August 1, 2017

Last March, freelance writer Jen A. Miller wrote a beautiful piece in The New York Times about losing her dog Emily to cancer. Miller had adopted Emily soon after becoming a fulltime freelance writer, and she often wrote her running columns with Emily by her side. With Emily gone, Miller felt unmoored — from her house, her neighborhood and even her work.

So, she sold her house in South Jersey and decided to take a rambly road trip across the United States to visit every state she hadn’t yet seen. Miller’s goal was to find a new place to live, but she also used the trip — meticulously documented using the hashtag #jenin50 — to publicly grieve Emily, and to meet her readers along the way.

She also kept up her freelance schedule, found new story ideas, charted her adventures on Instagram, decided that she would settle in Colorado, rescued a dog, and announced that she would be taking over The New York Times’ running newsletter.

Not bad for a summer meant to grieve and reflect. I reached out to Jen because I loved how she talked publicly about freelancing on the road, and I also really enjoyed how she used the trip to talk with people across the United States and get new story ideas. Our conversation is below:

Jen, you love New Jersey! You wrote two books all about the Jersey Shore! And then you decided to sell your home and hit the road this summer. What inspired your adventure?

I know I’m really tied to N.J., but I’ve lived other places. I went to college in Tampa, and did a semester in England at Oxford University. I interned in Washington, D.C. too. I came back to N.J. after college to go to graduate school, and stayed, but I’d liked living elsewhere.

Writing about the Jersey Shore was a big chunk of my freelance career when I was starting out, but in 2012, I started shifting out of that because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who could only write about one place. That had already tied me to the Philadelphia media market, which was always in turmoil and far from healthy. I spent four years shifting away to focus more on running, and I had just published my running memoir. I was writing almost exclusively for national publications, so I really could go anywhere.

A week before I listed my house for sale, Emily died. I was flattened. I don’t even know how I found the mental space to write that piece for The New York Times about my grief. I’m glad I did because it has allowed me to see how much better I’m doing now — and I’ve gotten emails from a lot of people saying it helped them too.

I loved that dog to pieces, but the reality was that she was an elderly dog who couldn’t travel far. After she died, I didn’t need to include her in my calculations about where to live. I’d already done a few long road trips — I flew to Texas to buy my Jeep Wrangler (a 2002 TJ for fellow #jeeplife fans) and then drove it home without really knowing how to drive stick! The idea of doing a much longer one came to mind.

I could have driven cross-country, but in the late 1980s, my grandparents went on a summer — long road trip to see the states they hadn’t been to yet. My grandfather fought in the Pacific campaign in WWII and said he’d never leave the U.S. again until he saw all of his own country. The only exception he made was when they drove through Canada to get to Alaska (and he almost got to all of them before he died).

A 50 states trip was appealing — and it would give me add a few potential places to live to the list I already had. My house sold quickly, so I moved into an off-season rental at the Jersey Shore and plotted the trip that I called #jenin50.

With no home, no dog, and no job where I needed to be somewhere, why not? I left on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I had planned to be back at my mom’s house in N.J. on Labor Day, but then I adopted a dog and I’d decided by then that I was going to try Boulder on for size, so I came back to mom’s early. I’ll hit the road again in late August to get the three states I missed and then move to Boulder on Sept. 1.

So you hit the road, and you decide to visit every state that you haven’t been to yet. Could you talk a little bit about how you planned your route in advance, and also how you planned your freelance work around that? Was it hard to file stories?

I printed out a map of the U.S. and colored in all the states I had been to so I could figure out possible routes. I have really bad eczema, which is humidity-triggered, so I wanted to get through the few southern states I had left first — especially since I planned to camp for part of the trip.

That set things in motion. I had what I’d call solid marks on my calendar — places I needed to get to by a specific date. For example, I’d already been to Alaska but not Hawaii. I booked a flight to Hawaii out of Las Vegas, so I had to get there by the day of the flight. I planned to spend my birthday with my college roommate in Boise, Idaho, so I needed to be there then. What I did in between those marks was up to what I found, weather (because I didn’t want to camp in bad weather), what other friends I wanted to see along the way and sometimes just when I got too tired to drive anymore.

