They can put a man on the moon quite easy

Music – The Clash – London Calling

There’s a lost continent in the Pacific.  I read about it a couple of years ago in the paper.  About the size of Rhode Island, the article said.  Far from major shipping lanes.  A solitary oasis of sorts in the world’s largest, bluest desert.

It’s really there.  Look it up.

It’s the kind of thing you hear about and forget almost immediately.  It’s an aberration, a thing that seems so untrue your brain refuses to spend resources remembering it.  No way, says your subconscious.  I call bullshit.  For both our sakes, let’s pretend we never heard anything about this obvious fiction. This obvious myth.

Sometimes the truth runs so perfectly perpendicular to one’s understanding of reality that disbelief is only natural.

Reality has little regard for one’s beliefs, however.  And the place is there.

I met someone who’s been there.  Stood on its improbable shores.  My friend Henry’s ex-girlfriend has seen it with her own two eyes.

She mentioned something about it while we were all eating yellow curry at Kennedy’s late one night.  No finer curry to be found at 4 AM on a Thursday, by the way.

I’ve heard of that place, I said. Referring to the lost continent. Not Kennedy’s.

Oh yeah?

Yeah I read an article about it.  I heard it’s the size of Rhode Island.  She laughed, unimpressed.

Try again.

Bigger?

Much.

How big is it?

About twice the size of Texas, depending on the time of year, the weather conditions.

Bullshit, Henry said.  They’d been broken up only a short time at this point, and he tended to disagree with her on principle.  I can’t remember why we were all hanging out that night, but they were still at each other’s throats pretty much constantly.

No bullshit.  I’ve been there.

How come nobody talks about it? Or sees it on satellite photos? I asked.

They do.  In certain circles, it’s a big deal.  Most people don’t care, though.  It’s not exactly hidden, she said.

Henry shook his head, sneering, mumbling something about Google Earth and the space shuttle.  He left to join the others at the pool table.

What’s it like, I asked.

——

She was an oceanography grad student.  Not a lot of opportunity for field work, she told me.  You fight tooth and nail for grants, cheating and threatening your way onto research ships, commercial shipping vessels, rich people’s private yachts.  Anything that will float you where you need to go.

After a year in Hawaii studying climate change, she managed to bribe her way onto a marine biology research ship studying humpback migration patterns in the Pacific.  Most of the crew were grad students were from South America, but the vessel actually belonged to a firm in Mexico City.

I spoke no Spanish, she told me, but I managed to trade the biologists a case of stolen champagne and a bag of crappy weed to take me with them back towards the west coast of North America.  The captain was a grizzled old prospector-looking Mexican who was sick to death of following whales around.  I think he brought me along just to have somebody onboard who didn’t talk about cetacean breeding habits day and night.  Either that or he just wanted to practice his English, which was surprisingly good.

We sighted it about eight days out from Honolulu.  We were zigzagging along some vague route decided moment to moment by the endlessly arguing biologists.  From a distance, it’s very hard to spot.  It’s huge but it’s not particularly tall, and if the sun hadn’t been just right that afternoon, we would have blown right by it.

I convinced the captain to head for it.  I think he and I were the only ones who suspected what it was.  The grad students would never have agreed to turn south, as the sun began to set, had they known what lie ahead.  It is a biologist’s blackest nightmare, after all.  A dead, poisoned place.  Empty and bleak.

That night the Captain and I stayed up late working diligently on the case of champagne, joking and saluting each other as brave explorers of a new land, conquistadors fearless in the face of all danger.

Our new world needs a name, I said.

Indeed! He raised his bottle. Basuraland?

Craplantis?

Montez?

You sure you want a place like that bearing your name for all eternity, Captain?

No, no you’re right, senorita.  Better stay away from that.

I’ve got it, I told him.  New New Jersey.

The Captain laughed so hard he spit up half his champagne.

Haha, Captain! I see you’ve been to New Jersey!  You didn’t tell me you’d braved such hostile shores before.

The shrieking biologists woke us up the next morning.  I had a brutal, brick-to-the-head hangover and was in no mood for howling, hair-pulling Latin hysterics.

POR FAVOR SHUT THE FUCK UP I yelled, to no effect.

The Captain dragged me out on deck a few minutes later despite my protests.  The view quieted me.

——-

So it was big? I asked her.

Endless.  Endless.  It stretched to every horizon, even behind us.  It looks more like a prairie than an ocean, apart from the swell.  The only place you could tell that it was made up of individual pieces is where the hull of the ship cut through it.  It was like very soft ice.  Sickly yellowish ice.

Really?

