Personal Stories

2020 in Review: A Year of Home, Family & (a little) Travel

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What. A. Year. When I sat down to start this year’s annual recap – something I do every year (here’s 2016, 2018, 2019) – I didn’t even know where to begin. I didn’t know if I wanted to begin. I can’t pretend that it wasn’t one of the most devastating years of my life – of our lives, as a species. It’s hard to look back on the year we’ve had, even when I’m trying to create a fair appraisal and highlight reel of my own year and the travels I’ve had.

But I want to have this record because I will look back on 2020 in the future and try to wrap my head around it. It won’t make sense, it will be heartbreaking, but I will also want to see the bright moments that I had, and that we had.

So consider this your warning: If you’re not up for a rambling account of the year, this might be one to skip. If you’re curious how my year went, read on.

By the numbers, 2020 included:

  • Visits to country (the U.S.) and 13 states
  • 117 days on the road (this actually surprises me!)
  • 78 new blog posts (and 14 updated blog posts)

Walk with me through 2020, whether it’s an escape, a distraction, or a reminder that this was a long year and while lots of it was bad, some of it was good too.

January: California Weekends

2020 started out exactly as I hoped it would: a month that included some travel – but not too much, as I had learned in 2019 – and exploring close to home to continue building my expertise on the American West. I took two trips: a weekend in Palm Springs (that combined with a friend’s bachelorette party) and a weekend in Mendocino.

Among the highlights, I fondly recal:

  • Riding the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to the top of Mt. San Jacinto for a warming Whiskey Apple Pie cocktail.
  • Spending an incredible weekend at the Little River Inn near Mendocino, especially the Whale Watch Bar where we ate every meal.
  • Speaking of meals, enjoying one of the best seafood meals I’ve had at Princess Seafood in Noyo Harbor (near Fort Bragg).
  • Exploring my local area at home, eating out at a number of places, and researching for the niche site I planned to launch, Discover Sausalito.

February: On the Road

February started to pick up the pace, with a number of work trips and personal trips – the perfect blend of travel and life!

I traveled to:

  • Moab, Utah (and the nearby National Parks) for work
  • Newport, Rhode Island for a friend’s wedding
  • Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska for work

It was really a great month, between hiking and exploring two of the most breathtaking national parks in the country (Arches is better for adventure, but I loved Canyonlands more!), watching a friend get married (and being her bridesmaid), and aurora-chasing with Marissa from Postcards to Seattle in the deeply sub-zero Alaskan winter.

March: The World Stops

My trip to Alaska ended on March 1st, and the fun stopped soon thereafter. Aside from a day trip to Sonoma County for a fun story I was working on for the San Francisco Chronicle (about distilleries, yum!), I didn’t travel again before the shelter in place orders began here in the Bay Area mid-March.

I was supposed to lead my tour in Jordan mid-month… This was a particular blow as I had to cancel it and refund my guests. I also watched an incredible opportunity leading an astrotourism retreat in the Maldives dry up; I’m hopeful this will be on the table again in a year or two.

I spent the remainder of March spiraling into a dark place. Like many of you, I was over-consuming news about the pandemic and wondering how bad it would get. I also watched my businesses decrease by 75% in both traffic and income.

April: Home, The Beginning

Normally I love the month of April: it’s the full-throated season of spring and my birthday month. This year, April was none of that – even the season seemed morose and we endured weekends of rain in between sunny weekdays stuck inside working from home.

Mr. V and I tried to keep spirits up by ordering takeaway food from local restaurants and going on walks. I also began running more frequently as our wedding was scheduled in just three months. We weren’t totally sure that the wedding would happen – or how it would happen – but I knew I had to look fit if it did!

May: Home, The Sequel

May was another month spent entirely at home, trying to find the beauty in our local area. (This was despite the fact that my local niche site died on the vine when restaurants and bars were ordered to close indefinitely.)

Instead, we focused on wedding planning and decided to pivot our whole plan. I share more about that below, but as you can imagine, that meant that I was re-planning our wedding with just two months until the big day!

We didn’t travel at all during May, making it the longest I have gone without traveling since late 2017. I also cancelled my bachelorette party, which was supposed to be in New Orleans this month.

June: A Weekend Getaway?!

June was another heads-down month, focusing on work and planning our wedding. We did take one trip though: Mr. V and a friend decided they wanted to make a summit attempt on Mount Shasta.

We took a weekend trip up there (where the pandemic was not yet widespread) but their attempts were foiled. Instead, we spent the weekend hiking and exploring the area; I was able to beef up my existing post about visiting Mount Shasta after the trip. Other highlights include:

  • Hiking to Heart Lake for an epic view of the mountain – and enjoying the hike!
  • Dining at restaurants for the first time since March!
  • Chasing waterfalls on the south side of Mount Shasta.