I bought the National Park Passport when I hit my first national park in Ohio. Before crossing over into a new state, I always looked to see which places I could visit there. I am someone who likes checking things off a to-do list, so checking a place off that list (and getting a stamp of course) brought me to a lot of places I may not have known about otherwise, like Craters of the Moon or Capitol Reef National Park, which was one of my favorite stops.

Work wise, I planned to work ¾ time. I’ve been freelancing full-time for almost 12 years, and in that time developed a schedule around my life, but that schedule was still pretty regimented, so work didn’t take over. I relaxed it on the road, so I did things like work on nights and weekends (which I don’t do normally unless I’m writing a book).

I have a handful of steady clients, and I let them know my plans but that I was still working (a lot of people thought I was taking the summer off — I wasn’t!). I pitched a lot less, but with those steady assignments on my calendar, I knew where and when I had to stop and work. Often, if I had a raft of work do, I’d find an Airbnb for a few days and stop.

That’s how I landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a while. It was a nice city and I enjoyed it, but I really stopped there because I had to work. The same was true for Boulder, but it was one of those places I knew I had to visit before I decided on where to live. I loved it. The climate, the community, the running community, the access to trails and mountains — it all seemed a good fit, which is why I’m going to try it out in September and October.

I never really had a problem finding Wi-Fi to file. Sometimes, I had to drive to a Starbucks, but then I’d get to enjoy some AC and a coffee that was not instant. Except for hotel rooms, I worked most often at Panera — their smoothies were sometimes the only fresh fruit I had for the day.

I imagine you also got many story ideas along the way.

I did! I sold some of them, like this piece I wrote for The Lily, a new project from The Washington Post. And some I haven’t sold yet, like going to a topless pool in Las Vegas (still pitching that one).

More often, my experiences ended up in stuff I was writing anyway. I have a lot more ideas, but they’re best told with some distance. I imagine #jenin50 pop up in my work for sometime to come, especially because it’s not over and I have three states left to see in August. This isn’t just a travel story either. It’s one about uprooting your entire life. I’ll have some things to say about that too.

One thing I didn’t really try to do before I left was sell it as a series in advance. I sent some cursory emails to editors I already knew, but I didn’t push too hard. I didn’t want to feel beholden to something or go do something for the sake of an assignment. Someone paying for my expenses would have been nice! But it felt better to me to do it this way.

Along the way, you got a new dog — and a new gig. You’re now writing the new running newsletter for The Times. And one of your first pieces was writing about running with your dog. How do you decide when to work in personal details in your work?

I did! Emily died on Jan. 4, and after the six-month anniversary of her passing, I decided I’d try to start again. I contacted a few rescues near where I was and where I was going, but most kicked my application back because they saw the address and didn’t read what I wrote.

Because I was going to be in Boise for about a week with my college roommate, we decided to go to a few shelters just to look. I had an idea of what kind of dog I wanted, but, really, you’re not going to know until you start seeing dogs and meeting dogs and getting to know dogs. Even starting the process of going into shelters and considering another dog was going to be emotional, because I was still grieving. I cried a lot.

I met one dog and then went back the next day to see if she was right, and she bit me. I sat on the floor of the shelter and sobbed. It felt like I was trying to do too much too soon.

After that, my friend and I were going to call it a day when I Googled “animal rescue.” Another one was close by. I fell in love with Annie Oakley Tater Tot almost immediately (and yes, I gave her that name). My friend fosters dogs, so she made the decision — and told me to stop worrying about the logistics of the whole thing because we’d figure that out. I adopted Annie that day (and then later decided to re-arrange my trip so she could get some rest while recovering from kennel cough and hurting her foot — she’s great now!)

