by Christopher Laursen
Work-to-travel expert Tiffany Owens of Modern-Day Nomads talks about how she broke free of career conventions to take care of a diverse variety of properties across America with her husband.
interview | travels & journeys
Freewheeling as a Modern-Day Nomad, From Remote Ranches to Haunted Hotels
February 4, 2014
To be a nomad is to be on the move. Traditionally, the term has applied to those pastoral people who need to move in order to sustain themselves given the change of seasons, migration of animals, or other environmental factors. In Mongolia, people pack up their yurts – a cylindrical tent with a conical roof held up by poles – similar to the First Nations tribes of North America before European colonization or the Arabic caravans. The key factor is that the nomad has no permanent home. Oxford English Dictionary further describes the nomad as “an itinerant person” like the traveling preacher, snake-oil peddler or salesperson, “a wanderer.” A chosen career in which one moves from town to town to sell their wares – or their philosophies. Today, the nomadic lifestyle is expanding. People who are completely able to hold down a permanent job and stay put are choosing to unlatch themselves from their home communities, moving to other parts of their country and, increasingly, other parts of the planet. To the homebody, the person who leaves the nest may seem irrational. Why would they leave the comforts of what they know, a secure job, and their extended families? Are they hippies? Tiffany Owens has been living the nomadic life for a dozen years now, first as a freelance writer, and later as one-half of caretaking team with her husband, Dave. She founded a website, Modern-Day Nomads, which has transformed into a central resource for people who are seeking employment opportunities outside of their home communities – on a temporary or long-term basis. I spoke with Tiffany about her nomadic adventures, how to become a nomad, and how unconventional career paths can literally take you to unexpected places. Christopher: How did you become a nomad, Tiffany, and where have you found yourself since commencing that way of living? What inspired Modern-Day Nomads? Tiffany: I've always led a nomadic life, it seems. My father was in the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), so we were was transferred around the country a lot as his career progressed, much like military families are. It was difficult moving and switching schools so much growing up, but I now appreciate the useful adaptability and assimilation-to-new-city skills I've learned with each move. As an adult, I didn't start traveling extensively until my mid-20s, as I'd been busy working and putting myself through college. By then, I'd felt an urgency to make up for lost time, especially since many of my friends had already taken backpacking trips around Europe and traveled so much more than I had at that point. So, after graduation, I abruptly picked up and moved from Phoenix to Seattle without a job or prospects, fueled by the excitement of new beginnings. Initially, I chose a journalism career as a means of exposure to new places, people and experiences. But more and more, I found myself earning the typical dot-com living by sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen for long hours. I’ve never been much of an armchair traveler; to me, life is much more exciting ‘out in the fringes of the world,’ experiencing everything first- hand. It All Started with Madonna Oddly enough, the first time I traveled overseas was for work; in November 2000, I helped co-produce the US position of Madonna's live webcast concert from London in tandem with MSN UK. The international broadcast set (and still holds) a Guinness World Record as the "Largest Pop Internet Concert" with 11 million viewers worldwide. During that same trip, I also went to Paris for the first time on my own, trying to maximize my travel as much as possible. In 2002, I struck out on my own as a freelance writer and editor, focused primarily on travel writing, with some food and wine, arts, music and culture topics mixed in for good measure. Some of my body memorable travel-writing assignments include a stint at California's (non-lethal) bullfighting school and a weekend spent folding into the liturgical schedule at a Buddhist monastery. Both were intense and wonderful experiences in completely different ways! I still do as much travel writing as I can. As I'm sure that other travel writers and bloggers will attest: it's something that you kind of get addicted to after awhile.   My husband, Dave, and I originally started Modern-Day Nomads in 2006 as a vehicle to promote our professional property caretaking services. I had stumbled upon the idea of caretaking after interviewing a nomadic couple for a travel piece I was working on for MSNBC who'd been making a decent living doing just that. The more I read about the nomadic lifestyle, including Rita Golden Gelman's Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, the more intrigued I became with it. We were both frustrated with our current careers and the timing was perfect for something new, so we agreed to give it a try. Two weeks later, we had our first property caretaking job and were moving to a private, 150-acre ranch in Hill Country, Texas. A Remote Ranch in “The Swiss Alps of Texas” With this initial caretaking job, I think the first thing we had to get accustomed to was living in such a remote area. We'd moved from the heart of Southeast Portland, where we'd walked to everything, to