Tucked into the Florida Panhandle’s shimmering Emerald Coast, Destin, FL might be one of the loveliest places we’ll live on our nomadic journey — and as a destination, it’s also been one of our most pleasant surprises.
Truth is, we chose to move to Destin for a number of reasons, none of which were remotely romantic. Our logic went a little something like this:
- We miss the water. We want to live by the beach. Except we need a town that’s affordable.
- Focus! We need to buckle down and get to work on personal projects. We wanted 2 solid months without distraction.
This basically meant we needed to find a cheap, waterfront town that wasn’t interesting — but also didn’t totally suck, because, well, we still needed to live there. And Destin won.
See? Not romantic at all.
Destin, for those who don’t know much about it, is a notoriously popular tourist destination for Southerners. It’s known for a gorgeous beach, great fishing culture, and having plenty of restaurants and entertainment for the tens of thousands of folks who flock to this upscale beach haven during high season. Lucky for us, it’s off-season, and we were able to find a remarkably affordable beachfront apartment in a super nice highrise.
As for high culture? Not so much. Interesting weekend road trips nearby? Not really, we thought. Perfect!
Then we arrived. And everything changed.
Turns out, there’s a reason Destin is one of America’s most popular beach destinations. It is, in a word, spectacular: turquoise water sparkling in sunlight, cloudless, navy blue skies, powder-soft white sands, and even towering sand dunes, complete with rippling beach oats.
There’s seafood restaurant after seafood restaurant, each dishing up remarkably fresh and downright delicious seafood, an endless number of spots for sunset cocktails, and a surprising number of places to see live music. Not good enough? There are seafood festivals, arts festivals, food festivals and every other imaginable celebration held along the shores.
To be sure, Destin is really built up — highrise condos and beach house rentals line much of the shores. The town proper is chock full of shopping centers and outlet stores, stuff that typically doesn’t float my boat. But you know what? After living in small town Montana for a month, it’s downright pleasurable not to have to drive 2 hours to run basic errands. And after spending months in the desert, it’s a luxury to be perpetually in sight of the sea.
But the whole package of Destin is a win, down to the ridiculously friendly folks we meet on a daily basis. That whole Southern hospitality thing? Yup, there’s something to it.
In short, our mission was not accomplished. We are perpetually distracted! I can’t stop eating oysters and boiled shrimp. Sunset-watching from our apartment balcony has become a nightly tradition. We unintentionally stumble into festivals. Musicians and bands magically appear as we eat dinner and play amazing sets. We’ve discovered nearby beach towns that are so charming I want to vomit — and then move there immediately for the rest of my life.
We’re approaching a month living here, and the glow is far from gone. I still stare out at the Gulf twinkling in the sunlight from my balcony forgetting whatever task I had in mind to accomplish for awkwardly long stretches. In the late afternoons, I trek down to the shore to read books on the beach under the cover of an umbrella, and sink my toes into cool, white sand, curling my toes — just feeling. Destin is home for now, and it is good.
So, I bought a pet. Actually, 2 pets. If, in fact, a betta fish can be classified as a pet (and why shouldn’t it be?!). What? Is it weird to own a pet but have no permanent address? Aw, come on…live a little!
It was my birthday weekend, and perhaps Ayaz and I were dwelling in the cheery aftermath of celebration, because when I (for the umpteenth time) beseechingly mentioned how much I wanted a pet, Ayaz — rather uncharacteristically — said, “Ok. Let’s buy a pet.” And off to PetSmart we drove, returning with not 1, but 2 — yes, TWO — betta fish.
Now, for a bit of backstory: I have been talking to Ayaz about getting a pet for years. I beg, I plead, I promise it will live a happy and fruitful life. “It,” in this case, typically being a dog of some sort, like a huskie, or one of those adorable shibu inus.
Over the years, we have perfected our back-and-forth on the subject and it goes a little like this:
Me: Ayaz, look at that little puppy for sale in the window! Look at how cute!
Me: I want a puppy. Please please please, can’t we get a puppy?
Ayaz: We don’t have a home.
Me: But we have love. [Flutter eyelashes in a winning manner]
Ayaz: Will you wake up with it at 6am on a cold winter’s morning and take it for a walk? Because I won’t.
Eventually I get distracted by something shiny, and we carry on with our lives.
But on this crisp September day, in the heady glow of my post-birthday weekend, this time, Ayaz simply said, “Yes.”
And so it was that we became the owners of two lovely bettas who live together in a nifty container bisected by a dividing wall so the little guys don’t tear each other to shreds. Good times!
