After being a guest on the Ladyland podcast this week, I had several texts and Facebook messages from people who said: “I didn’t know X about you!” And while I’ve done so in the past, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve written a proper “about me” that truly chronicles the trajectory of my career from homegrown Tennessee girl to journalist to blogger to entrepreneur to evangelist for artists. I guess, in a sense, this is my “how to become a travel writer” manifesto, but if you read on, you’ll see it’s so much more than that.
P.S. If you want to listen to my Ladyland podcast episode, you can stream it here or download it for free in the iTunes store.
My Humble Beginnings
I was born in a small town in Middle Tennessee, though both of my maternal grandparents were raised in Knoxville; as such, I’ve always felt deeply connected to East Tennessee, and if my family weren’t living in Coffee County, I most certainly would have settled in Knoxville instead. My dad’s family hailed from Birmingham, Ala., but his own dad died when he was young and I hardly knew his mother. He met my mom while she was living in Atlanta but working on a project for his company in Alabama; they married in 1979, moved to San Francisco for a few years, then returned to Tennessee when they found out they were pregnant with me.
My granddad was a World War II veteran, the youngest of seven and the smartest guy I ever had the good fortune of knowing. He graduated from high school at 14 and college at 19 through a five-year co-op program where he also worked with Alcoa Aluminum. After the war, his siblings scattered across the state, and he moved his family to Nashville, then Iowa, then eventually to Tullahoma to start his own business; I now have equal representation of relatives in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, three of the United States’ greatest cities in my completely unbiased opinion.
I wasn’t necessarily a creative child, but I was inquisitive, stubborn and always writing. I wrote my first book about Disney princesses at age 3 and was reading lengthy chapter books by age 5. I guess you could say that I was destined to work in the creative arts, though I was also a mathematical prodigy and took three years of Calculus during my teen years, even going as far as to be a state champion mathlete, something I don’t share often because hello, nerd alert. People seem to think it’s weird that I’m both left- and right-brained, but I’ll just say this much: I’m a great person to have at a group meal because I can divide a check and calculate tip in no time flat.
My childhood and teen years were filled with sports and performing arts; I traveled around the state and the South nearly every weekend for soccer, tennis, basketball and softball tournaments, but also took piano, vocal and guitar lessons, in addition to doing all the dance classes and show choir up until I graduated. In middle school, I realized journalism was a thing that students studied and set my sights on going to college for broadcast journalism.
In high school, I went in at 7am every day of the week to work on our high school paper under my life mentor Dianne Sawyer for an hour before classes started, but I also interned at any newspaper or TV station that would have me. I didn’t know exactly what a journalism career entailed at that time in my life, but by God, I was going to figure it out.
The summer after my junior year, I was admitted to a month-long Governor’s School for International Studies at the University of Memphis; there, I learned it was a bigger world out beyond my small Tullahoma bubble and that other people like me existed. In high school, I didn’t drink, I didn’t date and I didn’t do drugs; I was solely focused on my school and career, so Governor’s School gave me 100 friends who were similar to me, as well as a curiosity about the world and the confidence to go after my dreams. I became obsessed with geography and maps and wanted to learn everything about the 195 nations comprising our amazing planet.
In my senior year of high school, I applied for 14 colleges and got into all of them, which did not prove to be the smartest tactic as indecisiveness is, to this day, my Achilles heel. By the national decision deadline day, I had narrowed down the pool to five choices: Vanderbilt, Duke, Emory, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Sewanee. I went with Sewanee not because I felt any big tie to this mountaintop enclave, but because they offered me one of 20 Wilkins scholarships, which amounted to about half of my tuition, room and board—and a spot on the tennis team.
The collegiate years
I’ll be frank: I didn’t love the University of the South, much as I tried. Playing tennis at the collegiate level was a blast, if not challenging and time-consuming, and I made some of my best friends there, but while a great school Sewanee was just not well-suited for me, not to mention a liberal arts education isn’t ideal for someone who knows exactly what they want to do, as I did. After studying abroad in Scotland my junior year, I transferred to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to finish out my final two years. I didn’t know then but that move to Knoxville would prove to be the best decision I made in my youth.
