Unlike most of us who live our daily lives tethered to “necessities” like cell phones, computers and a constant wi-fi connection, Morgan Sjogren, 32, lives freely out of her canary yellow Jeep, going weeks and many thousands of miles with just the bare minimum always on hand: her running gear, and a healthy ration of tortillas.
Over the course of a year and a half, she set out on a series of adventures that took her from the Colorado Sierras to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, and lots of places in between. Much of her journey was documented through essays and other short stories published by the likes of REI’s Co-Op Journal and Runner’s World.
Although there are many who get outside to car camp, spend the weekend in the wilderness and return to the comfort of their own homes – Sjogren took it a step further: She decided to pull the rip cord on paying rent. She instead opted to pursue her dream of sleeping under the stars (or in the somewhat-cramped confines of her Jeep) every night, escaping the chaos of suburbia and the noise of large cities and – above all – logging some serious solo miles and becoming a full-fledged writer.
Today, she’s hit all those goals and lived to tell the tale, with her new book, “Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic,” released earlier this month. The pages are a manifesto of escaping the daily norms and reflecting on what really matters. Sjogren captures the essence of life on the road, mapping miles on foot in Bear Ears, running to multiple mountain peaks in one day, and staying fueled on a multitude of endlessly creative recipes (many of which include a burrito variation of some sort, cobbling together any and all ingredients she has on hand at the moment).
ASN had a chance to talk with Sjogren and hear what inspired her to head out indefinitely to see where the open road would take her. She shares her best advice to those looking to do the same, and an easy-to-make recipe from her book.
What was the longest stretch you were out on the road hopping from destination to destination without going “home” to recharge?
It would be better to phrase this question as: ‘What was the longest stretch you stayed in one place?’ It was rare for me to be in one place more than 2 weeks at the most.
What inspired you to set out on this journey in the first place?
I went through a divorce and lost most of my material possessions. I had lived out of my vehicle in the wilderness before, so it wasn’t really new to me. I wanted to explore new places to call home and pick up my writing career. I knew I would need to cut my overhead, and living out of my car cut rent out of the equation. It was definitely hard to leave my community, though.
I love how candid you are about your thrifty “dirtbag” approach to living on the road. How often would you would stock up at grocery stores for these trips?
I think I went a three-week stretch in Bears Ears where I didn’t resupply, shower, or get gas – I just stayed out there. The ultimate litmus test was when I getting low on everything, then it was time to go back into town.
Were you ever scared during all your time alone out in these remote locations?
I was never actually scared. At times, when I was in places like remote canyons and I would run out of food, I went into survival mode, but I really felt more frustration than anything else. I grew a lot of self reliance.
A lot of people ask if I was afraid of animals and being alone. But for me, being out in the wilderness and fending for myself and dealing with the weather and the other unpredictable elements, took me out of my problems – my emotions and the turmoil in my life – and into something so much more real.
Did you ever just break down and eat at a restaurant here and there when you got sick of eating cold burritos and drinking warm beer?
I think there was a one-month stretch where I only spent $80 total. If I was hungry I would figure out a way to work with what I had. I viewed this as an exciting challenge.
For those who haven’t read the book, there’s this great section on dumpster diving (and how you actually turned the ingredients you found into a recipe for pasta sauce). It left us so curious about the circumstances that led you to try dumpster diving in the first place, if you had any reservations about it, and if it’s something you’d do again?
I had just got back from Bears Ears and hadn’t been working, and the advance on my book was only a couple hundred dollars. My boyfriend and I didn’t have any work lined up.
He was savvy with dumpster diving; I had never done that and was skeptical. We went to a local dumpster behind a grocery store and found a whole crate of Roma tomatoes, and lots of basil. It felt like we won the lottery. That night we made mass quantities of pasta sauce, and I jarred it all and stored it away. We had lots of pasta over the next few weeks.
I live out of my jeep and that’s my personal vehicle, but I also bounced around a lot of other places and spent lots of time camping out. You can make so many things, like the pasta sauce, on a double burner stove. Although it’s a lot easier to do in an actual kitchen.
I do really well with chaos and making things work when it doesn’t feel like it will. For most people these are really extreme situations but for me, it’s just my life.
When I go to big cities and have to do stuff inside I get antsy and anxious. But you have to see it as a chance to grow. I hope people can take this away from my stories and apply it to their life to grow, too. It’s really just a new way to think about something differently.
How has your motivation for traveling evolved for you over time and what inspires you these days to go off-grid or on a road adventure?
The enthusiasm to get out there and keep exploring is the same, if not higher than when I set out. But now I feel more comfortable in this space. I love it. I feel like I can continue to do this for as long as I can.
I also feel much more savvy now. I’m in tune with my Jeep, and can tell when things are off. I’ve refined my sleeping space. In winter 2017, I had a crappy sleeping bag and would sleep in ski clothes. Now I have a zero-degree sleeping bag, down jackets and lots of other things I’ve collected along the way that make it so much easier.
What is the one piece of advice you would give people who want to follow your path?
Always trust your gut and always trust your heart. The only times when I had any sort of regret, was when things went poorly and I didn’t trust my gut or listen to my heart. Taking a holistic look at your overall wellbeing is the most important thing. You can have nothing and be living outside, and if you are doing what makes you happy then you will be happy.
