How I Ended Up Cleaning Toilets in Antarctica

The winning submission of September’s Writers Club prompt!


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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