At UT Knoxville, I obtained a Bachelor of Science in journalism and electronic media and was introduced to the best, brightest and most supportive professors a budding journalist could ask for. If it weren’t for Paul Ashdown, Lyn Lepre and Bonnie Huffman, I would never have had the confidence to go straight to New York City after graduating, and my top tip to every college student is get to know your professors and pick an adviser you trust; these educators will be your biggest advocates—even if they do occasionally draw an exploding bomb on your paper for making a minor spelling error. But hey, you’ll probably never commit that same misspelling again, so at least there’s that!
The first day at UT, I timidly crept down to the student newspaper office, The Daily Beacon, and was assigned to the sports staff; I was the only female, and they assigned me the “throwaway sports,” namely women’s softball and tennis. I loved reporting on sports, and this drove me to pursue a one-year internship with Lady Vols Athletics in the marketing and promotions department. We were a small team that was subdivided by sport—I had soccer and volleyball—and then we all worked every home women’s basketball game. Some games, I ran the scoreboard and music during timeouts, others I manned the T-shirt shooters, almost every one I sprinted up to the rafters of the arena during a particularly tight period between TV breaks to hurl parachuting Chick-fil-a cows at the crowd below. Working for the Lady Vols was a ridiculously fun and interesting gig. Who knew then that 15 years later I’d find myself in marketing as a career?
If you know me in person, you know I’ve always been a huge fan of Pat Summitt, who sadly passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2016, so this was akin to a dream job, albeit one that paid nothing but college credit. I worked in her office daily, though I can’t say I “knew” Coach Summitt. She was an intimidating presence, so small talk wasn’t something I ever wanted to burden her with, despite my granddad’s own storied history with UT—he was a letterman in the late 30’s and the one who taught us that “Summitt” was a holy name worthy of reverence.
At the end of my junior year, I was promoted to features editor at The Daily Beacon. This job came with a small salary, as well as managerial duties and a five-day-a-week commitment in the newsroom. I managed an editorial calendar, a budget and a team of 30 writers. This is where I learned everything it takes to put together a daily publication, including writing on deadline, and a job I will forever be grateful was given to me at a university as large as UT.
My senior year was filled with 300- and 400-level writing and photography classes, working at the Beacon in the morning, at the Lady Vols office in Thompson-Boling Arena by afternoon and at the Limited at West Town Mall a couple nights a week. I tried to get a job as a hostess or bartender, but no one would hire a service employee with no service experience, so retail it was. I really think every 20-something needs to work in restaurants or retail (or both) as that kind of employment hones valuable skills that translate to any career. I also freelanced for UT’s TV station and the local alt-weekly, Metro Pulse, for which I wrote indie album reviews. My Beacon coworker John Carruthers and I penned a he-said, she-said dating column for the duration of the year; no one ever actually wrote in to us—or if they did, it was very rare—so we made up our own questions to answer from anonymous students like Abby C. or Joe S. and had a whole lot of fun flexing our creative muscles.
I was set to graduate in May with my degree in journalism, minors in sports reporting, magazine writing and photography, and, literally, hundreds of clips in my portfolio. I had my sights set on being a sports reporter, and I thought I had a job on lock at the local daily, the Knoxville News-Sentinel. I was one of two finalists, and the other student had no communications experience, so no one was more shocked than I was when she got the job over me. Rather than fret over this sudden diversion in my career path, I put on my big-girl pants and was proactive. I’d gone on a networking trip to New York with my professors Dr. Lepre and Dr. Clark and was prolific at collecting business cards, so I fired off emails to everyone I had met; within a day, I’d secured seven internship interviews. The catch? I had to fly myself up to NYC on my own dime over my fall break. I bought a suit with my Limited employee discount, booked a ticket to JFK and crashed in Brooklyn with a Sewanee friend.
