America, as seen from above
Meet the SUNY Brockport alumna and Greece native behind JetHiking
Originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.
I do know this — the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.” John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
Amber Nolan is thumbing her way across the country, but she’s not plodding down the interstate waiting for an altruist to pick her up. As the self-dubbed “JetHiking Gypsy,” she’s traveling the country on private planes.
“I’ve always had this adventurous spirit,” said Nolan. Two years ago, after graduating from SUNY Brockport and a short stint working for a travel rag in New York City, she was trying to find unique ways to get around the country. Her roommate at the time worked at a small airport and told her sometimes pilots would walk over to the car rental and ask if anyone wanted to go up for a ride.
“I started thinking about that ,” Nolan said. “[And I thought] I bet they’d be willing to take a hitchhiker.” Thus, JetHiking was born in July 2012 with the dual purpose of getting people interested in budget travel and promoting general aviation. “A lot of travelers just go straight to the big cities,” she said. “They go to Miami, they go to New York, they go to L.A., and I’ve seen those too on this trip.” But hop on a private plane, and “you never know where you’re gonna end up in small town America.”
The people she’s met along her journey demonstrate the diversity and genuine nature of Americans. She remembers meeting one woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout her treatment, as the medical bills piled up, she refused to give up her plane. Then, there was the man who lived out of his car for a time, but always had his plane.
Regardless of the extent of their personal struggle, she’s found pilots are always willing to help a hitchhiker. “It’s almost like going back to 1950,” she said. Instead of the suspicion or apathy for strangers that characterizes much of our modern society, the people she meets at airports are welcoming and generous. Often when Nolan lands at an airport, someone will let her borrow their car, give her a ride, or offer a place for her to stay. And, the more pilots hear about her story, the more help she’s offered getting to her destination — whatever it may be. Her website and mission have been featured on sites like Matador Network, Couchsurfing, and Vagabondish, among countless local media outlets in the many cities she’s visited.
Though Nolan spent much of hear early life in suburban Greece, the launch of JetHiking has given her the chance to see hundreds of locations. In a little less than two years, she’s visited forty-two states. Alaska is next on the list, and Nolan is looking forward to visiting the one state where residents actually rely on general aviation just to get around. In fact—she’s almost giddy at the thought of seeing teenagers parking their planes on the grounds of their high schools.