Honestly, it felt so good to go anywhere this month, after over three months at home. This year helped me understand how much I used to travel as both a hobby and passion – and as a way of coping with my life. Removing that entirely has left a big hole, even though I’ve traveled more than many people this year.

July: Our Wedding & Honeymoon

In a normal year, July would have been a busy, stressful month. After all, planning one’s own wedding is never a simple process! But in 2020, it was obviously much more so… It seemed like every new day of July brought me a new problem to solve. Whether it was flowers or transport or whatever, I became fully immersed in making sure our wedding happened as safely as possible.

Luckily, it did – and after that, I got to start decompressing and we spent some time off on our also-adjusted honeymoon.

Mr. V and I ended up having a national park road trip for our honeymoon. We visited places like Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Colorado national parks, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia National Park.

It wasn’t what we originally intended (we actually hadn’t committed to honeymoon plans!) but it ended up being very “on brand” for travel trends in 2020 and 2021, and great research for blog posts I wrote later this year. Here were some of my favorite moments:

  • Enjoying incredible Indian food near Mt. Rushmore – and avoiding the crowds of Trump supporters in the process.
  • Discovering Durango, CO, a destination I’d never really heard of but would love to return to for longer.
  • Visiting Monument Valley while trying to limit our interactions with the community as much as possible to reduce chances of virus transmission.
  • Taking Mr. V on his first trip to the Grand Canyon!
  • Visiting the most gigantic of the Giant Sequoias for the first time.

August: Press Trips Resume

August started on a good note: returning from our road trip honeymoon. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived, as Mr. V’s father had a medical emergency and we immediately flew up to Washington State again to help with that. That remained an ongoing focus for us the rest of the year; we took several more trips as a result.

After our personal travels restarted and it looked like we might be over the hump of the pandemic, work travel also restarted. Some destinations were still keen to bring out writers, and I went on my first press trip since March. Mid-month, I flew to Door County, Wisconsin, and spent a few days there feeling like life might eventually go back to normal – even if we did still need masks and hand sanitizer for now. Here were some of the highlights:

  • Gorgeous sunsets and sunrises over the water, and the local specialty cherry margarita.
  • Morning runs along Green Bay in the small waterfront town of Ephraim.
  • Stargazing at the local dark sky park!
  • Kayaking and cliff-jumping into Lake Michigan.

September: Focus on Family & Possibly Fun

September was a lot like August from a travel and life perspective: Mr. V and I worked to help manage his dad’s medical emergency and traveled back to Washington, and I took another work trip.

This time my work trip was to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Another fantastic Midwest destination, this was a fun getaway in the small community and plenty of inspiration for freelance stories. Here were some of the highlights:

  • A lakefront tiki bar, proving that tiki was one of the big themes this year!
  • Go-Kart racing at Road America.
  • Connecting with fellow writers around the lakeshore campfire pit.

Other than that, I was home for the rest of the month. I was furiously writing and getting mentally prepared for the slow months of my business (Autumn, when Alaska travel is at its lowest).

October: Looking Further from Home

On paper, October looks much the same as August and September: a slow recovery of travel, propelled by work trips. I went on three trips in October, to Lubbock, Texas (with a PR firm), Crescent City, CA (on an individual press trip), and back to Crescent City again at the end of the month for a house-hunting trip.

Yes, you read that right: after six months of ‘sheltering in place’ in the 250 square feet of our houseboat, Mr. V and I started looking to move again – this time into our first “home” (i.e. real estate we own, rather than renting).

We started our search in Crescent City with this stunning old Redwood home. That deal eventually fell apart, but it helped us jump into the house-hunting world and even making big offers on big opportunities.

Here were some other highlights from travels this month:

  • Wine tasting in Lubbock – did you know Texas wine is actually delicious and creative?!
  • Wonder and wandering among the Redwoods on the North Coast.
  • Discovering how delicious kombucha is! How was I so late to this trend?
  • An incredible VRBO and welcome from the local tourism board in Crescent City.

November: Exploring the Western U.S.

As cases started to tick back up, Mr. V and I took two more trips: to western Nevada near Lake Tahoe and to Washington state for Thanksgiving.