the middle-of-nowhere Texas, over an hour from the nearest grocery store and other major services. Our new sparsely populated town consisted of little more than a post office, two homestyle restaurants, a decrepit movie rental store, gas station, church, a high school and football field (exactly like Friday Night Lights), plus a strange drive-thru beer barn, though it was supposedly in a "dry county." But next to Big Bend National Park, I have to say, it's one of the prettiest areas of Texas I've seen. Locals called it "The Swiss Alps of Texas," due to the giant canyons that surround the area, cut from the Frio and Nueces Rivers. The particular ranch property we'd been charged with had three houses– the main, owner's house, the "bunkhouse" for guests, and the caretakers' house – along with several other outbuildings. The mostly absentee owner split his time between Texas and South America, where he had another large ranch, but would visit a few times a year and entertain. He also had another property in town that housed his inexplicably vast collection of antique Fords and employed a mechanic full-time to provide service and upkeep for them. I think one of the stranger parts of that job was that we weren't supposed to talk about the owner's car collection "in town," as if it were a big secret (it wasn't). There were surprisingly no cattle on the property, but we were asked to feed stocked catfish and wild deer – and the wild boars, by default. There was also a lot of groundskeeping and gardening involved in the upkeep of the property, as well as cooking and getting the houses in order whenever the owner visited. While there, Dave also utilized his artistic skills for property improvements, by building some beautiful stone retainer walls and a giant firepit from indigenous stone - the latter I'm certain can still be seen on Google Earth. Overall, it was pretty good for a starter job, but it was also a big learning curve. We soon realized that there were many factors that we wouldn't want to repeat in future jobs, such as an (overbearing) middle manager between us and the property owner, or shopping trips in 100-degree heat with ice-packed coolers that took the better part of a day. Luckily, we weren't under contract for the position and were there only there a few months before I found one of our favorite jobs in midcoast Maine. An Unassuming Ad Leads to Maine I'd found the short, unassuming ad for the property caretaking job in Maine through the local paper – another job-hunting strategy I'd developed, to comb the local papers of the regions we were interested in moving to. We were hired for the job, sight unseen (on both counts), on the strength of our former Modern-Day Nomads website and a phone call with the employers. I'd already fallen in love with the midcoast region after traveling to that same area to write a travel piece for an airline magazine – another factor that may have contributed to our hire. Otherwise, we didn't know much about the property before we arrived, other than its size and the fact that it had been a former working farm, but no animals were currently in residence. The main property turned out to be a lovely 150-acre historic farm, heavily wooded with large ponds and lush, green fields that occasionally housed a rotating herd of Belted Galloway cattle from a nearby farm. We would also be caring for a second home in the area where the owner's three boats were moored in the summertime, as well as a rustic island property, accessible only by boat. Our employers were wonderful and gracious people as well, which made the job even that much more enjoyable. Work kept us extremely busy during the glorious summer seasons, as it was also the time that our employers would be in town most and utilizing their properties. But I think it's always during the off- season in popular tourist destinations that you really get to know a place. In Maine, it's when the traffic on coastal Route 1 thins and the locals and lobstermen re-emerge, along with the true, rugged "Down Eastern" essence of the region. We were there for nearly three years until the farm was sold. I never thought I'd add sailor, snow- plower or cattle herder to my resume, but living in Maine taught us more than we ever expected. Honestly, I think it's that chance (and challenge) to develop resourceful, often unexpected, new skills that is my favorite part about every new job. From a Haunted Hotel to Harbormaster Another such "unexpected skill" came about as a result of our employment at a purportedly haunted hotel in Prescott, Arizona. A former Gold Rush boomtown, Prescott's popularity still lies in the lore of its Wild West beginnings, complete with tall tales of gunslingers and gold-mining fortunes won and lost. Before we started working there, I'd extensively researched the history of the property, including its most infamous spirit residents, a woman who may or may not have been the previous innkeeper and her pet cat, who had both met their unfortunate demise in one of the upstairs rooms. All the stories of ghostly encounters I'd read online seemed harmless enough and mostly focused on the feline. Admittedly, I was a little bemused by the cat toys and other offerings left by guests in the designated (and often requested) room named for them. After all, I thought, wouldn't it be kind of fun to have a ghost kitty around? We got way more than we bargained for in that regard. The shenanigans started for me on my second day on the job, when I noticed someone sitting in the hotel lobby from the security camera in