“When I’m surfing, nothing else matters. I feel like it’s the most connected you could be to nature. The ocean controls what it’s going to do, and you’re just flowing with it.”
A few months ago, Megan made a trip to Arizona to escape the oppression of indoor confinement that is grad school and northeast winters. She and her boyfriend, Sam, joined me and my partner for a multi-pitch climb up a ‘desert tower’. Although it was the middle of January, it was a warm and beautiful day—perfect for getting immersed in Sedona’s rich, orange sandstone.
On the winding hike in amidst cliff edges and grey-green shrubbery, we all got to know each other a little better. Megan explained how working in wildlife biology brought her to study seabirds all over the country, from Cape Cod to Hawaii. She’s currently in grad school in Philly to study occupational therapy, but she and Sam plan to travel during her rotations and live out of the van they’re currently building out.
After struggling up the awkward sections of the route, one-by-one we got to the summit and took in a stellar 360° view of Sedona’s canyons, spires, and buttes. There was just enough space for the four of us to sit comfortably, and I asked Megan about her seasonal work, trekking in Nepal and the Sierras, and what she loves about the outdoors. Eventually, we rappelled down and got to enjoy one of Arizona’s signature sunsets as we hiked back to our cars.
What brought you and Sam out to Sedona?
This is my first big break during grad school, which is the first time since undergrad that I’ve spent this much time indoors. It’s messed with my mental status; I missed being outside. I feel kind of like an animal in captivity when I’m inside too much. I went to Colorado for a week, then Hawaii for nine days, and now we’re here.
So you did some skiing, surfing, and climbing in those areas. What else do you like to do outside, and is there one activity you’re most passionate about?
I really enjoy mountain biking, yoga, running, I love skiing. Skiing’s been my passion and I was a ski instructor for many years. But the thing that I identify most with is surfing. I grew up surfing. My job other than grad school is to teach surf lessons in New Jersey.
Why surfing, what does it mean to you?
When I’m surfing, nothing else matters. I feel like it’s the most connected you could be to nature. The ocean controls what it’s going to do, and you’re just flowing with it. You’re not controlling anything. And yeah, I just love being in the ocean.
I learned how to surf in New Jersey. And then I went to college in North Carolina, so I surfed there for many years, and all around the country when I used to do seasonal work. I was a seabird biologist so I was always by the ocean. That was part of the reason why I decided to be a seabird biologist.
You mentioned that you had to move every six months for wildlife biology. Was that just a part of the job, or was it another reason why you decided to pursue it?
That’s a reason why. I was attracted to the lifestyle of seasonal work, and seeing new places, and meeting new people. That was always really exciting to me. And I got into wildlife biology because it was outside. My first job, I lived on a small island in a tent with two other people. We had to look through a scope and wear an eye patch on the other eye the rest of the day to strengthen the other eye. At one point, one of the girls accidentally knocked one of her teeth out. And with the eye patch, she started crying and was like ‘What has my life become?’ and I was like ‘I dunno, but it’s okay, you’re a true pirate now’. We were all in our early 20s, so we had a good time.
Do you have a favorite outdoor area or a favorite trip you’ve been on?
When I was like, 22, I read this book called Into Thin Air. I’m sure you’ve heard it.
Sam: I saw it in your van.
[Laughs] I became obsessed with Nepal and I told myself that 30 sounded like a good time to go see Mount Everest. So a couple months ago I finally got to go to Nepal and hiked to the base camp of Everest. That was a big deal for me. Seeing the Sherpa culture and staying in tea houses was really cool. They’re very spiritual, and they respect the mountains. I really enjoyed that trip and also to be in the Himalayan Mountains was phenomenal—crazy sized mountains. You go to Colorado, and you’re like ‘Woah. These aren’t even mountains. These are hills.’
How long does it take to do the trek?
It takes about two weeks to get to basecamp. Basecamp is, I think, around 16,000 [ft], and then we hiked to about 18,000 [ft] at one point. But, it just takes a long time because you can get HaPe. I think its high altitude pulmonary edema, and people can die from that stuff. So they really want you to go slow. The hike down is only three days, but you take your time going up for sure.
Did the altitude bother you?
I get weird with high altitude. I lived in Colorado for a while and when I get into high altitude for multiple days at a time, I get weird rashes on my hands. I went to a dermatologist about it, and no one seems to know—it almost looks like blisters. The first time it came about, was last year I did the John Muir Trail, which is about 240 miles. I did that in 3 weeks and I got weird rashes all over my hands, and then when I went to Nepal I had weird rashes all over my hands.
I’ve always wanted to do the JMT, what brought you to do it and how did you like it?
One of my friends called me up and was like, ‘I got a permit’, which they’re really hard to get. I was like, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ I had the time off and I was able to go. It’s really cool. I would go back in a heartbeat, like I’ve been trying to recruit people to go with me. Literally every turn you’re like ‘Oh my gosh’, like it’s so beautiful the entire time. And then the grand finale is Mt Whitney, which you summit that and think you’re gonna die. It’s so high, crazy elevation gain and loss. We got to the summit at sunrise and it was the coldest I’ve ever been. My water froze within 15 minutes of being in my backpack. I couldn’t feel my fingers and hands the whole time.
One last question: what do you love about the outdoors?
I truly believe that everyone’s meant to be outside and I feel like society has lost a lot of touch with that. I think it’s crazy that as humans we think we’re so dominant. My job as a wildlife biologist was to sit and watch birds for 8 hours a day and you find out really quickly that a colony of birds interacts the same way as a group of humans, like they love their babies; they would hug their chicks; feed their chicks; they’d nuzzle on each other; and the two parents would work together.
I’ve seen certain species of gulls go around and kill each other for no reason. They’re mass murderers like humans, and I just feel like nature puts me in my place, and being outside kind of humbles me.
I think it’s important for everyone to spend time outside and fully enjoy it. I feel like sometimes when you’re in the city too much, you’re kind of in your superficial world and you forget where you’re from, that you’re actually part of all of this, that it all works together. You kind of lose that connection and when I’m outside I’m like, ‘All right, I’m part of this again’.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.