Photos in Collaboration with Quin Schrock
2020: A Year Like No Other
I promised myself that I would write this post before the New Year. But that didn’t happen – like so many other plans in 2020. Not only did I miss my own deadline for the 4th annual “The Stories Behind Your Favorite Instagram Posts,” but I don’t even have a good excuse. For the first time in memory, I couldn’t blame travel or work. December was spent primarily on the couch, watching Netflix, wearing the same pair of sweats I’ve been wearing for a significant portion of the last year.
Despite this seeming lack of adventure, the year started out strong with a bucket list road trip through South America. Plus, all the time spent at home allowed me to reconnect with the thing that got me started with all this in the first place – Washington. I’m forever grateful to live in such a beautiful place. The idea that you don’t have to travel to the far corners of the world to experience beauty is a narrative that I’m fond of pushing, but not necessarily living myself. The pandemic changed that.
And so, without further ado, let me introduce you to the stories behind your favorite posts of this very strange year. The good, the bad, and the ugly!
10. Slot Canyon Reflections In Utah’s Buckskin Gultch
My feet were sliced, diced, and swollen beyond recognition. We had been trudging through muddy water, around endless bends, lost for days in Southern Utah’s unforgiving desert. With only the occasional footprint left behind along the riverbank to indicate that other people had, at some point, traveled along the same route that we were now hopelessly lost on. But that was ten years ago, and a story for another time!
It was frankly hard to believe that this was the same trail. I couldn’t fathom how we’d gotten so lost. This time around, my journey into the depths of Buckskin Gultch went without a hitch. I’d been wanting to do a redemption hike here for years. It wasn’t in our plans, but when we failed to luck into one of the coveted permits to hike The Wave, Quin and I headed to Buckskin Gultch instead. It was just a day trip this time around – but that’s all I needed. The slot canyon glowed in the mid-afternoon light. A recent rainstorm meant we had to navigate our way around and sometimes through giant mud puddles that submerged the canyon’s narrowest parts. But the reflections they created were breathtaking!
9. Exploring The Worlds Highest Natural Arch In Chiapas, Mexico
I tugged at my oversized pants and wished for the millionth time that I spoke Spanish. Instead, I listened uncomprehendingly to the casual banter between our 3 local guides – teenagers from a nearby village. One of them had given me his pants to borrow when I’d shown up wearing hot pink spandex shorts and was promptly swarmed by every insect with a taste for blood. And there were a lot! Now, every time I heard the boys burst into laughter, I assumed it was at my expense. Quin – my designated translator – assured me that wasn’t the case. And while I’m not convinced he always gives me complete and accurate translations, I had to take his word for it.
When we first arrived at the tiny village near Río La Venta we weren’t sure what to do. There were no prominent tour operators, no signs, no guide service. We sat in our shiny rental car, a sore thumb, in a place where rusted out motorbikes and the occasional horse were the primary forms of transportation. Eventually a man came up to our car window, and Quin exchanged a few words with him in Spanish. The only one I understood was “arco.” He nodded, left, and a few minutes later, a new man showed up at our window. The conversation was longer this time and ended with a place to sleep, some food, and a plan to meet back up in the morning for our guided trip to Arco Del Tiempo.
Unbeknownst to me, part of that conversation included assurances from the guide that the water in Río La Venta would be blue despite the recent rain.
We had made sure to ask because we were right on the edge of the rainy season. Soon the water would turn a muddy brown and remain that way until the rains stopped.
It’s not easy to get to Arco Del Tiempo. Taking the most direct route, the journey entailed hiking miles through stiflingly hot, bug-infested jungle, rappelling down river banks, and paddling hours downriver. Once at The Arch, you have to turn around and do it all over again in the opposite direction. So when we finally broke out of the jungle to find a raging brown Río La Venta, it was a bit of a letdown.
But one that didn’t last long! Because as soon as we hit Arco del Tiempo, any lingering feelings of disappointment were washed away with the current.
In the end, this was one of my favorite trips of the year. Not because of the images. But because of the experience. And that truly puts it in a league of its own.
8. Who Says Hiking Has To Be Hard
After COVID-19 brought our South America trip to an abrupt end, I spent a long time sitting at home, unsure what to do with my time, business, and life. I guess you could say it triggered a sort of existential crisis. I mean, without travel, did I even exist? And while I’m mostly joking, it’s a lingering uncertainty I’m still grappling with today.
In July, my brother, sister-in-law, and two baby boys moved back to Seattle from the East Coast for a couple of months. For that reason, and because two months of Tiger King, Banana Bread, and watching other people’s workout routines on social media had left me in less than stellar shape, I started researching easy hikes around Washington. It didn’t hurt that I was also blessed with one remaining job – my ongoing partnership with Backcountry. Thus, I was more or less contractually obligated to get outside.
And so it was that, a combination of family and work, that conspired to turn my frown upside down.