the office. I hadn't heard anyone come in, but I went out to greet them and offer my assistance. When I rounded the corner to the lobby, I was startled to see that it was now empty. But when I went back into the office and looked at the security screen again, the figure was still in the chair. I busied myself with the reservation book for awhile, not daring to look back at the screen for the better part of an hour - and then it was gone. It turned out that most of the hotel guests were also familiar with the story of the "resident ghosts" and, although we weren't supposed to promote the fact, we were permitted to talk about it with the guests, if asked. Because the whole "ghost" situation made the hotel owners uneasy, I suddenly became the de facto staff expert that was offered up to all of the ghost hunters, guests and media people wanting more information on the subject. Meanwhile, we were experiencing almost daily occurrences of unexplained phenomenon, such as doors opening on their own, lights switching off, buzzers on the antique annunciation box in the lobby ringing and other sights and sounds we couldn't explain, including ones that definitely sounded like a cat's meow. Looking back, I think the most unsettling part is that, after a few months, these occurrences came to be customary, even expected! Working the morning shift was always interesting too, as I'd often have guests come down to the breakfast room wide-eyed and wanting to tell me about the strange encounter they'd had during the night. One time, we had a group of tough-looking bikers staying at the hotel. A little after midnight, a few of them came downstairs and asked if I could turn the lights up a little in the second floor hallway. "Yeah," one guy said anxiously, "It's like The Shining up in there." You have to request it, but the hotel still keeps a big guestbook filled with all of the first-hand stories and photos from guests claiming to have had an encounter while staying there. It was definitely an interesting – if not surreal – experience, but not one I'd say that I'm clamoring to have again soon. Now, whenever we think about taking on a new innkeeping position, the first question I'll always ask is, "But, is the place haunted?" We've had such a wide variety of different jobs in so many different locations since we first started on this new career path, nearly eight years ago now. We're still living (and loving) our nomadic lifestyle, back once again in the Pacific Northwest. Largely due to our extensive boating experience in Maine, we now live and work at a historic marina in Portland, Oregon, where Dave is employed as the resident Harbormaster. We love it here, but know that eventually, the road will call us again and we'll be on to another adventure in another place. I'm personally still holding out for an international work assignment. Maybe for our next move?   Christopher: Wow, these are fascinating adventures, Tiffany. I think it’s great how when you feel like you want to move on, you can. Are most of these jobs temporary, or could you renew your contract indefinitely? Tiffany: None of the caretaking jobs that we've held have ever required that we sign a contract, but that's not always the case. In some instances, managers want caretakers to commit to a minimum of a year or more for the employment contract. On Becoming a Modern-Day Nomad Christopher: Tell me more about Modern-Day Nomads, your website. How has it evolved since you founded it in 2006?   Tiffany: The current incarnation of Modern-Day Nomads didn't happen until 2012. After being repeatedly asked how we got started with property caretaking, it became obvious to me that there was a growing interest in the profession and lifestyle. In addition, so many of my intelligent, creative, talented peers were becoming fed up with corporate life and were searching for other meaningful opportunities that would utilize their varied skills and afford them a chance to travel. I decided that I wanted to be that catalyst for others trying to realize their travel dreams, using the knowledge and resources I'd gleaned over the previous six years looking for similar opportunities for myself. I started a social media presence in late 2012, later launching the revamped ModernDayNomads.com website in February 2013. Truth be told, I find tremendous satisfaction in helping others achieve their travel dreams. Every time someone writes to tell me that I've helped them find their dream job, it truly makes my day.   Overall, the nomadic caretaking life been a successful venture for us and a perfect fit for all of the things we want to do: see the world, meet interesting people, learn new skills, earn a decent wage, and seek inspiration for new creative endeavors – kind of a ‘Room of One’s Own’ with a modern, globetrotting twist.   Christopher: You must have encountered some fascinating nomads over the years. Who are some of the people who have been leading particularly extraordinary work-to-travel adventures? Tiffany: The community of fellow travelers growing around Modern-Day Nomads has been nothing short of amazing to me. Through this new venture, I've developed inspiring new friendships with other travel bloggers and technomads from all over the world. However, one the most fruitful associations so far has been with the author of the hilarious Oh God, My Wife is German expat site, who has now become the go- to Design Guru for MDN. He recently redesigned our logo, which I absolutely love, and is going to help us take Modern-Day Nomads to amazing new places in the coming year!   