My interviews took place at Esquire, Newsweek, InTouch, Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Weddings and two other glossies I can’t recall at the moment. I wound up getting four offers and took a two-day-a-week gig at Newsweek in the research department of the international editions, then a gig at In Touch Weekly the rest of the time. Yes, it was a very weird balance—heavy, hard-hitting news a third of the time, trashy celebrity gossip the rest—and yet one that would prove beneficial to my evolution as a well-rounded writer.
My 20s: a decade of transition
Between finishing up classes and my start date at Newsweek, I stayed in Knoxville and worked my tail off. Both of my summer magazine gigs came with such negligent pay that I needed to save up every penny I could, so I held onto my $350-a-month luxury apartment in Knoxville and worked as the communications director and photographer for an international children’s conference for a month while taking every extra $8-an-hour shift at the Limited I was offered.
I showed up in New York to move into my “furnished room in a West Village apartment” for the bargain price of $800 a month. Only, I arrived to find a studio apartment smaller than my Knoxville suite featuring a dining nook that was to be my “bedroom” outfitted with an air mattress, a shower curtain for privacy and nothing else. There was no kitchen, and even worse, I shared this “furnished apartment” with a psychopath named Colleen who some days was a lawyer, other days a photographer for the AP, and every day completely crazy.
My first day on the job at In Touch Weekly in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., I was sent back to the city on a train to Chelsea to interview the likes of Kanye West, Hilary Duff and Carson Daly, with zero experience in the entertainment reporting world and very little guidance. I knew nothing about the process or how I was to even get in. But I learned then that sometimes the best way to get your feet wet is to dive in head first. The red-carpet world would prove to be what really brought me out of my shell as a writer; it quickly taught me adaptability and that there’s no time to be shy and you develop a very thick skin.
At Newsweek, I worked in the research department with a team of grad students; we were the liaisons between the foreign correspondents and the New York desk, which means our hours were late into the nights on Fridays and Saturdays every week. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but hey, it was Newsweek, and so dramatically different from what I was doing the other five days a week at In Touch Weekly, which mostly comprised senior editors in their mid-20s. I also wrote regular book reviews for Newsweek, a daunting task but again, a great way to try out a new form of writing to me.
I lasted two months at Colleen’s before I moved in with my Sewanee roommate Lemon for the last month of the summer. That was one of the best months of my life, and we slept very little and lived it up as only someone young, dumb and 22 can do before I left for Europe for a year.
In Europe, I was enrolled in a one-year international journalism and world politics program in Utrecht, Netherlands and Aarhus, Denmark. If you’ve been a long-time reader, you’ll know that’s also when I met Scott, aka SVV, who was one of three other Americans in my course. We spent the year attending classes sparingly and, most of the time, traveling Europe together, and I wrote a regular hotel and restaurant column for Newsweek called “The Good Life.” I didn’t even think then to invoice them for my work (*face palm*) until many years later, but I was grateful for the clips and experience. I wrote on and off for that column for at least five years, until Newsweek folded. (It would later be resurrected, but I haven’t written for them since as they “have no budget for writers.” *eye roll*)
Toward the end of my year in Europe, I was scouring every young journalist’s career Bible, the Ed2010 forums, for job whispers daily and saw a call for guidebook writers for a series that MTV and Frommer’s were launching together. I threw my name in the hat for that gig, and out of 1,000 applicants, I was one of 16 hired. I went to Spain for six weeks and wrote my portion of MTV Spain while there. This was my introduction to guidebook writing, a much more information-driven, factual approach to journalism than magazines, and an important period of learning how to navigate a foreign country on my own while not speaking the language (I was in Basque Country and know zero Catalan) and also juggling one massive, time-sensitive project while also completing my thesis on the same timeline. That was in 2006, and my editors Val and Alexia still remain friends of mine today. In fact, I have written for Val ever since then; at Travel Channel for many years and now for Marriott corporate.
But I still had no idea that “travel writer” was a career someone could have. At this point, I was doing what all journalists do and following the assignments; it just so happened that many of them were the results of my own personal travels.
