2020 Recap: A Year of Grounding

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2020 came in like a wrecking ball, the year that no one anticipated- a year of devastating economic losses and facing the tragic systemic racism in the United States, the loss of freedom to travel and go to happy hour with friends and just generally feel safe around others, and, for far too many, the loss of a loved one.

My husband, Justin, and I are so fortunate to not have suffered from job loss, to have a cozy, warm home, and to have stayed relatively healthy. Nevertheless, our life has significantly changed from frequently flying to far corners of the United States and internationally to doing a whole lot of watching Netflix, baking way too much banana bread, and turning our attention to exploring our own backyard.

This year has felt like a blur- somehow dragging on forever and also whirring by incredibly fast. I have changed a LOT this year, in a variety of ways, and while parts of 2020 have been extraordinarily painful and sad, I don’t want to forget my experiences any time soon.

So here’s a recap of our 2020.

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My word of 2020

Unlike my usual incredibly busy schedule, this year has provided me plenty of time (more than I’d generally care for) to invest in self-reflection and one of the exercises that I’ve found helpful is picking a “word of the year”- a mantra of sorts that sums up your objective or overarching theme of that particular season of your life.

For me, my word of 2020 is “grounding”– for the first time in years, I wasn’t flying someplace new every few weekends or constantly running around to countless brunches and baby showers and other elder millennial social gatherings every spare second I wasn’t working my professional job. I was, quite literally, grounded.

Woman standing in front of Mount Rainier on the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington

And while anyone who knows me can attest to how troubling this was to me (and any other travel enthusiast on the planet), it also provided me the time to take a step back and take inventory of my life- where I am in my career, my life, my marriage and where I want to go with those facets of my life.

To be more aware of what exactly I want my life to look like in 2021 and in five and ten years. To feel more grounded in where I currently am and where I’m headed. Which brings me to…

My word of 2021

My word for next year is “focus and prioritize” (okay, so that’s a total of three words but just go with it). I don’t know about y’all but between election anxiety and the constant questioning of if and when COVID-19 will be under control in the United States, when our world is going to look more “normal”,  and how to balance keeping ourselves and others safe while still finding ways to get out and experience the world- 2020 was an exhausting and distracting hot mess. I’ve felt emotionally pulled in a zillion directions and just plain drained. 

Now that I have a good handle on my goals for the near and somewhat distant future (prioritizing experiences and exploring the world with Justin and our little family rather than any kind of material items, building financial independence and security, and establishing myself as an invaluable employee and team member), I want to be laser-focused on accomplishing those goals and using those priorities as a compass in every decision I make.

Couple holding hands on top of Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park

2020 Travel Summary

Countries visited: 1 (India)

U.S. states visited:  10 (California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. As I type this post, we’re en route to pick up a little used teardrop trailer from a couple in Louisiana (see, I’m already manifesting my “focus and prioritize” goal!), so we’re just driving straight through the last two states I listed.)

U.S. National Parks visited: 13 (Joshua Tree, Olympic, Mount Rainier, Northern Cascades, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Crater Lake)

Beds slept in: 27 (and 4 nights spent sleeping in our sleeping bags and tent in various locations around Washington and Oregon)

Woman hiking along the Hidden Valley trail in Joshua Tree National Park in California

The three travel highlights of 2020

1. Hiking to Grinnell Glacier Overlook in Glacier National Park

Ever since I saw photos of Glacier’s towering peaks and emerald valleys, I desperately wanted to see the park with my own eyes and with international travel canceled for the foreseeable future, it seemed like the perfect time to take a road trip from our home in Seattle to the park.

But COVID-19 complicated matters- the entire eastern half of the park was closed in 2020, at the direction of the neighboring Blackfoot Tribe to protect its residents from the virus. Additionally, given the limited human resources in the park due to COVID-19-related constraints, several of the park’s roads and trail still had yet to be plowed or cleaned up from the extreme snow from Montana’s winter when we visited the park in mid-July.

