The “Highlights of 2020” probably seems like an unimaginable title to many people. This year has been a tough one filled with new challenges. I don’t agree with Time Magazine that it is the worst year in history. But for many people it may have felt that way. None of us has ever been guaranteed another moment. I hope the silver lining of this tragic year is that we as individuals learn to appreciate every day and make the most that we can of each moment. As the Mandalorian would say, “This is the way,” and it is the way that Jennifer and I chose to live our lives.
Traveling Full-Time During a Pandemic
For Jennifer and I, in 2020 we had to figure out how to navigate a world as full-time travelers that is shut down to travel. This meant having a lot of our plans canceled and sitting in the Arizona desert for months social distancing and conserving water. One of our biggest challenges was showering. Typically we shower at gyms or at campground showers—both of which were closed for months.
Adapting to the Pandemic
We did our best to live each of our days to the full while educating ourselves about the risks to ourselves and others. We socially distanced and canceled attending family reunions and weddings. This was especially hard because as full-time travelers we don’t have a regular community and really enjoy visiting with our family and friends when we are able. On a whole, we have weathered 2020 relatively well and made the most of a bad situation. We have had loved ones get very sick and others have suffered depression. We adapted to the pandemic and the regulations that followed and still managed to have enough memorable adventures that narrowing the list down to the top 10 highlights of 2020 was difficult. But, nevertheless, here’s our Top 10 list. 🙂
In late August we found ourselves boondocking alone in the National Forest east of Jackson, Wyoming. For a week straight the sky was filled with smoke from forest fires burning hundreds of miles away. The smoke was so thick that upon our arrival to the area we stopped at the Snake River at the base of the Teton Range and were unable to see the mountains.
An Unknown Intruder
Nearly a week later the smoke finally started to clear and we could see the shrouded mountain range emerging in the distance. I went out just before sunset to snap a few pictures when all of a sudden Jennifer whisper-screamed at me, “What is that!?” She pointed to the other side of the truck and I made my way cautiously to the other side half expecting to see a bear or a mountain lion. I turned the corner and spotted this beautiful badger hunting for his dinner in the tall grass.
The Golden Hour
Badgers are solitary creatures and nocturnal. I saw some honey badgers in Zimbabwe in 2005 but at no other time in my life have I ever come across these elusive creatures in the wild. I switched to my 300mm lens and spent the rest of the golden hour watching the beautiful creature make his rounds through the tall grass searching for dinner. It was a very memorable moment and one of the highlights of 2020.
#9 – Iceskating Below Half Dome
In February, before the pandemic set in, we traveled to Yosemite National Park and lived in the campground for 10 days. We were there to witness the natural phenomenon known as the Firefall. It was an exceptionally dry winter in California and as a result, the natural wonder didn’t really materialize as it takes a certain amount of water to produce the spectacle.
Living in an Iconic Landscape
Still, living inside one of the world’s most iconic landscapes for over a week was an amazingly memorable experience. We hiked, rode bikes, and worked out of the cafe during the day. The highlight of the entire journey was gliding around the ice skating rink that the park installs at Curry Village. There, with Half Dome looming in the background Jennifer and I spent an afternoon on the ice creating a truly memorable moment for one of the highlights of 2020.
#8 – Breakfast with Goats
Jennifer and I love to backpack. Many of our planned trips this year were canceled due to the pandemic. But as luck would have it we were able to acquire a last-minute reservation to one of the most sought-after backpacking destinations in the country—The Enchantments. We have written an entire series on the experience and while the whole journey was memorable the highlight was having breakfast with the local mountain goats. We love encountering wildlife in their natural environment but when the environment is as breathtaking as The Enchantments it is doubly special and easily one of the highlights of 2020.
#7 – A Sunset Fit For the Gods
One of the primary reasons for our traveling to Olympic National Park over the summer was to backpack the High Divide Trail. It is known to have some of the best views of Mount Olympus. As we crawled into our first night’s campsite at Heart Lake the clouds lowered and the terrain was swamped by thick fog. Heart Lake sits about 3/4 of a mile down the trail from the high divide ridgeline that overlooks Mount Olympus. Just before sunset, the fog sunk into the valley below exposing the mountain peaks around us. Immediately my mind raced to the conclusion that the same would be likely for Mount Olympus and I took off running up the trail toward the ridgeline.
Racing the Sun
I ran across the snow-covered mountainous terrain for the 3/4-mile distance arriving at the ridgeline completely out of breath and on the verge of passing out. However, I also arrived as the sun was setting on the mountain named after the mythical home of the gods. A scene that was truly divine. The mountain was illuminated by the pink glow of the setting sun and rose out of a sea of clouds like a thrown. This was the image we had come all this way for and it was better than I ever could have imagined—one of the highlights of 2020.