Enough about the dog — you asked about work! I had been contributing to The New York Times running newsletter on and off almost since it started, but while I was away, they asked me if I wanted to take it over. That was a no-brainer. I’d been writing for the Times since 2006 and for Well, the section that this is for, since 2010, and I write for them often (I even did Facebook Live from the New York City Marathon last year for them too). I’d missed writing a weekly running column, which I’d done for the Philadelphia Inquirer for three years. I’m ecstatic about the opportunity to have that weekly space again.

When I said yes, I pitched a few ideas of what I could write about the first week, and running with Annie was one. My editors are dog people too, so that’s the one we picked. I didn’t doubt writing about Annie. I knew a lot of people were waiting to see what kind of dog I’d adopt next. I wanted to let them know it had happened, and how happy I was about it.

I’ve written about myself since I filed my first column for my college newspaper when I was 18 years old. I’m used to it. I just have to be careful about doing something so I can write about it. I took some time off running after Emily died, and I hiked more than I ran this summer. When I was thinking about running a fall marathon, I had to ask myself if I was running one because I wanted to run a marathon, or because I knew it would be work fodder. I went on a run and thought about it and realized that yes, absolutely, I was going to do this because I wanted to run another marathon. Running is how I assume I’ll meet a lot of people in Boulder, so I want to be in decent shape! I’m sure it’ll trickle into the newsletter, which is fine by me.

What plans do you have for the running newsletter?

I don’t think it’ll be much different than what was being done before, but instead of the writer changing, it’ll be me. I won’t write about myself all the time (because: boring). Also the newsletter shares other New York Times stories related to health and fitness, so it’s really not about me.

I want the newsletter to be helpful on a practical level to people who want to know more about how to run (and run better) but also to introduce them to other parts of the running world that they might not know about if they only run road races — things like track or ultramarathoning.

Running publications and website seem to fall into niches like they cover pros, or they cover trail running, or they will tell you how to run faster and lose weight at the same time — and they are really good at what they do (for example, UltraRunning Magazine has been covering the Barkley Marathon for ages and even though other running and non-running publications have started taking notice, in covering this year’s race, they published one of the most powerful photographs I’ve seen in a magazine in years and probably the most powerful running photo I’ve seen — ever). But I try to pay attention to it all, so I want the newsletter to pull from all over to give readers a wider view of this sport that so many of us do.

Is writing a newsletter different for you than filing pieces? How do you think about the two?

Not really. The process is the same for me. Newsletter pieces are shorter, but that fits the medium. I do need to pay more attention to what’s being published about running inside and outside of the paper, but I was already doing that for my own curiosity anyway. Even when I was contributing to the newsletter, I’d send my editors ideas and say “if it’s for the newsletter, I could see it going like this; if for a story, like that.” I’ve worked with the same people for a long time, so it’s an easy process.

When I was watching your summer journey, I was completely envious of you. What advice would you have for other journalists who want to leave their comfort zones?

For a journey like this: It’s going to suck. There’s no way around it. You’ll get hot, dirty and tired and not want to continue on. I came down with a horrible head cold after Hawaii and was trying to hike at altitude in Utah — that didn’t work out so well, and I ended up throwing my budget into the wind and booking myself into hotels for the whole week.

That kind of stuff is going to happen. I knew that going in, and even when I hit those low points, I told myself that I knew it was going to happen and it would get better. And it did.

For journalists leaving their comfort zones: It’s going to suck. Ha! I wrote two Jersey Shore books and was offered a third. Saying no was scary because it was a book contract with money attached, and being Jersey Shore Jen was a reliable source of income for me.

But I had a feeling there was something else out there — just like when I decided not to buy another home in Collingswood, I had a feeling there was something else out there. There was for work, and I imagine there is for me and my life too. I could get to Boulder and hate it — but that’s OK. I only have a two-month lease. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just move somewhere else. But it’s at least worth trying because if it does work out, I could be moving on to something wonderful.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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