Death of Antarctic writer Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson, author of Big Dead Place and a close friend, took his life on November 28, 2012. Nick’s death is a heartbreaking loss to his family, to his friends, and to so many of us that knew him as an essential part of the Antarctic community. He had a voice and a spirit unlike any I’ve known, equally cynical and generous, funny and soulful. I loved him and I miss him.

No one has done more to change the way we understand Antarctica. Nick was unflinching in his critique of bureaucracy and authority in the United States Antarctic Program, but mainly he sought to create a dialogue within and about Antarctica that cut through cliche and hypocrisy in order to describe things as they really are, in all their glory and strangeness. Not all his readers realize that Big Dead Place (both the book and the website), which can be both brutally honest and explicit, is first and foremost an expression of Nick’s love of Antarctica and of the people in the USAP. He loved the place so much that he wanted to make it better. And he did. There is nothing like Nick or his writing in all of Antarctic literature or history. Not many people can say they upended a continent’s literature.

I knew Nick very well. We were happy roommates for two seasons on the ice, and we rented a flat together in Christchurch, New Zealand, for several months while for 15 hours a day we both wrote and researched in Christchurch’s Antarctic libraries. There was hardly an hour in all that time together that we weren’t talking about Antarctica, past or present. Rozo, Byrd, Shackleton flowed seamlessly through our conversations about galley food or South Pole politics. No one will ever understand my Antarctic writing – my whole Antarctic obsession, really – better than Nick. And I watched in amazement during those Christchurch months while he transformed himself from a writer of zines and broadsides into a master of narrative nonfiction.

Nicholas was his usual kind and generous self up to the very end. He and I were corresponding until just a few days before his death about this blog, of which he is the architect, and about Hoosh; I took his silence in the final days to mean he was busy with other projects. He seemed upbeat. I wish I had realized that he was so overwhelmed by the pain of living that he was making his final plans. Like every one of his many friends scattered around the world, I would have dropped everything to save Nick. But I had no idea he would do this.

I won’t talk here of what might have driven Nick to take his life. His stints as a contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan probably darkened his thoughts, and certainly he was disappointed about being blackballed from his beloved USAP, but I assume his suicide has deeper roots than that. Whatever his rationale, he was wrong. Life without Nick in it is so much poorer, so much emptier, and I can’t help but think that his demons could have been driven out if he’d shared them with the right people. But he was as guarded about his inner life as he was fair and generous in his personal life.

If you’re reading this without knowing Nick’s work, go and read Big Dead Place and explore www.bigdeadplace.com. If you don’t know American Antarctica, it will be strange going at first. It might help to be familiar with Hunter S. Thompson’s writings on American culture and politics, but Nicholas Johnson was a better writer, I think. And if you really want to understand, go wash dishes in McMurdo or operate heavy equipment at the Pole and fall in love with the place, the people, and the absurdity of life in a big dead place. At some point, you’ll think the same thing I will for the rest of my life: Hey, I really wish I could talk to Nick right now.

Comments

  1. Danielle says:

    Many hugs to you, Nicholas even though you were not the “huggy” type. You have used your creativity to bring humor to many of us over the seasons. Thank you for that. I wish I knew you needed someone to bring you out from underwater. I have crawled out myself and could have thrown you support. I remember when i first met you during our first season in waste, you told me you could not believe i was simply “nice” and not wanting something in return. I wondered why you would think I had an ulterior motive. Nicholas, I have thought of you many times over the years and, well, it sucks to have to say goodbye.

  2. Ang says:

    Thanks for this article, Jason. I had lost contact (except for an occasional facebook hello) with Nick since our winter in 2008 when he lived across the from my boyfriend and me. I always enjoyed running into him in the hall and occasionally stopping by his room for a chat. Whenever he saw my friend, Kim, in the hall he’d sheepishly remove his hat as he approached her and then stop so that she could run her fingers through that thick head of hair he had. It was almost a ritual. My sister knew him from their first season (her only season) as DA’s in the galley in 1998 and she spoke highly of Nick. We each had little schoolgirl crushes on him at one point or another. He always had a smile on his face that could brighten my day, especially if it wasn’t going so well. When I picked up his Big Dead Place book, it was almost impossible to put it down until I read the whole thing. It made me laugh out loud in public places, which earned me odd looks from many strangers. So many people adored Nick. Never in a million years did I imagine he’d do something like this, but like many of his closest friends, even those of us who didn’t know him as well felt close to him and we would have done anything to help him out of that funk.

  3. Joshua says:

    Sorry to hear…. He will be missed.

