An Asheville Sampler

FullSizeRender 2Most people probably come to Asheville to visit George W. Vanderbilt’s cozy cottage, Biltmore, but there’s so much more to sample in this fantastic town.

Asheville is a picturesque town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The scenery and climate was deemed so lovely by George Washington Vanderbilt that, in the late 1880s, he purchased some 125,000 acres upon which he would build his mountain escape that he would call Biltmore. He hired Richard Morris Hunt as architect and, always wanting the very best, employed Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of New York’s Central Park, to design the grounds.

He first opened the doors of the opulent estate to invited friends and family on Christmas Eve of 1895. Seeing that we would be in the area with the approach of the holiday season, it seemed only appropriate that we plan a stop in Asheville. That was one of the best decisions we’d made all year! And while Biltmore, all dressed in its holiday splendor, was truly beautiful, there’s so much more to do, see, and eat in and around this charming town.

IMG_0585Our rig stuffed into a spot at Wilson’s Riverfront RV Park that backed up to the French Broad River.

Temperatures were down to a balmy 27°F when we woke up on our first morning in Asheville to meet up with our Instagram friends @vandyvagabonds for an early breakfast at Biscuit Head. Meeting new friends on the road has been the best part of our travels, and there’s always something to talk about when you both have the itch for adventure. We share a love of good food, and they enthusiastically recommended what would become our favorite doughnut shop in the country. Yep, country.

IMG_0528Hard to find a quainter little donut shop than Hole. This image has some Pavlov effect on me, and I’m now drooling with food lust.

Caroline and Kim are the two brilliant minds behind Hole Doughnuts. Their first foray together into baking elliptical delights was the popular Tin Can Pizzeria food truck, but they sold the business in 2014 to build a new factory of magic. Step inside the cozy little building at 168 Haywood Rd – with a cute little blue bread truck outside, you can’t miss it – and your sniffer is met with the intoxicating bouquet of made-to-order yeast doughnuts. Yes, that’s right. Made-to-order. They offer a changing menu of featured glazes and rubs, ranging from lemon cayenne to grapefruit bourbon. We sampled all the flavors they offered during our visit and came away with two favorites. Jenn loved the cocoa rub, a blend of powdered cocoa and ground coffee, while I couldn’t get enough of the bourbon and bay leaf glaze. It’s a beautiful place for those with gastronomic inclinations where you can watch your tasty treat come to life, from risen dough to a little puffy ring of fried heaven. Go forth and sample, but don’t say we didn’t warn you as you just might find an addiction.

IMG_0521Made-to-order doughnuts, featuring their bourbon bay glazed front and center.  I wonder if they will overnight these to our next destination?

How’s your sweet tooth? If you’ve still got it, step aboard the Asheville sweet train for our next stop: French Broad Chocolates. Before you go off thinking that we left a doughnut shop to tour a chocolate factory, let me add that these were not consecutive visits. There are plenty of delicious breweries to wet your whistle between stops and we’ll get to one of our favorites shortly.

FullSizeRenderThe journey that lead to French Broad Chocolates started when a young couple took their skoolie (converted schoolbus) on a drip down to Costa Rica and ended up purchasing a small, abandoned cacao farm. Love it.

Dan and Jael met in 2003, fell in love, and left graduate school in a 40-ft converted school bus running on vegetable oil bound for Costa Rica. Once there, they bought an abandoned cacao farm and opened up a café and dessert shop named Bread & Chocolate where they began to experiment with making chocolate. After selling the successful café, their chocolate journey would eventually lead them to Asheville, where their chocolate business would grow from homemade chocolates sold online and at local markets into two local establishments, the Chocolate Lounge and the bean-to-bar French Broad Chocolate Factory and Tasting Room.