The Nevada trip was a great time; it was a two-destination trip, so we spent two days on the Nevada side in South Lake Tahoe, and then another two days in Carson Valley, Nevada. Most people visit the area and stay in California, but there’s a lot to explore on the Nevada side. This includes arguably better outdoor and historic experiences. Here were my highlights:

  • Hiking in Van Sickle Bi-State Park. One of the photos from this trip is now featured on the homepage of my site!
  • Stargazing every night along the dark east side of South Lake Tahoe.
  • Relaxing in a huge room – a welcome respite from our tiny boat – at David Walley’s Resort.
  • Soaking in the hot pool at Walley’s Resort (most of the hot tubs were closed due to Covid!).
  • An unforgettable glider ride above the Sierras, South Lake Tahoe, and Carson Valley. This was a bucket list experience I never knew was on my list!

Our Thanksgiving trip was also nice, and we spent the weekend following the holiday holed up in a small cabin in Orgeon relaxing a bit.

December: Focusing on What Matters

The final month of this oh-so-long year was another one of being mostly home – and when not in our home, at my parent’s in Minnesota. Mr. V have tried to adjust to this new normal by planning regular activities to look forward to, and making decisions about the risk we’re willing to bear in order to have those things.

That included a long quarantine leading up to our holiday trip to my parent’s house, with the exception of a night out on the coast watching the Great Conjunction.

Other than that, we were once again home for the month, trying to look forward to 2021 and planning to have the best year we can – now fully aware that it can all change in a moment.

Top Life Moment of the Year

V&V Wedding

What was my top “Life Moment” of 2020? This one’s easy! Getting married was my top life moment by a mile!

Mr. V and I got engaged in late 2018, and decided to aim for our wedding in Summer 2020. When the pandemic began and we were uncertain how our plans would change, we decided to try and stick to the date. In exchange, we had to be more flexible with things like our venue, menu, decor, and guest list size. Turns out we had to change all of those things for our July wedding! The only other thing we weren’t willing to compromise on was our photographer, the amazing Vera Pashkevich.

In the end, we went from an 85-person venue wedding to a 32-person backyard wedding in one of my bridesmaid’s backyard. We were able to get the same food catered as a buffet, and adjusted a lot of our decor to work in the new space. Our wedding was nothing like we originally imagined it… But it was also perfectly ours and an incredible highlight in an otherwise dark year.

Top Travel Moment of the Year

Valerie and Jacob Wed

In the same vein as my top “Life Moment” of 2020, our wedding was also my top “Travel Moment” of the year. It was the first “big” trip we took since the pandemic began, and it was the only time we got to see almost all of our friends and family in one place. There were lots of guests who chose not to attend and we respected that completely since the pandemic was obviously still raging – but those who were willing to join and celebrate with us will always have a special place in my heart.

Obviously there was a lot of stress associated with this trip too – flying, wedding planning, bringing together a moderately sized group of people and hoping none of them were/got sick. But the fact that we were able to pull it off – and that the photos turned out so beautifully to capture these moments we could share with others this year – well, it’s obviously a highlight!

Top Writing Moment of the Year

This was an interesting year as a writer too. As I mentioned yesterday, there are two sides of my writing career: my freelance writing and my blogging. I’m shifting my priorities there in the coming year, but this past year was the beginning of that process.

From a blogging perspective, I arguably had one of my best years as a creator – and I was fortunate that my traffic recovered quickly than a lot of bloggers I know. As I mentioned, I wrote 77 articles (this is number 78) this year, not including rewriting and updating old articles. That’s 1.5 per week, which was pretty close to my target throughout the year (I was always aiming for 1-2 per week). I can’t complain there.

I certainly know some freelance writers who had an incredible year, but my own freelance career struggled. One of my main outlets, Lonely Planet, made major structural changes, and I lost most of my editor contacts in the process. Another, the San Francisco Chronicle, first restructured and then downsized their travel department. Nevermind that many travel publications cut rates or how much they were publishing to weather the storm; I didn’t really have good opportunities to do travel writing.

I did discover a new type of writing I love, and that helped me decide my top “Writing Moment” this year. In February I began writing for Forbes Science on space and astrotourism and in October I began writing for How Stuff Works on space topics. It turns out I love science writing! That new discovery is my top Writing Moment – I thought I was just a travel writer, but my love of space helped me find a new opportunity in my career.

2020 in Conclusion

There you have it: my whole year, accounted for the record on this now seven-year old blog. I’m glad I got to travel as much as I did – and that I had to learn to appreciate my home too.

I look forward to a new year, and a new vaccine – and hopefully a return to travel and the wonders that come with it. For now though, I’ll be grateful that my family is healthy and whole and send by thoughts out to those for whom 2020 has been far less kind.

Here’s to 2021. 🥃

If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How was 2020 for you? What are you looking back on as we mark the passage of another year?

Help others discover this post too!

I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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