How does one get the most out of an assignment? This can be an overwhelming thought as we all hastily begin planning our “must do” list as we settle on an assignment. Historically I have found the more time you spend in a place, the longer the list gets, but the best answer is usually the simplest — establish some goals, settle on them, and enjoy everything else as a side quest.
Pursue your goals
This may sound silly and introspective, but what are your goals? Are you looking to get cozy and know a city, explore the outdoors, gain monetary stability? Or are you just a foodie looking to eat their way across the US?
Have a couple of grand — but accomplishable — goals in mind, then let the rest run off from there. Save room for spontaneity but accomplish what’s most important to you. In earnest, you never know if you’re going to be at a place for the last time. I remember part of the allure for visiting Machu Picchu was the appreciation for that specific moment in time and space, and the likelihood I would probably never be there again.
You want to get to know a city: take a walking tour, hit the tourist sites, and make sure to try as much food as possible. You never know who you might meet while you’re out and about and what doors can open from there. Trying to make that money: make sure your assignment has guaranteed hours and available overtime. Personally, I am all about the outdoors, and my list is based on discovering a site’s outdoor allure. Are you in Phoenix, AZ, and want to see the Grand Canyon? That’s a feasible day trip, but to do it right you should take a week to leave satiated.
Ask the locals
Most people are more than excited to talk about and share their home. Ask the locals for their recommendations; Trip Advisor is only going to get you so far. Some of the most unique places I have found were not in a guidebook, on a map, or advertised, but from word of mouth. For example, I was a tad underwhelmed when I stood at the edge of the canyon overlooking Horseshoe Bend. Being one of the most photographed places in the United States, I had this expectation in my head of what it would be like. My dream moment of picturesque solitude standing on a barren cliff face was rather less than a half mile off the road, filled with tourist buses, and flocked with people via a worn pathway with guide signs. However, about four miles away, I found myself trekking through a lonely slot canyon, no one in sight, accompanied only by the wind whispering through the curves, contours, and crevices of the rock.
Speaking of local recs, always ask about the food! From happy hour snacks and drinks to grandiose four course excursions, you’ll get the best experience from the area’s inhabitants. Much of a culture is about the food. I knew a traveler in Denver who would try to eat out at least once a week — with company or alone — to experience as many restaurants as she could. In a three-month assignment she had been to more places to eat than I had been in a year! You will hear about the most popular spots, but without a doubt, the places I revisit are the hole-in-the-wall local gems. I loved the food scene in Denver, but my favorite spot to go was right down the street from my house on the outskirts of the city. It was a Ma and Pa Hispanic restaurant where no one spoke English, you had to order in Spanish, and the atmosphere was like everyone sitting down together to have Sunday dinner.
Make new friends
As for the spontaneity: meet new people! So many of my most cherished stories and experiences would not have been possible if not for the people I met. It’s amazing what can come of a short relationship. I have been fortunate to have been invited to Christmases and Thanksgiving dinners of people I have known for a day, weddings of people I have known for a week, or international trips with people that prior to my arrival were strangers. So much of this experience will be based on putting yourself out there.
What you put in is what you’re going to get out. I went to pick-up volleyball with some friends, met their friends, and after fifteen minutes we were planning a trip to Grand Tetons National Park that would depart the next day. I met a guy while searching for housing who became my roommate, rock climbing partner, and subsequent travel companion to South America. One I still cannot believe was when I stopped in Bend, Oregon. A nurse I met in Medford, Oregon, gave me his buddy’s info. We met for drinks and through talking I learned he was working towards his private pilot license. The next day I was up in a plane, soaring over an awesome landscape in a tiny two-seater plane. It was pure enjoyment leading to exhilaration when he handed control over to me and I found myself flying a plane, with a guy I just met, in a place I was just passing through. So from seeing the Stones, Sir Paul McCartney, and The Who amongst other legends in Coachella, CA, to taking my first fly fishing trip in Pyramid Lake, NV, to spear-fishing in Flaming Gorge, UT, to the nightlife in Tijuana, Mexico, you never know who you’re going to meet or where they will take you.
Put yourself out there, go to the coffee shop, go to the bar, drive somewhere alone. This past weekend I was at FedEx with a travel nurse friend when she got asked out on a date… in the line… at FedEx. The guy’s “line” started by saying he liked her shoes. You’re not the only one in a new city or a new place!
