I have a confession to make.
At the end of 2019, exhausted and burnt out, I made a New Years resolution that, in hindsight, may have doomed the entire world: I wanted to travel less and spend more time at home, baking and taking long walks and watching birds in the backyard.
Yep: I put that out into the Universe, and then the Universe was like “oh, dip?” and here we are, in month 976827682768 of the worst global pandemic in over a century. Alexa, play “Be Careful What You Wish For.” (BTW: I had to Google this, but it turns out that there is a country song with this title, along with, weirdly, an “erotic thriller film” starring one of the Jonas brothers. What the what?!?!)
Anyway, you guys, I’m really sorry about… you know *gestures broadly at everything*
But you’re probably wondering: was it all worth it, Lia?!?! Did you get your stupid wish and spend 2020 taking long walks, watching birds in the backyard, and baking bundt cakes??
And the answer is … kinda. Let’s get into it.
Estimated Reading Time: 35 minutes
Table of Contents
Looking for more year-in-review posts? We’ve been writing them every year since the beginning of our travel blog. Here they all are, or just pick a year:
- 2019: The Year of “Yes”
- 2018 in Review: The Year of High Risk … & High Reward
- 2017: The Year Everything Changed
- 2016: The Year of Travel Fails
2020 by the Numbers
Before we dive into the details, let’s start with a quick summary of how the year went. I promise that only some of these are made up.
- Team Members: 10
- Blog Posts Published: 27
- Books Published: 1
- Total Readers: 2.06m
- Total Page Views: 3.02m
- Traffic Compared to 2019: -24%
- Gross Income Compared to 2019: -16%
- Months that Net Profit was Negative: 4
- Existential Crises: At least 5
- Domains Purchased: 3
- Succulent Pups Collected: 2768728627
- Succulent Babies Grown: 92768
- TV Shows Binge-Watched: 18
- Best-Selling Books Written: 1
- Bundt Cakes Baked: 0
- Take-Out Dumplings Consumed: 983
- Long Walks Taken: 582
- Sourdough Loaves Baked: At least 30
- Cookies Baked: At least 300
- Cakes Baked: 4 (vegan almond olive oil, black forest gateau, thunder cake, yule log) plus 24 cupcakes (almond cakes filled with orange curd and topped with ginger buttercream)
- Woodworking Projects Completed: 4 (herb garden, cloud shelf, mountain shelf, trellis, dog feeder, birdhouse)
- Podcasts listened to: 60 hours
- Piano songs learned: 23
- Tricks Learned: 15 (Sit, stay, down, high five, shake, meerkat, up-up, off, jump, speak, don’t speak, don’t jump, find it, watch me, touch)
- Bully Sticks Chewed: 267
- Stuffies Destroyed: 20
- Tiny Bits of Stuffing Strewn Across the House: 9268296787
- Dog Beds: 5
- Chairs Claimed: 2
- Seasonally Themed Outfits: 6
- Camping Trips: 2
Hang on … who’s Mulan?? Let’s get to it!
The Beginning of 2020: The Glory Days
January, 2020: a new decade. The world was bright and full of promise. Jeremy and I were happily settling into our new rental home in Oakland, complete with a big backyard and a dedicated office – no more working in a corner of our living room behind the couch!
Our travel blog had never been more successful, but I was feeling burnt out after a year filled with 26 trips – that’s one trip every two weeks on average, if you’re number-crunching – and I wanted to spend more time at home (*cringes in hindsight*).
Little did I know that I’d already learned the first of many humbling lessons of this year: there is such thing as too much of a good thing, and I had reached my limit.
The starry-eyed wonder of hopping on a plane to visit a new destination had faded to a feeling of routine. I’d said “yes” to too many incredible opportunities, and I wasn’t giving myself a chance to savor the excitement of planning a trip to a new place. I was dangerously teetering towards the brink of feeling ungrateful for the ridiculous, amazing, and incredible opportunities that my job as a travel blogger afforded me.
Plus, I felt like a real hypocrite working towards a zero/low-waste lifestyle at home… only to hop on plane after plane.
So, a couple of weeks after I turned 30, we tied an anchor to ourselves to help us stay grounded and at home… in the form of a cuddly, fluffy puppy.
I’ve always been a self-proclaimed cat person, but I fell head over heels in love with Mulan before we even met. Jeremy and I were browsing adoption listings, and I saw a blurry photo of her on the website of a local shelter (the wonderful Jelly’s Place in San Pablo, if you’re a Bay Area local looking for a new friend). All I knew about her was that she was rescued from a meat farm in South Korea and that she was named after my favorite Disney movie, but something deep down was telling me that this was The One.
Sure enough, the moment I picked her up, she snuggled right into my arms and gave me kisses. Never in my life have I been anything other than supremely grossed out by a dog licking my face … until that dog was Mulan.
I’d only felt love at first sight once before, when I caught sight of Jeremy for the first time looking like a tall drink of Ginger Ale with his red beard set ablaze in the evening light. With Mulan, it was a different kind of love – but it was intense.
We turned in our adoption application immediately, only to find out that literally everyone else at the shelter was doing the exact same thing. Mulan was the most popular dog at the shelter that day by far – turns out she was giving snuggles and face kisses to everyone! (We’d later discover that she has the power to make every single person she’s ever met feel like she’s their favorite human in the entire world .)
So we showed up a few days later, armed with paperwork from our landlord showing that we were welcome to adopt a dog, to beg our case and convince the shelter that we’d be, like, really great dog parents. We had a huge backyard! I worked from home! Jeremy spent years working as a handler at a doggie daycare! Please, please, PLEASE pick us!
It was a little creepy, but it worked. The shelter let us take Mulan home on the spot!
…. which we were entirely unprepared for. We bee-lined for the pet store on the way home, frantically Googling things like “what to buy to keep a puppy alive.”
The next few weeks were a blur of late-night wakeup-calls, potty training, leash training, crate training, trips to the vet, and researching. Neither of us had ever adopted a puppy before, and we were ill-prepared for how incredibly difficult it would be. As Mulan wailed and scratched at her crate at 3am for the millionth night in a row, we found ourselves wondering if we’d gotten ourselves in way over our heads. Was it always going to be this hard?
