Gina: At age 80 you realized that your Pension Fund was on its last drop and soon you’d be living off Social Security alone. Most people would have panicked, run out to get a job they hate or crashed with their adult children. Instead, you did something quite creative, unique, and ballsy from my view. I wanted to share your decision on this blog.
Jan: Actually, I knew when I retired at age 65 that my Pension Fund would only last about 15 years. And through those years, the question occasionally popped up as to what I could do to make the funds last longer. Get a part time job? Tighten my financial belt? Look for a boarder to share home expenses? But I was happy with my adventurous and singular lifestyle and did not want to change a thing. Finally, I accepted what appeared to be inevitable. It’s okay, I told myself. When I reach 80 I will probably be ready to slow down, read the many books I have not gotten to, rest in front of the TV and just take it easy. I will be fine living off Social Security. Yikes! What was I thinking? When I turned 80 I felt just as energetic as when I was 65.
I thought about selling my home rather than accept the burden of living on a strict budget. I soon realized, however, that it wasn’t simply about finances; it was more about needing a new purpose, and ultimately, a new lifestyle. This revelation came to me when my wanderlust spirit woke up. You’re 80, so what. You are still healthy and active. Why not sell your home and become a nomad so you can travel full-time?
Gina: I love that. I’m in my late 50s and when I’m tempted to “snuggle in” and not take the risks I took in my 30s and 40s I think of you, Jan. You are an inspiration.
So, as we say in my native Manhattan, let’s tawk! You had a number of adventures during 2017 and 2018, your two years on the road. One that I’d like to highlight is your stint as a volunteer at Yellowstone National Park. How did you create that enviable experience?
Jan: I realized the only way I could travel full-time on a limited budget was to find work or volunteer positions that provided free housing. So I researched what options would provide that. One was volunteering at our National Parks. When I thought about the five-week cross country road trip I took in 2009 to visit ten national parks I knew immediately that this was the path for me. It took some time and effort to find parks that not only provided free housing but were located in a state and environment that would be in my comfort zone. There were not a lot of choices for my specific needs. Eventually, however, I discovered one beyond my wildest expectations – Yellowstone, the Country’s first National Park established in 1812.
The process was fairly simple. I submitted an application with my background information, qualifications and interests, followed by a telephone interview with two Yellowstone employees. When I received an acceptance letter as a part-time volunteer at the Art & Photography building, I was overjoyed. That position had been my first choice.
During my 2009 tour, I spent only two and a half days in this park. Now I had three months. My dorm room was three-quarters of a mile from the building located directly in front of Old Faithful, allowing me to enjoy the eruption of this geyser every ninety minutes or so. Of course, this was during working hours, when I greeted tourists, answered questions about park facilities and assisted in various art projects, such as walking tourists down a lovely path to create watercolor paintings.
And because my position was part-time it gave me the opportunity to spend every other waking hour touring the park to view mud pots bubbling, hot springs boiling, wildlife roaming, waterfalls rushing, and rivers soaring. It was the experience of a lifetime; one I will never forget.
Gina: I’ve never been to Yellowstone, though I’ve visited other national parks. I didn’t know why Old Faithful – one of the park’s well-known geysers – was called that until I learned from you that the name comes from its highly predictable geothermal feature.
So, you’re adventure-nomading on a budget. That meant housing had to be free or dirt cheap. How did you make that happen after you left Yellowstone?
Jan: During my cross-country, national park tour in 2009, I networked before the trip. I received several invitations to stay with friends of friends while motoring through 10 states. This time, since I planned to be on the road for a year or two, it was even more important.
Gina: So, did you couch surf?
Jan: Actually, it was more formal than Couchsurfing and other organizations found during my research. I signed up with Servas, which is a world-wide cooperative exchange network of travelers and hosts providing opportunities for personal connections with people of diverse cultures. Their mission is to promote world peace, goodwill, understanding and respect.