Christopher: Say that I'm someone who's feeling like they've reached a dead-end in their job - maybe I've even lost my job, or quit it, and want something new - and I'm intrigued by the idea of becoming a caretaker, what would I do to pursue that? Are there certain skills that are expected? Tiffany: It really depends on the property; however, I'd say the most common skills necessary for property caretaking are being handy for site repairs, with good groundskeeping and gardening skills. Others we've utilized in our various positions have included animal care, winterizing buildings and boats, snow-plowing, sailing and care/use of motorized water crafts, securing boat moorage and buoy maintenance, computer and office skills, bookkeeping, housekeeping, writing/editing, tech services, securing services of and overseeing contractors, auto and boat maintenance, wine pairing and culinary skills. More Than Only Caretaking Christopher: What other types of jobs, other than caretaking, often crop up on Modern-Day Nomads? I'm curious, in particular, in contrasting jobs that are sort of cutting-edge, technological versus those which enable people to escape the social media-digital rat race, so to speak. Tiffany: In addition to property caretaking jobs, we also feature jobs that have some travel component or opportunity to travel in the Adventure/Recreation, Arts, Culinary/Food & Beverage/Private Chefs, Education/ESL/TEFL, Organic Farm/Agriculture/Food Artisan, Green/Ecological, Hospitality Management/Innkeeping (most with housing included), Humanitarian (Global), Media/Design/Journalism/ Blogging, Paid Internships, Photography/Video, Travel Industry/ Transportation and Tourism industries. We feature many property caretaking job listings on MDN, both in the U.S. and abroad. Most include housing as part of the compensation package. Other jobs with housing have included Park Ranger, Private Chef, Innkeeper, Gardener, Teacher, Estate Manager, Nanny, Camp Counselor/Naturalist, Personal Assistant, and Ski/Summer Seasonal Staff. I also love to feature other creative opportunities, like artist and writer residencies or photography and travel-writing contests, as well as fellowships and work/study programs that offer additional travel opportunities. Some favorite, previous job listings have included: a casting call for a new travel web series, caretakers for 17-century Italian villa, and one-month stay at a hotel in Costa Rica in exchange for providing social media services. We were honored when Forbes Magazine recently named ModernDayNomads.com as one of the “Top 100 Websites for Your Career.” Christopher: Is a nomadic life something sustainable that people could potentially do indefinitely, or do you find that most people embark on more temporary nomadic journeys to later return settle down? Tiffany: I think it's both. So many of our followers are full-time travelers that have no intention of ever putting down roots. On the other hand, I've also encountered many that will impose a time limit on their nomadic travels, say a year or 18 months, with plans to return home to their "normal" lives after their extended travel has ended. But how is that possible? How could your life ever be the same again after traveling the world? Christopher: Any other pearls of wisdom you wish to share with potential nomads out there? Tiffany: I think the first and best piece of advice I could give to aspiring caretakers is to have a dedicated website that promotes your individual skills, strengths and personalities. Because you're often interviewing for jobs in another location, it's especially important for employers to get a sense of exactly what you can bring to the table in the position.  Done well, it can also be the primary deciding factor that will make you stand out from the competition and land the job. For the seasonal workers and others that think they'll be moving around quite a bit, I'd recommend buying a personal cargo trailer to move your belongings in instead of shelling out for a rental truck each time. We had one for several years and not only saved a ton of money in moving costs, but it also forced us to pare down our belongings to the minimum household furnishings and other necessities that would fit inside our cargo trailer. Best of all, cargo trailers typically maintain their market value - we were able to sell ours three years later for close to the original purchase price. Finally, I think we all become so acclimated to aligning our work with a specific career path. Why does it have to be so constricted? As a nomad, I think you begin to consider (and structure) your work-life in chapters instead. Because we now possess a diverse array of skills that could be applied to a variety of work scenarios, the job hunt has become exciting once again. Even when we're happy in a position (like now), I'm still always on the lookout for our next dream job. Where will our travels take us next? I can't even begin to guess - and to me, that's the most exciting part of it all.
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Tiffany Owens and her husband Dave in Italy. [Photo courtesy of Tiffany Owens.]
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Building a firepit on the Texas ranch.  [Photo courtesy of Tiffany Owens.] Fall colors on the farm in Maine. [Photo courtesy of Tiffany Owens.] A haunted hotel hallway worthy of The Shining.  [Photo courtesy of Tiffany Owens.] An aerial view of the historic farm in Maine.  [Photo courtesy of Tiffany Owens.]
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