But after a few weeks, we all adjusted. Soon Mulan was our little adventure companion, tagging along with us on hikes and even riding along with Jeremy on his bike commute to school each day.
Since then, we’ve come to see Mulan as more than just a pet or even a beloved companion: she is a member of our family, and we both feel as though she is our child. We are responsible for her health, happiness, and safety, and it’s through us that she learns how to navigate the world. Training, socializing, physical activities, and exposing her to new experiences all helps grow her confidence while also helping to stimulate her mind and keep her body healthy.
We’re also incredibly fortunate to live in a dog-friendly place: Mulan is welcomed everywhere from our favorite cafes and restaurants to the local shops in our neighborhood. We bring her with us nearly everywhere, and she’s made friends all over Oakland!
We managed to squeeze three trips into the first few months of 2020! We’d planned these trips before adopting Mulan, but we didn’t want to upset her adjustment into her new home by sticking her in a kennel. So we turned to a site we’d used many times before: Trusted Housesitters!
We’ve house-sat other people’s pets many times using Trusted Housesitters – it’s our favorite way to travel slowly and inexpensively, since all you pay is an annual membership fee – but this was our first experience hosting sitters in our home, with a 4-month old puppy to boot. We were a little nervous: would our house sitters take good care of Mulan? Would they stick to her usual routines, and keep her safe and happy?
But although we were nervous new parents, our house sitters were all phenomenal, keeping us in the loop with daily photos and text updates about Mulan. Plus, some of our house sitters were cool as hell and totally inspiring: during our one-week trip, Mulan and our house were taken care of by Tim and Amy, a rad pair of nomadic travelers who penny-pinched and saved so they could retire in their 40s. They sold everything and have been traveling and house sitting pets around the world ever since! They’ve got an awesome YouTube channel and website called Go With Less.
Using Trusted Housesitters helped Mulan stay comfortably at home with with her same routines, eased our anxiety during our trips, saved us hundreds of dollars in boarding fees, and even made us some awesome new friends. We can’t recommend it enough!
Here are the three trips we took in in early 2020:
In late January, we hopped on a short plane ride south to Tempe, Arizona, a charming little town next to Phoenix best known as the home of Arizona State University!
Our weekend getaway was sponsored by the Tempe tourism board, and our hosts made the most of our 48-hour trip. We stuffed ourselves silly, learned about Arizona’s history, admired beautiful giant cacti, and rode horses at sunset. And that was just day one!
Unfortunately, in all the pandemic hubbub, we never found a good time to share the videos and photos from our trip last January! Here are a few of the highlights from our quick weekend getaway to Tempe:
- Enjoying a cool morning in the Desert Botanical Gardens
- Delicious, thoughtfully prepared Southwestern cuisine at Ghost Ranch
- Brewery tour (and ghost stories) at Four Peaks Brewery
- E-bike ride along the scenic Tempe waterfront
- Delicious “Donut Muffins” (YES) from Tracey Dempsey Originals
- Sunset horseback ride at the Koli Equestrian Center on the Gila River Indian Community
It was such a charming town, y’all! We’re excited to share more about that trip, so stay tuned.
In February, we flew to Florida for a family trip to Disney World. Y’all already know that Jeremy and I are major Disney nerds, but family Disney trips are new to us. I didn’t really go to Disney growing up, and it wasn’t until I was a Cast Member at Disney World during college that I got a chance to enjoy the parks with my sister, who took advantage of one of my free entry passes.
I’ve also never gone to Disney World with kids before, but nothing sounded more adorable than watching my niece run around the parks in a princess costume singing Moana songs at the top of her lungs. So, Jeremy and I spent the last several years trying to convince my sister to come with us to Disney World.
And this year, we finally pulled it off! My sister and brother in law, 5-year-old niece and 1-year-old nephew, and my mother all met up with us in Orlando for the Disney trip of a lifetime.
Well, sort of. Our poor 1-year old nephew was sick and spent the entire trip sneezing on my mom, who never made it into the park (luckily, she was more interested in hanging out with her grandkids than seeing the parks anyway).
But our 5-year-old niece had a blast! At least until nap-time, when all bets were off. It was so much fun showing her our favorite rides and Hidden Mickeys and pointing out references to her favorite Disney movies and characters. We rode on all the rides we usually pass by as adults because they’re only fun to do with kids (lookin’ at you, Peter Pan …. WHY do kids love that ride so much?! Why?!!?), ate delicious food, and, after everyone else went to bed at the late hour of 5pm or so, Jeremy and I ran around the parks together at our usual speed (running is not an exaggeration).
My favorite time of year to visit the parks is in February, when the weather is mild and the crowds have thinned out. It’s the closest I can get to what it felt like to work at the parks, and the magical feeling of anticipation I’d get walking through the park in the hours just before park opening or after park closing, when there are no guests and you can just take it all in.
It’s been a few years since Walt Disney World stopped feeling like home, but every time I visit I have these glimpses of familiarity and nostalgia that bring me right back to my time as a Cast Member.
After the rest of my family returned home, Jeremy and I stayed for a couple of extra days to take another lap around Disney World, this time for blogging purposes. Personally, I like to keep a boundary between “travel for fun” and “travel for work,” so that I can just relax and enjoy myself during “non-work” trips rather than feeling like I need to take photos and notes and document everything.
Setting aside a full day just to take photos and videos, as well as conducting some research to ensure that our blog posts and Disney Scavenger Hunts are up-to-date, was exactly what I needed to be able to just enjoy my family time. Plus, since we were devoting an entire day just to content creation and work, we were able to secure comped media tickets from Disney World.
Of course, just because our extra day was devoted to working doesn’t mean we didn’t still have fun! We filmed a fun little Vlog during our trip that, along with everything else, got put on the back burner – but I’m hoping to have that out soon. (Are you noticing a pattern yet??)
After we wrapped everything up with Disney World, we hopped over to Universal Studios for another day of fun/work (but mostly fun).
