When Kathleen Egan told John Fiddler on their first date that she was planning on taking an indefinite leave of absence from work to take a trip around the world, he immediately said, “I’d quit my job to go do that.”
And just a couple years later, they did just that. John, a veterinarian, and Kathleen, an epidemiologist, set off on a trip around the world with three main goals: see the world, push themselves physically, and volunteer their skills to local communities. They’ve hiked the Great Himalaya Trail, spayed and neutered dogs in Thailand, raised money for education in Nepal, trail run in the Alps, and most recently spent three months providing animal welfare education, as well as animal and livestock health care, in Malawi. Both ultrarunners, they’re no strangers to long-distance travel and pushing themselves physically and mentally—something that has come in handy time and again in their travels. Case in point: Kathleen, John and their friend Seth Wolpin became the first team to cross all five technical passes of the Great Himalaya Trail high route without porter support, finishing in 87 days. Kathleen became the first woman to thru hike the high route self-supported.
A yearlong trip became 18 months, then two years, and now has become an open-ended commitment. With breaks to go home and do some work to recharge the savings account, John and Kathleen said that they don’t necessarily see an end in sight to their travels.
“We are just seeing where the world takes us at this point,” John said. The two have just returned for a stint in the U.S. to visit family and hit the trails in their former backyard of the Pacific Northwest, so I caught up with them and asked them some questions about their “journey of a lifetime.”
What brought you to Malawi?
JF: We knew we wanted to do volunteer work while in Africa. The Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (LSPCA) intrigued us. By helping animals, they were helping the people. What little I knew about Malawi was from the pages of National Geographic. It had not been high on our travel list, but after finding out about LSPCA and seeing some of their work, it jumped to the top of the list.
A: In many of the places you’ve traveled, you’ve found ways to lend your skills to the local community by volunteering. How has your work and the work of LSPCA benefitted the community?
KE: The aim of the animal welfare education outreach program is to educate the community of Lilongwe, Malawi about animal welfare; promote animal stewardship; encourage sterilization and vaccination of domestic animals (dogs) through LSPCA’s free weekly mobile sterilization clinics; bring about rabies awareness and prevention measures; and to dispel the longtime myth in Malawi that animals don’t feel pain through debate, poetry, and traditional song and dance practiced at the Animal Kindness Clubs (AKCs) in public schools.
A: From your experience over the last two years traveling and volunteering, what advice would you give to those wanting to take action?
JF: All change starts with small steps. I may have not made a difference on a world scale but I made a difference in an individual dog’s life or person’s life. If enough people do that, then one day we all might all wake up and see that collectively we have made global change.
A: As you started your journey, you were faced with the loss of two loved ones. How did those experiences shape your journey?
Kathleen Egan: [Those experiences of loss] reminded me of the brevity of life—and that life, the way I see it, is more about the moments that take our breath away instead of the number of breaths we take. They also taught me to embrace and engage every beautiful, painful, freeing, and fearful moment that is life. I’ll never forget the dreaded phone call that my father had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It came only a few months into our journey. We caught the next flight home and moved into my parents’ house to help provide hospice care. As hard as it was, we view the unexpected detour as part of our journey.
JF: We had a month after the funeral to recover before we left again, taking along Kathleen’s mom and sister to go to Thailand for our wedding. The wedding was the last time we would see Chad [Kellogg]. For many of his friends who were at our wedding, the last memories we will have will be as a group hanging out on the beach of Koh Samui. His grin and laugh during those days will stay with us. There have been several times when we have been doing silly (aka: dangerous) things in the mountains and I feel like Chad is there watching over us.
A: If you could just pick one, what has been your most memorable experience of your travels so far?
KE: Our wedding in Thailand was most special, of course. But taking the obvious out, crossing the Himalaya over 87 days along the Great Himalaya Trail while raising funds to help Nepali children go to school is a standout experience. Not only did it test us mentally and physically, it took us through some of the most remote villages bringing awareness to two important causes: access to education for the poor in Nepal and animal welfare issues.
JF: The most memorable experience of the entire trip is hands down doing the high route of The Great Himalaya Trail. We hiked more than 1,200 miles across insane mountain terrain and crossed six passes over 6,000 meters. When I think back and look at the pictures I still can’t believe we did it.
A: What has been your experience traveling together 24/7 for the past two years?
KE: Travel not only continues to teach us more about each other, but also includes a process of self-discovery. This was most remarkable early on. Learning how to create our own separate spaces in shared space has been really important since we’re never really alone. For long-term travel this has been crucial for maintaining the peace and creating balance when you’re together 24/7.
JF: I think the hardest part of traveling was at the beginning. That was going from a life of separate jobs and sometimes friends to Kathleen and I being together 24/7 indefinitely. There wasn’t a magic answer to this. It was a process of getting to know each other better, recognizing the warning signals when someone was getting upset, and ultimately realizing what an incredible experience we were having together.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: What is your “must-have” for traveling (gear/knowledge/etc.)?
KE: Above all, honor the intuitive mind. The intuitive mind is a gift. Embrace it. Don’t fight it. That goes for anywhere. We take risks every day. Oftentimes we think about all the adventures we’ve undertaken these last two years and are convinced that following our gut has kept us without incident.
JF: Must have for travel—as much as I hate to admit it, the one thing I can’t live without is my iPhone. With Wi-Fi being available in most places it provides a way to stay in touch with friends and family, works as a GPS/map, provides info on where we are, reading material, and games for entertainment on our down time or on our 36-hour bus marathons.
A: What’s up next for you guys? Is the adventure really ever over?
KE: After spending time with friends and family in the U.S. for the rest of this year, we will head to South America. We’re thinking Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Columbia right now, for more focused trail running, trekking and climbing pursuits. In February 2016, we hope to be in Patagonia to pay a special tribute to our friend Chad. It’ll be the two-year anniversary of celebrating his life. Our vagabond lifestyle has somewhat surprisingly come easily to both John and I, so as long as we are able to stay healthy and not run out of money, we might just continue for as long as we can.
JF: We both see ourselves at some point living and working overseas, with Africa being high on the list. We could also envision a life of working four-to-six months a year and traveling the rest of the time. The exciting part is not knowing the opportunities that the planet is going to throw our way.