Trips of a Lifetime
By Mari Taketa
Tent, sleeping bag, trekking poles: Christine Wong ’04 is packing for her next trip. She’ll go alone, hiking across mountains and stretches of wilderness, so maps are key. So is sunscreen. She’ll keep her gear to under 20 pounds, not including her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera, which she’ll strap to her body. If anything needs to go, it will be clothes. “You can always have less clothes,” she says.
Travel for Wong is not what it is for most people. A locum tenens doctor at Creighton University Medical Center in Nebraska, she splits her time almost evenly between 12-hour shifts in adrenaline-filled emergency rooms and solitude in some of the planet’s most remote reaches. Most ER doctors average 10 shifts a month; Wong will do 15, then take off for a month or two. In between will be shorter trips to national parks.
Her first real travel as an adult, backpacking through five countries in Europe, followed the well-trodden route of many college students. Her first solo hike, a rim-to-rim traverse of the Grand Canyon, turned travel into a passion. “I spent a lot of time hiking by myself without seeing other people for days. You have to depend on yourself, you have to be independent. That builds you up mentally,” Wong says. “It’s a lot of time to think about things like what I want in life, what I’m doing at that moment and where I want to see myself in a few years.”
Hiking solo also turned Wong into an avid nature photographer and environmentalist. It brought balance to a high-stress career. And gradually, it began to reveal her next steps.
At 33, Wong has seen more of the earth than most people will in a lifetime. This was her travel schedule last year: February in New Zealand. April in Sardinia off the coast of Italy. May in Peru. July in the Swiss Alps. September in British Columbia. October in northern Chile, Easter Island and Argentina. Like all her trips now, she bypassed cities and headed for the wild.
This growing list of stamps in her passport reflects, at least in part, a desire to make up for lost time. Although she spent her childhood summers visiting her grandmother in Hong Kong, she didn’t venture out much during her times there. Her first trip to Europe came during Wong’s last year of medical school at the University of Hawai‘i. “Taken” had come out – the Liam Neeson movie about a father’s search for his teenage daughter who’s kidnapped while traveling in France – and Wong’s mother was anxious. “We stayed in hostels, met really cool people. Seeing something that wasn’t Asia was really cool,” she says. “I wanted to do more.” During residency, she started trading shifts, which you could do in emergency medicine, to take off for up to six weeks a year. For Wong, this was rapidly becoming a necessity: Residency for her meant 12-hour shifts in the emergency room of New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Queens. It wasn’t boring – there were always intubations, people whose lives she would save – but the intensity of this playing out day after day in the same four walls demanded balance.
The Grand Canyon trip was her first after finishing residency. Alone in the moonlight, trekking between megaliths of rock and shadow, she became aware of the park as a protected space. National parks were a covenant between society and nature, a testament to the power of public will in staying the hand of man. On safari in Tanzania the next year, she saw issues of poaching and people-animal conflicts. In Patagonia she found an organization working to keep dams from being built on pristine rivers; in New Zealand another was protecting endangered kea mountain parrots from human and animal threats. “Each country has their own battles with environmental policy. Everywhere you go you can see something different that they do that we don’t do, things they do worse than we do, things they do better,” Wong says. “Learning about what each place does with their environment encouraged me to learn more about what we do in the U.S.”
Trip preparation now isn’t just about hiking maps and gear checks; it’s about environmental and wildlife issues. There is, too, a key lesson from Punahou, whose impact is becoming clear. Wong realizes classes like Shakespeare and Friends, Videography and Contemporary Issues were taught by teachers with passion – and that while good grades, college and career were important, her teachers demonstrated the power of finding a real passion, being informed, being a good person and having fun.
At each destination of her own journey she’s now finding causes to support. She keeps tabs on organizations and donates to them regularly. In the quiet of a hiking trail, she thinks about these things in the context of her life. Every trip feeds her passion and builds her knowledge. But to what end? She could combine her medical skills with her love of travel, but after taking part in medical missions in remote areas, the experiences seemed much too brief. Or she could delve into issues, return to school to study public policy, and turn that into her new journey. “I think it’s more important than ever to stand up for the environment,” she says. “I’d like to be more involved in a nonprofit and learn how to shape public policy about the environment. That would be my next thing, I think.”
In the meantime, Wong is heading off again – this time it’s a road trip through Utah and Arizona with her mom. She already knows she’ll throw her support behind two nonprofits advocating to restore the Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Bears Ears national monuments. And then there will be a hiking trip to Slovenia and Croatia, and more places to research, and more to see. Always so much more to see.
More Alumni Profiles – Summer 2019
Vanessa Adams ’88