Yes.  The image you have of it in your head, of this big mishmash of colors and logos… it’s not that.  The sea and the sun turn everything the same soft, ugly yellow.  Like old people’s teeth.  And it’s very uniform.  Not like a landfill.  From more than thirty, forty feet away, you can’t even tell that it’s all garbage, all plastic.

Wow.

Yeah.  Much more like a prairie.  An endless, dead, yellow prairie.

——–

Once the Captain calmed the biologists down, assuring them that the ship was in no danger and explaining what a valuable experience this could be for the ecologically minded, we headed onward.

We traveled slowly, at less than a quarter speed.  I think the Captain was concerned about getting stuff caught in the prop, or hitting some unseen obstacle below all the junk.

For the first day or two, though, we cut through the waste like butter.  The stuff parted around the prow and, except for a small wake, just sealed up behind us.  Out on the edge is mostly bottles.  Two-liters, waterbottles, stuff like that.

On the third day we got into the thick of it.

——-

I can’t believe your captain would drive into it, I said.

I think he wasn’t planning on it, originally, but when we got there it seemed stupid to turn back.  It’s sick, awful in one sense, but really amazing in another.  Very otherworldly, alien almost.

Just the scale of it… I can imagine.

You can’t, really.  Neither could I.  It is beyond immense.  It boggles your fucking mind.  And I think the Captain, and probably even the biologists to some degree, wanted to see what it was like in the center.

——

That second night we could all hear it grinding against the hull.  The scrape got louder, more high-pitched.  From on deck you couldn’t really tell it was getting thicker, but we definitely started slowing down.

Larger chunks started showing up, too.  Huge pieces of styrofoam-ish stuff like they use for docks.  Plastic sheeting, corrugated.  Tarps.  Building materials.

One of the biologists saw an airplane wing.

We were basically dead in the water at the end of the third day.

——

I can’t believe you actually went out on it.  Talk about unsafe.

You’re telling me, she said.  You hear about those people falling into glacial chasms and stuff in the arctic, starving to death at the bottom of a ravine.  I didn’t want to go out like that.  But we were in the heart of it now.  Hundreds of miles from the nearest open water.  I had to try it.

——

We had about one and a half people worth of camping gear.  I had nothing of my own, since oceanography grad students typically don’t plan for backpacking trips, but between the others’ luggage and the boat’s emergency kits we scrounged together enough stuff for three of us to hike in a few miles.

One of the whalewatchers, Manuel, offered to come along.  I was worried the Captain would refuse to leave the safety of his ship, but he seemed eager.  After an hour of threatening the remaining crew with painful, torturous deaths should they touch anything they weren’t supposed to, we dropped ropes over the side.  The students cowered in their cabins, cursing each other, fate, God, and the Captain for bringing them to such a hell on earth.

The Captain touched down first, tentatively probing the “ground” with a long metal rod.

As I let go of the rope, I fully expected the garbage to swallow me whole.  I expected to die out there.

—–

It was sort of a stupid idea.

Yeah, she agreed.  Idiotic.  Probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.  I was young.  Looking back, it was easily the most foolish, reckless thing we could have done under the circumstances.

You made it back, though.

Yeah.  The ground crunched and squealed and twisted, but I didn’t fall through into the abyss.  So we kept going.

——

That first day of hiking, we saw some strange, strange shit.  A full-sized metal cargo container, the kind they put on the back of semi-trucks.  A tool-shed.  A six-pack of unopened Budweiser with pull-tab tops.  Endless, endless packs of Korean cigarettes.  A high-heeled shoe.  A Fiat.  A life-sized plastic T-Rex.  McDonald’s happy meal wrappers with Tagalog writing on them.

And plastic bags.  Holy shit.  The outer hundred miles was mostly bottles, but the interior was where all the bags accumulated.  They’d snag on your feet, grabbing your legs like roots and vines.

Manuel cut his leg when a mound of stuff he was standing on collapsed, and we must have poured a half bottle of rubbing alcohol on him.

It’s silly, in retrospect.  The defining characteristic of the place is its lack of life.  No birds.  No plants.  Nothing.  Probably the most sanitary pile of garbage on Earth.  Manuel was safer cutting himself there than in his own shower.

The stuff doesn’t decay, per se.  It just sort of melts, fusing with stuff around it.  The harshness of the elements kind of bonds things together, like a bag of M&M’s you’ve left in the sun.

We made it far inland enough that night that the “land” was dense enough to mask the swell of the ocean.  It wasn’t like standing on an inflatable raft anymore. It felt like real ground we were sleeping on.  Uncomfortable.  Stable.  Real.  I slept on top of a washing machine that night.