I had my heart absolutely set on hiking a trail called the Highline Loop, one of the most popular hikes in the park along the Continental Divide, providing sweeping panoramic views of the Rockies, colorful wildflowers, and alpine wildlife pretty much every step of the 13.1 miles of the hike. But, due to 2020 being 2020, it was closed at the time of our arrival.

Couple kissing in a field of wildflowers with Rocky Mountains in the background in Glacier National Park in Montana

I was hoping that the Highline would magically open the day that we arrived, but with no such luck, Justin and I were chatting over dinner about our options of what trails to hike the following day, when our waitress overheard our conversation. After asking what kind of hike we were looking for, she confidently recommended that we check out the “Loop Trail.” In a very unlike-me move, I didn’t obsessively research the hike and just trusted that our brewery waitress knew what she was talking about.

And, boy, did she ever! The trail was absolutely gorgeous, with those breathtaking, 360-degree views of mountains we were chasing; the scenery was so out-of-this-world, walking through the landscape almost felt unreal. The 8-mile, out-and-back trail leads up to a lodge, built in 1914, called the Granite Park Chalet, perched on top of a mountain and surrounded by techniolor wildflowers. Hikers can stay overnight in this primitive accommodation and just drink in all of Glacier’s beauty. Once we climbed our way up to the Chalet and were taking in the stunning views, we realized that the Loop connected to another trail, up a mountain to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.

Woman sitting at the Grinnell Overlook looking at the Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park in Montana

I had seen pictures of the glacier online- an enormous hunk of ice at the base of a towering mountain of striated stone, with a pool of electric blue water at its feet- and I knew we had to make the steep trek up to the overlook (for my hiking nerds, there’s 1,000 feet elevation gain in 0.6 miles). And although my glutes burned over that 1,000 feet climb up, I can’t stress enough how much making the extra trek was worth it.

Grinnell Glacier was even more beautiful than I thought, feeding not just one stunning lake but with several more brilliantly colored lakes in the distance. Everything at the overlook was so overwhelming – from the gusts of chilly winds almost knocking me off the edge of a cliff to the breathtaking views in every direction to hearing my husband literally giggle with delight from the magnificence of the view at our feet. 2020 felt almost numbing from all of the stillness and pain that it brought, but at the Grinnell Overlook, I was unable to wipe this big, stupid smile off my face from the awesomeness of being so overwhelmed.

2. Watching sunrise over Mount Hood and a cloud inversion from our own private mountain.

Justin and I have always been interested in backcountry camping, but, for years, had been too hung up on all of the confusing and seemingly expensive gear that was required to make the leap. After figuring out exactly the right gear we needed to go backpacking within our budget, we headed down to the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon to spend our first night in the wilderness.

After hiking about 3.5 miles up a mountain overlooking Mount Hood, we found an awesome campsite, right on the edge of a cliff with a spectacular view, to set up for the night. We watched the sunset sink below the horizon, turning the sky stunning shades of pastels, drank wine in our tent, and gazed at the beautiful canopy of stars in the night sky.

Woman standing along the Tom, Dick, Harry Mountain with Mount Hood in the background in Oregon

The night wasn’t all just roses, though; for an August evening, it got pretty chilly and between the relentless cold wind rattling our tent and my unfounded fears of a mountain man attacking us in our sleep, I didn’t fall asleep for a second that night. When my alarm went off in time to catch the sunrise the next morning, I definitely was waking up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag (har har, get it?). As soon as I unzipped the door of our tent, though, my attitude did a complete 180.

The forest floor beneath our campsite, dotted with evergreen trees and a glass lake, was blanketed with fluffy blue clouds, while the sky above remained completely clear, allowing the early light of the morning sun to spill out over the foothills of Mount Hood.