We were graciously hosted by the parks, and spent the day reliving our favorite Harry Potter moments, sipping Butterbeer, singing the Jurassic Park theme song at full volume, doing Jeff Goldblum laughs, making up alternate titles and themes for future Fast & Furious movies*, and – in between all that – taking photos and videos! You can relive our day in Universal Studios in this Instagram Highlight.
I’m so, so glad that we were able to spend a magical week with our family and a few fun, silly days running around being kids again at two of our favorite theme parks before everything went downhill.
*Ideas for Future Fast & the Furious Movies
- Extremely Fast & Incredibly Furious
- More Fast & Even Furiouser
- Fast & Fur-ious: Family Fur-Ever 🐾
- A Fast Series of Furious Events
- Rapid & Rampaging
- Hasty & Haughty
- Accelerated & Aggressive
- The Final Fast & Furious Frontier
Lake Tahoe, California
Our very last pre-pandemic trip was a weekend getaway to Lake Tahoe, California. We’ve gotten into the habit of taking regular trips to Lake Tahoe, which is only 3.5 hours away and absolutely phenomenal to visit any time of the year. Plus, Jeremy’s become quite the snowboarder – and I never pass up an opportunity to sit in a hot tub in the snow!
So, ski pass in hand, we picked up two of our closest couple friends and piled into a rental car – dogs and all! This was Mulan’s first trip with us, so we wanted to ease her into things. One of Mulan’s closest friends is Emi, a feisty little Shih-Tzu who taught her everything from how to walk on a leash to how to scrap (Mulan has been a dog park boss ever since). Emi’s mom is a former coworker of mine from my old corporate days, and we’ve stayed super close over the years since I left!
But this trip would be bittersweet, because we took it in early March … just before everything shut down and locked up.
The Pandemic, Part One: This Will All Be Over Soon, Right?
We’d been hearing rumors about a mysterious new virus that probably wouldn’t effect us since right around the time we took our trip to Florida in February. We wondered if it might be circulating in Florida already, as my little nephew sneezed and coughed and then my sister and I both picked up his cold when we returned home again.
Honestly, I’m still wondering: was that it? Did we get it already?? But I don’t recall any unusual symptoms – it seemed like a pretty standard cold, exactly the kind of thing you pick up from a sneezy toddler at a crowded theme park. Back then, that was no big deal. Oh, so long ago, how naive we were.
I also remember that there was “something going around” the Bay Area back then, taking Jeremy’s coworkers out of school for a few days at a time and circulating through offices. But there’s “something going around” all the time – there’s the winter flu season, then spring allergies that pop up right around the California springtime, which begins in late January.
So until mid-March, it was business as usual. I was gearing up for my first international trips of the year, which would begin with 2 weeks in Jordan (my first trip to the Middle East!) and then a week road tripping through Spain. I was excited – I hadn’t travelled out of the country since July 2019! Spoilers: I still haven’t…
But things started shutting down around the first week of March. First, the tech companies closed their doors and announced that everyone would be working from home for a while.
Then came the schools. That one sent a shiver of anxiety through us: maybe this was a bigger deal than we’d thought it was….
On Friday the 13th of March, 2020, Jeremy’s school followed suit with the rest of the Bay Area and announced that they would be closing up for “a couple of weeks.” Teaching from home sounded like it might be kinda fun, so there wasn’t much fanfare as everyone packed up and went home that Friday afternoon. We all thought things would go back to normal soon.
Jeremy never got a chance to say goodbye to his 12th grade students.
We cancelled our upcoming trips and holed up, as the entire state was soon put under Shelter-In-Place. It felt like we were in a futuristic horror movie.
Time moved in slow motion: the rest of the month felt like years, as each day’s headlines were more and more terrifying. A cruise ship filled with diseased passengers was docked miles from our home in Oakland; I imagined I could hear ghostly coughing late at night.
Things escalated from “this is probably no big deal” to “I’m sure this will be over soon” to horrified shock.
I drew up elaborate meal plans based on every scrap of food we had in our pantry and freezer, scared that there would soon be a country-wide shut down and food production would somehow cease. There were 43 meals in total, and I ticked them off each day, tracking our “rations.”
We took the opportunity to eat a lot of boxed mac n’ cheese and frozen chicken nuggets. Why not?? It’s a pandemic! The world is ending! Might as well enjoy it…
Part Two: Denial Baking
As the days stretched into weeks and March slowly evolved into April, we stopped spending full days hitting “refresh” on news sites and forced ourselves to develop some healthy coping mechanisms.
For Jeremy, those coping mechanisms were woodworking and baking. He whipped up batches of fresh lemon curd with the lemons growing in front of our house and perfected a banana bread recipe using applesauce made from the apples growing in our backyard. He made his own pasta, created an entire Ethiopian feast for two on a weeknight, and inherited a sourdough starter from a neighbor using our local Buy Nothing group, which he turned into pies, cinnamon rolls, and freshly baked bread.
He also inherited a number of woodworking tools, and we stalked the neighborhood picking up scrap pieces of wood and sneaking behind grocery stores to load wood pallets into our trunk.
As for me, I turned to plants and survival-instinct-fueled homesteading. I carefully clipped leaves from every single one of my houseplants to propagate them into more houseplants. I carefully planted tiny kale starters into the old wooden garden beds in our backyard, attempted to use the beautiful sunset-colored roses growing in front of our house into rosewater (that did not work), and attempted to make marmalade from foraged oranges (it was bitter and disgusting) and jam from foraged loquats (it was chewy). I added sugar to cherry pits to make syrup (this was actually delicious) and alcohol to loquat pits to make liquoer (haven’t actually tried that yet).
I began fermenting my own milk and water kefir, and doubled down on my efforts to use every last scrap of food and minimize food waste by filling up our freezer with carrot tops and parmesan rinds and carrot peels, to be used in soups, smoothies, stocks, and sauces.
I also started collecting succulent leaves. To my delight, I found that there were dropped succulent leaves were everywhere in our neighborhood, plucked from their mother plants by wind, rain, animals, or passers-by. I took these little succulents home and carefully arranged them on soil, and to my delight, I soon had an enormous collection of baby succulents!
