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Patrick Springer, Published August 18 2013

'JetHiking Gypsy' thumbs rides on the friendly skies

FARGO – Amber Nolan has met a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, an alien watchtower operator in Colorado and worked tending animals on an urban farm in Prescott, Ariz.

Those are just a few of the experiences she’s accumulated while traveling the United States in an unorthodox way: hitching rides with pilots.

The self-styled “JetHiking Gypsy” landed here Sunday afternoon, dropped off by a Twin Cities pilot after stops in Iowa by way of Oshkosh, Wis.

Why Fargo? Is it because of fame from the eponymous movie?

Nope. In fact, she hasn’t seen the 1996 Coen brothers movie, although she’s been given a copy and encouraged to see the wood chipper now in residence near Fargo’s Walk of Fame.

The destination just evolved.

“They offered to fly me here,” she said. They would be pilot Clint Sawicki and his son, whom she met through fellow pilots, a network she’s now well acquainted with.

‘Hop along’

North Dakota marks the 40th state in Nolan’s quest to visit all 50 states by bumming rides with soft-hearted aviators.

The idea came to her after a travel writing job became stale. Having traveled a lot abroad, she cast about for a novel way to see the U.S.

Although Nolan isn’t the first to hitch a ride with a pilot, the 29-year-old believes she’s the first to set out to visit every state in the union by thumbing flights.

She quickly found that private pilots were happy to oblige her wanderlust.

“Usually they’re going somewhere, and I just hop along,” she said. “I find they’re always looking for an excuse to go somewhere.”

The adventure began July 12, 2012, in Rochester, N.Y., Nolan’s home state, although she lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the past four years.

Now she has no home. She carries her belongings – a few changes of clothes, a camera, a laptop, a phone and a tent in a handbag and backpack.

Her one luxury: a hammock.

She’s spent more than a few nights on the couch of a pilot’s lounge or the sofa of a kind stranger.

She’s camped or crashed in some unusual places, including on a grassy strip near a runway, aboard a sailboat in Georgia and in a former plantation home in Louisiana.

Along the way, to earn money to keep going, she’s worked as a waitress, a deckhand, and tending a donkey and rabbits.

Four-fifths of the way to her goal, the trip so far has been unpredictable and overwhelmingly positive.

“Overall, a great, great experience,” she said, during a break at a downtown coffee shop. “I’d say 99 percent of the people out there are just good people that want to help you out.”

The voodoo priestess, by the way, was very nice. The pilot asked her to bless the plane, and she was happy to help.

“She showed up with gin and spit gin all over her plane and waved a stick,” Nolan said.

It must have worked. The flight landed safely.

A few hiccups

There have been a few hiccups along the way.

“I was camping on a beach one time and forgot about the tide.”

A bear wandered into her campsite at Lake Tahoe, and she saw alligators when it snowed in Colorado. Not to worry: The alligators stayed warm in the hot springs.

Then there was the time a tire went flat when her flight was landing.

No voodoo priestess blessed that plane, and she was given a police escort from the runway.

Those stories, and many others, will be in the book Nolan plans to write. The JetHiking Gypsy also is writing a blog, jethiking.com, which she is finding difficult to keep current.

“I’ve met so many crazy people,” she said, chuckling.

Aviation bug bites

Having spent so much time on airplanes and meeting so many pilots, Nolan’s been bitten by the aviation bug. She plans to get her pilot’s license.

She’s already had the opportunity to take the control stick many times while riding aloft in the cockpit.

The gypsy has ridden in everything from a tiny two-seat Kit Fox and a hang glider to a Beechcraft Hawker private jet, which she rode from San Angelo, Texas, to Dallas.

“Very short trip,” she said.

She plans to spend a couple of days seeing the sights around Fargo-Moorhead. Then the adventure continues.

By the way: Do you happen to know anyone who’s flying to South Dakota? She’s heard Rapid City is interesting.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522