After that year in Europe, I wanted to move to San Francisco with SVV, but he famously told me “thanks, but no thanks” as this was just an “expiration relationship.” Guess who got the last laugh there? We’ve now been together for 14 years and married for nearly 10! I moved back to NYC instead, this time for a paid internship at Entertainment Weekly that put me back on the red carpet, at movie premieres, at press junkets and for cocktails with celebrities several times a week. I interviewed everyone from Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Those were good years indeed, and I loved my coworkers and also the magazine.
As every young journalist is forced to do, I bounced around. I worked nights as a fact-checker at Us Weekly, which I didn’t learn until much later that mom thought was a “hat-checker,” but that’s a story for another day. Rather, my team was some of the last to see an issue before it was shipped to print; we had a lot of back-and-forths with the legal and copy-editing departments, but ultimately were responsible for all factual accuracy.
Once I hit the cap on freelance hours at Time Inc., I was forced to move on to another publishing company with a more lenient policy for contractors: Conde Nast. I found myself in the research department at a now-defunct fashion magazine, Lucky, by day, and my amazing boss still allowed me to work red-carpet events by night for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle and Glamour. Sometimes, I would report for all three on a single evening, meaning triple the pay for not much more work, which significantly helped pad my bank account, being a lowly-paid NYC journalist. And of course, I was still working the Monday night graveyard shift at Us Weekly. All of this work enabled me not only to buy a new car with cash when I moved across country, but more importantly to make all the connections I needed to someday go out on my own.
While working at Conde Nast, I started my blog in the summer of 2007. I was used to the pace of daily newspapers and weekly magazines, and found monthlies so impossibly slow and boring, so I came up with the idea for Camels & Chocolate one day, spent hours a day in the following month connecting with fellow bloggers via the BlogHer network, and more than 12 years later, I’m still here. I also branched into more regular travel writing by freelancing for Forbes and the Travel Channel while I worked at Conde Nast, in addition to was asked to do my first (unpaid) talking head gig on the Travel Channel, which they are still airing in 2019!
The post-New York years
SVV eventually realized the error of his ways and, after a 10-day trip to Hawaii together for his cousin’s wedding, he asked me to move to San Francisco. I told him if we were still together a year later, I’d relocate. We were, and so I kept good on my word. I quit my job, said good-bye to all my friends and shipped all my belongings to California via UPS. But nothing in life ever comes easy, so those nine boxes arrived in San Francisco smashed to pieces, and everything that wasn’t clothing was rendered useless. I guess that’s what they call a fresh start?
This is when I went freelance for real; I’d always been a contract employee, but up until this point, I’d had an office job that promised a solid weekly paycheck. I wasn’t quite sure how living gig to gig would work, so I got to pitching that first morning I arrived in San Francisco and quickly amassed a handful of regular writing gigs in addition to one-off feature assignments. The year was early 2008, and freelance opportunities were abundant—in fact, back in those days, $2 a word was a writer’s standard rate, for print and online. I had three main clients—Forbes, Travel Channel and Frommer’s—who paid my bills; I made more as a freelancer than I would have as a staffer. It was a good time to be self-employed in the media.
Then, the economy tanked, publications began to fold, and it was either an even better time to be a writer (because staffers were being let go left and right) or impossible to make it as one (because publications were cutting their budgets). I also started to write for Visit California under Miles Partnership and later Sunset Media, which still paid me an above-average industry rate to produce custom itineraries, content and travel tips for their website. Simultaneously, I landed a great arrangement with the area’s Frommer’s writer who I met through my friend Trish; he was launching his own startup and needed someone to take over his annual updates of Frommer’s California and Frommer’s San Francisco, which were on about a nine-month cycle. In four years, I worked on more than a dozen Frommer’s titles and became a bona-fide expert in all things California travel.
I also traveled far and wide globally when I wasn’t working on California projects. SVV managed a crew for a high-end construction company and also was finishing up journalism school, so he was gone all day every day, and I took that opportunity to accept assignments and trips to exotic places all over the world: Hong Kong, Macau, New Zealand, Tasmania, Switzerland, Australia, the Arctic Circle, Israel, the Cook Islands and Rwanda, just to name a few. I was writing cover stories for in-flight publications, features for the likes of Forbes and Robb Report, packages for women’s magazines like Redbook and Glamour, and online roundups for just about anyone who would have me. SVV and I are currently working to redesign and update my writing portfolio, but you can get a glimpse of some of the things I wrote during those years there.