  4. Lynn says:

    Jason, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Nick. You are an excellent writer, as was Nick. I lost touch with Nick after my last winter in 2008 but not in my heart and I always thought I’d see him again. Like most Winterovers, he’s family and if he were in my presence today, it would be like no time had gone by and we’d be sitting in our dorm room laughing at Wunder Showzen or some other twisted thing. He was like nobody else, a really stellar person. I am sorry for your loss and for all of us who knew him and loved him.

  5. Kellie says:

    Darin (Nick) was my cousin and, though we weren’t close as adults, we spent our childhoods together. I can’t call him Nick…that’s not who is was to me…but Darin was in my wedding and was godfather to my oldest son. I loved him and my heart breaks for him and the rest of our family who wish we had done more, stayed in touch…anything that might have prevented this. I am so gratified to read all the comments of those who knew him better as an adult…thank you for giving me insight into the man he became. I will forever remember him as the little boy that was devastated to learn he couldn’t marry my little sister, Kerrie. They had their whole lives planned out and I dashed their hopes with the simple fact that first cousins can’t marry. Boy, were they pissed!

    Thank you, Jason, for the article. And for the picture…it’s classic Darin!

  6. Jen says:

    Jason, thanks so much for writing this. You said exactly what I’ve been feeling. Nick had been in touch with me recently and recommended your book, as I’m a bit of a foodie and write a blog. I went through the program back in 2002-04, and that’s how we got to know each other. Although it’s been a long time since USAP, Nick always dropped me lines every now and then. I’m really going to miss those updates. He was really a remarkable guy.

  7. Tom Laurie says:

    I did not know Nick very well, in fact, we only met a few times (Through you, Jason) and I only wish I had gotten to know him better. I did not have a relationship with Nick but I have, over the years, formed one through his writings. It will never be the same as knowing someone in the physical sense but I am grateful to be able to read his writings and views on living and working in the Antarctic. May your thoughts and wonderful insight about life on the ice stand the test of time.
    Peace be with you.

  8. AS says:

    I only knew of Nick through the book. The book made me fall in love with the ice, so I went there for 2 seasons. I’m saddened to hear this news. He was a folk hero to me.

  9. I met Nick through his publisher and got him some help with his drinking which was spiraling out-of-control at that time. I felt that he didn’t stick with the program long enough, but he did cut out drinking anything stronger than beer for almost a year after a weekend of counseling. I didn’t know him very well, but I really liked him and when I heard that he’d ended his life I was shocked. Had I not been out of the country at the time I would have attended his memorial service.

  10. Joe Nuxoll says:

    I grew up with DJ. Or Darin. Or I guess Nick as he went by in later years… He was one of my very best friends in grade school and high school. After high school, we mostly lost touch. I saw him a few times, but eventually we faded out of each other’s lives. He was one of those guys that I knew in the back of my head that I’d meet up with again randomly, and it would be an amazing walk down memory lane – and a wonderful story telling time to catch up on everything we had missed. He was a great story teller, and made me laugh so hard it hurt. I didn’t know he was in Antarctica. I didn’t know he wrote a book. When I heard the news about his passing, my heart totally sank. Months later now, I’m still really bummed out. I bought and read his book immediately, and it really felt like he was telling a story in person. I’m so glad he spent the time to write that – or anything – just to relive an imaginary in-person story telling. I can’t help but think that he was in a dark place that *possibly* could have been lighted by bumping into one of his long-lost friends from grade and high school. Like me. So many of us loved him, and surely would have loved to spend time with him to hear his stories. If that chance re-meeting had happened, maybe he would have had something to look forward to – rather than end it. I am so bummed.

  11. David Herbert says:

    As someone who never met Nick Johnson or traveled to Antarctica, I will offer my reasonably objective opinion that Big Dead Place is a contemporary masterpiece. The only interaction I had with Nick was via his website, where he advised I break up with my girlfriend. When I heard HBO was making a show I was thrilled. I live in Bellingham, coincidentally where Nick went to school at WWU, and I have frequently recommended him to others. Sad to hear he is dead, I always hoped for another book.