I arranged these into little succulent gardens in whatever random containers I could cobble together, making planters out of everything from take-out containers to cups to bottlecaps and wine corks. For these teeny tiny succulent gardens, I created a little fairyhouse out of a broken pot I found half-buried in our backyard.
It was, actually, quite a lot of fun. We were happily distracted from the news and excited by our new hobbies. There was no point in working because nobody was traveling, so I spent most of my time happily distracting myself by painting and drilling holes in bits of trash and turning them into succulent planters, while Jeremy baked loaf after loaf of bread.
There was also a comforting feeling of togetherness: everyone was doing their part to “flatten the curve.” We were all in it together. We were all picking up new hobbies, collectively watching Tiger King and Love is Blind, and refreshing the news every hour.
It occurred to me that for the first time, possibly ever in the history of the world, everyone across the entire globe was doing roughly the same thing, thinking about and concerned with the same thing. I felt connected with the entire world, and “doing my part” by staying home and sheltering in place gave me a sense of purpose.
I wondered if perhaps this was the challenge that we needed to unite us all. I felt like humanity was coming together to fight a shared enemy, to help our fellow neighbors, and to support one another despite our differences. I watched thousands of people take up sewing for the first time to create masks for local hospitals and essential workers (and gave it a try myself), hand-making PPE on a massive scale in an effort to protect total strangers.
“Flattening the curve” felt like a collective human effort on a monumental scale, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. Our collective effort and unity felt powerful and hopeful.
And then, in on May 25, we were jolted back into awful reality.
Part 3: Outrage
The protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement felt, at first, like an extension of that feeling of collective unity. Although we’ve attended Black Lives Matter protests and marches in previous years, we chose not to participate this time for fear of inadvertently spreading COVID.
Instead, we sat outside on our front steps wearing masks, and cheered and waved at thousands of protestors as they passed by. For our friends and Jeremy’s students with higher risk tolerances who did attend the protests, we offered whatever we could from our centrally located home: a place to park, a place to shelter or hide, water, food, use of our bathroom.
We supported the protests from afar by donating to local organizations in Oakland and in my hometown, Louisville, to help supply masks, water, first aid, and bail money. And we used our platform to advance the discourse, sharing anti-racism resources and educational materials, amplifying the voices of leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, having difficult discussions about race, and vocally sharing our commitment to anti-racism in our personal and professional lives. (On a professional level, anti-racism is an integral part of Jeremy’s teaching practice; for me, anti-racism is a framework for learning about and telling the story of destinations, and I see our platforms as a powerful tool for activism and education. You can learn more about the specifics of what that means in our mission statement.)
For weeks, helicopters circled overhead constantly, their deafening sound a never-ceasing reminder of what was at stake. Fireworks erupted nightly. Protests raged just around the corner from our home on either side. We followed the protest routes on Twitter, watching live video streams as the protests made their way down the streets next to us, setting fires and breaking windows as they went, demanding change, refusing to be silenced, refusing to be complicit to state-sanctioned violence.
Weeks before, I’d been naively optimistic that we could change the world by all staying home and sewing masks. But now, I remembered: meaningful change is chaotic. Change on the level needed to expel the ugly core of white supremacy in this country does not come easily. And for many people of color in this country, the stakes are life or death.
For a moment, everything shifted: we stopped refreshing the news looking for pandemic updates, and instead refreshed the news looking for updates about which cities were defunding their police, which officers were being charged for murder, which cities were fighting back against their citizens.
The early days of the pandemic, when we were all holding hands and singing kumbaya, were over.
And honestly, I weirdly miss them. I miss that feeling like we were all in this together. I miss the feeling of everyone wearing masks, distancing, and staying home in order to protect the vulnerable.
Still, my feeling of collective hope – that this was the moment for the human race to finally overcome their obstacles and band together, once and for all – was only buoyed by the protests. It seemed like for the first time, people were finally having difficult conversations about systemic racism and coming to difficult realizations; people who were previously disinterested in politics or social justice seemed, finally, ready to care and to push for change.
But then the moment passed, and it turns out that we weren’t quite ready to band together after all.
Instead, doing your part to “flatten the curve” became a political statement. And even as other countries continued to band together to defeat the virus, the United States slid backward.
Part Four: Spiralling
As the pandemic worsened and political unrest increased, I also had to face more unpleasant facts: the travel industry was dead in the water, and our website traffic – and income – had taken a massive hit.
I’d planned for any number of business-impacting crises: a global recession, an economic downturn, civil unrest in or more of the countries we write about, etc. Travel is inherently and directly linked to politics, so planning for uncertainty is a necessity.
But for the past several years, we’d been enjoying a confluence of factors that made travel more accessible than ever: inexpensive flights, a healthy economy, and a huge number of double-income-no-kids households made it easier for our audience to hop on planes and explore the world. This in turn, fueled the “influencer” industry and huge numbers of travel bloggers, like me, hopping on flights all over the place, helping to sell a dream.
But it was a bubble. And that bubble had suddenly, and with no warning, popped.
In all of my doomsday preparations for our business, I’d never imagined a scenario in which every single country in the entire world suddenly stopped accepting tourists.
Our website’s income is built on two things: ad revenue (yep, all those ads you see on our site pay a huge chunk of our bills) and affiliate income, where we earn a small commission when our readers buy a product we recommend or book a hotel using one of our links.
Overnight, the entire world stopped booking travel and buying travel gear – and advertisers targeting travelers stopped paying for ads.
As our blog numbers fell of a cliff and 90% of our traffic and income disappeared overnight, my mental state went into a tailspin too. I spent a few weeks just laying on the couch, crying. I felt helpless and overwhelmed, and like I was grieving the way things once were.
I honestly hadn’t realized how closely my identity had been tied with the health of my business. After all, my biggest priority as a small business owner – other than making a positive impact on the world – is to maintain work/life balance, earning enough to live on while working less than 40 hours per week.
But the success we’ve enjoyed in recent years had allowed our business to grow and grow, and now it wasn’t just me feeling the pinch of our income vanishing overnight: I was also helping to support 8 team members, spread out all over the globe and, in some cases, stranded far away from home. Many of our team members have been with us for 2 or 3 years now – they’re part of the Practical Wanderlust family.