#6 – Sleeping at the Golden Gate
There are few places in the world as instantly recognizable and iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco. We normally don’t spend much time in large cities as we prefer wild open spaces. However, when we realized that we could boondock at the rest area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge we seized the opportunity. This is a rough area and it can be intimidating to boondock here but the police patrol the area often and it turned out to be a very memorable stay. Getting to walk the iconic bridge and watch as the sunset rose over the structure was not only one of the highlights of 2020 but a memory forever etched in my brain.
Top 5 Highlights of 2020
#5 – Walking Between Giants
In August Jennifer and I embarked on a journey that has been on my bucket list for over 14 years. A friend of mine told me about his journey on the Teton Crest Trail way back in 2006. Ever since I have been enamored by the challenge of hiking the crest. I am currently putting together a series on our journey across the top of this iconic landscape. To say it lived up to the 14-year hype is an understatement and we had many memorable moments that could have easily made this list. But I decided to focus on this one which of course includes a wildlife encounter.
Encountering Two Moose
It was the 5th and final day on the more than 40-mile journey. We were a few miles from the end of the trail when we came upon two massive moose blocking our path forward. One was snacking away on the vegetation inches to the left of the trail. The other was bedded down a short distance behind the first and about 10-feet to the right of the path. He looked very content enjoying a siesta in the soft rain. The terrain on both sides was dense undergrowth on slopping wet hillsides. We attempted to climb through the underbrush to the right only for Jennifer to slip on the wet terrain and slide down the hillside spooking the first moose which luckily darted away from us instead of charging.
Do We Go Back?
Back on the trail, we stood there weighing our options. It was the last day of August and while it was raining here it was snowing on the terrain above. The 10,700’ high divide known as Paintbrush Divide that we had passed over yesterday would now be dangerously slippery and to go back would also mean a 15 mile detour. We had to find a way past the creatures.
We decided to cautiously pass between them as going around had failed and back wasn’t an option. I know enough about moose to know that getting between a mother and its calf would be a good way to a quick death but these were both bulls. We cautiously crept forward, bear spray in hand with the safety off. Does bear spray work on a moose? I don’t know but we figured it was better than nothing. As we approached them the one on the right stood to his feet. It was much larger than the other and we quickly stepped back under its imposing stature. After a few minutes, we came to the conclusion that he was just being equally cautious and we slowly proceeded forward and successfully passed between the two wild creatures.
Word of Caution
Moose may seem like gentle giants but they can be deadly. Getting this close to a wild moose isn’t advisable. We passed by unscathed with a memory to share but don’t go seeking this kind of interaction. It could have easily gone very differently.
#4 – Biking with Otters
If you haven’t figured this out yet, we love animal encounters in the wild. In 2019 four of our most memorable moments included animal encounters and this year it is five and a half. However, this encounter is especially close to my heart as otters are my favorite creatures on the planet.
The Olympic Discovery Trail
While we were in the area of Olympic National Park we decided to ride a 15-mile section of the Olympic Discovery Trail through Port Angeles. We were cruising along the coastal section of the trail when we saw something in the distance. Two otters who had been wrestling in the middle of the bike path darted into the adjacent ditch and to the safety of their den.
Jennifer and I stopped and waited to see if the curious creatures would reemerge. After a few minutes, they popped their heads out to assess the situation. Shortly thereafter they decided we were no threat and started to once again playfully wrestle with one another in the dirt above the ditch. We looked on and watched as they went about their antics before they eventually decided it was time to go for a swim and likely hunt for supper. They crossed over the bike path, scampered across the rocky shore, dove into the sea, and swam out of sight. The whole experience lasted less than 20 minutes but getting to glimpse the lives of these two playful creatures was one of the highlights of 2020.
#3 – New Life
In January we were traveling south along the coast of Big Sur in California. Unbeknownst to us at the time, there is a small patch of beach on the southern end that is a nursery for elephant seals. Elephant seals migrate to this area of California every year to give birth and then nurse their young. We arrived to the beach being overrun by the massive creatures.
Elephant Seal Birth
The bulls were aggressive challenging each other and testing their strength against one another. The females and their young were laid out on the beach tossing sand on themselves in an attempt to shield themselves from the relentless sun. We stood on the boardwalk watching the crowded and noisy colony. My attention was pulled towards two large bulls battling it out in the surf when Jennifer suddenly and surreally said “I think I just saw one give birth.” I turned my attention to the one she was now pointing at and watched as several seagulls descended on the afterbirth. Yep, you did, I said.
