Sunday, November 28, 1999

Drivin’ and smilin’: Betsy Johnson shuttles people, mail and good cheer

Published in the Antarctic Sun

The shades are on, the radio’s playing NPR and she has a big grin on her face. It’s just another day driving the ice runway shuttle for Betsy Johnson.

She crosses the sea-ice transition more times a week than most people do in a season, piloting a huge orange van with massive wheels through the lumps and bumps where the frozen ocean meets the land of Ross Island.

In the van with her are the people and parcels going back and forth between McMurdo and the collection of buildings at the ice runway. Sometimes the van is full, sometimes she’s the only one, but Betsy doesn’t seem to mind. She is, after all, in Antarctica.

“Where else could driving in circles be more exciting?” she asked. It’s the sort of question which defies an answer, but at the same time explains why so many highly-qualified professionals–Johnson is a physical therapist–take Antarctic jobs they’d never do at home.

This isn’t the first job she’s taken because of the location: Recently she worked as a driver for a cruise line in Alaska, giving passengers tours of areas where the ships docked. She and her husband, Bryan, who works at Air Services in McMurdo, plan to work for the same cruise company again when they get off the Ice, on a working trip from Sydney to Bangkok.

But for the moment, Betsy’s working on winning a bet she made with one of her passengers: that she wouldn’t be smiling at the end of the season. She said she would make it, and her smile is still greeting everyone who scrambles up the metal step into the van.

She picks people up around town, and often goes the extra mile and drops them off at their final destination–instead of Derelict Junction.

Most people do get on at the shuttle stop there, between Building 155 and the dorms. But if they’re injured or carrying heavy things, they get picked up.

Besides the transition, where she concentrates on keeping the van from bumping around too much, Betsy keeps up a running conversation with whomever happens to be along for the trip. It’s a good-natured banter, and keeps her in touch with a lot of the goings-on as they’re happening.

It’s not the most adventurous job in town, she admits, but she gets to meet lots of people as they go to or from work, or travel out to do small repair jobs at the ice runway.

“I’m doing pretty well remembering people’s names now. It’s tough. They all know me, and they get in all bundled up, with their sunglasses on,” she said. Every now and then a bit of adrenaline kicks in. A few weeks ago the vehicles at the ice runway were gathering to convoy back to town before the weather got bad enough to prevent them from making the trip. With the wind worsening and a big line of vehicles in need of a driver to go first, Betsy, in the first few weeks of her first season on the Ice, started the long, slow drive from flag to flag, 3 miles back to town. The convoy made it safely back.

And sometimes a more relaxing event occurs. “Every once in a while, we’ll see some wildlife,” Betsy said. She’s seen seals and penguins along the road and at the ice runway. She and her passengers also get to see incredible fata morgana. She’ll stop and let folks get out and take a few pictures if there’s time.

Betsy always has her own camera with her, and will often take pictures if there’s something spectacular to see. She’s always on the lookout for fun on the trip. But even when there’s not much to be had outside the van, she always waves as passengers pile in, merrily greeting anyone who needs a ride.