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Trek the World Without Losing Your Job

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This post is supposed to be about how to travel the world, climb peaks and passes and not lose your job in the process. But the truth is, I trek the world to keep my job.

Hiking and trekking is the yin to my workday yang. As a government attorney working on public health issues, my days are filled with back-to-back meetings, deadlines, and an ever changing and challenging mix of legal, policy, personnel, issues. Currently I'm immersed in Measles and Ebola. If it weren't for my adventures, I would not stay sane or grounded. And besides, there's no better way to relax after a stressful workday than by planning my next big trip. (Up next: Patagonia this spring.)

rsz mtwhitney
The back side of Mt. Whitney looms above Timberline Lake during one of the author's treks on the John Muir Trail (JMT). All photos: Karin Schwartz.

I know what you're thinking. How can I pull off big expeditions when American workers get notoriously short vacation times and a lot of us are workaholics?

Initially, when I started as fresh, new employee in government work 12 years ago, my vacations never exceeded a week at a time. Part of that was necessity—I hadn't accrued much vacation time. But part of it was psychological. I worried others above me in the chain of command might doubt my loyalty and dedication if I took extended time off. And I worried about burdening my co-workers, who would have to cover for me while I was off gallivanting around the world.

Then Papua New Guinea called in 2008. I'd been on the job for six years, and was offered a spot on a three-week bird watching and diving trip. I couldn't say no. So I went, I thrived, and work survived in my absence. I returned refreshed and energized. Win-win all around.

Campsite at Taullipampa, Peru, with Mt. Taulliraju looming in the background
Peru's Mt. Taulliraju towers above the author's campsite during a 2014 expedition to Peru.

Ever since, I've planned two extended trips each year: a two-plus week international trekking adventure in the winter and a local thru-hiking adventure in the summer. In the last three years, I've managed to trek in Tanzania/Mt. Kilimanjaro (2012), Nepal (2013), and Peru (2014). I also backpacked the John Muir Trail (JMT) over the same period (2012-2014), and tucked in wonderful 7-day solo trek on the High Sierra Trail (2013).

Is it easy to pull this off? Well…no, not especially. It's a balancing act, and it requires diligent planning and prioritizing. It also demands being willing to compromise when necessary. I would have loved to thru-hike the entire 220-mile JMT in one year. But I also wanted to go to Africa, Asia, and South America. In the end, section hiking gave me a unique perspective on the JMT and helped me build up critical skills that made a solo 120-mile backpack from Mammoth Lakes to Onion Valley totally doable.

Carving out the time (and saving the money) for these adventures is about being true to myself – something my bosses and coworkers seem to recognize and respect. Getting outside, getting to altitude, climbing peaks, passes, and alpine lakes are my passions. If I didn't make them a priority, I doubt I'd be much fun to be around—at work or anywhere else. So yes, hiking, trekking, and backpacking things I do to
keep my job, no less so than coming to work on time, and working hard when I am on the job.

Karin Schwartz is an attorney who works in public health in California. She and her fluffy red dog, Sasha, enjoy hiking and backpacking in Desolation Wilderness and the Eastern Sierra.

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