Amber Nolan is hitchhiking across the country — by air. Not commercial air, but general aviation.
Two years ago, while living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the 29-year-old travel writer began a quest to see all 50 states. With 42 states now recorded in her travel log, Nolan landed at MidCoast Regional Airport in Hinesville on Tuesday morning.
“As a travel writer, I’ve been all over the world,” Nolan said. “(Then one day) I realized I’ve seen all these exotic places, but I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. I’ve never been to a national park. I haven’t seen what’s in my own backyard.”
Nolan said she began thinking of ways she could travel around the country. Car travel was too slow and expensive. She doesn’t care much for commercial air travel because of the baggage checks and full-body scans. Then her roommate, who worked at the Fort Lauderdale airport, told her that general-aviation pilots were always asking if anyone was interested in taking a flight in their single-engine airplanes, seaplanes and small, private jets. That sounded like fun, she said, and it was free.
From inside a large passenger plane, Nolan doesn’t feel like she’s flying and can’t really see anything outside the plane at 40,000 feet. From a two-seater Cessna, however, she can experience flying at a lower altitude and actually see America from a bird’s-eye view.
Nolan started a blog site, www.JetHiking.com, to record her travels and post photos. She admits the name chosen is a little misleading, in that most of the small planes she “hitches” rides on are not jets. A message posted on the site by this “jet-hiking gypsy” invites others to live out their own dreams.
“Dreams can take you far, but only if you’re willing to fly,” the message says.
She uses other websites to gather information that helps her get from airport to airport and find places to stay when she lands. According to Nolan, www.coachsurfing.com contains information that connects travelers with people willing to open up their homes, or provide a couch or washing machine.
“It’s a really cool way to meet people,” she said. “I think a lot of times, we only hear the negative things about this nation. I’ve found that 99 percent of the people in this country are good people.”
Nolan said traveling via general aviation means landing in smaller airports in rural areas, which she called “the heart and soul of America.” When she arrived in Hinesville on Tuesday, she caught a ride into town, ate dinner at Zum Rosenhof and then visited Steve Berg’s Aerodrome (grass-strip runway) in Midway. Nolan counts a state as officially visited only if she’s able to get outside the airport and “get a feel for the community.”
She travels light — a small backpack weighing about 35 pounds, a handbag and a tiny pup tent. If possible, Nolan tries to avoid using the tent, although she has camped in the desert, mountains and near grass-strip runways. She recalled a frightening encounter with a black bear while camping near a rural airport in California. She expressed her appreciation for the hospitality of several pilots and their families with whom she’s stayed.
Usually, she stays no more than a day or two at a time, but when her savings begin to run short, she finds part-time work such as housekeeping, bartending, dishwashing or working as a deckhand on a sailboat. She said she already was used to doing odd jobs to support herself, having chosen travel writing as a career after completing her bachelor’s in journalism at a college near her home in upstate New York.
“You always have to have a second job to support that,” she said. “When I run out of money, I go to work. My goal at this time is to get to Point Barrel, Alaska — the northern-most airport in the country. I started at the southern-most airport in the country — Key West, Fla. Yesterday, I was in Jacksonville.”
When asked where she planned to go next, she said simply “north.” She goes wherever her ride is flying, as long as it’s in a north to northwesterly direction. After leaving Hinesville, Nolan caught a ride to Franklin, North Carolina, southwest of Asheville.
She said there are a lot of misconceptions about the aviation industry, especially recreational flying. After she’s been to all 50 states, she wants to get her pilot’s license. Nolan said she’s already taken a discovery course but has learned so much more by flying with professional pilots. She also has learned a lot by watching and listening to what they tell her about weather conditions and “stuff they don’t teach in pilot training.”
“I think this has been the best education I could have,” Nolan said. “I’ve learned so much more by traveling than when I was in college.”
The remaining states the JetHiking Gypsy has to visit include Alaska, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana and Utah. After she visits all 50 states, Nolan hopes to expand her quest to international destinations.