Another random job people love to hear about that came about during the San Francisco years is a writing gig with Trivial Pursuit. That’s right: I’ve now written more than 1,000 question cards for four different editions of the beloved board game we all know and love. Like everything else in my life, this arose through a friend of a friend who moved from magazines to Hasbro and was looking for skilled writers.
A return to my Southern roots
A year and change after I arrived in San Francisco, SVV proposed; a year after that, we tied the knot in Marin County. Shortly after we got married, he started floating the idea of moving back to Tennessee. A California native, he was in his late-30s by then and sick of the grind of San Francisco; sure, we were surviving just fine, but we’d never have a whole lot of savings, and forget owning property. We were spending thousands of dollars a month in rent, and even back then, the purchase of a one-bedroom condo started at a steal of $700,000 in the city. Now, I’m sure it’s double that.
While at a wedding in Auburn, SVV was charmed by a gaggle of my dad’s venture capital friends and decided yes, we’d move to the South. They made it sound so appealing. There was so much space, so many job opportunities, and SVV simply couldn’t work in construction forever; it was already taking a toll on his body. During his years in the Navy, he’d spent a year in Pensacola and always loved the warmth—both the weather and the people—in the U.S. South. This was in the fall, but we decided the next August when our lease ended, back to Tennessee we would go. It would be my 13th move in 10 years.
But first, we’d take a literal trip around the world.
SVV quit his job, and in 2011, we—along with Ella—spent the winter in Tahoe, the spring in Hawaii, the summer traipsing about the national parks of the West by trailer, then the fall on Semester at Sea.
While in Hawaii, I got a call about a job I’d applied to a year prior for a position on Semester at Sea, a nonprofit educational organization that allows students to circumnavigate the world on a cruise ship. I’d applied for the communications coordinator position, but that role was filled, so I got put in the field office instead. It was definitely not my dream job, as it was one of the more demanding positions on the ship, but I worked with a fantastic team with whom I’m still great friends and really learned the ins and outs of how tour operators worked. Plus! I got to see so many parts of the world I’d only ever read about.
We visited 14 countries in 119 days, made lifelong friends and returned to the United Stated just before Christmas completely changed human beings.
Back to the South and a foray into tourism marketing
When we settled into Tennessee, we lived with my parents for nearly a year while we house-hunted and got our bearings. We settled on a project house, a historic Queen Anne Victorian built in 1899 right along the railroad. For five years, SVV worked for my dad’s accounting firm that my grandfather had founded in 1955, and I continued to freelance. I rebranded myself as the go-to Nashville expert and wrote city guides for Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, AFAR and so many others.
I also continued my role as PEOPLE correspondent in Nashville, something I’d been doing for four years in the Bay Area. My blog had gained quite an audience by then, in addition to a collection of accolades, so we were being approached by advertisers often; we took the occasional banner ad and sponsored link, but ultimately, Camels & Chocolate was and will always be my creative outlet to share my travels, career trials and tribulations, home renovation journey and other life successes. We never wanted advertisers to steer the content, and we’ve tried to stay true to that while balancing covering the costs of maintaining a website, which is far more than you’d imagine.
Around the time we moved back to Tennessee in 2012, influencer marketing became a thing, and our authenticity paired with organic reach meant we started getting tapped for travel projects all over the United States and a few in the Caribbean and Europe, too. That was our gateway into content marketing and an eye-opening experience that we could both use our journalistic know-how and storytelling talent to help shape the narrative of a destination. While he was working at the firm and I was traveling for work, we also went through a year-long tech accelerator program in 2012 and founded Odinn Media with the intention to help non-metro areas with online marketing. What we quickly learned is that small towns in Tennessee are 20 years behind when it comes to marketing and don’t truly grasp the importance of branding, so we eventually transitioned to working with more progressive cities and regions. If you asked me when exactly we made the move more from traditional journalism to full-on tourism marketing, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I was working for tourism boards on advertorials and the like as early as 2009, but the shift to a more full-time role in marketing didn’t happen until the last five years.
