Jessica Nabongo doesn’t always view traveling as an extravagant getaway halfway across the ocean. Instead, she sees the art of exploring through a more simple lens.
“To me, travel just means to leave your home,” the Detroit-based travel influencer, writer, and entrepreneur says. Nabongo is the creative force behind the popular travel blog The Catch Me If You Can and founder of boutique travel firm Jet Black. “Whether you’re going 50 miles from your home or 5,000 miles from your home, it’s about discovering something new,” she says. And Nabongo should know—she is the first Black woman to visit every country in the world.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted travel worldwide, Nabongo followed her own advice. The lifelong traveler, who has been traveling internationally since she was just 4 years old, checked off her final country—the Seychelles, an archipelago off the coast of East Africa—in October, 2019. With international travel out of the question in 2020, Nabongo adjusted her adventures and hit the road to discover pockets of unique cultures across the U.S..
“Pre-pandemic, people were so occupied with traveling abroad,” she says. “Now I hear from a lot of Americans that they feel trapped. And I think, ‘You live in one of the biggest and most diverse countries in the world, there is no reason to feel trapped.’”
For Nabongo, who has always had a fascination with seeing how other people live, hitting the road this past summer and fall was a way to experience the many incredible places, people, and things that one might not encounter while traveling by plane or train.
Between July and October, 2020, Nabongo embarked on a series of road trips that equaled well over 10,000 miles by the time she was done. She visited about 20 states, including New York, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. She went up and down the East Coast—a road trip she had always wanted to take—through Southern states and west to Utah.
While a big road trip was always in the works for 2020, Nabongo says that if it wasn’t for the pandemic, she wouldn’t have visited as many states as she did—something she is grateful for today. “Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont were super beautiful,” she says. “I really love the outdoors and Acadia National Park was phenomenal.”
Nabongo, who brings a foldable bike along on her road trip adventures, says she spent nearly 19 hours biking through the park in Maine. Then, in Rhode Island, she stopped to taste fresh oysters from the Atlantic Ocean. In Utah, she enjoyed the stunning views of the state’s landscape, which she says “feels otherworldly.”
Nabongo says her recent road trips turned her into “a foodie” and gave her an opportunity to discover the culinary magic that exists in her own backyard. “People talk about French cuisine, and they talk about Italian cuisine, but people rarely talk about American cuisine,” she says. “I think there’s this idea that it’s such a melting pot, but I never hear anyone say, ‘American cuisine is some of the best in the world.’”
Nabongo begs to differ. “I think American cuisine is pretty awesome,” she says. She marvels at the ability to procure fresh seafood along the East Coast, including mussels and oysters, and calls the lobster roll one of the country’s signature dishes. “Getting to try different foods allows you to deepen your experience,” Nabongo says.
Another extraordinary culinary culture Nabongo experienced on her road trips is that of the Gullah Geechee people in South Carolina and Georgia. These descendants of West Africans who were enslaved on plantations along the lower Atlantic Coast are keeping their heritage alive and well in the Southwest. Nabongo connected with acclaimed chef BJ Dennis to try the best dishes the area had to offer, from stuffed crab to shrimp and grits.
The heartbeat of the country
The ability to discover small towns and the heartbeat of a country is what makes roadtripping Nabongo’s preferred way of travel, both locally and abroad. “When you’re flying into a place, there’s so much you miss in the middle,” she says. “Driving gives you the opportunity to see more. I particularly love landscapes, so being able to see how the landscape changes as you’re driving along allows you to more deeply explore the places you’re visiting.”
Even though she has visited every country in the world, Nabongo says she’ll never be done traveling. Like her 2020 road trips, she believes there is always something new to discover—even if you’ve been to that same place many times. “It’s not like there is a set number of places I want to see,” she says. “For me, traveling is something you do on a regular basis. It’s ingrained in my lifestyle.”
Every time she travels, whether it’s locally or abroad, by car or by plane, Nabongo falls more in love with seeing the world. There’s no one trip that made her want to devote her life to exploring, she says, but rather it’s the cumulative impact of each individual trip that increases her passion for traveling and using her platform to inspire others to do the same. She hopes to visit some of the last U.S. states on her list—including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas—by road trip as well.
As travel restrictions begin to loosen, Nabongo encourages others to explore the U.S. in the same way they explore other countries. “The U.S. is so diverse,” she says. “There are so many cultures within the country that one can experience.”