This stunning effect is called a “cloud inversion” and while I don’t think it’s exceedingly uncommon around the Pacific Northwest, it felt like a once in a lifetime moment, just me, my husband, and this epic mountain. Justin and I sat huddled at the edge of the cliff, sipping hot cups of coffee and drinking in the beautiful sunrise. Because of this incredible experience, I’m not sure we will ever be able to top our very first backcountry camping excursion!

Couple drinking coffee at Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain with Mount Hood in the background at sunrise with a cloud inversion

3. Our day in Agra, India.

We were lucky enough to get invited to a dear friend’s wedding in January 2020 that was held in the southern part of India, about five hours west of Bangalore.  Our experience in India was far from perfect (see the 2020 travel lows below), but our second day in the country, spent in the city of Agra, was just unforgettable.

We woke up at dawn and walked to the Taj Mahal from our Airbnb, accompanied by a herd of stray cow friends walking alongside us. Having arrived at the opulent tomb in the early hours of the day, we mostly had the place to ourselves for a bit, watching the sunrise over the famous structure in peace and exploring the immaculate grounds.

After our time at the Taj, we made our way to Agra Fort (which is more of a walled city than a fort), with incredible Mughal architecture and fascinating history- the emperor that commissioned the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was imprisoned there by one of his sons and died in a portion of the fort overlooking the Taj. Once we were sated with 17th century family drama and our stomachs were good and rumbling, we headed to a restaurant we found on Happy Cow, called Shankara Vegis.

Not only did the owner clearly know what “vegan” meant and was kind and friendly, but the rooftop dining area of the restaurant was AMAZING. We spent a lazy lunch, stuffing our faces with delicious food and drinking King Fisher beers, laughing at a curious monkey who was lowkey stalking us, and taking in the sweeping views from the roof of city life in Agra and the neighboring Taj Mahal.  

The three travel lows of 2020

1. Our train ride from hell- er, I mean, from New Delhi, India to Agra.

During our trip to India, we arrived in New Delhi around 3 AM, having traveled for about 30 consecutive hours, few of which were spent sleeping. Since we only had one day to explore New Delhi, we got a couple hours of shut-eye in at our Airbnb before begrudgingly leaving our bed to see the sights.

I have always heard other travelers talk about being overwhelmed by certain places, like Vietnam or Cambodia, and never really understood that- people are people, buildings are buildings, no matter where in the world we go. During our day in New Delhi, though, I understood that sentiment for the first time in all of my travels- people brazenly stared at us and got uncomfortably close (many Indians are extremely enthusiastic about getting selfies with lighter-skinned strangers, oftentimes without consent) and we constantly were being scammed or having various wares shoved in our faces.

To Delhi’s credit, I’m sure, at least in part, my negative experience was colored by my extreme sleep deprivation. But I had one saving grace in my back pocket- that evening, we were headed on a train to Agra, a four hour ride where I had reserved a fancy sleeper suite, just like in The Darjeeling Limited, where we could relax, lay down our weary heads, and watch the Indian countryside roll by from our warm, private beds.

Spoiler alert- I had not indeed booked a private suite for us and instead, had mistakenly booked “Sleeper Class” tickets. This meant that, essentially, we were each assigned a metal slab (sans those comfy and cozy sheets or pillows I had been dreaming about), with two other slabs stacked on top of it, in a row of more than a dozen similar “bunk beds”, housed in an open air freight train.

Man laying on a train bed, going from Delhi to Agra, India

Not only was the bed uncomfortable, it was COLD. If you’ve never been to Northern India in January, it’s pretty chilly (at night, the temperature drops to the mid-40s) and from a combination of the cold air rushing in from the train’s speed, the bare metal against my skin, and the minimal warm clothes I had packed, I was FREEZING.

