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Originally published October 17, 2012 at 8:59 PM | Page modified October 18, 2012 at 11:31 AM

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Woman aims to hitch a ride by air to all 50 states

Amber Nolan, 28, landed in Seattle last week on her trek to hitch rides on small planes to every state in the country. That is one way to travel on the cheap. Our state was No. 11 in that journey. Wednesday she arrived in Portland.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Follow Amber Nolan's travels: jethiking.com.

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Last week, Amber Nolan landed in Seattle, this state being the 11th stop toward her goal of flying into every state in the country. Her belongings are in storage in Fort Lauderdale, her last home where she actually rented a place.

"We live in the present," she says, "but yet we are always making 'future' plans. The future is today."

Nolan, philosopher, wanderer, budding travel writer, is 28 and couch surfing. She is down to her last 100 bucks and plenty familiar with Top Ramen.

So how does she get from one place to another?

To bypass all those airfares, Nolan hitches rides with pilots of small planes, the ones who fly into places like Boeing or Paine fields.

She is remarkably successful.

One such pilot was Paul Schechter, and his wife, Dorothy. They took Nolan from their hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to Nashville. They own a six-seater Piper Lance.

"Pilots love to share. It's a brotherhood," Schechter says. "I think it's exciting that at her age, she can do that. She doesn't have any responsibilities of a husband, children."

Why wait until you're 65 and creaky? There's lot to be said for traveling young, when lugging 40 pounds in a backpack and satchel is no big deal.

Nolan says pilots who give her rides have told her, "I wish I had done what you're doing when I was younger. But I never acted on it."

She is chronicling her adventures on a website she created, jethiking.com. You want travel stories? She's got them.

Here is Nolan, writing about arriving in Whitefish, Mont., having hitched a ride from Las Vegas on an Eclipse 500 jet.

She tells about Pam, who offered her a place to stay through couchsurfing.org:

" 'Come to my house and I'll make you lunch!' she insisted ... She was in the garden picking herbs ... She gave me a big bear hug as if she'd known me for years, and then began telling me about Aaron as we walked to the kitchen ...

"When Pam spoke about him, she never said 'Aaron was' always 'Aaron is' even though he passed away last July in a snowboarding accident in Chile ... She gave me a grand tour of her home, showed me his snowboarding photos, magazine articles and all of his accomplishments.

" 'Smash life,' she explained, 'It was one of Aaron's sayings that means live every day like it's your last.' "

Nolan has been writing since she was a little girl.

At 6, growing up in Geneseo, in upstate New York, her dad a forklift driver, her mom a nurse, Nolan would write short stories and put them together in homemade books.

She'd let her parents, Dan and Eileen Nolan, check out the books from her little library, and charge them late fees for not returning the books on time. One of Nolan's big thrills came when she was 8, and her parents got her a manual typewriter at a garage sale. Later, her parents moved her up to a Brother word processor.

Making lots of money not being a big priority, Nolan got a degree in journalism from the State University of New York at Brockport. Then she went the route of going to New York City, doing unpaid internships at travel websites, working as a waitress and living with roommates in a Brooklyn apartment.

Eventually the internships turned to paying gigs and by 2009, a $52,000-a-year job with ShermansTravel Media, where she did everything from cruise reviews to helping publish a newsletter. Her bosses said it was fine if she worked out of Fort Lauderdale, where $52,000 goes lots further than in New York City.

But Nolan needed to travel, and not just for a weeklong vacation.

"When you can take a chunk of time to travel, you get to experience it at a slower pace. In the back of your mind, you're not thinking that in a week, you have to be back at work," she says.

So in 2011, she quit ShermansTravel, took her savings and spent 3-½ months in Central and South America, backpacking, going to little towns by bus. She loved it.

Her memories include a four-day sailboat ride from Panama to Colombia, at night watching the water's phosphorescent glow as giant stingrays leapt out of it, and buying and grilling fresh lobster at local villages.

Last year, back in the U.S., she began pondering how next to travel on a low budget. When she Googled, she came upon citations of small-plane pilots discussing sharing rides with other pilots.

That led to Nolan deciding to become the JetHiking Gypsy.

Now, she posts fliers at small airports seeking lifts "to — well — anywhere."

And she posts on Internet chat boards for pilots. Beechcraft owners have a forum. Cirrus pilots have their own.

"Cool adventure!" is a typical reply, and Nolan gets offers for rides.

Glenn Chong, a computer programmer from Red Deer, Alberta, read one of Nolan's postings. He, his wife and two children were flying to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for a convention of Aerostar plane owners.

Chong looked up Nolan's website to find out more about her.

"I thought it was an interesting project," he says. "I don't think I'd have done it at her age."

Flying with his family, Chong says that because Nolan is a female hitchhiker, he was probably less wary of potential problems. He ended up not only flying her from Montana to Idaho, but then to Seattle.

As for Nolan, whose trek began July 11 on that flight to Nashville, she says the one bad thing that has happened didn't happen on a flight.

She was mugged at a bus stop on a trip to see The Heidelberg Project outdoor art exhibit in Detroit. She suffered cuts and bruises on her face. Her camera, wallet, cellphone and computer were stolen.

At a nearby grocery, the owner let her call police, then kicked Nolan out. She says he told her crying was bothering the customers.

One of Nolan's brothers drove from New York and took her back to her parents' home.

A week later, Nolan was back traveling.

And, after a few days in Seattle, on Wednesday she caught a flight to Portland. She is thinking about waitressing for a while to save up more money, although she says a production company is interested in pitching a reality series based on her hitchhiking adventures. But that is a maybe.

Her dad says he and his wife do worry about Nolan's travels.

"We're excited for her, but nervous? Absolutely," says Dan Nolan. "We try to keep in touch with her all the time."

Travel is what Amber Nolan does.

"I've had bad days, when everything seems to go wrong. You miss a bus, you end up walking way further with a heavy pack," she says.

"Then I kick myself: 'Look, what you're doing is awesome. You're going to do something awesome.' "

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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