Instead, they swim around rather placidly, resigned to their plastic home. Occasionally, they nose up against the perforated wall, then scurry to hide in their plastic trees. They eat little pellets of food, and seem to get excited when I approach their home. Then they poop. It’s fantastic.
Oh, and the best part? Their container fits perfectly in our car console: Road trip, here we come!
So yes, digital nomads and road warriors that we may be, we are no longer alone on this great journey. The only catch? Our colorful and illustrious duo lack names. We’ve drawn blanks. Lewis and Clark? Hall and Oats? Balki and Larry? HALP please!
Taking ideas…NOW in the comments below:
There are days in a digital nomad’s life that are very, very good. Like, when you’re cruising through the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve at Grand Teton National Park and you see a monstrous moose with velvety antlers chilling in a pond, chomping on stringy, green algae, and staring at you quizzically in the midst of otherworldly silence. Yes, that is a very good day.
Then, are the days that are not so good. Like, when you’re in the middle of sending an email and your 1-year-old MacBook Air freezes and dies and you find yourself staring at a blinking question mark on your otherwise gray screen. And you are thinking to yourself, “My god, I live on a mountain. In Montana. In a town where you can’t even scan a document much less fix a MacAir.”
And you realize that your Apple warranty ended precisely 2 weeks prior, because you were too damn cheap to spring for AppleCare.
This, I tell you, is a proverbial shit storm of First World problems.
After the initial shock and awe wore off, it dawned on me that perhaps I’m rather cursed in the MacBook Air department — at least as far as travel is concerned. Rewind 3 years, and you’d have found me in India, carousing around the streets of New Delhi, wheeling and dealing with repair shops of dubious quality.
On the bright side, I figured, I was in America this time, and could call the Apple support team with ease, or find an Apple specialist somewhere in the hills of Big Sky Country without climbing through rubble in New Delhi.
And that, my friends, is how I found myself in a makeshift office, in a seemingly empty building, next to the DMV in Bozeman, Montana. It was here that I made acquaintance with a certain Mr. Stevens, who was a lovely, helpful, kind man — with a single flaw.
While he was in the midst of knowledgeably expounding on Mac repair strategies, solid-state drives and the like, I happened to glance down at Mr. Stevens’ hands. He was clutching a tube. Of toothpaste.
And without warning or prompting or even explanation, Mr. Stevens began brushing his teeth. With vigor.
To his credit, the man didn’t miss a beat of conversation. He simply spoke on, scrubbing his pearly whites clean, then disappearing into the abyss of a bathroom to — I presume — rinse.
As this was happening I turned to Ayaz, frantically whispering, “Why? Why is this happening? Why is he doing this?” But to no avail. One may never learn the mysteries of Mr. Stevens wily techniques.
All I can claim with certainty, is that the man fixed my Mac, good as new, in a land void of Apple stores, in less than 24 hours.
If history teaches me anything it will be that I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I mean, look, here I am trying to write an “I’m leaving Montana, what now?” post, and all I can think about is Boyz II Men crooning their ode to farewells. Damn good song, that one.
Time to focus! And so, today marks the end of my month in Big Sky Country, and naturally, I’m feeling the butterflies that accompany my adieus to that towns where I’ve lived. To those who know me or read this blog, my feeling misty at this particular departure wouldn’t be a surprise; I’ve repeatedly remarked on how living in Montana has been a dream since I was a young.
I may love Montana fiercely, it’s true, but what has surprised me is that I’m not feeling nostalgia for Montana as a home. Funny thing, while I’ve utterly loved my time here, and while I still contend that the state has perhaps the most epic landscape in America (with Utah pitching in a good fight, as well), I’ve never actually felt like Montana was — or could be — home. And I’ve gotta say, that reaction was not part of the plan.
To be sure, I never intended on moving here, but I assumed that a place I felt such kinship for would certainly course through my blood. I believed I would arrive, settle in, and know I was home — on a soul level. I had visions of buying a mountain home to visit during the summer season, and returning each year to hike now-familiar trails.
What happened instead? In short, I feel like a longstanding itch has had a good scratching. I can rest with ease knowing that from the bottom of my big heart, I love this breathtaking landscape filled with kind, funny and quirky people. And I can also know with certainty, that this is not my home.
Even more unexpected is looking back at the places we’ve lived thus far and realizing that in St. George, Utah — ST. GEORGE, UTAH?! — I felt more like I’d stumbled home than I have here. Case in point: sometimes, there’s an intangible that draws you to a place. That makes you feel like you can sit back, kick up your heels and stay awhile. A good, long while.