  12. Slim says:

    I’ve spent 14 of the last 15 years of my life working in Antarctica. Nicholas (aka Nick, aka Darin, depending on his mood) was one of the few folks I knew who truly appreciated the absolute absurdity, and yet was still in love with the USAP experience. I am a cynical and sarcastic person; he was a magnitude or two greater, and I had to occasionally take a step back and breathe deeply. Still, he was quick to smile and laugh, and proffer a bottle of Scotch at Fleet Ops end-of-the week “safety meetings” when a bit of hooch was still allowed at the workplace. A few years ago while I was on the Ice he e-mailed me from Afghanistan, asking me if I was available within 30 days to work as his assistant for $100K a year. He said I would have to “answer phones, attend meetings, fill out work orders, and generally pretend to enjoy the company of others, although the two of us shall know it a sly ruse,” or something very close to that effect. I didn’t want to bail on my Antarctic contract without some details, but he simply wrote back that should I be in the mood to come to Afghanistan and enjoy days of tedious boredom punctuated by the occasional blast of a suicide bomber just down the street precisely as you are trying to complete a complicated spreadsheet for the Man, I should get back to him. I’ve had my own glimpses of darkness, and never got back to him. $100K wasn’t enough to witness things that may haunt you to your last day. This last season, as I checked southbound manifests, I was ecstatic to see his name. I looked forward to a drink or two, and to catch up on folks we’d both known on the Ice since the late ’90s. Then came the news that his job offer had been rescinded, and soon thereafter his Hemingwayesque exit. (By the way, if you lean toward self-destruction, consider the poor sap–often a stranger–who will discover the splattered blood, bone and grey matter rendered via shotgun). His publisher at Feral House wrote a bileous piece blaming the Antarctic bureaucracy; that was far too simple and political. Nicholas had seen lightness and darkness, and, mightily fatigued, the darkess finally won out. RIP.

  13. Benno Lyon says:

    Wow. I am stunned. I went looking for Darin (Nick) tonight on a whim, as my friends are doing this big live musical of “Jaws” here in Portland, and I thought, “they should really look at my copy of “Shark Fear, Shark Awareness”… a ‘zine I STILL have from 1993 or 1994 when I lived with Darin in Olympia, at Evergreen. He was one of my 3 roommates in the Evergreen “Mods”. Freshman year. What a riot, that year. He was a creative genius, a gentle soul, wicked sense of humor, totally friendly… and yeah, a pretty cynical bastard at times. Always making weird tunes on his 4 track. Totally into Tom Waits. Always wearing a grey knit hat, over his greasy hair. He had that Jack Nicholson grin. Darin would bring weird shit home, stuff he found here or there, and put it on the table, and ask “what do you think this might be? What is it for?” One was this weird macrame tube with a big poofy doily on top. We must’ve spent 20 hours or more, over several weeks, sitting around that table, just making up things that it could’ve been for. Another object involved a bowling ball anchored to a chain. We made beer in the closet. All manner of other shenanigans went on, but I tell you, I admired Darin. He was out of my league. Me, a freshman kid from a hippie family, and Darin.. just a total spelunker in the realm of ideas and imagination, always practicing and honing his crafts of writing and songwriting. At the time, he got the Society of Shark Fear going, and with his slow ooze of charisma, his total commitment to this bizarre but enticing concept, he got an idea, a zine, to turn into a social reality, a big event, a cultish in-joke happening of sorts. I was so excited to FIND him tonight. And instead, I find he’s died. I just ordered a copy of Big Dead Place. Dammit Darin!!!! I wanted to find you and laugh about all of that shit, and then see what was new with you. I remember you going off to McMurdo to be in a weird place where there would be colorful characters to write about. That was the last time I talked with you. RIP brother. I’ll never forget you, look how well I remember you 20 years later. What a damn shame. Thank you for leaving a book for me to read and get to know you better by.

  14. Oberst Herr Wheel OAE/NS/ MCM/NPX says:

    While looking into HBO’s production of the Big Dead Place movie and wondering if it would still go on after the news this week about James Gandolfini, I find this gut renching news of Nick’s passing. I went to the Antarctic in 1990-2009 to get away from the all the bs that is present in the real world workplace only to find that some of it is omni present and homogenious throughout the 3rd rock, at least the places I have set foot, so I adapted. Nick made a long time dream I had sence I was a teen. To have my name in print, that is without have’n the cops looking for me, or in the police blotter in the Durango Herald. I am greatful to have had him on my NS crew at MCM . RIP Nick

  15. Jackson says:

    RIP Nick.
    I never met Nick in person but we did exchange a lot of emails. I am devastated at the news of his death and heart broken at the loss for his family and friends. Tonight I’m going to sit down and read Big Dead Place one more time.

  16. Eirik Sønneland says:

    Dear Nick,

    You will be missed.

  17. Alice says:

    I am currently reading Big Dead Place without knowing the writer has passed away.
    I was going to find his website and wrote to him ‘hey, I love your book, you are a beautiful writer!’
    Well, I found this post instead…
    Anyway, Nick, you are beautiful writer, from what I read here, a beautiful person as well.
    Such a shame I never got to write to you to tell you that…

Trackbacks

  1. “From what I’ve heard about Nick from others who spent multiple seasons with him, he was a very kind, smart and interesting fellow. May his written word live on for centuries so that others may learn about the strange, menacing, quirky and sometimes backward way of life on this continent – this Big Dead Place.” Read the whole post

    [...] if you’re interested, you can read a very well-written and heartfelt article written by a friend of his about his life, his death …. [...]

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