I was so deliriously tired at this point, all I wanted to do was drift off to sleep, but the man whose bunk was one row over and up from mine was knowingly smirking at me every time I happened to glance up (so much so that I was scared to fall asleep or go to the bathroom by myself). And while the train was physically (and at times, emotionally) draining, it was also heartbreaking- after a few stops, the train had become full of people who hadn’t purchased tickets for the metal beds and instead, sat or laid on the filthy floor of the train. A family of three shimmied into the cramped space between the floor and my bed for the duration of the trip. It was hard to ignore my own privilege of being slightly cold and uncomfortable with so many people around me in clearly a MUCH more unbearable situation.

Looking back, had my expectations of our train ride not been so dashed, had I not been so ridiculously tired, or better prepared with clothing, the trip would have been totally fine and a more accurate glimpse into local life. But uncontrollably shivering on a cold, metal bed, while gusts of icy wind blow in your face and being incessantly leered at by a strange man, running on a couple hours of sleep in the last 48 hours? Would not recommend.

2. Packing way too much into our India trip.

My bad-trip planning for India strikes again! I had always dreamed of going to India- the food! the architecture! the colors! With only six days actually in the country, I wanted to see it all and, boy, did I ever try. In our six days, we went to the cities of New Delhi, Agra, Bangalore, Belur, Chikmagalur, and Udaipur (which, might I add, are all scattered around the country) and didn’t stay in the same bed any consecutive nights.

Woman walking in Qutub Minar in New Delhi, India

Because of this mad dashing around the country, we spent at least four hours every day getting to or on a plane, a train, or a car and rarely got more than a few hours of sleep per night. All-in-all, my enthusiasm to see India led me to way over-index on packing ALL THE THINGS in and it led to an exhausting and, at times, decidedly un-fun experience.

3. Not buying trip insurance.

You’d think I would have learned by now to buy travel insurance. Exhibit A: in December 2018, we had to forfeit our flights to Thailand and Puerto Rico when Justin broke his kneecap the month before those trips- several thousand dollars down the tube because I hadn’t purchased travel insurance. Exhibit B: in December 2019, we somewhat unexpectedly moved across the country to Seattle and, given our new jobs, AGAIN had to forfeit tickets to Thailand (Thailand, I will make it to you eventually!).

I won’t even go into the number of canceled trips we had in 2020 from COVID, but suffice it to say, it was a Game of Thrones level bloodbath. I totally admit that I am a proper idiot for not forking over the extra couple hundred dollars to insure our travels, especially given the fact that I HAVE WENT THROUGH THIS SAME EXACT ISSUE (minus the whole pandemic thing) TWO YEARS IN A ROW. So I have learned my lesson- moving forward, I will always be purchasing travel insurance, like World Nomads, for any trip, unless I’m 100% comfortable losing my investment.

2021 Travel Bucketlist

In any other year, our calendar would already be entirely booked up through December with a new destination, far and wide, every month. This year looks quite a bit different, though- while I’m hopeful that the vaccine will help get coronavirus under control, I’m not going to be purchasing any flights until Justin and I are both vaccinated and the United States is in a better spot (at the time I’m writing this, we’re at over 4,000 deaths a day). So I’m going to again try to focus on more local outdoorsy adventures and keep my fingers crossed that I’ll be returning to the skies before long. With that said, in 2021, I want to:

  • Visit Hawaii (maybe a stretch goal, but I’m hoping we’ll be vaccinated by the year’s end!)
  • Climb Mount St. Helens, an active volcano in Washington
  • Paddleboard in Lake Tahoe
  • Camp in Mount Rainier National Park
  • Climb Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States
  • Camp at Granite Park campground in Glacier National Park
  • Visit Redwoods National Park in Northern California
  • Thru-hike the Enchantments in Washington
  • Visit Yosemite National Park
  • Camp at Broken Top, Crater Lake National Park, and the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon
Woman jumping in front of Haystack Rock in Cape Kiwanda, Oregon

Well, that’s a wrap for 2020! Here’s to hoping that 2021 is better for the travel industry (and the world at large) and there’s more adventures in store for us! Cheers!

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