It makes me wonder if there’s some old soul stuff at work here. Did I need to revisit Montana to settle a score long-forgotten? I’ll never know for sure. What I can count on is a wealth of memories of startling scenery, scores of wildlife, hikes I never thought myself capable of accomplishing, and those Big Sky Country vistas — oh, the vistas — that will always be superlative.
So why, then, the misty memories? These past 6 1/2 months were really the first leg of our location independent lifestyle. The end of our Montana stint was as far as we’d planned, from way back when in autumn 2012. I know it’s not the end of our journey, but it is the closing of the first chapter. And from landlords out of Carl Hiassen novels and postcard-perfect beaches, to the magic of the high desert and Utah’s extraordinary reality — well, it’s been a helluva beginning.
The next chapter is in the works, and lest you wondered, why yes, it does involve beaches. And those beaches will likely involve sunsets and oysters. But first, a stop back on the East Coast to see my peeps!
And so, as I pack my final bags and plastic boxes o’ stuff, I leave you with perhaps the greatest fare-thee-well song of all time. Or, ok, at least the ’90s.
Let me count the ways:
1. Big Sky
Lone Peak mountain will take the breath away from the most hardened skiers. Granted, I am not a hardened skier. In fact, I vowed never to ski again after an unfortunate incident on a 10th grade school ski trip – but that’s another story entirely. At any rate, when I see this jagged, stony peak jutting viciously toward the heavens, and look at the nearly 90-degree drop down, and then imagine some crazed soul careening down the slope — if in fact, a straight, vertical drop can be considered a slope — on skis, well, let’s just say I get a flutter in my tummy and chills on my arms.
Of all the things in the world that cross my mind when taking a tram ride to the tippy top of the mountain, “Hey, I wanna plummet down that 11,000-foot peak when it’s covered with ice and snow on two skinny skis,” is NOT top of mind. Still, it’s completely rad that there are fools willing to take the plunge!
As you might have gathered from the above entry, athleticism is not my strong suit. Nor is coordination. Nor comfort with high places or uneven surfaces. Combined, these elements mean I like generally mellow activities. Like sitting. Or fishing — while sitting. Still, I do enjoy a good walk, and baby, Montana was made for good walkin’. The hiking here is stupendous, amazing and every other exceptional adjective you can fathom.
I live within walking distance to Ousel Falls, a charming waterfall, and am just a quick drive to Beehive Basin, a hike that will surely rank among the prettiest outdoor experiences I’ll ever have. The 6-mile round-trip trail leads you up a mountain slope, past rolling fields over wildflowers, over a few babbling streams and into the heart of a mountain basin — complete with a shimmering lake reflecting snow-dusted peaks. This, my friends, is perfection. This might also leave you seriously winded and with sore glutes. But maybe that’s just me.
3. Yellowstone National Park
I know, I know, the crux of Yellowstone is in Wyoming. Still, part of it lies in Montana, so I’m going to give it props here. A drive into Yellowstone will leave you gasping. This is some serious American landscape I’m talking about — the kind of landscape Discovery Channel specials are made of. You will see geysers galore, steaming and spewing water as though the depths of hell were bubbling beneath your little feet.
You will watch Old Faithful erupt not exactly on time, and question why it’s such a big deal, when the enormous, gaping Grand Canyon of Yellowstone lies just a few miles away. Bison and elk will casually cross your path. And you will wonder — for a brief moment — if God spent just a little more time on Montana that anywhere else on Earth.
4. Glacier National Park
Want to have all your notions of natural grandeur tested on a single drive? Cruise along Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, and I dare you not to get a bit teary-eyed. You may think you’ve seen magnificent natural wonders in Yellowstone or while visiting Grand Canyon National Park or Bryce Canyon or any other superlative place. Get ready, because in Glacier, your notions of natural beauty will be thrown to the wind as you realize — THIS, yes, this National Park right here in the top nook of the nation, makes all those others you gaped at look like — yep, I’ll say it — STATE parks. Harumph.
The glacial landscape curves and swoops as mountains and valleys and hanging valleys lie carved out of the Earth, and waterfalls crash from on high down, down, down to the Earth – roaring and angry. And now for my climate pitch: Go now before the glaciers disappear, as predicted, in 2030. Look at pictures of the glaciers from 25 years ago versus today, to see how they’ve all but melted. It will break your heart. Go now — do NOT miss this.
My fondest memory from my first trip to Montana was surely horseback riding with the Metcalf family while staying at their Rocking M Bunkhouse on a working ranch. Again, I had the chance to live out my Wild West fantasies right in Big Sky with a ride through Moonlight Basin’s 8,000-plus acres of rolling hills, tree-covered forests and fields. I do love a good horseback ride, and hopping up on the saddle out here is, in a word, rockin’.