So although our income was deeply in the red and wages are by far the chunkiest of our expenses, I chose not to cut hours or let anyone go. Instead, I asked our wonderful team members for voluntary hour cuts. As freelance contractors, some of my team members have other clients in different industries; a few of them even work full-time jobs as well as freelancing for us a few hours per week; and some of them were stranded in low cost-of-living areas, able to make ends meet even with fewer hours (for context, I base our rates on the cost of living here in the Bay Area, regardless of each team member’s location; the lowest I am willing to pay is $15/hour, which is the minimum wage here.)
Thanks to the generosity of a few of our wonderful team members, I was able to temporarily shift hours away from my team members who were doing okay, in order to keep the same hours for the rest of the team.
Based on my calculations, the rainy-day money I’d squirreled away during our more profitable years, and some assistance from PPP loans to cover my salary for a few months, I predicted that I would be able to operate in the red for about 6 months at our current rates before I would need to make more difficult decisions.
So, we continued working. We switched from publishing our usual travel guides to publishing pandemic-friendly blog posts, like virtual tours, hiking guides, and camping posts. (Creating the virtual tours was EXCELLENT escapism for me. They were so much fun to create – I hope they brought joy to some other folks, too.)
And I pulled myself up off of the couch and committed to figuring out a way to stay afloat – if not for my sake, then for my team members who were counting on me.
Lots of entrepreneurial people were able to “pivot” during the pandemic and come up with brilliant ideas: they created courses, developed products, and rolled out lots of creative, viral content.
I am not one of those people.
Importantly, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s super cool that so many people were so creative and scrappy during the pandemic. But I could barely bring myself to open the computer, much less think up creative new business ideas, which I find really understandable given the circumstances. Besides, I aim to define my success not by my productivity, but by my impact.
But it took me a while to get to that point. At first, I scrolled through social media and felt overwhelming pressure to “pivot.” I happen to have a lot of creative, talented, entrepreneurial friends, and it seemed like all of them were suddenly going viral and landing huge press features and launching new products. And even as I cheered them on, I felt incredible self-induced pressure to keep up. The irony is not lost on me that I, too, appear on someone’s social media feed and unintentionally cause them to feel inadequate. We are all running our own races: you are doing an amazing job!
Eventually I kinda just started throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what might stick. I bought a total of three websites: I dipped my toe into the lifestyle space and started a new blog to showcase our pandemic hobbies; I purchased a “niche” domain name with great potential; I even acquired a travel blog that someone was getting rid of. (Psst: anyone considering shutting down their travel blog? Hit me up first.)
But I felt stretched too thin – I needed to pick one idea and stick to it, otherwise, none of my new ideas was going to get off the ground. And I wasn’t sure which of those ideas would be the best, most strategic business decision. And I needed to have a shiny, exciting new business idea! Why? I don’t know! But I needed it!
So, in need of guidance, I started seeing a Career Coach. Lots of successful business people have Coaches, and credit them with their success! Maybe I just need to work on my ~mindset (people who talk about business success on Instagram and LinkedIn and entrepreneurial podcasts are always talking about mindset.)
Unfortunately, the Coach I picked was not a good fit. Actually, they were a TERRIBLE fit. In our weekly sessions, they mostly made me cry and talk about “what scares me.” Nothing I did was good enough, and if I didn’t complete my “homework” properly or to the right level of detail, I was belittled and then told I needed to work harder, as if a work/life balance, a desire to put “making a positive impact” before profit, and business success were entirely incompatible.
For a few weeks, it felt like I was in a weird gas-lighting relationship with someone who held power over me. I kept trying desperately to win their approval while being told I was doing everything wrong. It felt awful, and reminiscent of my past abusive relationships.
So I was relieved when our relationship ended – although also insulted, because the Coach refused to continue working with me “unless I got therapy.”
I ended up feeling much worse than when I’d sought help in the first place.
Still, I wondered if they could be right, so I did seek therapy. After all, therapy has been crucially important for my mental health over the decades, and Jeremy’s therapist has been an incredible help for him in 2020.
But after I explained my quandaries – feeling as though my identity was tied to the success of my business, the feeling of pressure to be a good leader and a better content creator, and my obsessive need to find a new business idea to save my company – the therapist told me it really sounded like I needed a Career Coach or mentor, not a therapist.
I decided to save the money I was spending on coaching and therapy, and just do some good old-fashioned inner reflection.
All summer long, I thought, and reflected, and processed, and took very long walks with Jeremy talking about what we wanted our future to look like, the kind of life we wanted to have, and the kind of impact we wanted to have on the world.
And I realized that I didn’t want to start another business, or “pivot”. I just want to work on the business I already have.
Although I was trying all kinds of entrepreneurial acrobatics, none of it stuck. I just kept coming back to Practical Wanderlust, and to travel. And eventually, after months of long walks and reflecting and processing, I finally figured out what I want to do.
I want to have a bigger impact. I want to reflect more critically on our role in the travel industry as content creators and members of the media, and to do more to help support local economies and small businesses. I want to help people with limited means experience the perspective-shifting benefits of travel. I want to help travelers make ethical and responsible choices and to educate them about their impact on the climate and local communities. And I want to tell the full, complex story of each destination we write about, amplifying marginalized experiences and voices and exploring the relationship between education, activism, and travel. (You can read more about those goals and values, and the way they are reflected in our business practices, in our mission statement.)
So, I’ve put together a plan to do just that.
I’ll share specific details later, but for now I can say that the amazing Practical Wanderlust team has been hard at work this past year – and we are in it for the long haul.
Part 2968296: Fire Season
It’s not like things were looking up, exactly, as the summer drew to a close and the new school year loomed. But I had pulled myself up off the couch and was no longer spending most of the day crying, and Jeremy had come to terms with the fact that he would likely be spending yet another year teaching virtually.
