Our Common Human Threads

“How do you do what you do?”

This is a question that I get asked often. I am blessed to have many friends. Friends that I made growing up with and living 20 years of my adult life with in Michigan, and friends from all corners of the earth that I have made throughout my time following my first passion of travel. There are many ways to maintain friendships. Phone calls, letters, visits, and the creation of social media has made the ability to keep up with friends profoundly easier. I take the time to call close friends, write letters and send cards to many others, and I always visit as many of my friends as possible in my travels. I post on social media sites IMG_0296often. It is here that my journey seems to intrigue people and it is here that they seem to ask the questions about my lifestyle that they are curious about. The photos show me backpacking in Glacier National Park, standing in front of Old Faithful, laying in the snow on Denali, standing on the Equator, volunteering in Africa, partying in Ecuador, learning about ancient native cultures in Arizona, and snowboarding in Colorado. The questions roll in…”How do you do what you do?”, “What do you do for money?”, “Where do you live?”, “Does that pay well?”, “Are you happy living this way?”, “How are you able to do all of these things all of the time?”…These are only a few of the things people will ask someone who lives an unconventional lifestyle. I am writing today to try to answer those questions for the people who don’t ask but are still curious.

“Where do you work?”
As a nomadic seasonal worker I move often and work in vacation destinations around the United States. I typically work in a national park during the summer months, and then I usually move to a ski resort during the winter months. These places are only busyEquator In Ecuador 2018 during those times and they need staff to help accommodate the influx of travelers to the area. I work as a server in a restaurant. Although working in food service in this country can be challenging, I truly enjoy the interaction I get with visitors and piers from around the country, and the world. With a B.A. degree in computer information systems, I’ve definitely had jobs that pay better than being a server, but the money that I make in these areas is actually quite good simply because of the volume of guests that I come into contact with each day. I also love humans. All of them. Even the difficult ones. Since nobody is perfect, bad days can happen, but the fast paced team environment of food service poses daily challenges and many personality differences that can make your day exciting. I am fortunate enough to work with many foreign students working in the US on a temporary work study J1 visa program. And, as you can imagine, national parks and ski resorts get visitors of all types. Working with, and serving people from all ages, religions, nationalities, economic backgrounds, races, and and sexual preferences provides the opportunity for me to see the common threads Capitol Reef NPof humanity at it’s core. Many people live in the same town all their life, and see the same people, and allow differences to divide them from other humans. I have learned to see the traits that unite us. Every single one of us. Everybody loves beautiful places, everybody gets hungry, everybody has needs, many need to know what’s vegetarian or gluten free, some need to vent when their bosses don’t have a clue, a lot of people have hidden talents, many have very important jobs, everybody needs to know where the bathroom is, and genuine smiles and laughter go a long way to bridge the gap between cultural differences and cross language barriers. My daily life is riddled with the challenges of humanity and I love it.

“Where do you live?”
“What do you do when you aren’t working?”
Seasonal jobs offer a huge advantage to those who choose to work them. Four to six weeks off in the spring between jobs, and four to six weeks off in the fall between jobs. I have already told you that travel is my first passion, and I have also told you that I make a great living wage in these areas. The housing is provided at many seasonal jobs. You actually live on site, in a dormitory style housing, where you work, and this isPartying In Ecuador usually offered at a significantly lower cost than a conventional living arrangement. This allows me to save most of the money that I earn and once all of my personal obligations are taken care of, I use the rest to travel with in the off-season. I also am entitled to unemployment compensation benefits during those times. I have taken extended road trips around the US, visited several countries, and made contact with many friends – some of which were foreign students that I worked with in my jobs. Knowing them has allowed me to cut costs while traveling abroad. So basically, I work in vacation destinations, and I get two to three months off every year to travel, with income coming in the entire time.