Don’t mess with the bears or the moose. Or else.
7. A River Runs Through It
I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist. In all seriousness, rivers seem to meander through so many nooks and crannies here, particularly in the Big Sky area where the mighty Gallatin roars (or, at this time of year, gurgles happily along). I have not gone fly fishing, but manage to feel far too nostalgic peeking at the men (and occasional woman) who are standing alone in their waders casting out lines into the water with great hope of a bite.
I watched A River Runs Through It shortly after arriving here. I had never seen it before, and while I thought it was a beautiful film, the final sequence, with older Norman fly fishing alone really struck me — as in, I wept like a baby for 15 minutes after the movie ended. There is a love of land and place inherent in that story, perhaps because the land is so very palpable here in Montana — and yes, I, too, love it fiercely.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” - A River Runs Through It
And I am haunted by Montana.
People often wonder what the great benefit is that I reap from location independence, or why on Earth I’d give everything up, home included, to live life as a digital nomad. Most days, as I’ve explained, look fairly similar, with many hours of work under my belt, and perhaps the chance to explore something local and awesome in the late afternoon. Typically, this means heading to Key Biscayne in Miami to watch the sunset or taking a hike in the Santa Fe hills. But some days? Some days are pretty damn spectacular.
In our final stretch in Utah, we debated hitting the Grand Canyon’s North Rim for a day trip; it’s located just 3 hours from our sublet. Now, 3 years ago on our RTW travels we had hit the crowded South Rim, and it was a doozy — just gorgeous. Still, lots of travelers we’ve met had told us the North Rim was far more isolated, and by some accounts even more breathtaking.
We hemmed. We hawed. We ultimately decided to axe the North Rim trip in lieu of working because, well, we are stupid sometimes.
On our second-to-last day in St. George, I was toiling away online, and began craving an iced tea from Starbucks. We decided to take a quick break, bought the tea, then hit a nearby bakery where the ridiculously kind and friendly woman working began asking if we had made it to the North Rim. “Oh, you MUST go!” she admonished, plying us with macaroons and cupcakes. “It’s the prettiest! And there’s a donkey statue whose nose you pet for good luck!”
Eh, it was a sign. Of all the bakeries and all the bakery workers we found the one who talked obsessively about the North Rim. We exited the bakery, looked at each other, and just knew: we had to go to the Rim. Immediately — as in right that minute.
Because we could.
You see, when you’re location independent and spending 3 weeks mere hours from one of North America’s most mind-blowing natural wonders, and you decide at the last minute — at 3:30pm on a Wednesday to be exact — that you’d like to catch the sunset over the freaking GRAND CANYON that very afternoon, well, you can just … go.
The worst consequence? I was tired in the morning because we didn’t get home until 11pm and I wake up with the birds.
And so I drove through national forests and park land, shaking my head in wonder, repeatedly, at my world. A world where a half-hour iced tea break can turn into an 8-hour trip to watch the sun slip below the grandest of canyons. Shaking my head because, yes, it’s all possible.
While I have had plenty to say about Utah’s parks on Passenger Conners in the recent past, I’ve had remarkably little to note about the town I called home for 3 weeks, St. George, Utah.
After telling strangers and friends I’d be living there for a spell, the most common question I’ve gotten is, “Are you Mormon?”
Like many Utah communities, the town’s history is deeply rooted in the Mormon faith. But no, I’m not a Mormon and I simply chose St. George for the sake of convenience. The town is well-situated for travel into parks like Zion, Bryce and Capital Reef, and is also a decent size, with the shops, restaurants and amenities of a larger town.
I know, I know — that sounded like a cheesy St. George CVB ad, didn’t it? I think what I really want to say, from my heart, is that St. George has been one of the more precious towns I’ve had the fortune to get to know.
This is the living Norman Rockwell painting of the West, folks. There are quite literally white picket fences everywhere, super attractive and sporty-looking people, blindingly blonde children, spectacular mountain landscapes and kindness everywhere I turn.
And the people. Everyone I met was so, so nice. I have had supermarket employees chase me down an aisle to ask if I needed help finding anything, then walk me 7 aisles over to find the fresh tortellini. Like, no big deal.
And as far as our sublet was concerned, this was comfort-ville. We stayed in a neighborhood called Sports Village, complete with adults-only pool, gym and community center with shuffleboard (nope, I didn’t play). Our condo was big, with great views, a washer and dryer, dishwasher and no sign of a crazy landlord.
I’m not used to settings this warm and fuzzy — it’s like the happy ending of a Lifetime Original Movie here. But I know I sure am going to miss it when it’s no longer “home.”