A Rough Life Ahead
Almost immediately the mother threw sand on the newly born pup shielding it from the sun’s rays. It jumped as each helping of sand smashed into its cute little face. The seagulls noisily squawked as they devoured the find. A bull elephant seal snorted and barked as it charged a nearby rival and barreled over innocent females and pups along the way. No doubt this pup would have a tough existence but what a memorable thing to see a creature birthed into this crazy world. It was without a doubt a highlight of 2020.
#2 – A Night with Neowise
In the midst of the craziness that was 2020 came a sign in the sky. Many saw the sudden appearance of the Neowise comet as another ominous sign of our impending doom but I think it is just another tale of how little we know about the universe we inhabit. Alone in the backcountry of Olympic National Park, Jennifer and I cautiously crawled out of our tent. The night was pitch black with no moon and clear skies. The perfect night to see this newly discovered celestial body blazing across the night sky.
A Bear at Camp
Hours earlier Jennifer and I had arrived at our campsite on Lunch Lake in the Olympic backcountry to find a bear stalking the shoreline on the opposite side of the lake. So, when I say we cautiously pulled ourselves out of the tent, I mean it. But after a few seconds of our eyes adjusting to the extreme darkness, there was Neowise with that long tail stretching across the night sky.
A Bump in the Night
After a short time, Jennifer returned to the relative safety of our tent but I stood there in awe of the comet and taking long exposures with my camera. All of a sudden I heard something come traipsing towards me. The thought of ”Bear!” lit up my mind as I fumbled to turn my headlamp on. Light on, I lit up a deer as he passed within a few feet of me. I asked him to kindly give me some space and I turned the headlamp back off not wanting to ruin my exposures.
One More Time
About 15 minutes later, I again found myself fumbling for my headlamp with impending noise rustling the nearby brush only to once again illuminate the same deer returning from the lake. I swear I heard him snicker at my fright. I went to the tent with a memory of a bear-deer, the comet, and one of the highlights of 2020.
#1 – Fourth of July Fireworks
On the morning of July 4th, we awoke in the midst of the pandemic and much of the nation rioting over the death of George Floyd. Like many Americans, the reality was that the usual celebrations of our nation’s independence would not take place this year. This was especially disappointing to us as we had spent the 2019 holiday in Canada and in 2018 we were climbing Longs Peak in Colorado. It had been 3 years since we had really been a part of the celebratory atmosphere of our nation’s founding. We had planned to watch the fireworks in Portland but alas that show had long since been canceled by the state under the auspices of the pandemic safety guidelines even though crowds were rioting every night in the city.
Celebration at a Casino
We spent much of the morning exploring Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast near the Washington border. As the day waned, we found an advertisement for a free Fourth of July laser show at the Quinault Beach Casino in Ocean City, Washington. The casino also had a free overnight parking area. The show was a socially distanced drive-in event. We decided to go for it and arrived at the casino an hour before dark. To our surprise, we got the last camping slot and fireworks were being set off on the beach behind the casino.
We parked our rig and hiked over to the beach expecting to find a few groups of people setting off clusters of fireworks. Instead, we found thousands of vehicles and people lining the sand for miles. These freedom-loving people were setting off truckloads of top of the line consumer-grade fireworks. We watched as the sun set on the ocean and the beach lit up as far as the eye could see with colorful displays. For several hours the sky over the beach exploded non-stop with hundreds of thousands of fireworks. It was the best fireworks show we had ever seen. The casino’s laser show was very patriotic but it really couldn’t compete with the gathering of the freedom-loving people on the beach.
In the face of national riots and an international pandemic, in a state that had some of the most stringent and draconian measures in place to deter gatherings we found ourselves amongst thousands of people celebrating our nation’s independence. We were all well spaced apart with loud patriotic music blaring, beach fires roaring and fireworks booming overhead. The idea that we as Americans could celebrate our freedom and safely distance ourselves from each other without an authoritarian dictate from our government has been a strong belief of mine since the onset of the pandemic. The whole idea of America is that free people are better guides of their own lives than distant governments dictating from afar. Here on the 4th of July, this idea of independence was solidified in my mind and it was the highlight of 2020.
Highlights of 2020 Conclusion
I’m not catholic but I’m going to quote Pope Paul VI because this is how I feel about life especially during the age of Covid19:
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! There are only so many tomorrows.”
Educate yourself about the risks, protect your fellow humans as best you can, and then go and live every day to the utmost because you might not get another.
Highlights of 2021
The tragedy of 2020 wasn’t the virus or the death that accompanied it although for many that pain will linger for a long time. The real tragedy of 2020 is that so many people willingly let fear steal away an entire year of their short lives. The beauty of life is that it ends and so we must cherish every single day. It is sad that so many of us are never taught that. Go make 2021 the best year that it can be so that if you are blessed to see the next New Years’ Eve you can look back at your highlights of 2021 and have a really hard time picking your top 10.
Don’t forget to share the Highlights of 2020 with your friends.