At the end of 2012, a con artist from California suckered us into producing a media conference with her, then she backed out at the last minute, conveniently leaving us with a mountain of debt. That was a project we spent a solid year working on, but still one of my proudest career moments: the fact that SVV and I were able to execute a 450-person conference, KEEN Digital Summit, as one of the opening events at the Omni Nashville with just the help of two friends/subcontractors Lana and Kendall. We lost a good deal of money and had to refinance our house due to said con artist, but as always, it was a great learning experience, and I think we might just dabble in more event production in the future…
After KEEN, I’d went back to work in an office for two years, something that surprised no one more than it did me. While freelancing regularly for Nashville Lifestyles, the city magazine owned by Gannett, I got approached to fill in for a maternity leave. That three months morphed into nearly two years. I was getting paid about what I did as an intern to be the editor of the publication—not just the editor either; I also wrote the majority of features and packages each month and was a contributing photographer, too—but I absolutely loved having full creative control over a monthly publication. Eventually, though I had to go back to making grown-up money—not to mention, I was more or less living in our Nashville condo while SVV was holding down the fort at the Victorian in Manchester—so overall, it wasn’t an ideal scenario.
I quit and Odinn became my priority once more. KEEN also evolved into Media Grits, a networking event series for media and marketing professionals that I ran monthly for nearly six years until it sort of fizzled out this year the more stretched thin I became.
Today, we do all the things
After my dad’s stroke nearly four years ago, SVV quit working for the firm and joined me full-time at our media production company Odinn Media, Inc. Is it terrifying to have your own small business that employs both of the earners in your household? Absolutely. Have we made it work? Duh. Have we been screwed over by clients in the past? I thought you’d never ask. Do we love what we do? Without a doubt. Would we trade this life for anything? Not a chance!
In 2019, the majority of our clients are city governments, chambers of commerce, travel brands, startups, and CVBs and DMOs of all size. We work with a few on a project-by-project basis, but prefer longer contracts that allow us to really get to know a destination, so we’re pushing the majority of our clients to an annual retainer basis, which is a win-win on both sides: They get our expertise whenever they need, and we get the job security and the flexibility to spend a lot of time drilling down into the tourism fabric that makes a city or state appealing to travelers. I still write a regular travel column for AAA Living, contribute to Marriott Bonvoy and take on the occasional consumer magazine piece, but more often than not, I say no to those random writing assignments as they’re not usually worth my time (and quite frankly, just don’t pay enough).
I’ve long joked that I’m a product of the “Generation of the Slashes.” As I mentioned in my Ladyland episode, I make money so many different ways: writing for corporate entities, writing for the blog, writing for tourism boards, writing for magazines, licensing photography, consulting, project management, the list goes on. SVV and I also founded a nonprofit devoted to public art and event production just last year; to date, we have produced four festivals and community events as well as installed 10 murals with four more coming this month. I’ve written a post about how to diversify as a writer; if you’re also in the field and looking for tips on how to make this a sustainable career, that’s a great place to start.
The most crucial component to my longevity in the media world has been, without a doubt, my adaptability, the willingness to be flexible and follow the direction the industry takes. So many of my writer friends who were killing it a decade ago are making less money today while working twice as hard simply because they haven’t learned to stay ahead of the curve and to change with the times, and the evolution of the Internet became the death of well-paying assignments for professional journalists who didn’t figure out some side hustle for staying relevant.
Still, putting myself out on the Internet back in 2007 was, by far, the smartest move I could have made, looking back on things. And while I’m not a “blogger,” but rather a journalist and entrepreneur with a blog, I’m grateful for this space that has allowed me to connect and network with both friends and clients, old and new, all over the world. Will I be doing the same thing 12 years from now? Doubtful. But above all else, this blog serves as a scrapbook of my career and my life, and it’s fun to go back and read how far I’ve come since I began.