We had settled into the rhythm of sheltering in place, and were seeking our simple joys. We found ways take tiny adventures. We explored new neighborhoods in Oakland that we’d never visited before, stumbling upon a wide range of beautiful art gardens, hidden staircases, murals, and jaw-dropping viewpoints. We started shopping in the “imports” section at different grocery stores and cooking new-to-us foods from faraway countries. We took day trips into San Francisco to eat picnic lunches and drove up or down Highway One for a few hours just to take in the scenery.
We even managed to take two mid-week overnight camping trips: we spent one night in the redwoods of Big Sur and another night in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
We’d grown to enjoy summer evenings in our backyard, taking full advantage of our fire pit and building out a little patio area underneath a wisteria-covered pergola overlooking a towering sequoia tree.
And then, one day, we woke up to a thunderstorm! Rain, in California, in the summer?! Thunder and lightening? It was unheard of! For me, it was exciting: years of living in California has made me treasure rain and thunderstorms. I sat outside with Mulan on my lap and watched the downpour, enjoying every minute of it. Small joys, I thought. This is definitely a small joy.
The next day, we realized the grim truth: lightning in the blazing heat of California summer can only mean one thing – fire. Over 300 fires were lit by that one little thunderstorm, and before long, they were raging out of control. Soon, smoke made its way across the state, trapped by the marine layer and settling down into the hills and valleys of the Bay Area.
We added 2 new steps to our morning routine: check the news for pandemic updates, check the news for political unrest updates, check the news for fire updates, and check the air quality index.
For weeks, thick smoke – made up of the charred remains of California’s beautiful forests, people’s homes and belongings, and even once-living creatures – blanketed everything.
Even with a constantly running air purifier, we could smell the putrid smoke indoors, and we felt constantly ill despite wearing our N95 masks indoors. Our lungs started to ache, and each breath hurt – we took COVID tests just to make sure we were suffering from smoke inhalation, not a deadly virus (2020 things).
Worst of all, we knew that if our lungs were aching, Mulan’s tiny, growing lungs were hurting as well.
Trapped indoors, the small joys we’d been relying on to get us through the pandemic – long walks, day trips, evenings in the summer air – vanished overnight. We couldn’t let Mulan out for more than a few minutes at a time due to the air quality, and despite our best efforts to keep her entertained, her behavior reflected her unhappiness and boredom.
And then one day, the sun didn’t rise.
It was one of the most surreal days I’ve ever experienced. At 9am, the sky was a sickly neon orange. Indoors, it was as dark as night.
The photos above are totally unedited, but I struggled to take photos of just how disgustingly orange the sky was that day – my camera kept trying to auto-correct the lighting to look less horrifyingly unnatural. The only way I could get an accurate photo of it was to include a bright computer screen to help my camera’s white balance adjust.
The entire day felt like the middle of the night. Mulan was visibly anxious, and it was even worse when we tried to get her to go outside to relieve herself. She wouldn’t go, just kept looking at the sky and crying in fear, then trying to run back indoors.
It broke my heart. Enough was enough.
We’d dutifully sheltered in place since March, but this was the last straw. We booked a one-way plane ticket to Louisville, Kentucky, leaving in 5 days (enough time to get COVID tested and isolate).
We found an AirBnB to quarantine in, donned one of our last pairs of N95 masks, and packed a suitcase with enough stuff to last us several months. We were getting out.
Escape & Family Pod
Negative COVID tests and N95 masks in hand, we made our way to the airport, absolutely terrified. The airport felt like ground zero for catching the virus. We didn’t remove our N95 masks from the minute we left our house to the minute we arrived at our AirBnB in Louisville, save a few panicky sips of water in a tucked-away corner of the airport.
Poor Mulan probably picked up on our anxiety: although she’d been on a very long international flight as a small puppy when she was brought from South Korea to the United States, and despite our best efforts to soothe her with treats, toys, chews, and puppy-safe relaxation medication, she was visibly distressed for most of the flight.
Once we arrived at our AirBnB, we ordered an Instacart order and quarantined for five days before taking a COVID test. (The US government didn’t even attempt to help everyone out by setting rules or requirements about traveling during the pandemic, so we did our own research about best practices for travel during the pandemic and it seemed like a minimum of 5 days of isolation before and after travel vastly decreases the risk of a false negative COVID test.)
After we received our negative test results, we went back to roughly the same level of risk avoidance that we’d been following back at home: wearing masks every time there is somebody else within eyesight, avoiding going indoors except for essential needs, etc.
For a glorious week, we took long walks in new neighborhoods, got take-out from different restaurants, breathed air that wasn’t choked with smoke, and drove through different scenery. It was delightful!
It was also heartening to see that Louisville was just as outraged over the systemic racism and over-policing that led to the murder of Breonna Taylor. The town was grieving and waging its own battles, but everywhere we went, Black Lives Matter signs dotted lawns and images of Breonna Taylor adorned businesses and buildings. (For a nuanced discussion of race and Louisville’s history and present day, we recently released a Louisville podcast episode which gets into it in detail.)
But there was also quite a bit of culture shock: in the Bay Area, nothing had opened since the shelter-in-place orders in March, and mask-wearing compliance wasn’t an issue.
Here, not only were people outdoors walking past us not always wearing masks (somewhat more understandable, although still anxiety-inducing) but we even saw people unmasked or improperly masked inside. Like, in the f**king grocery store! And nobody was doing anything about it?! Back in our grocery store in the Bay Area, even letting your mask slip under your nose would get you called out on the loudspeaker, and refusing to follow the rules would get you kicked out and banned from the store forever.
Even though the positivity rate here was lower than back home, people seemed to be taking more risks – so we adjusted our risk tolerance accordingly, and became even more careful than usual.
But we did see a few of our loved ones: our closest friends and family live in Louisville, and all of them are at the same level of risk tolerance as we are (except for my dad, who literally won’t leave his house). Still, we were able to see them outside, socially distanced, and with masks on. My dad, who is even more risk-averse than we are, even let us sit on his front lawn while waving down at us from his 2nd-floor deck!
14 days after our flight, we borrowed my mom’s car and drove from Kentucky up to New Jersey to stay with my sister’s family. Their level of risk tolerance is lower than ours, but they’d joined a pod with two other families and had a clear idea of the specific boundaries they were comfortable with. We’d followed all of those boundaries, and so were safe to join their pod.
