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How I Ended Up Cleaning Toilets in Antarctica

The winning submission of September’s Writers Club prompt!

10.01.16
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There are moments in your life when you look around and think: “Yes. This is exactly where I should be. Everything I’ve worked for has built to this.” And then there are moments when you descend from a military-grade airplane into a blinding field of white with polar winds blasting you in the face and you think: “What the FUCK.”

To say that it was a linear road to Antarctica would be both geographically unsound and categorically untrue. I never, not once – not even in the smallest microcosm of my inner workings – dreamed of going to Antarctica. Mainly because I thought the continent was reserved for well-suited flightless birds and the National Geographic photographers that stalk them. But also because, while I’d always dreamed of exploring new cultures, meeting interesting people and seeing the world, the Antarctic wasn’t even in my top 50 places to visit.

Two years ago, I moved back to Kentucky after a short stint in New York City (miss ya, girl!) and started a new relationship and styling business. Both were going well but I couldn’t help but feel like I could be — should be — doing something else. While I’d like to pin the blame on social media (FOMO IS REAL, PEOPLE) – this was a more immediate kind of internal unrest. I didn’t know what to do.

Fleeing my relationship wasn’t really an option (hey, Duncan!), so it seemed only kismet when my man himself suggested we flee the country. Years earlier he’d worked as a janitor on a U.S. scientific research base in Antarctica and was eager to return. The premise of the adventure was pretty simple: we’d pack all our goods into a storage unit and head south (WAY south) to be janitors at McMurdo Station for Antarctica’s austral summer, which is the six-month stretch between October and March during which night never falls. We’d live dorm-style, eat cafeteria-style, hang grade school-style (no cell phones, barely any internet), and wear lots of warm layers. Sure, we’d have to return, but that was later. I figured if living in a giant white desert cleaning dishes and toilets didn’t cure my malaise, then I’d finally make good on that promise to myself to see a shrink.

So we did it. We quit our jobs, jammed our stuff into an eight-by-ten-foot box, said goodbye to friends and family (and greenery and darkness), and headed to the deepest of souths. And I was hooked right away. The nomadic lifestyle, the chance to travel, meet extraordinary people, support ground-breaking science (even if it just means cleaning up after them). I was so hooked that, after our first stint, we immediately signed up for round two. And this upcoming October, we’ll return for round three. Another beginning.

I can’t believe where my life is right now, but I also can’t imagine it being anywhere else. And while I know this isn’t forever, maybe nothing is. Now my original “What the FUCK” has become: “FUCK yeah!”

Follow author Maggie Lanham’s blog and Instagram; Photograph by Harry Benson/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; collaged by Emily Zirimis. 

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  • Jake

    this sounds miserable. instead of wasting your time performing menial tasks in the arctic, why not pursue your career as a stylist further? how does spending months away from civilization seem remotely beneficial to your line of work? this just makes no sense to me…

    • ALoren

      Not only is Maggie not abandoning her career as a stylist– which she has time to do when she isn’t in Antarctica– she’s satisfying her wanderlust, chilling (literally) with her boyfriend, meeting amazing people, collecting stories, taking time to figure out what she really wants while making a great salary, and generally being a fascinating person in a fantastical place. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to settle yourself, to dream, to have fun. She likes Antarctica; she also likes being a stylist. Just because you think cleaning is degrading– even if you’re in a spot few people ever get to go to, even among amazing people — doesn’t mean it is, and it especially doesn’t mean she sees it that way.

      • Grace S.

        ^^RT!! Maggie, you rule. Live your Antarctic truth!

    • Kat Locke

      Jake, she does it because there is more to life than just work. Life is meant to be lived, and we, the somewhat crazy people who take a leap of faith, step outside our boundaries, and seek out places to live and work, such as Antarctica, are looking for more than just a career or more than just a paycheck. Coming down here to the frozen tundra is more about having the experience, taking chances, meeting epic people, and seeing what this big world has to offer us. It is about the travel, the living of a not so 9 to 5 kind of life, and just risking it for the biscuit! Antarctica is not for everyone, but for those of us who keep returning to this most beautiful of places, there is no other place like it! LOVE THIS ROCK!

    • Maggie Lanham

      Hi Jake! First, I appreciate your taking the time to read my submission! If nothing else, Man Repeller is fertile ground for discussion of the myriad lifestyles and choices available to us and how we pick and choose the best version for ourselves. While it may not make sense to you, Antarctica is absolutely the best place for me to be right now. It has allowed me to travel the world while making money doing so (a dream I’ve carried with me since first grade when a classmate’s uncle lived and worked in Mali). Plus! In my off time I’m able to continue styling – you can check it out on my Instagram! I understand my choices and lifestyle don’t make sense to all, but if nothing else I hope this submission inspired at least one hesitant person to take the leap they’ve been deliberating!

  • I think the great Amy Poehler said it best:

    Good for you, not for me.

    It’s so cool that you and your boyfriend found something so amazing to do! I would probably seek something in a warmer climate, but hey…to each his (and her) own! Have fun this year!

    • Maggie Lanham

      Heather, I totally understand! haha it does get veryyyyy chilly down there. Thanks so much for the kind wishes!

  • elpug

    Whaaaat! It’s my dream to go to Antarctica. Growing up I always said they needed their own president down there and wanted to be the President of Antarctica. Since then I’ve developed more realistic goals but I still dream of going there. Props to making it happen!

    • Maggie Lanham

      Hell yeah you should be President of Antarctica 😉 ! Thanks for reading (and you can always take an eco-cruise to just visit!)

  • Pa La

    HOW DO I DO THIS??

    • Maggie Lanham

      Hey there! Head here: https://gsc.applicantstack.com/x/openings for one site, but you can also check out PAE’s website, too. Do it!! Come hang with me!

      • Pa La

        Thanks a lot! Will definitely look into this, sounds really amazing

  • Greer Clarke

    This was brilliant!!! Such a good pick MR!!!

  • livesontheinternet

    This is crazy, I love this!! I’m a high schooler right now and this creative space gives me life 🙂 I was wondering if maybe you did a prompt for school advice or the worst experience you had in school and how you got through it? I would love to hear everyone’s perspectives on it! Just a thought. I hope you have a lovely day! <3

  • Sati Marie Frost

    Man, I want to do this. Partner used to be a cook at McMurdo, and since he told me about it, I’ve wished I had the courage to just go. Sadly, the only openings I’ve found require US citizenship and a driving license. 🙁 Maybe sometime down the line.

    • Maggie Lanham

      How cool! When was he down there? Maybe I worked with him! And definitely keep checking back – you never know!

  • I needed this. What a terrific segway from “back to school month” to “being a grown ass adult” month … Thank you for sharing!!!

  • ab

    i was so happy and surprised to read this! i am going to be in mcmurdo next week. it’s cool to know there’s another mr reader on the ice. maggie, will you still be there?

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