Gina: I’ve been aware of Servas for decades, but never tapped the network, in part because you have to access it for a specific trip. The extensive application process never fit with my travel schedule. Besides I was chicken. Today’s Internet allows for easy background checks of strangers but much of my travel predates digital ubiquity.
Jan: I felt staying with strangers as a Servas member would be more comfortable because of the requirements for both hosts and travelers: two letters of reference, a face-to-face interview and a membership fee. The procedure was simply to go online to find hosts in the areas I would be visiting, and contact them to coordinate dates. Meeting people in other parts of the country was definitely a highlight of that trip.
Gina: Like I said, you are the queen of adventure. Not only do you nomad, you write about it, too, as you did after your 2009 trip out west. How did you balance writing about your trip with simply enjoying it?
Jan: Thanks for the title, “Queen of Adventure,” but I have to admit I am also the Queen of Caution. As I wrote in my last book, How I Won the West: A Journey of Discovery, when I enter strange and exciting places, my adventurous spirit and cautious nature are sure to bump heads. That’s when balance becomes crucial. So, for that trip, I not only booked all 35 nights of lodging before the trip started, but arrived at each destination before dark. That gave me the opportunity each evening to write about the day’s journey, eventually resulting in a travel memoir.
During my nomad years, I decided I did not have another book in me, but as you of all people know, a writer never stops writing, especially when experiencing something as amazing as Yellowstone. So, my journaling in the evenings did not interfere in the least with my travels.
Gina: So, nomad and author of two books. When you and I met, we first connected on our shared love of writing and adventure travel. I think we had two or three dinners together before I learned you’d raised an entire family! You’re the matriarch of a huge New England-reared tribe that includes three great grands. It’s as though you’ve lived two whole lives, each unique yet deeply satisfying.
So, who did you meet through Servas?
Jan: My travel schedule evolved rather spontaneously after leaving Yellowstone, prompting me to visit family and friends around the country, or in some cases house-sitting while the owners themselves were traveling. Surprisingly, I only had occasion to stay with five Servas hosts while in the West during September and October of that first year.
The first hosts were in Las Vegas, Nevada, a convenient stop as I traveled from Zion National Park in Utah to Walnut, California, to visit a niece. Not only were these my first hosts, I was their first traveler. We bonded quite well, and I was impressed that they spent an entire day bringing me to Red Rock National Canyon and Hoover Dam. The other hosts, also in Nevada, and New Mexico and then Alabama on my way to Florida, were equally friendly and anxious to accommodate their guests with sightseeing, dinner and conversation. One host even invited friends to come and share the meal that we had fun preparing together.
Surely one of the benefits of being a Servas traveler is to save money on motel bills, but a far bigger reward is meeting interesting people who are indeed diverse but similar in kindness and compatibility.
Gina: So now you’re finally settled down. At least for now! Where did you land and how did you decide?
Jan: During my second year of being a nomad I found an Airbnb in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I rented a room in a large home for a few months. I fell in love with this town and thought I might like to settle there permanently; except I couldn’t find a suitable apartment that was affordable. Fortunately, two of my daughters were helping me look online which also led us to nearby areas. One daughter found a brand-new Senior Apartment in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and because she and her husband happened to be vacationing nearby, checked it out. At the time, I was visiting relatives in Connecticut where I had lived most of my life. It took a while to file all the apartment-related paperwork and wait for approval, but in the spring of 2019 I finally became a resident.
I recently passed the one-year mark and realized that this journey, like all others, leads to new adventures that enrich my life, thus keeping my spirit alive.
Wilfred A. Peterson describes it best: “A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, traveling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints.”
Gina: Jan, I love that quote. I can relate to “breaking the chain of routine.” I love novelty in every aspect of my life. I intuitively knew from a young age that I needed to go and come as I please and so my life choices definitely reflect that. Thank you, dear friend of 14 years, for agreeing to share just one of your many adventures publicly. I can’t wait to see what you get up to next!
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Jan not only writes her own books, but she’s also contributed to one of mine. Listen to her travel adventures when she was a “40-something wife and mother,”