While we didn’t make it to the Chocolate Lounge during our brief stay in Asheville,  we did manage to reserve a spot on the guided chocolate factory tour they do most every Saturday and what a treat it was. I would consider the experience less a tour and more like an hour-long class in Chocolates 101. You get to handle and examine cacao pods, sample raw cacao nibs, and witness the entire process first-hand from bean to bar. After the hour we spent with the kind folks at the French Broad Chocolate Factory, we have a new appreciation for the intensely manual process of harvesting cacao and how important it is to support small businesses like them who work hard to foster relationships with cacao farmers and pay their workers a decent wage. I, for one, will no longer shudder at the price of a $7 bar of chocolate.

IMG_0633Cacao grinds after four passes through the rolling mill.

Once you’ve sampled your chocolates and bought as much as you can carry, you’re only a half-block stroll to one of our favorite breweries in Asheville. We first encountered Burial Beer Company on Thanksgiving after sleuthing the internet for something to do on the holiday we would be spending away from family. The folks at Burial Beer announced they were hosting a community pot luck and mentioned they would be providing two fried turkeys, and that folks could bring whatever sides or treats they would like. We headed over early that evening with a batch of delicious pumpkin cupcakes that Jenn whipped up in the convection oven and found that there were many folks hoping for a bit of beer and a free turkey dinner. It was all quite tasty, but the beer was worth coming back for.

IMG_0542Definitely recommend going with a sampler at Burial Beer Co before settling into a glass of your favorite.

We returned the following week when there would be a bit more room to spread out and really sample some beers while we let Imogen run free and charm the other patrons. Their taproom is quite cozy and it’s easy to find a spot, indoors or out, to get comfortable and enjoy some delicious beer. Given the name of the brewery, you can count on a clever tap list. My favorite went by none other than the name The Triumph of Death, a sumac saison in which 85 lbs of sumac are soaked in the beer post-fermentation. Jenn surprised herself with a preference for a brew by the name of Thresher, a French saison made with cold-pressed coffee of a sun-dried Ethiopian varietal sourced from a local roaster.  Honestly, we can’t wait to go back, cozy up by the fire pit, and get reacquainted with some deliciously creative brews. In the meantime, we can’t recommend Burial Beer Company enough, even if you just want to hang out and admire all the Tom Selleck portraits.

IMG_0481If you share in my fond memories of film and TV from the 80s, you’ll know the two chaps featured in this epic patio mural at Burial. Sloth and Tom are featured in memorabilia throughout the brewery.

Honestly, there’s so much to do in and around Asheville that our measly two weeks left us feeling a bit blue about having to leave so soon. I promise, we did more than just stuff our faces! Biltmore was stunning in its holiday grandeur, but I’d love to go back and take one of the tours that focuses on the behind-the-scenes lives of the people that lived and worked in the home. There’s also the beautiful North Carolina Arboretum, stunning scenery along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and hundreds of hiking trails sprinkled about the region. We can’t wait to return, and we will be blocking out a good portion of the calendar when we do. After all, with more breweries per capita than any other US city, it will take some time to give it a proper review. Cheers!

IMG_0488Jenn and Imogen on the path to Moore Cove Falls. 

The quiet reading room (above) in the Santa Fe Public Library, located just off the plaza, provides a beautiful space with fantastic free WiFi.

Have you noticed how time halts in the wake of bad news? The moment exists like an event horizon at the edge of some insatiable black hole, and everything around you is compressed into the singularity of awareness that life will, heretofore, be different: “We regret to inform you that your wireless service will be terminated…”

Like many enthusiastic full-timers, I had ordered one of the Verizon hotspots offered by Omnilynx this past summer touting unlimited(!) LTE data for a paltry $48 per month. The honeymoon lasted two glorious months, and I’ll always cherish how it felt to cross the 100GB data threshold for the first time with no overage fees. I had finally found a way to stick it to The Man and it was more intoxicating than free beer at a monster truck rally. And now they were going to take it all away.