Running is a big piece of your life and this book – how did you get into running and how has your relationship with it changed and grown, especially during your time on the road?
I started running when I was 9 years old with my mom. It was something we could do together. I did a race with my mom and I immediately fell in love with it; it was such a natural thing, as true love really is. It comes naturally, and feels right.
I ran in high school and on a college scholarship. For most of my life, running was a competition-driven pursuit. When I was a kid, it was a creative outlet. I would daydream and pretend I was running through Africa or on the John Muir Trail. When I decided to go on the road, I knew I wanted to get into trail running.
What was it like training and running while you were living out of your Jeep exclusively? Did you find it to be harder on your body, in terms of what foods were available, etc.?
Being on the road shifted my recovery time. I had less opportunity to get fully rested. I spent so much time driving and traveling, that also shifted how often I could fit in my running. The actual act of running became less consistent.
During times when I was scrapping by, it was questionable whether I was getting enough protein and taking in enough calories. This was definitely a feast and famine time period, and I learned that eating less-than-healthy foods was so much better than bypassing feeding yourself all together. I’ve been out in the dessert eating powdered potatoes, and really craving vegetables and red meat. But, If all you have is donuts, it’s best to eat them at that time to fuel your body any way you can.
You mention in the essay “Tundrathon” that Jack Keroauc’s “Dharma Bums” inspired your pursuit of summiting these peaks, namely the Matterhorn – which had eluded you several times before. Can you elaborate a bit more on this, and the significance this journey has had on you moving forward?
When I lived in the Sierra Nevada region, one of the first things I tried to do was climb that peak that the characters [in Dharma Bums] climbed. The first time [I tried], it snowed. I came down with the flu the next time, and then I tried again with my ex-husband but we had to turn around and go back.
After I had pretty much given up hope on it, someone tipped me off that there was a [different] Matterhorn in Colorado. It meant so much to me; I even had a dog named Matterhorn before I left Mammoth. Then, last summer, I ended up going back and climbing the Matterhorn in the Sierras.
The Matterhorn in [Keroauc’s] book represents your path or ‘dharma’ – the style and philosophy in which you pursue things. I look at my own attempts and see a lot of myself in this. That’s also where the name “Running Bum” came from.
The Guidebooking section on Bears Ears was so fascinating and such a great way to lead readers into your story. How many miles total did you end up running (and documenting) through this national monument?
I did routes that weren’t included in The Guidebook. I was in Bears Ears on and off February through May , and then I went back in August and stayed until October. I think I logged 300 miles of trails in the book, but I run with a stopwatch and don’t track my miles, so I can’t stay for sure how many I actually covered.
I did 90 miles of running in the canyons in 1 week; I was hurting [laughs]. It was super liberating and helped me cut my teeth and do some soul searching. I’ve spent time in the wilderness with friends and alone – both have their merits. If you are going to push the boundaries, it’s good to have a partner.
Where was your favorite place you visited inside of Bears Ears?
Cedar Mesa is my favorite, it’s a plateau with canyons all around; they are all my favorite. Also, The Meadow between Bears Ears and near Mesas. I found a lot of solace there.
What did it feel like to reintegrate yourself with society and people after spending so much time alone in reflection – and how have you maintained a balance with that in your life since these travels?
Most of my time is spent oscillating between remote places and then going back into the city for travel and writing assignments, and addressing fixing my jeep.
I prefer being in the wilderness. After a while in the city I feel overstimulated. I joke that going back to the wilderness is going back to the real world.
In writing “Outlandish,” I definitely identified this balance. I realized I was lacking a sense of community with moving around so much. I missed having a stronger foothold in a specific area and going back to the same friends. When you revisit the same communities you establish stronger bonds.
That is one thing I sought to change this year. I’m going back to southern Utah for time in the wilderness and then I travel to Durango and Silverton to ground myself in something real – that’s how I’ve balanced it.
What is your favorite recipe in the book and why?
Each one has a special place in my stomach. My go-to favorite burrito is the Veggie-zona burrito. Whenever I am at a Mexican place I always order this, or some version of it.
For sentimental reasons, the Dirty Blondies are also up there. My mom made that recipe for me, and it’s been my favorite thing since I was a kid. Figuring out how to make it on a campfire has been a huge comfort for me.
Morgan’s Rainbow Curry Burritos
– 3 tbsp coconut oil, divided
– Sliced, diced or whole bell peppers, carrots, snap peas, onions, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant
– 1-3 tbsp curry paste
– 15 oz. can coconut milk (full fat)
– 2 eggs
– 1 package pre-cooked rice
– 2 burrito-sized tortillas
– Pineapple (especially for red curries)
– Heat up half the oil in the skillet and add veggies.
– Sauté until golden brown and caramelized. Put the lid on the skillet to speed up the process, but open it every few minutes to toss veggies.
– In saucepan, warm remaining oil over medium heat and add curry paste.
– Once it has slightly changed color and is fragrant, add coconut milk.
– Bring to low boil, reduce heat to low and simmer until veggies finish cooking.
– Once veggies are cooked, add curry to skillet and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
– Mix in pre-cooked rice.
– Fry the egg in the saucepan.
– Heat the tortillas.
– Fill each tortilla with curry, top with a fried egg and generous drizzle of Sriracha.
For more recipes and adventure stories, visit Sjogren’s site to purchase “Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic”.
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