I was overjoyed to see my family, spend time with my little niece and nephew, introduce them all to Mulan and for the first time in months, to actually be able to hug people other than Jeremy or Mulan!
But y’all … listen, if you don’t have kids, shelter-in-place is a walk in the damn PARK. The difference between our experiences sheltering in place at home and the chaos of my sisters house was jarring. I mean, we had like, free time to process our feelings. We had moments to breathe. We’d picked up hobbies. We enjoyed whole days with no loud noises!
It was quite an adjustment. We tried to help wherever we could: although Jeremy was teaching until 8pm most nights due to the time difference, he tried to help with cooking; I wrote blog posts while sitting next to my 5-year-old niece as she did virtual kindergarten; we did our best to keep my one-and-a-half-year-old nephew (a nonstop ball of energy and muscle) mildly entertained or, at the very least, alive.
But despite the challenges and routine change, it was wonderful. We were able to celebrate Halloween with the kids, watch the vibrant colors of the leaves change as late summer stretched into early fall, and even visit an outdoor pumpkin patch!
But even though our travels were soul-nourishing for us, Mulan was struggling to adjust to the change in routine. Although she loves kids and people and is an extremely social dog, the additional stress of an upended routine, unfamiliar surroundings, and new rules combined with new sensory stimulants (like crying and yelling) were a lot to handle. Although we were all doing our best to be helpful, having an anxious puppy backsliding on her training suddenly thrown into the mix maybe undoes some of the usefulness of an extra pair of hands to do the dishes.
So, about a month after we arrived, we made plans to drive back to Louisville, test and quarantine again, and then fly back home.
In total, we were gone for nearly two months. Seeing our family (and breathing fresh air again) was exactly what we needed, and being able to take long walks in the Kentucky sun and enjoy the beautiful changing colors of early autumn in New Jersey reinvigorated us. We arrived home tired and happy, grateful for our trip, and grateful to be home again.
The Rest of 2020
We scheduled our flight home to give us just enough time to drop off our ballots and vote in the Presidential elections.
And then, for some reason, I decided to tackle one last pandemic project: writing a book! Because, you know, what better way to distract yourself from the world’s most depressing holiday season then by spending 12 hours a day mentally projecting yourself elsewhere?
So, for the entire month of November (minus the day of Thanksgiving, on which Jeremy managed to create an entire feast for a grand total of 3 people and 2 dogs) I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
I literally wrote until my body quit on me and I had to stop writing because of a wrist injury.
But, I finished! With the help of about 100 incredibly supportive friends and readers cheering me along and correcting my grammar along the way, I wrote an entire 250 page book in one month, called How to Quit Your Job & Travel.
And for like, three glorious days, it was a #1 Best-Seller on Amazon!!!!
…. And then I stopped incessantly bugging people to buy it and leave it reviews, because hawking books isn’t as fun as writing books. And so pretty soon it wasn’t on the best-seller list anymore.
But you know what? I think it still counts. I added “Best Selling Author” to my email signature and LinkedIn title, ticked that item off the bucket list, patted myself on the back, and took a couple of weeks off of work to recover.
The rest of 2020 was pretty much a blur.
We went as overboard as we possibly could on our holiday decorations to make up for the lack of holiday spirit, and did tons of holiday baking. Jeremy baked over 300 holiday cookies, and we drove around Oakland dropping them on doorsteps for friends we haven’t been able to see in months.
And we sheltered in place. Because other than a glorious two weeks when the numbers here in the Bay Area were momentarily low enough to open up outdoor dining (which happened to coincide with the Presidential election results, making for a memorable, wonderfully joyous Saturday in November) absolutely nothing has changed since March.
We are still locked down and sheltering in place. We are still not seeing anyone except for the occasional outdoor, socially distanced picnic or long walk. We are still unable to travel for non-essential reasons.
As 2020 came to a close, we looked forward to 2021 with excitement and hope. A new government means, new vaccines – we might actually be able to get back to normal!
But 2020 had to get in one last sucker punch. In the very last week of 2020, two close family deaths shook us to our core – one on either side. We are still processing those deaths, and I don’t really feel that it’s my place to speak for Jeremy about the loss of his father.
Many of you may remember our story about my grandfather, who faked his own death during our honeymoon in 2016 and stayed on hospice drinking beer and eating cookies until we was kicked off of it. We joked that he would outlive us all.
But four years later, Grandpa Bob passed away at the age of 97, in no pain and in a local hospital emergency room. We were gutted that we weren’t able to be there with him in his last moments. It wasn’t COVID, but with ICU’s in Los Angeles completely full, it wasn’t entirely unrelated, either.
It brings me comfort to know that every time we spoke (including a few days before his death), he would joke that it would probably be the last time we spoke (because 97 is very, very old) and every time, I’d laugh along and tell him he was going to live forever and then say my final goodbyes, just in case.
And then, just like that, 2020 – the worst year – was over. Done. Gone forever. We made it through.
What did we learn in 2020?
2020 taught us so many lessons. It was a humbling year that taught me gratitude, forced me to practice non-judgement while challenging me to stay consistently tuned in, and tested every skill and coping mechanism I’ve ever learned in all my years of therapy.
We learned to redefine “adventures.”
With limitations on what we can safely and responsibly do, we learned to redefine “adventures.” Adventures now include picnics in a park, a drive to the beach, going on a hike, or even exploring a new grocery store.
At the beginning of the year, I was so tired that I would have said no to pretty much any amazing adventure. In fact, we began 2020 at home instead of enjoying Christmas Markets in France, because we were so exhausted we canceled our winter trip. I am still cringing.
But at the end of 2020, even driving into San Francisco to pick up dumplings, or taking a walk in a new-to-us neighborhood in Oakland, now feels like an adventure.
Adventures are anything outside of our daily routine: a new place, a new experience, a new taste, a new view.
We grew less judgemental and more tolerant.
Seeing our fellow travel bloggers jaunting across the globe on Instagram, taking selfies with no crowds at the world’s most popular destinations, at first made us seethe with rage and jealousy. How could they use their platforms so irresponsibly? How could they encourage travel during a pandemic?!