The last few days with my bottomless hotspot were a blurry binge of Law and Order and The Good Wife fueled by a slurry of Cheetos and Mountain Dew. I had lost all self control and had to hit bottom before I could rise up among the detritus of empty cans and Little Debbie wrappers, a Phoenix tempered by the flickering glow of the LCD, to sing the virtues of an existence without access to an unlimited high-speed data plan. I had to remember why we set out on this journey in the first place, and while access to data might be a requirement of a modern household, it’s not the necessity we had become accustomed to before our home grew wheels.

Here are a few unplugged ways we pass the time when we’re not exploring the neighborhood du jour.

reading-listOur current reading list in the Kindle app – lots of good stuff there.

Bury your nose in a book

Some of our favorite evenings, after the kiddo goes to bed, are spent cozied up beneath a blanket with a good book and a cup of tea. Jenn and I are both introverted people and require a hearty portion of quiet time to recharge our batteries, and reading is something that we can do together without feeling obligated to engage with one another. While it’s not quite like the real thing, a well-stocked e-reader takes up very little space in an RV and can easily accommodate the most voracious of readers between data fill-ups. Reading is one of those things that is fantastically portable, so grab a blanket and your Kindle and go get comfy in that hammock for an adventure with your imagination.

Old time radio programs

One of many luxuries we’ve allowed ourselves in our life on the road is satellite radio and it’s proved invaluable on long days behind the wheel. SiriusXM has introduced me to programs like the Moth Radio Hour and Encounters Radio. In fact, if you haven’t yet heard of Encounters Radio, go check it out this instant while you have an internet connection and download a handful of episodes for later. Richard Nelson’s breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for wild critters is incredibly contagious, and each show is great for all ages. SiriusXM also offers the Radio Classics channel, playing vintage programs from the likes of Jack Benny and Abbott & Costello, along with other variety shows and melodramas. All you need to enjoy an old fashioned night around the radio is a bit of juice in the house batteries and a clear view of the southern sky.

hobbyJenn’s crocheting a new winter bonnet for Imogen and she’s never far from a cup of tea.

Knittin’ and whittlin’

Before we moved into our RV, I was under the impression we were going to have to make sacrifices to sufficiently downsize our lives so that it would all fit. We stuck the heirlooms in a 10×10 storage unit and sold everything else that wouldn’t fit in our diesel pusher. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, when it comes to full-timing, we have it easy. Our coach has swallowed up everything we could possibly need on the road with space to spare. And though I might not have brought along my collection of typewriters, both of us are pretty well set on the things we need to do the things we love. Jenn is crafty and, when time allows, enjoys crocheting, knitting, and baking. I’m likely to spend my free time either writing, drawing, or–and this is just between us–playing video games. Point is, we didn’t have to give up any of the things that make us happy to take our life on the road. If it’s important to you, make it a priority to find a way to enjoy it as a full-timer.

But, but…I NEED my data!

Ok, sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that many of us simply need our data to get by. Access to heaps of data is what keeps the lights on and the wheels spinning on our fantastic adventure. My average workday can consume over 1GB of data just developing code on remote servers and interacting with my team through shared desktops. For that reason, I have to get creative with how I access data on a daily basis so that I’m not forced to sell my vestigial organs when the mobile bill arrives. As a compromise, I’ve adopted the practice of splitting my workday into two parts. One of those sessions will be spent at a local coffee shop, library, or cafe so that I can mooch their free Wi-Fi. If I’ve got a big collaborative meeting on the calendar, I’ll be sure my time on mooched Wi-Fi overlaps with my meeting so that I’m not using our expensive data plan for streaming a video teleconference. I’ve found that I can often reserve a private study room in many local libraries for just this sort of thing, with the added perk of building up a pretty sweet library card collection. Not only am I getting free data by getting out of the coach, but I’m also breaking up my day and exploring more of the community we are visiting. I also get out of Jenn’s hair for a few hours, which is probably better than the extra French fry at the bottom of the bag.

zendo-coffeeZendo in Albuquerque, by far my favorite coffee shop in town, was my WiFi mooch of choice for a 10-hour video conference. Yes, you read that correctly. 10. Hours.

