I’ve spent time recently with two books which, though different, are similar in a particular theme: hardship. The books are Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Ted Catton, which I read and reviewed for the Missoulian, and In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by the always excellent Hampton Sides, which I’ve been listening to via an Audible download. Both books are excellent works of historical narrative nonfiction. Both detail groups of men facing extreme hardships in the name of exploration and, ultimately, survival.
It amazes me how much the world has changed in such a short time. How recently it’s been in overall global history that much of the world we know in minute detail now was a vast unknown, and that journeys that take hours by automobile — or, even more amazingly, via aircraft — were trips that were undertaken with little expectation of return. As Americans we have become so soft. I can’t help but scoff at people whimpering about a little change in weather, maybe some wind and rain, or a blast of arctic air … weather they are only forced to endure in the tiny space of time it takes to get from their car and through their front door, or from shop to shop. Jesus, just the idea of shopping in the first place! When I’m irritated and hungry and there’s no food in the house, it’s not like I have to go find something to kill and eat, I’m minutes away in just about any direction, at any hour of the day, from a caloric overload that could have meant life or death for people not too many generations past, in the very spot where my fat ass is currently planted.
What does it mean to our souls, the price we’ve paid for such comfort?
And yet, the other night I was awake in the wee hours of morning. I have this app that generates various sounds for “white noise,” and it was set to simulate the ocean shore, with rain falling, and wind. I was warm, comfortable, and feeling really fucking grateful I wasn’t coiled up in a soaking fur sleeping bag on some slab of ice bobbing around in the arctic sea, frostbitten and starving. It sounds romantic in a way to hear those tales of adventure, particularly from the mouths of those who survived and went back for more, but I’m sure even the best-told stories still don’t quite capture how badly it all totally sucked.
The Jeannette’s abandonment, depicted by maritime painter James Gale Tyler, courtesy of Vallejo Maritime Gallery of Newport Beach, California