The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Being a Stateside Digital Nomad

In 2020, while she was still a student, Noa joined FUNKY BROWN CHICK as an intern. Based on her stellar performance, she continued with the firm in various roles and was hired as a full-time Project Lead. Noa, like all FUNKY BROWN CHICK team members, has the opportunity to live in a location of her choosing — and the firm helps make that possible! Read about her experiences.

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2022, I knew one thing–I didn’t want to live in Nebraska anymore. However, I felt it impossible to choose one place to live. Choosing a place to live felt like I was sentencing myself to that area for the rest of my life–because that’s what I’ve seen happen to so many others. I still wanted to explore without having to book a flight and rent a hotel room; I wanted to be able to meet new people that were from across the country, be in a new place where no one knew me. Ultimately, I wanted to figure out who Noa was and what she was really like without the pre-judgments of people who had known me for a very long time. 

In my final semester, I watched a film for a class called Into the Wild. To make a long (LONG) movie short, the main character leaves his life behind after college and hoofs it from city to city across the U.S. all the way to Alaska. This story of adventure and commitment to “reinventing self,” enamored me. I remember thinking, Surely other people do this but not as crazy as this guy. So, I looked it up, and people do, but it’s called digital nomading. In a few weeks, I had packed up all of my clothes and a few sentimental things into my car and headed off to my first digital nomad adventure. Along the way, I experienced some of the best times and people of my life but also some of the worst. 

What is a digital nomad?

In the era of COVID and working remotely, I have good news– you have likely lived a semi-digital nomadic lifestyle for the past two years! According to Oxford Dictionary, a digital nomad is “a person who earns a living working online in various locations of their choosing (rather than a fixed business location).” You may hear others use various terms within the digital nomad community to describe their lifestyle: location independent, working traveler, ex-pat, and remote worker. 

As a digital nomad, I was always on the move. My time spent in one location varied depending on how much I liked the area, but it averaged 5 weeks per location. I lived out of Airbnbs, friends’ houses, and a hotel several times between cities. The way I lived was unique to most, not just because I was a digital nomad but also because many digital nomads travel internationally. I decided not to embark on international travel as a way not to give my mother a heart attack but also because I was interested in my own experiment–how diverse was the US? Were places like Tucson and Boston really that culturally different? 

The good, the bad, and the ugly

I considered myself well-traveled before I embarked on a digitally nomadic lifestyle. However, it quickly became apparent that many spend their time traveling as a tourist rather than a local. After my first two weeks as a digital nomad, I created an intention list of why I was doing this. I had three simple goals:

  • Discover the nuance and diversity of the U.S.
  • Meet people that will be in my life forever
  • Live like a local

I realized that not only the good times would help me achieve these three goals but also the bad times, and worst times of being a digital nomad. 

I was fortunate to never be confronted with issues that proved fatal, but there were definitely some ‘worst’ of times. My first location, where I spent nearly two months, was Tucson, Arizona. Tucson had not been my first pick in Arizona, but as a recent college graduate, I quickly realized my dollar would go further in Tucson than in Phoenix or Sedona. While in Tucson, I met my partner, as well as some friends, through social media and the live music scene. In July, my time together with my friends and partner was coming to a close, and I booked my next Airbnb for Colorado. I had packed my car, booked my mid-stop hotel, and I only had one final checklist item to cross off before beginning the trek to Colorado– get my car inspected. This was a must-do as Arizona and Colorado both have mountainous terrain, and I also had a nagging engine light. 

While the car was in the shop, I received a call– my transmission was flooded and likely couldn’t be recovered. This made sense. Two weeks prior, my friends and I had taken a weekend trip to Mexico, and July is monsoon season in the southwest and floods easily arise. We had driven my car and had made the call to continue driving through the monsoon like the numerous cars ahead of us and drove through a few large streams of water on the road. With this news, I was devastated; damaged transmission essentially equals a new car. So there I was, halfway across the country from my family without a car or place to live, and too proud to ask them for help. When I received that call from the mechanic, I was with my friends and partner. They immediately invited me to stay with them however long was needed, and they even pitched in for the mechanic bill because we all made the call to drive through the flooding. The mechanic finally recovered my transmission and even gave me a deal if I promised to call him and let him know when I safely arrived in Colorado! This worst-case scenario showed me that I had accomplished at least one of my goals already– I met people that I knew would be in my life forever and that cared so deeply about me. 

