The Postmodern Itinerant

Mark Backman is an infuriatingly calm 25-year-old whose life has direction, financial stability, and purpose. Yet he has no home, nor does he have any idea where he’s going to be next February. His line of work can be dangerous and frequently takes him to distant states and lands. He embarks on fascinating adventures and then maddeningly downplays them, even dismissing construction work in Antarctica as merely a job. When his interviewer detects enthusiasm toward any particular topic, a follow-up question quickly kills any potential lead. You can take the northern Minnesota boy out of northern Minnesota, but you’ll never get him to stop punctuating every sentence with “I guess” or the even vaguer “I s’pose.”

Backman, as he’ll tell you, is just a blue-collar guy. He dropped out of the University of Minnesota after a year, when the fix-it genes inherited on the paternal side insisted he was better suited to heavy work than head work. He enrolled in the College of Oceaneering in California and graduated at the top of his class with a degree in commercial diving, completed his apprenticeship in New Orleans, and dove everywhere else. He was almost killed when a mudslide buried him during a routine dredging of a riverboat casino in Missouri. He was nearly sucked down a drain in New Mexico, when the plug came out of a 3.5 million gallon underground reservoir he was helping repair. When his life flashes before his eyes, Backman does all he can to survive and then, misfortune averted, simply returns to work.

Mishaps aside, Backman likes underwater welding. Yet he despises politics of any kind, and underwater welders, who have a closely-knit association of just 5,000 members nationwide, can be as catty as an old ladies’ social club. So he retired. He moved into construction, and what better place to avoid the rat race and the bickering old crew than Antarctica?

What is it like building a science station on the polar cap during the southern hemisphere’s brutal winter? When the average daily temp is around 40 below, but can dip as low as 140 degrees below zero? Not so bad, Backman insists. A few extra layers is all anyone needs, and if the chill gets to be too much, the thought of the $2 drinks at the camp’s one-and-only local will keep a person moving. Until, that is, you find yourself falling into the ultimately unavoidable lethargy that encroaches when a person never sees the sun. When that happens, Backman says, all plans are abandoned. The predicted 15 pounds creep on. You dream of leaving and never returning. The mind erases the memories of the despised rat race and its incessant politics.

Until you return to them. Which is why Backman is seriously considering heading south to Antarctica for a second year. After that, it might be hard for him to ever go north again. “Veteran South Pole construction workers say you do the first year for the experience and the second year for the money,” he says, his green eyes showing a hint of the slow smile spreading across his face. “After that it’s because you don’t fit in anywhere else.” —Katie Quirk