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The past few years have drastically changed how we think about our relationship to work, perhaps permanently. However, they haven’t changed the fact that billions of people on this planet spend about half their waking hours exchanging labor for money in order to secure food and shelter. As such, work has remained an inescapable part of one’s identity. “What do you do?” is still a small-talk question not because the answer is usually interesting, but because the answer tells you something about the skills and knowledge that person has amassed. And when the answer is interesting, it’s hard not to feel some measure of admiration for someone whose experience falls so outside your own.
I’ve always been fascinated by those whose daily occupations carry meaning, promise adventure, or are in any way out of the ordinary. Of course, everybody’s dream job is different, but imagine swapping sitting at a computer or working on a production line for clearing landmines, dodging tornadoes, or braving the icy waters of the Bering Sea. Not for everyone, of course—but what astonishing ways to earn a living.
The examples you’ll encounter below range from the inspirational to the unfathomable. Who would want to toil 18-hour days, or climb to dizzying heights with little to no protection? For some, that sort of life holds a deep appeal, and herein lies the hook that draws you into these stories: In attempting to understand the motivations of others, we are by reflex attempting to understand ourselves. Each of these pieces moved me in some way, and I hope that they move you also.
Chasing Tornadoes (Priit J. Vesilind, National Geographic, April 2004)
As this mesmerizing article points out, it was the 1996 film Twister that first brought the occupation of “tornado chaser” to widespread public attention. Twister was a big deal upon its release, and I can vividly recall being spellbound by the then-cutting-edge special effects: dark and furious tendrils reaching down from the sky to pluck people, cars, and houses into the sky, spinning like toys, seemingly cut adrift from gravity itself. That film, as all movies do, exaggerated the hazards faced by its protagonists—but, judging by this primary account, not by very much. That meteorologists are still throwing themselves at deadly storms nearly 30 years on tells much of the complexity behind this destructive and spectacular weather phenomenon.
In order to study tornados, you have to get close enough to manually drop heavy probes in their path, sometimes less than 100 meters from an approaching maelstrom. In a way, it’s comforting to know that, for all our technology and sophistication, we are in no way removed from the natural systems that surround us. Nature can always outdo us, will always win. That’s not to minimize the human cost, however, nor the bravery and determination of the tornado chasers. From the very beginning, in which an entire village is sucked into the air, this piece delivers mind-boggling drama, immersing us in a disparate group of specialists who race across the United States to seek out something most others would sooner avoid—all in the interest of furthering our understanding of an uncontrollable phenomenon.
But we’re late, and out of position. If we try to drive around the storm, we won’t have enough daylight left to see it. So we decide to “punch the core” of the thunderstorm, forcing our way into the “bear’s cage,” an area between the main updraft and the hail. It’s an apt name: Chasing tornadoes is like hunting grizzlies—you want to get close, but not on the same side of the river. Sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you.
And so we head straight into the storm and find ourselves splattering mud at 60 miles an hour (97 kilometers an hour) on a two-lane road, threatening to hydroplane, visibility near zero. Anton is less than comforting. “The hail in the bear’s cage smashes windows and car tops,” he shouts, grinning. “The smaller stuff is kept aloft by the updraft, and only the large chunks fall. It’s like small meteorites banging down. Ha-ha-ha!”
In The Race For Better Cell Service, Men Who Climb Towers Pay With Their Lives (Ryan Knutson and Liz Day, ProPublica, May 2012)
Once again, we encounter a piece that draws aside the invisible curtain to glimpse the grueling efforts that enable our everyday creature comforts—in this case, the world of mobile communications networks. If you’ve ever shuddered at a TikTok video of a worker balanced precariously atop a tower at vertigo-inducing heights, this article probably isn’t for you. Yet, for such a dangerous job—cell tower climbing routinely claims up to 10 times the number of human lives as the conventional construction industry—it pays a relatively modest wage. What is it, then, that drives people to take up such work?
As a project manager quoted in the piece says, “You’ve got to have a problem to hang 150 feet in the air on an eight-inch strap.” Yet the workers featured in this piece, despite some suffering horrible injuries, clearly love their jobs. It’s not hard to understand the buzz that must come from routinely doing something that most people could not (and would not) do, along with sense of freedom that must come with climbing aloft to look down upon the world. As with the cobalt mining industry—itself the subject of another story in this list—there is a dark underside to this business, as sub-contractors routinely cut corners and take risks in the quest for a few extra dollars.
The greatness in Knutson and Day’s article, as with others collected here, lies in its ability to bring to life the stories and personalities of the people whose hard work makes life easier for us all. If you’re reading this on your smartphone, take a moment to consider the often-obscured reality behind mobile technology—a technology that, by its very nature, is largely invisible.
The surge of cell work forever altered tower climbing, an obscure field of no more than 10,000 workers. It attracted newcomers, including outfits known within the business as “two guys and a rope.” It also exacerbated the industry’s transient, high-flying culture.