——-

We had enough water and food for about a week, but we didn’t want to push it.  No more than two days in, we agreed.

That was the plan.

——-

On the evening of the second day, we saw mountains.  Or what we thought were mountains.  Topography of some kind.

My God, I said.

Hills.  Valleys.  Plateaus.  Depressions.

Three days in and it started to look like a real place.  A real world.  An undiscovered country of corroded plastic.

A continent born not of stone and erosion and tectonic disturbance, but of consumption and waste and the folly of progress.  Six billion people’s trash thrown down six billion stormdrains, and it all ends up here, out in the Pacific at the end of the world.  A trillion tons of shit Frankensteined together by the sun and the sea into a new world.

It was unbelievable.

—–

The Captain broke his leg on the fourth morning, climbing a hill to plant a little Mexican flag he’d brought along.  Mount Montez! He shouted.  I claim this land in the name of the Mexican Empire.  All it needs now is a soccer team.

He poked the little flag into a bottle, started climbing back down the slope, and promptly busted his femur falling into a partially-covered dumpster.

It took Manuel and I a good forty five minutes to get him out.  We piled junk in around him to stand on while we eased him up, but we were clumsy, and caused him much pain.

I put on my calm, independent, American-girl voice when I talked to him.

Again I was sure we were going to die.

——-

Manuel built a little sled out of corrugated siding and some mangled rebar he found.  The sled was as heavy as the Captain himself, but at least we could drag it rather than fireman carry the old man.

The Captain moaned while we moved him, and passed out at one point.

He might be bleeding internally, I thought.

I didn’t mention this to Manuel.  Neither one of us could do anything about it if he was.  So we just dragged him, following our GPS directions back the way we had come.

It rained hard on us that day.

At least we can refill our bottles, I said.

Manuel shrugged.  He didn’t speak any English.

——-

I worried constantly while we dragged him along, slowly working our way around obstacles.  Tires.  Computer cases.  Stuffed bears.  Little, lifeless bogs and pools of rain water.

What if the ship leaves us.  What if the Captain dies and we can’t get ourselves out when we get back.  What if Manuel’s cut gets infected.  What if there’s a storm.

I’m a pessimist by nature, and from the moment I heard the Captain shout, I began mentally preparing myself for the craziest, most Donner Party death scenario my twisted mind could come up with.

It helped to pass the time.

Without birds, or plants, or life, the island is pretty boring.  It’s just sky and plastic.  Forever.

——–

We made it back to the boat.  Manuel and I hadn’t eaten for two days.  The remaining crew, apparently having overcome their terror and anger, had set up a makeshift volleyball net on the “shore” next to the boat.

Great, I thought.  I’m preparing myself for cannibalism and death and these guys are playing volleyball.

They helped us get the now-delirious Captain aboard.  One of the students had some medical training, and did what she could for his leg.

Manuel and I worked on turning the ship around.

——

There are a surprising amount of controls on a boat.  And it is very much unlike a car.  It took the two of us an hour just to get the engines started; and we were terrified to ever shut them down lest we be unable to repeat the arcane and arbitrary set of steps we went through to start them the first time.

We figured out how to reverse, and with a horrible grnding sound, we pulled backwards through the waste.

And we didn’t die.

——-

Were there any other people out there?

Not that we saw.  I’ve heard rumors of people skirting the edges, studying its size or just coming near it to marvel at its hideousness like rubberneckers at a car wreck.  Some eco-hippy wanted to go live there, some kind of misguided protest or whatever.  Even started a website to try and get sponsors and media coverage.  But he got arrested in Tempe the week before he was supposed to leave, got busted buying booze for some high school girls.

Fuckin hippies.

Yeah.

That’s an amazing story, I told her.  She nodded.  I think I’d like to see it some day.

You don’t, she said, suddenly serious.

No?

No.  It’s a blight.  A shame.  It does terrible things to your mind, going to a place like that.  Better to never experience it at all.

I thought about it a while.  She left to go get another pitcher of beer.  They serve late at Kennedy’s, as long as the cops aren’t around and nobody asks too many questions.

—–

Your ex just told me some crazy shit, I told Henry.  She’s been to some strange places.

Whatever. Fuck that.

No, really.

Did she tell you she slept with some dude named Manuel while she was on that boat?  Dude didn’t even speak English?

No, but that wasn’t really the point of the story.

Fuck it, Henry said.  This a fucked up world when your girlfriend cheats on you with some Mexican dude she met on the world’s biggest pile of garbage.

Which is true, I suppose.

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