Last updated: 11:04 PM ET, Tue June 17 2014

Soft Landing: From Aerospace Engineering to Tourguiding

Tour Operator David Cogswell June 16, 2014

Soft Landing: From Aerospace Engineering to Tourguiding

Liz Gauthier left a career in aerospace engineering for a life out in the open. (photo courtesy Backroads)


Tourguiding is a delightfully odd profession, a form of employment that is off the standard grid, a refuge for dreamers, rebels and misfits of the cubicle world of industrial society, throwbacks to a time before specialization. The profession is populated by an assortment of people from nearly all walks of life, people who turned their back on what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” in search of something more, be it adventure or a connection to nature.

Liz Gauthier, a tourguide for Backroads, studied to be an aerospace engineer and upon graduation took a job with Lockheed Martin working in the space program.

“I was a systems engineer,” said Gauthier. “I worked on Orion, the replacement to the shuttle system. As a systems engineer I made sure all the inputs matched the outputs. It was a lower-level project management job.”

With an undergraduate degree in physics and a masters in engineering, Gauthier had landed a great job with one of the top companies in the field. But something didn’t click and she knew it right away.

“It was about day two of the job,” said Gauthier. “I walked in and saw all those cubicles lined up.”

And yet, it was an ideal job for a graduate in aerospace engineering. “It was fulfilling in some regards,” said Gauthier. “I loved the people I worked with on projects. But there was something missing in terms of social interaction, being outside. Being in a cubicle was a little much.”

But it was the logical thing to do with her education, so she stuck it out, for two years.

Then she quit.

“I went back to Salt Lake City, where I am from, to get my bearings, decide what to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “During that year I taught high school science. I thought I would take about another year off then go back to engineering.”

But things took a different turn, as if by a twist of fate.

“I was just sitting thinking about what I was going to do and one of the Backroads vans came by with all of the bikes on top and a big advertisement on the side for Backroads. So I just looked them up and I got a job.”

Backroads has a warehouse in Salt Lake City. “There are a lot of vans. It was bound to happen,” she said.

During college, Gauthier had worked as a river guide on the Arkansas and Colorado rivers, so in a sense she felt she was returning to her roots. But it was only meant to be a temporary respite, after which she planned to return to her profession.

Gauthier had traveled to Southeast Asia at age 19. After that she couldn’t get traveling out of her system. “I took one big international trip a year a year, to South America, or somewhere, but I always ended up in Southeast Asia. There’s just something about that part of the world that I love.”

She spends about half the year guiding in the desert in Utah or the Grand Canyon and the other half in Southeast Asia, Myanmar, India, Bhutan, and Vietnam.

Gauthier still gets to exercise her enjoyment of education. Working as a tourguide is a bit like teaching in an outdoor, mobile classroom. “When I travel to the desert a lot of it is geology, history and society,” she said. “And when I travel to Asia it’s a lot about culture, and also history and geology.”

And out there in the field, there are no cubicles.