Climbers live out of motel rooms, installing antennas in Oklahoma one day, building a tower in Tennessee the next. The work attracts risk-takers and rebels. Of the 33 tower fatalities for which autopsy records were available, 10 showed climbers had drugs or alcohol in their systems.
The Cobalt Pipeline (Todd C. Frankel, The Washington Post, September 2016)
This is where mobile technology begins: the dangerous and dirty business of mining for cobalt, a mineral essential to the construction of smartphones and laptops. As a species we are finally becoming aware that every modern amenity carries an ecological price, and that price is often paid most dearly (and ironically) by nations that are monetarily poor but resource-rich. In our relentless drive “forward,” it is often the most vulnerable who pay the price. Mining is not a calling for these men; it is a necessity.
However, there is hope to be found in this troubling story—specifically, the very fact of its existence. The best journalism reduces global issues to a human scale, and by taking us into the lives of Congolese miners risking life and limb in pursuit of the rare metal, writer Todd C. Frankel forces us to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.
But Mayamba, 35, knew nothing about his role in this sprawling global supply chain. He grabbed his metal shovel and broken-headed hammer from a corner of the room he shares with his wife and child. He pulled on a dust-stained jacket. A proud man, he likes to wear a button-down shirt even to mine. And he planned to mine by hand all day and through the night. He would nap in the underground tunnels. No industrial tools. Not even a hard hat. The risk of a cave-in is constant.
“Do you have enough money to buy flour today?” he asked his wife.
She did. But now a debt collector stood at the door. The family owed money for salt. Flour would have to wait.
Mayamba tried to reassure his wife. He said goodbye to his son. Then he slung his shovel over his shoulder. It was time.
Making Our Home Safe Again: Meet the Women Who Clear Land Mines (Jessie Williams, The Observer, January 2021)
War leaves scars on every country it touches, sometimes literally: one of its most insidious instruments is buried explosives, set to trigger at the touch of a human foot. Land mines have been a topic of discussion for many years, catapulted to the front of the news in 1997, when Princess Diana raised awareness by walking through a field of live explosives in Angola. (She was a guest of the Halo Trust, an organization that undertakes the arduous and dangerous task of clearing such places for the local populace.)
Little can be more terrifying than the knowledge that each step you take could be your last. It’s a sudden, senseless, death, one without discernment or mercy. But in this inspiring story, life comes full circle, as Hana Khider returns to her ancestral homeland of the Sinjar mountains in northwestern Iraq. When Khider was a child, her mother told her stories of the family homeland they were forced to flee; now, as an adult, she works as part of a team of deminers, making that homeland safe once again. As meaningful as this work is, it also carries with it the deadliest of dangers: an average of nine people a day still fall victim to these terrible remnants of conflict.
At the start of this month, a 24-year-old man working for MAG was killed in an explosion at a munitions storage facility in Iraq’s Telefar district – a reminder of the dangers these deminers face every single day. Iraq has around 1,800 sq km of contaminated land (an area bigger than Greater London) stemming from multiple conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Gulf War, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the Isis occupation of 2014. The Iraqi government has a target deadline of February 2028 to clear the country, which Morgan thinks is optimistic. “Last year, operators cleared just over 15 sq km,” he says. Covid-19 hasn’t helped. This year MAG has managed to disarm 1,200 mines; usually it would be 6,750 mines.
Dispatches: Life on an Alaskan Crab Boat (Andy Cochrane, Men’s Journal, April 2021)
We have always projected a certain romance onto the idea of working on the high seas, and a dignity upon those individuals brave enough to do so. For this piece, journalist Andy Cochrane signs up for a week’s work on the fishing boat Silver Spray, one of just 60 such vessels responsible for supplying all of North America with snow crab. Facing long hours, rough water, and freezing conditions, the work is as grueling as could be imagined, but surprisingly Cochrane encounters only good humor, pragmatism, and an inspiring sense of brotherhood amongst the crew.
This is work that is as fundamental to human existence as can be found. People have to eat, after all. But what really strikes me about this piece—and is a sentiment echoed by its author—is the remarkable positivity of the fishermen, which surely can’t be put down to a sense of pride and decent wages alone. Perhaps it’s the extreme conditions and the hardships that help foster such a sense of togetherness and wry determination. Whatever the cause, this is another absorbing peek into a job few of us would wish to undertake.
I was curious how these guys found their way to the industry and how they hadn’t burned out. Attrition is incredibly high, for obvious reasons—freezing temperatures, rough seas and long, exhausting hours. All three laughed off my greenhorn question, and we returned to tips on how I would survive the week.
Jose, an immigrant from El Salvador and father of two, has lived in Anchorage since the ’90s. Quiet, always smiling, and always working, he’s fished his entire career. Leo, raised in Samoa and now living in Vegas, also has two kids. Even with frozen fingers and toes, he never stopped making jokes. Jeffery, who lives half the year in the Philippines with his wife and three kids, would often give me a fist bump and say “you’ll be all right, everyone goes through this” after I puked, which happened 11 more times the first day.
Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, U.K. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.