If you’re anything like us, you probably have a Netflix account. Maybe you spend a little time each day on Facebook or Instagram. Perhaps you pay your bills online, shop online, and even scarf down a couple of cute cat videos when you have a few minutes to burn. Trust me, we get it. Our lives have become so entwined with digital consumption that we’re left with an embarrassing void once our unmetered tap to the cloud was gone. When we lived in a sticks-n-bricks home, it was easy to settle into routines anchored around streaming video, and we felt the urge creeping back in when we had our unlimited hotspot. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of this adventure we’re on? I’m not saying it isn’t nice to veg out once in a while on a Walking Dead bender, but our choice to live in an RV is about making the most of the time we’ve got on this spinning rock. A little less high-speed data might just be the cat’s pajamas. Now, get off the Internet and go do something!

(Above) Home sweet home, boondocked for a week in Lockheed Martin’s parking lot. 

Hello. My name is Adam, and I’m a digital nomad. Wikipedia defines us as “individuals who use telecommunications technologies to earn a living and, more generally, conduct their life in a nomadic manner.” If I’m being candid, that sounds entirely unimaginative, and what fun is life without imagination? I prefer to think of us as the wise ones who have realized all time is fleeting and have chosen to pursue an existence that embraces the words of T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

We long to experience the world around us, deeply and without hesitation, with each new sunrise. To finger the furrowed bark of the great sequoias that call to mind our own insignificance. To walk the halls of museums multitudinous and bear witness to all that we are capable of by attempting to traverse the indeterminate breadth between creation and destruction. To delicately breathe in the geologic bouquets of Yellowstone and learn about the volatile earth below our feet. To taste the foods prepared with a palette of flavors that do more to describe a region and its people than the names on a map. To simmer in the richness of a life shared with others by encountering new friends and reacquainting with old.

We pursue this life pragmatically, without the luxury of wealth or an overabundance of leisure. We must spend some portion of our days in toil, but technology has helped us shed the tethers of the traditional corporate world, enabling a career that attempts to emphasize balance, where the work created by the individual is paramount to where that work was created. I’m not here to teach you how to become a digital nomad, for I only know the path that I took to get here, and the roads are as numerous as the destinations. Instead, I’d like to touch on what I love about this life and the necessary sacrifices required for the freedom we enjoy.

I work for Lockheed Martin as a software engineer and did not believe it would be possible to live this life while staying with the corporation. I had assumed a Fortune 500 company, particularly one so entrenched in the business of defense, would be opposed to full time telecommuters. It was, however, my previous manager who, after hearing about our dream to be nomadic in a candid conversation, inspired me to search for a virtual position within the corporation and even went so far as to show me how to set up an automated search on the internal job board. It wasn’t long before something intriguing landed in my inbox, and a month later I was transitioning from a cleared position writing Ada for fighter jet trainers to one developing web technologies in the realm of cyber security. In doing so, I took a step down and a five-digit pay cut, but we considered it the necessary sacrifice for the freedom to pursue our dream.

norrell-digital-nomad-1All the tools I need for a day at work: great headphones with mic and remote, a couple of hotspot options, my ubiquitous iPhone, an RSA key for VPN, the MacBook, and a lap desk.

Much of my career in aerospace had been spent working closely with a team in a lab. I had little idea of what to expect working a virtual job where I would have no cubicle, much less a lab full of humming hardware and fellow engineers. In fact, I didn’t even have a dedicated workspace in our coach. I spent my first week on site with my new team in an empty cubicle before returning home, feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. I was headed into new territory without a map, and I was both thrilled and terrified. Mostly, I felt alone.

