Floridian Amber Nolan arrived in Alaska last month in a very unique way — she hitchhiked in an Aerotrek from Wisconsin with Palmer resident Glenn Johnmeyer. The two met at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where the writer was looking for a ride north as part of her two-year effort to visit every state in the country traveling only by catching rides on general aviation and private jet aircraft. Her travels so far are documented on her website JetHiking, and she has future plans for a book about her adventures.
Alaska is one of Nolan’s last states (only four remain on her quest), but as could be expected, it posed some specific challenges.
“This was my third summer at Oshkosh trying to get to Alaska,” she explained in a phone call. “I knew I had to plan to hit the state in the summer, but I also had to hit some locations in New England during that same period. This year, everything just finally came together.”
After flying through western Canada to Palmer, Amber traveled by car to Talkeetna. She was able to take a couple of tour flights there, going to Ruth Glacier with Talkeetna Air Taxi and flying over Denali Park — and the infamous “Into the Wild” bus — with Stampede Aviation. She then headed north to Fairbanks, where Warbelow’s Air Ventures took her along on a mail flight to Fort Yukon, and she was also able later to pick up a flight lesson through them. Getting up to Barrow from the Interior, however, proved to be just too difficult.
“It’s been a little tough in Alaska,” Nolan said, “because most people use their planes just to go home to their own backyards. General aviation has a different use here than in the Lower 48.”
Although flying commercially was not typical for her, Nolan is glad she caught the rides in Alaska she did. “Seeing the people come out to meet the mail plane was eye-opening and not like anything else I’ve seen,” she says. Nolan has had a lot of unexpected experiences over the past two years, including flying on the B-17, the Memphis Belle.
“It was really loud,” she said. “You could almost hear the rumbling in your heart when it started up.”
But the most important thing she has discovered is not the aircraft or an unexpected love of flying — she plans to get her pilot’s license when she is done traveling — but the company of pilots and aircraft owners who make up the general aviation world.
“It’s almost like a small town in the sky,” she explained. “Everyone has been so nice; people have bent over backwards to help me.” When discussing her various trips, Nolan can’t help but compare the experience to time traveling. “The people I’ve talked to and flown with enjoy what they are doing,” she says. “This has not been about going from point A to point B for them as we are used to with airlines; it’s really about flying for fun again.”
From the air, Nolan has seen and written about America with a whole new perspective, finding what she is sure is “the best side of humanity.” People have done more than give her rides; they have invited her into their homes, taken her out to dinner and fully embraced her JetHiking efforts. Along the way, she has found that Americans have a lot more in common than one might expect in our polarized society.
“Flying from place to place like this, you really experience the culture of our country and see what people are like,” she said. And while every pilot she has flown with has a different style and habits, they have made her feel welcome in the same way.
“It sounds like a cliche, but the journey really has been the destination for me,” Nolan said. And Alaska was one more surprise along the way, another place that showed her things she did not expect yet introduced more pilots who have supported her in every way they could.
Nolan caught the train down to Anchorage from Fairbanks at the end of August (it was hard to resist a chance to ride on the Alaska Railroad and write about it), and had the chance to fly with Rust’s Flying Service. She has her sights set on Hawaii next and said she would appreciate any tips that come her way for getting to the Aloha State.
Readers can keep up with Amber on her blog or via @jethiking on Twitter. She still has to visit Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas and Hawaii to accomplish her goal. Anyone with tips for traveling to those states, especially Hawaii, should contact her at email@example.com. At last check of her website, she was in Juneau (as of Sept. 17) hoping to catch a ride to the Lower 48.
Contact Colleen Mondor at firstname.lastname@example.org.