Reconnect with old friends
While you’ll be flooded with new people, don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunities to enjoy some blasts from the past! Not to be a millennial, but I commonly post where I am on social media and I have had so many recommendations, tips, and meet-ups with old friends or people who were merely acquaintances. Recently, I met a friend’s sister in Seattle as she had just returned from a four-year stint in China. It was so much fun to catch up and revert back to neighborhood stories, but also to pick her brain on what to do in Seattle and get her perspective on living abroad.
I once took a month-long road trip through Salt Lake City, Boise, Portland, down the Pacific Coast Highway through San Francisco, San Diego, and returned by Joshua Tree and Las Vegas. I met up with a friend from college to climb and surf, with people from high school to hike and hit the farmer’s market, and so many things in between. I was also pleasantly surprised by getting shout-outs from acquaintances I had never had a strong relationship with who set aside time to meet.
People sometimes walk out of our lives, and it’s nice when a door opens for them to come back in. My absolute favorite memory was when I was walking around Fort Bragg, CA, collecting sea glass when I looked over and saw two girls walking close by. I decided I was a bit too disheveled from camping to make an intro, but as I turned away I heard, “Bob Goldnetz! Is that you!?!” Somehow a friend from the Outer Banks, North Carolina, unbeknownst to me at the time, was road tripping up the Pacific as well. We had no idea we were in the same area, much less the same side of the Mississippi. I ended up spending the morning with her and her friend enjoying coffee made in the back of our vans, walking the beach, and exploring the main street. I still marvel at impossibility of how that happened!
Explore your interests
A bit of an introvert and shy? Join a group! Get on Meet Up and explore some interests. There is a Meet Up for everything (gardening, suppers, books, photography). Like intramurals or need a social group? Join a kickball, dodgeball, or softball team. My kickball teammates in Salt Lake City became my roommates in Alaska. I’m 99% sure you are on Facebook. Look into some groups! I spent a lot of time exploring the backcountry in Alaska with people from skiing, snowboarding, hiking, biking, and camping FB groups.
This might be cliché but get out of your comfort zone. Take it a step further and do something that scares you. I just recently finished my novice paragliding certification; it has opened up a whole new world of hiking and flying off mountains I hope to take all over the world. Guess what? It wasn’t that expensive, and it didn’t take that much time. Always wanted to surf, skydive? Do it. Everyone has to start somewhere. Not an extremist? Take a pottery class, pick up a hobby, do yoga, brew kombucha. Take advantage of where you are.
Bring those from far away closer to home. One of my favorite things about my travel nurse life is having visitors, especially my family. My family didn’t travel a lot growing up and now my family gets to travel to see all these places when they come see me. Previously my mom had not been west of the Mississippi, and now we’ve stood on the sandy beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, not to mention we just went to Ecuador! (Thanks, RNnetwork!)
My dad is a Lewis and Clark buff, and we got to retrace some of their steps in Oregon and Washington. I love when we’re talking and the conversation flows to our trips: “remember the aspens in Park City”, “that brunch and skiing in Breckenridge”, “when exploring Fort Clatsop in Astoria”. Also anticipate your travel family to get bigger. You’re going to acquire traveler friends from all over the country. I loved reconnecting with my travel nurse friends from Oregon in Alaska. At this point I am blessed and fortunate to have people come through and visit, and there are few places I visit or go where I don’t know anyone.
Capture the memories
Cherish the memories, sometimes you don’t realize the value of a moment until it becomes a memory. Take pictures, write posts, but especially, if you can, keep a journal. Who better to take advice from than your past self who thought they knew so much? It is amazing to look back and see the growth you’ve experienced. What inspired you? What inspires you now? What did you aspire to? Did you get there and never realize it? Journaling creates an easy medium to look back and revisit your experiences to offer recommendations and advice.
Relax and enjoy
Lastly, don’t forget to relax. We make these lists, we are go, go, go. There is so much to see and so much to do. I remember getting done with a long amazing day, or an unforgettable trip, and realizing I needed to get back to work so I could have a vacation from my vacation. Take time to recharge, everything will get done in its due time. Your list is going to grow, make sure you enjoy it. In the end this is all for fun, don’t stress about it, it’s a long wondrous journey ahead.