“So you don’t live anywhere permanently?”
No. I don’t. I live in dorm settings with a new roommate every working season. My car and a tent, or my suitcase and a hostel is my home during the off season. Many might see this in a negative light and some would even call me homeless much of the year. I see it in a much more positive and beautiful light. In dormitory living I get the opportunity to get close to people who become real friends. Not just people who are cool and I would like to spend some time with. I mean REAL friends who have heart to heart, 2:00AM talks with me. Friends who are there for each other through struggles. Friends who laugh with each other and cry with each other and make a true effort to keep in contact even after we part ways. And in the off season, I am free. Free to wander and roam and discover as I choose. Free of mortgage payments and rent payments and utility bills. In her book,Volunteering in Kenya “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert challenges her readers to come up with one word that describes them fully. One word that could be used to describe everything about them as if no other words were available. My word is “explore”. Those off seasons are my time to explore. They are my time to be free of many of the ties that bind others to obligations I have no desire to posess. In exchange of house payments and car payments and cable tv and boats and quads and all of those things, I explore. I explore places, people, ideas, theories, religions, cultures, theologies. I explore highways, scenic byways, backroads, large cities, small towns, college towns, hiking trails, and swimming holes. I explore my own mind, the thoughts that come to me, and the feelings that make me uniquely me. When I travel I see common words, commonality in cultures, animals I didn’t know existed, and lands that make me curious about how this earth was formed all those millions of years ago and how it continues to shape itself today. I explore ALL of those questions that I have only because I travel. Only because I expose myself to new and different things. Those periods of travel have made me grow exponentially as a person. They have revealed personality traits I wasn’t aware of. They have taught me more than I could have ever dreamed of knowing when I lived in only one permanent place. I do have a permanent address at my sister’s house in Michigan just to make the logistics of my life easier, but to answer the question, the only place I live permanently is – on earth.

“Are you happy doing this? You like the way you live?”
Emphatically and absolutely, YES! I understand that not everybody wants to live this way. There are many pros and cons to living a nomadic life. I am required to share space, I have to live by a lot of rules, I don’t own much, change is constant, I won’t be settled long before I have to pack it all up and move it again, and that alone can truly be exhausting. You can let those things stop you if you wish, or you can think that they should stop me. I tend to dwell on the positives. I am constantly in extraordinarily gorgeous places, I have the privilege to live in places where people save for months toIMG_2930 visit, it’s exciting to learn continually, and to reiterate the above, change is constant and I don’t own much. I am continually having to question who I am, where I want to go in this lifetime, and how I can use the gifts and talents I have been uniquely and divinely given in a way that will bring joy to others. There are no daily doldrums in this lifestyle. I don’t pass the time with television. I don’t dread Monday and I don’t live for Friday. I live every day, every moment…because every moment is fleeting, temporary, dissipating as it is passes. I will never be in the same place with the same people at this same moment again. Some of you may find that disheartening or peculiar, and that’s fine. Not everybody wants to, or can live this kind of life. I find it exciting, and fulfilling, and while I see myself settling down somewhere in the very distant future, I have no intentions of giving up the now at this time. I will continue to be nomadic, to expose myself to the world, to let it beat me down, teach me, and reveal my true self. The authentic human I want to be, the authentic human I have become. Yes, I am astoundingly happy doing this.

My questions for all of you are these:
Do you like living the way you live? Are you happy doing what you do? If money were not important, what kind of work would you spend your time doing? How do you live in the “now”? How do you want to be remembered? How do you do what you do? Because IBackpacking In Glacier am just as peculiar about a conventional lifestyle as you are about an eccentric one. Let’s talk. Let’s share. Let’s find common ground. Visit me sometime, or maybe even come with me, and I will visit you, and we will learn to love one another in spite of all of our differences. Let us find our common human threads, together.

Oh, and if you are interested in having a job like mine, and you don’t have any idea where to start, please contact me and I will point you in the right direction. You don’t have to be young, in fact, you don’t have to be anything. You just have to have the desire to try it out. The courage to step outside the box and see where life takes you. You will be astounded. I promise.

Today I am grateful for the poster I saw when I was 19 years old that advertised working in Yellowstone National Park, for all of the questions I get from people about my crazy life even when they ask over and over again, for the exposure to an alternate way of living, for the courage to continually step outside the box, for other people who do this and the encouragement we offer each other to continue down this path of learning, for exposure to some of the most diverse situations a person could encounter, for seeing the positive side of things, and for living a life that others find inspiring. That is what I am most grateful for because some people in the world don’t get the opportunity to inspire others and that, my friends, is an opportunity afforded to far too few in this world.

Snowboarding Steamboat 2018


One thought on “Our Common Human Threads

  1. I love you, Penny Cooper! I wish I had had the courage to stand my ground and be the “real me” way back when. I have no regrets. I have a beautiful family because I didnt. But I often mourn the experiences I missed, and yearn to know the woman I might have been today. Kudos to you! “First, to Thine own self be True!”


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