SMO — The notion of hitchhiking goes along with romantic ideals of 1960s road tripping or cautionary tales and horror movies, but one woman is working to give the term a whole new meaning.
For the last five months, Amber Nolan has been traversing the United States not by car, but by plane, hopping across 14 states at the whim of the pilots who agree to let her hitch a ride and documenting the journey on her website, the appropriately-named Jethiking.com.
The rules of the project are simple. Nolan has committed to hitting all 50 states in the union, including Alaska and Hawaii. Once she arrives at a destination, she goes out and explores, be that hiking in Glacier National Park or consuming vast amounts of barbecue in Nashville.
The idea for the project came in February in a random conversation with a friend. Nolan is always on the road, and had been squirreling money away for the “next big trip” since she returned from a three month backpacking excursion in South America with no clear idea of what she would use it for.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “I thought, I wonder if it would be possible to do this across all 50 states.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, investigations on the Internet didn’t turn up much. Although people had jumped aboard airplanes for quick hops, it was sporadic. No one had turned it into a real mode of travel.
“There wasn’t anybody who had done it to that degree and there was no information on how to do it, either,” she said.
The idea of hitchhiking by plane is a strange one for Nolan. She’s actually not a fan of heights, and most of her traveling has been to international destinations.
“I haven’t even been to the Grand Canyon,” Nolan said.
Those minor details were not enough to dissuade her, however.
She shelved the project and continued to save until June, when she bought a domain name — “(Jethiking) was available, shockingly,” she said — and quit her waitressing job at a Bubba Gump’s in Florida to start devoting time to making the concept a reality.
To this day, she credits a pilot by the name of Ryan Flanagan with giving her the push she needed to get the project rolling. Forget jets, he told her, general aviation was the way to go.
“He kind of gave the encouragement and help to do it and connected me with his friend who was flying out with his wife to St. Louis,” Nolan said.
Things started to come together quickly after that. Nolan had only been researching the project for roughly two weeks before her first flight on July 11, 2012, and she learned quickly that flexibility would be her greatest asset.
“Well, we were supposed to be going to St. Louis, but I got a text a few hours before we were supposed to be leaving that said, ‘slight change in plans,’” Nolan said. Rather than St. Louis, the trio arrived in Nashville within four hours.
That was the first of many adventures for Nolan, who has since flown into Osh Kosh, Wisc. for the AirVenture festival, one of the largest celebrations of general aviation and flight in the world.
She jumps on board airplanes that are going in a general direction and goes, allowing the sporadic routes of the pilots to determine her path.
Getting flights hasn’t been difficult so far because pilots just need a reason to fly, Nolan said.
“Usually they want to help the goal. They have that adventurous spirit too, I think. They’re travelers too and flying itself is an adventure, so we have that connection,” Nolan said.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however.
Although the project has created quite a stir, garnering the attention of local press, pilots associations and even a television show producer or two, Nolan isn’t getting paid to travel. Even with the cost of the flights eliminated from the equation, that leaves food, occasionally lodging and other necessities to pay for with no guaranteed paycheck to cover it.
Fiscal realities waylaid Nolan for a month and a half in San Francisco, where she worked at Bubba Gump’s on the tourist-centric Pier 39 to save up a bit of cash before she was able to get the adventure going again.
Now, however, she’s back on the road. Nolan touched down in Santa Monica on Thursday night after flying from Oregon in a homemade airplane, arriving on one of the rare overcast days in the city by the sea. She hopes to strike out for the southwestern section of the country in the beginning of the week.
Anywhere warm as the seasons finally begin to change, she said.
Nolan hopes that her project will serve not only to satisfy her passion for adventure, but also shine a light on the general aviation community, a tight-knit group that struggles to stay aloft as gas prices go up and small airports begin to attract the ire of nearby residents.
According to testimony delivered in 1999 by Phil Boyer, the former president of the Aircraft Pilots and Owners Association, general aviation airports were closing at a rate of one per week. Just this year, news folks began sounding the horn and warning of a potential shortage of trained pilots in the United States.
Nolan has noticed it in her travels, and that with trained pilots goes programs like Angel Flights, a nonprofit organization with an outpost at SMO that carries patients to cities where they can get treatment at no cost.
“It’s an organization, it’s a club, and it would be sad if they continue to shut these down because they’re doing really great things,” Nolan said.