When I arrived in Boston in the fall, I was ecstatic! I was excited to do all the fun fall things in the northeast. However, I also had a lesson in the cultural differences barreling toward me in Boston. If you’ve ever been to Boston, you likely walked everywhere because it’s an extremely walkable city– I was not used to this because I’m from Nebraska. I was shocked at the narrowness of the roads, how they’d been built to be walked rather than driven. This also translated poorly to my parking situation in Boston. As I arrived at my Airbnb, they promptly informed me that they didn’t allow parking– they’d lied in their listing. I assumed, Okay, I can adapt. I’ll just park here for a few days and then scope out a parking lot nearby to ditch the car for the rest of my time here and walk everywhere. That was a mistake. I woke up one morning to find street cleaners buzzing down the residential road, and there was no sign of my car–it’d been towed. I spent that morning walking to the towing company–a 10-minute T ride and then 20-minute walk down a creepy tow yard to the front office. This situation arose because of my ignorance of the “big city” life. We don’t have street cleaning where I’m from; I grew up flying down gravel roads. I didn’t know that they were that serious about street cleaning, or parking for that matter. While this lesson may seem minuscule and laughable to someone who grew up in an urban area, I was flabbergasted at the seriousness they paid toward actually towing cars and the ‘rudeness’ I was met with along the way. In the Midwest, we are known for being nice. In the southwest, everyone was super laid back. In the northeast, what I perceived as rudeness was a cultural difference that makes Boston run as a city. It was a $400 lesson I didn’t like, but needed to learn about the cultural differences of the U.S.

Overall, the good far outweighed the bad that I ever experienced as a digital nomad, and I would be writing all day if I were to name all of it. One of my favorite experiences in each city I lived in was becoming a local. When you first arrive in a city, it can be daunting and chaotic. For me, it was one of the frustrating parts of navigating the city: groceries, unpacking, and laundromats when I arrived somewhere. It’s hectic, and it can go wrong so easily. However, after a week or two, you start to get the hang of it, and you start to understand the layout and what the norms are in each place. As I began to chameleon in each place, I almost got a sense of pride that I could finally go somewhere without having to look at Apple maps!

Before I can offer advice, I must say that immense privilege is correlated with the ability to live a lifestyle such as this. I am a white woman that had the opportunity to go to college, access to paid internships, and a family that I know will find a way to lend me a few bucks if I fall flat on my face. Throughout this journey, when people ask me how I did it, I always tell them, The first step was the privileges I have that not everyone else will be able to have or access. I will always recognize these privileges that allowed me to live this lifestyle but I will also be grateful for the opportunities given to me to make this lifestyle work. 

My logical advice is things I wish I’d known before: beef up your savings beforehand, give yourself a grace day to acclimate to each new place, pack light, etc. My “inspirational” advice would be to take advantage of not only every opportunity that’s introduced while you’re a digital nomad but every opportunity to set yourself up for success while preparing for digital nomad life. I had a remote job that was extremely inclusive, respectful, paid a livable and fair wage, and encouraged me through full-time employment and internship, to dream big! I also took that leap of applying to internships in a place far from home while in college that landed me here at FUNKY BROWN CHICK. I will never be more grateful for my college self, taking that leap and for the FUNKY BROWN CHICK team for welcoming me and believing in me!! 

Throughout my time as a digital nomad, I saw cities from the tops of mountains, swam oceans, ate some of the best food in my life, indulged in history and nature, saw long-distance friends again, went to fun bars, and ultimately lived like a main character. I think the best of it wasn’t realized until I decided to end my digital nomad journey. I realized how much I have learned and how much I have to be thankful for and I am surrounded by more friends and chosen family than I had before. I know for the rest of my life, I will cherish the ability to take the majority of 2022 to be a working traveler, learn, grow, and have a new experience every day. I am so glad I took the chance to do something unconventional. This unconventional choice allowed me to meet people, see things, and experience life in a way that I may never have!