North America

The Interview: Jennifer Idol talks Diving all Fifty States of America, The Muddy Middle and why you'll never use a straw again.

Frozen with horror at the sight of the Deep Horizon Oil spill left Jennifer Idol with guilt and regret at not reaching for her trusty camera to record the sight in time. Luckily rather than dwell in the past she chose an empowered response in the moment and set her heart on sharing the stories of our underwater world to people everywhere. 

Between 2011 - 2014 Jen combined her passions of design and scuba diving to become the first woman in the US to dive all 50 states. She recorded her extraordinary journey and is now a published author to boot. We talk The muddy middle, our culture of immediacy and why you'll never use a straw again!

A Redwood Retreat, Cactus Scramble and Life Lessons with Ed

A year ago I came to Portland, Oregon for the World Domination Summit, a fabulous event gathered by the Art of Nonconformity blogger Chris Guillebeau which is just about to ki At the end I travelled down to California and visited friends in San Francisco and LA. But one of the absolute highlights of my month in the states in 2014 was when I decided on an impromptu visit to the beautiful redwoods of Santa Cruz and stayed with a lovely old gentleman called Ed in his log cabin in the woods:

“I understand that i may not always have the ability to make the right decision. However i do have the ability to  make a decision and then make it right.”

I get shivers (or “goosies” as JLO might say) as i finish the line of the paragraph in the book i’ve been given - appropriately entitled “ “The Traveller’s Gift.” 

Its summed up the magical way I got to spend my final weekend in the States making Cactus Omelettes with a life coach in the middle of the redwoods.

I always thought the more conscious I became  and the more I learn about myself the easier life would get. Hah! not so my friends. If anything there’s so much more to consider, and some days I feel overwhelmed with the unforeseen consequences and potential pitfalls of making decisions.  And none of this is particularly aided by living the life of a long term solo traveller where you are required to make a seemingly never ending number of decisions all day every day. 

Should I take the chicken bus with the 18 year old backpackers or the overnight train with the random chain-smoking moustachioed man? 

Should i risk eating the tripe being fried on a communal grill pan at the local street market or trust the man who tells me that the “special” in the “special” pizza just means extra flavour? ad infinitum…

My plan had been to spend the last two weeks of my month long sojourn in the USA  just working and living in LA. By day 5 of LA i’m bored. My glands and tonsils are swollen, my throat feels like a scratching post and my asthma is terrible. 

I’ve also remembered that the whole idea of me working becomes absolutely ridiculous anytime you put me anywhere near a beach. I’m English for goodness sake, its our default mechanism to strip off in the midday sun and lie prostrate cooking under it anywhere near water and sand.

I’ve seen a conference happening back in San Francisco and because I don’t want to be indecisive I  confirm my attendance and book a return flight form LAX to SF for the final few days of my trip.  

And then I regret it. Really all I want is to find a way to be amongst nature not sitting in a Holiday Inn in downtown San Francisco but then the shoulds begin:

You’re not on holiday anymore - you’re travelling, you should do something productive, you should network and make the most of the opportunity to meet people, you should do something useful…

I’m still not always very good at deciphering the little voice that knows best - or even sure when its the right one i’m listening to. How do I know the voice telling me to sack the conference and go into nature isn’t just fear, procrastination or laziness in disguise? The same voice that throws delayed gratification out the window and prompts me to go for bagels rather than broccoli?

The honest answer is, i’m not sure yet. But what I can do is make a decision. And then see how it feels and adjust my course if necessary. Make a decision and THEN make it right. 

I decide to miss the conference if I can find accommodation easily that fits the bill. 

Immediately on scouring Airbnb up pops a a little redwood cabin entitled Scenic Retreat just outside Felton in the Santa Cruz mountains. It looks perfect and it seems i can get there on public transport - the owner has even said he’ll pick me up from the bus station.


Ed trying to figure out my life (well someone has to!) 

Ed trying to figure out my life (well someone has to!) 

It supports my other theory - that sometimes when somethings are meant to be  - everything slots into place. 

Ed, my host, has already said to give him a call and he’ll pick me up from the station.

“I didn’t know you were arriving so early, otherwise i would have picked up something better but are hot dog tacos for dinner ok?”

“Ed they sound fantastic but you don’t have to cook for me you know!”

“Oh it’s no problem, I try and treat everyone like a friend i haven’t met yet…”

And he really does.  We arrive at his little cabin high up in the hills. A cloud of blue hydrangea cluster at the front and two giant redwoods flank the entrance. The forest outside casts a dappled green gold light through the large windows in his cosy open plan living and kitchen room and around the corner there are bookshelves crammed full of motivational and positive texts. I already know i’m going to love it here.


Ed is also clearly the grandfather I never had with wispy white hair, grey eyes that twinkle and glasses that balance on the end of his nose. By the end of the weekend he’s my own personal Wizard of Oz  - having cooked me every meal, sorted out my life’s purpose for me and even given me some seriously sensible dating advice to boot. I’m actually considering asking if he may want to adopt this almost 40 year old woman. 

