fragile our stupid bodies really are. I have been vigilant about that now with Paige. Too much so, Mom and Ellen say, which is why she needs to go live elsewhere for a while.
You had left your great-aunt’s warm house in Marquette in search of your father. You finally met him two days before. You succeeded. You did it. You were supposed to come home. You were going to meet him again when your car slid on the icy road and went into that lake. You were able to extract yourself from the car and you made your way to the lit house on the shore, your feet punching through the ice.
The woman who lives in that house told me she looks from her bedroom window at the frozen holes you made with your boots. Wet from the lake, everything crystallized around you. Your skin temperature plummeted. You stumbled toward whatever light you saw.
I have been learning about what happened to you, Seth. Did you know that children can survive at lower temperatures than adults? Human flesh can freeze in five minutes at fifty below.
It’s been such a cold winter and I worry about the animals, too. Around here, there was a dog found frozen in his backyard cage. He was discovered with his jaw clamped around the bars. Sensing the end, he’d tried to chew himself to safety.
Humans can adapt to cold, though. Australian aborigines slept naked outdoors on the hard ground. They slept through close-to-freezing nights, but their bodies were able to stop them from shivering. Nearly hypothermic, they adapted to hold on to heat until morning. There are Norwegian fisherman who can go without gloves. Every so often, the capillaries in their hands send out blooms of blood to warm them. Ellen searches for “optimistic” research like this to bring me. But I still learned everything that happened to you.
Seth, eventually, in that snow, you gave up the ability to shiver. You ripped off your clothes before you died. You believed you were burning in cold. You could no longer recognize faces.
Mom is coming today to take Paige, but I know it’s temporary. Seth, it is getting warmer outside. I can hear the song sparrows at the feeder outside our kitchen window. It will be strange to ever want to leave.