Our judgment about the “right” way to do things during the pandemic extended to our friend groups, as well – or for anyone whose risk tolerance was different than ours. We felt high and mighty for following whatever was recommended by the scientific community, and sent them news stories by reputable publications quoting the CDC, saying things like “masks don’t help” and “don’t wear masks.”
But as the weeks turned into months, we grew more understanding and less judgemental. Even though we choose to stay home, we understand that small business owners and local economies rely on tourism and that the few folks willing to travel during the pandemic are helping to keep these businesses afloat. We’ve grown more skeptical and weary, and no longer assume that we know the “best” or “right” way to act or behave. There’s so little organization or consensus at the highest levels of government that frankly, it feels like nobody knows really what the “right” thing to do is. Who are we to say that someone should stay home if their government says it’s safe to go out in small groups or eat indoors? So, we’re following our local government’s shelter-in-place ordinances and no longer judging our friends in other states or countries whose local laws are more relaxed.
Around the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in May, we also noticed ourselves feeling judgemental about other people’s activism and advocacy. When we started seeing political posts on social media from people who’d never spoken up before, we felt, at first, irritated. Was their allyship and activism “performative?” Were they “fake woke?”
But we realized that spending time policing other people’s advocacy rather than focusing on our own was exhausting and misplaced. Social justice and political activism is draining enough; judging someone else’s activism is a waste of energy that could be used to work on our own anti-racism activism and education. It doesn’t matter who was “woke” first, or how long it took them to begin having difficult conversations in the public sphere. We’d rather call in than call out.
Instead, we’re now spending that energy focusing on long-term projects to make our content more inclusive and educational, as well as an exciting new project (that we’re keeping quiet about for now, as its still in its very early stages) that is fully centered around activism, education, and anti-racism.
We refocused our energy.
Each of us managed to find a hobby (or 15) to get us through the worst moments of the pandemic. We each also learned to adapt professionally.
Virtual learning challenged Jeremy in new ways as a teacher. But with the support of his school and co-workers, he’s been able to figure it out, rework his lesson plans, and establish better boundaries between work and life. He misses his classroom and his kids, but nearly a year into virtual learning, he’s more or less gotten the hang of things.
For me, things were a little different. I yearned to cobble together a professional support system, but my entire industry was reeling this year – none of us knew what the hell to do. So, I reached out to bloggers in other industries, joined a supportive Mastermind group, and figured things out.
My biggest point of pride in 2020 is that I managed keep my team together this year – in fact, we even grew by two new team members!
We’ve come such a long way, and for the first time, I feel like a CEO running a growing business rather than a travel blogger forever trying to figure. out what she’s doing. I have lots more to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for a future blog post because this one is ridiculously long, even by my standards!
We doubled down on gratitude.
We have been so incredibly fortunate during this pandemic, and even as difficult as this year have been, we feel incredible gratitude each and every day.
We’ve both been able to work from home since March. At the end of 2019 we moved from our small apartment into a 1,100 square foot, 3-bedroom home, and our timing was nothing short of amazing. We have enough space in our home to accommodate a dedicated home office, which was already fitted with two desks. And we have room in our huge backyard to explore new hobbies, like gardening and woodworking, as well as to host socially-distanced get-togethers, since we have space to safely entertain outdoors.
We’re thankful to have a house that we enjoy spending a lot of time in. We have enough space for all 3 of us, we have laundry machines, and our house even has a built-in fan to cool things down during annual heatwaves! We even managed to acquire a small assortment of lifting equipment and fit it into what we call the “room of requirement,” which is now a craft room, music room, guest room, and gym. So now, we’re able to lift weights again, too!
We live in such an incredible place, too. We’re so fortunate to be able to experience good weather year-round, since going outside is pretty much the only activity we can do. And even though we can’t currently leave the county or even stay overnight within the county, there is so much within a day’s round-trip drive: beaches, redwood forests, hiking paths, two amazing world-class cities, zillions of fantastic restaurants, and endless neighborhoods filled with hidden staircases, works of art, and sweeping views.
We’re also fortunate to like, really like each other – being together 24/7 feels just like old times! The increased amount of time spent together has been a huge positive for both of us. And we’re so grateful to be able to spend more time with our little family – Mulan brings us endless joy and laughter, and the uninterrupted time we all have together is so precious!
We learned to savor small joys.
More than anything, this year has taught us the importance of seeing life’s little moments of joy. These brought us so much comfort this year:
- Video calls with our friends and family
- Taking long walks together each day
- Discovering works of art around our neighborhood
- Turning trash into something useful, like art or a planter
- Learning new hobbies (or as I like to call it, “being bad at new things”)
- Long, hot baths with bubble bath and scented candles
- Drinking coffee together and watching the birds from our back porch
- Sitting underneath our wisteria-covered backyard pergola
- Catching a view of San Francisco at sunset on a walk up in the hills
- Snuggling with Mulan
- Baking, and sharing baked goods with friends
- Growing things
- Ordering from new-to-us local restaurants
- Being together, in our cozy home, happy and safe.
We closed 2020 overwhelmed by a mix of emotions: grief, gratitude, joy, sadness, hope, exhaustion. I’m not sure what 2021 will bring… and I’m way too wary of incurring another humbling lesson from the Universe to say something vaguely optimistic like “I’m sure it will be better than 2020!” or “I know we can handle whatever challenges life throws our way!” because the Universe has quite the sense of humor and would probably see that as a challenge.
So I’ll just say this: I’m looking forward to a new year which is different from the last year. And we’ll just leave it at that and back away slowly. I’m gonna go knock on some wood though, just to be safe.
How was your year? Did 2020 teach you humbling lessons, or make you feel more resilient? Or are you just glad you made it through? Drop us a comment below!
Looking for more year-in-review posts? We’ve been writing them every year since the beginning of our travel blog. Here they all are:
- 2019: The Year of “Yes”
- 2018 in Review: The Year of High Risk … & High Reward
- 2017: The Year Everything Changed
- 2016: The Year of Travel Fails
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