"Why Antarctica?" I was asked before I left to spend the holidays down south. My answer was vague.
"I planned to go 10 years ago," I began, "but I broke my foot on a ragged stone step in Mexico and had to cancel."
"But why Antarctica?" people persisted.
"Adventure," I replied, as if life were a quiz show with right answers.
Finally, I realized that I did not have a simple reason for setting out for the great white continent, only the passionate desire to see a chunk of the world that I did not know.
And summertime, the bright and relatively temperate months of December and January, would be the season for such a voyage.
I flew from San Diego to Miami to Montevideo and basked in a few hours of Uruguayan spring before boarding the Greek ship Illiria for the long journey south.
Lars-Eric Lindblad, the travel pioneer who first took tourists to Antarctica 23 years ago, was on board as the expedition leader. Roger Tory Peterson, a captivating travel companion and the world's best-known birder, was a lecturer.
During the month-long probe at the bottom of the world, I was wowed by black-browed albatrosses and chinstrap penguins, by icebergs that toppled and Russians that didn't, by shadowy glades of tussock grass and a sea of Caribbean blue. I took copious notes for future columns and peppered other passengers with the question over which I had stumbled:
An Australian sheep rancher named Rua gazed at me steadily and said: "George and I love the wild places. We like to drive our own camper van and take back roads. We've camped in East Africa and all over in the outback of Australia. No one can do Antarctica alone yet, so this is the next-best thing."
She brought her watercolors and spent hours painting from the ship's wide windows and on the rocky shore.
Waited 12 Years
A Californian being toasted on his 64th birthday admitted that his wife had wanted to make the trip for 12 years, while he kept voting for sun and civilization. Her turn--and Antarctica's--had come.
A spunky widow from Connecticut said that Antarctica had been on her wish list since she was a student at Ohio State University in the 1930s when a triumphant Richard Byrd came to lecture about his ordeals on the ice.
A couple from Delaware had been to Antarctica before with a Smithsonian group, but had never seen South Georgia, the snowy home of the dazzling King Penguin. So they signed on to see that bird.
Serious birders with serious cameras made up a third of our group. Peterson said that was about the norm for Antarctica.
"Another 50% are nature lovers in a general sense," he said. "Ten percent simply want to add another country to their travel list. They'll go anywhere they have not been.
"And," he added with a smile, "the usual 10% are confused. They are the people who ask where the polar bears are and you have to tell them that's the North Pole."
Most of the passengers were well traveled and enjoyed the respite from cities. They were drawn by the bold "icescapes" and dense wildlife of the least-explored continent.
To my astonishment, several were repeaters, travelers who had joined the adventure three and four and five times and reported no two trips alike because of shifting winds and clouds and ice.
They made different landings in the faithful rubber Zodiac boats that shuttled from ship to shore. They sighted different creatures and tracked them this time with video cameras.
Snapped into my Christmas red parka, I stood on the deck with Lars-Eric Lindblad as we sailed through the Gerlache Strait and he recalled reasons he had heard over the years for going to the Antarctic.
There was the frazzled New Yorker who said she wanted out and this was as far out as she could get. There was the retired Texas railroad man who wanted to go somewhere without trains. There was the Southern dandy who claimed that his goal was to play the piano on every continent. He settled for the keyboard of an accordion at the Polish station at Admiralty Bay.
So now I am home from this rich and haunting journey, an adventure whose black and white and gray scenes are etched in my memory like pictures sent from outer space.
And when I am asked, as I am everyday, "Why Antarctica?" I feel detached and dreamy. Sometimes I whisper: "Why not?"