According to an article recently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, one of the more significant challenges to working virtually is missing out on the mutually beneficial practice of collaboration. Serendipity happens when sharing an office with your team, where old problems are solved and new challenges are imagined during brief moments of impromptu collaboration. The effect is often referred to as hallway innovation, and it’s a big reason why tech leaders like Google believe in collocating their employees, offering them spaces to interact beyond the traditional cubicle or conference room. If a team is virtual, this type of creative collaboration does not happen organically. As I am the only virtual member of my team, the impetus to initiate collaboration often falls squarely on my shoulders.  I must use every tool at my disposal–phone calls, email, screen-shares, and instant messages–in an effort to feel connected and engaged with my team. Depending on the traits of one’s personality, this pressure to stay connected can prove exhausting. As I’m somewhat introverted, I find I must remind myself to reach out to each member of my team every few days to feel connected. The benefit is feeling I’m part of a highly functional, collaborative team who has not forgotten me because I’m not seen at the water cooler. It’s not a replacement for being in an office, but a compromise I make willingly.

norrell-digital-nomad-2Thanks to an ENO hammock and my trusty hotspot, I can office in comfort most anywhere! 

Because I was so focused on virtual collaboration, I was almost entirely blindsided by the difficulty of defining a clear separation between work life and home. Jenn and I moved into our Itasca Meridian with an Irish Wolfhound, a Chihuahua, and our eight-month-old daughter two weeks before I joined my new team. We went from a charming home of 1300 square feet to a coach of roughly 400 square feet, which is admittedly lavish in the realm of wheeled homes. Nonetheless, life as I had known it had been turned upon its head. I no longer drove to an office where I would spend hours in a lab with seven other engineers. Instead, I simply shuffled from the bed to the sofa where I reclined beneath a bamboo lap desk, often still sporting my pajamas. My workspace served as office, entertainment, and casual dining depending on the time. The boundaries I had erected to separate work from home were fragile and translucent.

I ultimately realized that I had to do more to mentally and physically separate my work environment from home, and I had to be okay with those boundaries changing from one day to the next. I had to learn how to differentiate those hours that are little more than the lulls in the natural ebb and flow of motivation from those where my propensity for productivity was being challenged by my environment. Some days I can work from the sofa or dining table quite contentedly for hours on end, while others require more distance from the distractions of home. On those days, I can be found working anywhere from a hammock in the woods to a table at the local library, my location only limited by my ability to connect digitally. Now that I understand what I need to stay motivated and be productive, I find the flexibility in work environments exhilarating. Unfortunately, now that work and workspace are no longer so tightly coupled, it’s easy to feel compelled to keep the laptop open longer, threatening the very balance our new lifestyle longs for.

norrell-digital-nomad-4I can’t say I’m not the tiniest bit jealous of  Thomas Edison’s preferred office and lab. So cool!

It took time for me to feel comfortable with my new virtual role. I was working with new technologies with which I had little (if any) professional experience. We had just barely survived a very compressed transition from house to RV. We were still navigating the unfamiliar waters of parenthood, desperately longing to find our sea legs. Time heals all and the sense of balance was eventually restored. I began to feel more like a contributor at work than a leech of knowledge. I had found the intrinsic motivation required to work as the only virtual member of a small software development team. I felt free to live, to explore.

My transition to digital nomad has afforded me the freedom to work when I feel productive, and take a break when I don’t. I can turn off the computer for a few hours during the day, when we might go for a hike or explore a museum without fighting the weekend crowds. In turn, we have stopped living for the weekends and started living each day. We try to be present. We have begun to live as deeply as possible in each place because we understand the time we have there is brief.

I’m approaching my sixth month of being a digital nomad and I’m here to tell you it’s worth it. If you share in the dream we had, it is up to you to make it happen. It is not easy, and the adventure does not come without compromise or sacrifice. This life does not work for everyone, and I’ll admit that we are still settling in with the nomadic rhythms. If you have the dream, I beg you to share it with others. You never know what opportunities you might encounter once you embrace your vision and pursue it wholeheartedly. Yell it to the hills and waste not a moment, for time is fleeting and the world around us is awfully big.