As he starts to cook dinner he tells me about his incredible life as well parting cooking wisdom along the way.

In his twenties his dream job was to “play with food all day and get paid for it. ” An early Dale Carnegie graduate (Carnegie was the famous salesman and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People and a forerunner of personal growth movement) he was eventually able to do just that.

A former systems engineer working in the shipping industry he was able to move to San Francisco and became a food technologist at the height of the hippie movement. Eventually he began writing a wine column for the famous Bon Appetit magazine, assisting at a top notch cookery school on the Northwest coast and even cooked alongside Julia Childs.

Oh and did you know that the black smudge around the cooked yolk of a hard boiled egg was a sulphur ring from it being cooked too long?

The next day there is a fresh pot of coffee brewing on the stove when I wake up and breakfast is slices of fresh nectarines and almond butter on toast. Perfect. 

We spend the morning at a flea market browsing curios and then he takes me into Santa Cruz and for a drive along the coast, leaving me to explore the boardwalk by the beach. 

If you’re an 80s kid its a must see because this is where Lost Boys was filmed. Its hard not to look up at the roller coaster outlined against the setting sun without hearing the eerie Thou Shalt Not Kill sound track and remember that even all these years later i’m still wearing floaty skirts and indian cotton tops in an effort to look as indie chick cool as Jamie Gertz aka Star. 


When I wake up the next day  Ed is shows me how to cook Nopales. These are the flat palm shaped Cactus leaves i’ve seen street vendors shave of their thorns and fry on griddle pans in Mexico City. 

Raw, they have a slightly slimy texture like Okre and taste a little lemony. He cuts them into slivers and throws them into a frying pan along with some red onion, two whisked eggs, grated cheese and freshly chopped tomato to make a perfect cactus scramble for two. 



After breakfast we head off to Henry Cowel Redwood park to visit the trees, just a short walk from Ed’s cabin and beyond Roaring Camp -  a recreation of a 19th century logging town complete with authentic steam train.

We do a short hike to take in the majestic splendour of the redwoods. None of my photos do justice to these beauties, some of which are 2000 year olds. The fibrous texture of the bark is almost fire retardant in its consistency which is why these giants still stand when other species have long fallen. 

Ed explains how the trees grow in clusters as younger saplings shoot up around a parent tree and remain in a family circle when the parent tree dies. He points out how the central core of a redwood can die but the tree can still survive as new healthy layers grow outwards (why we see rings when the tree is cut down.)

"That's a life lesson if ever I heard one," I say

"Oh there's a lesson in most things if you look hard enough," says Ed amiably.

We head back home via Felton, the nearest town. There are tangles of bright pink sweet pea growing wild on the verges and brambles with blackberries ripening on the stem. We stop to pick a few and the scent of the fruit and stains on my fingers throw me back to blackberry picking with my nan when I was a little girl.

Finally after a tip off from a white bearded friend we enjoy a free lunch at the community BBQ going on in the town hall before heading back to the cabin.

Ed has told me a bit about the process he goes through with when he conducts a life coaching session so I tell him i’d like to have a go  and before I can finish the sentence his eyes light up. In a flash he’s dumped a handful of post it notes front of me:

“Ok  - what do you love doing?”  he says


“ Go! write it down…! ”

I start to make excuses…”oh i didn’t mean we have to do it now…”

“No time like the present!”  says Ed 

Gradually I do and post its cover the kitchen counter, then we tape them up to a flip chart and study them together. He asks a few questions and seamlessly helps me make connections and join the dots i didn’t realise were there.

He’s enthused and so am I, I can see how much he loves doing this, we don’t stop for dinner - working right through and picking at leftovers from the fridge. 

“I want you to have a clear vision and action steps before we go to sleep” he says.

The next morning I see that Ed has stamped “Born Writer” on my page in the Visitors Guest Book

I spend the morning going for a quiet walk in the redwoods before getting ready to head back to LA. 


As a parting gift Ed has given me a copy of the book The Traveller’s Gift and as i’m sitting in  LAX enjoying a glass of Chenin Blanc before my flight I get to this line: 

“I may not always make the right decisions, I do however have the ability to make a decision and then make it right.” 

If the last weekend has taught me anything its this, sometimes it pays to stop trying to plan the outer journey and spend more time listening to my inner compass instead and I couldn't be more grateful that I made "right" the decision on how to spend my final days in America.

I’m not sure I knew where i’d end up but because I did instead of wilting under air conditioning and the bad carpet of a Holiday Inn off Van Ness i’ll be able to look back on the last few days of this trip as one of my very favourite travel highlights where i’ve experienced not just the rugged natural beauty of the West Coast, but cooking lessons, life lessons and the warmth and welcome of real old fashioned american hospitality at its very best.