It turned out that despite me overlooking them for years in favor of more challenging trails, there are some absolutely spectacular easy hikes in Washington. I was hooked! And one hike after another, I was slowly reminded how this whole Instagram chapter began. I had been a weekend warrior and wanted to keep track of all the beautiful places I saw around Washington. That had been enough. And much to my surprise and delight, it still was! I could stay at home and still exist after all. Maybe even thrive.
Want More? Check out all my Favorite Easy Hikes In Washington!
7. Above It All In Yosemite National Park
Here’s how I pick the 10 photos to include in this annual blog post. First, I go into my Instagram analytics and look up my “most liked” photos. Then I eliminate any photographs from the top ten that are reposts. Then I eliminate any pictures that were taken during trips from previous years. What’s left are the 10 most-liked Instagram posts of the year. In this case, 2020. Of course, this year was a strange one, so I decided to make a few exceptions.
This compilation of photographs from Yosemite is one of those exceptions. Even though I posted these photos in 2020–likely in an attempt to convince myself that I wasn’t just sitting in my living room ordering groceries online–this trip to Yosemite was in the summer of 2019! Oops. But whatever, it was a fantastic trip, and I’m glad that it will now live in perpetuity through this post. The best part about this backpacking trip in Yosemite is that we showed up with no backcountry permits, walked into the ranger station, and walked out with wilderness permits to these awesome spots. At the height of summer, no less!
Want More? Here’s a complete guide to Backcountry Camping In Yosemite National Park!
6. Fall Explosion At Fifth Water Hot Springs
This photograph falls under the same category as the above. While I posted it in the fall of 2020, we actually visited these incredible hot springs a couple hours outside Salt Lake City in 2019. What I didn’t know when I posted the photo was that the hot springs were closed. . . indefinitely. . . and people who went there were being slapped with hefty fines.
Not knowing this, I didn’t make any sort of disclaimer about the photograph being from a previous year when I posted it. So, of course, within minutes of posting, I got all kinds of comments from people wanting to know how, when, and why I could visit the springs. Stories about why the hot springs were closed started to flow as well. They ranged from practical concerns regarding crowd control to more elaborate yarns involving drugs, dead bodies, and contaminated water. Turns out Fifth Water Hot Springs was closed down this fall for the same reason as everything else – COVID-19. But the intrigue was real there for a minute!
5. The Prettiest Salt In The World: Salar de Uyuni
Okay, okay, so I cheated again! These photos are actually from a couple different posts – not one single post. The thing is, half my top photos from 2020 would be from the salt flats in Bolivia if I included them all separately. And I don’t feel like telling 5 stories from the same place. Mostly because we were there for less than 24 hours!
Thunder crashed in the distance, and I wondered in a half-asleep daze what lightning would do to the van if it struck us. We were parked in a few inches of water miles out into the flattest landscape I had ever seen in my life – Salar De Uyuni. Distant memories of evacuating swimming pools during storms as a kid floated past . . . and then my phone vibrated. I hadn’t had any service for days, so the sudden noise jolted me fully awake. It was a short text from my dad: “It’s time to come home.” A longer text shortly followed. It went into more detail about the current state of COVID-19, including a tidbit about President Trump declaring a state of national emergency and banning all travel from Europe.
My dad was worried that South America would be the next continent to restrict travel. And he was right.
My dad’s text came through in the middle of the night on March 16th. While we had been casually monitoring news about the virus, it honestly felt like something that was happening on a different planet. It’s difficult to articulate how surreal and distant the stories about COVID-19 felt during our trip. As we crossed from Ecuador to Peru and then into Bolivia, we would get occasional updates. Still, nothing in our daily lives on the road suggested that anything out of the ordinary was going on. It made it tough to take reports from the other side of the world seriously. But that was about to change very quickly.
I woke Quin up, showed him my dad’s text, and we decided to drive until we found service. We drove across the vast nothingness in the pitch black until we found a small town where we both had service. It was then that we found out Peru had already closed its international borders, and Chile would be following suit the next day. The world was closing in on us, and just like that, our trip was over.
We needed to get the hell out of dodge.
I loved every last minute we spent in Bolivia—the few of them that we had—but it’s not a place I necessarily want to be during a global health crisis. So we made the executive decision to cross over into Chile while we still could and head for Santiago. That meant we didn’t have an hour to waste.
There are 940 miles (1,513 km) of vast desert roads—some of them dirt—between Uyuni Salt Flat and Santiago. We covered it in less than two days. When we got to Santiago, the city was in lockdown. There were hand sanitation stations every few feet in our hotel, and everyone at the airport was wearing a mask. Our reality had drastically altered in less than 48 hours. And Uyuni felt like a distant dream. 24 hours later, I landed in Atlanta, walked straight through customs, and to my connecting flight to Seattle after grabbing some breakfast at Chick-Fil-A.
Not once was I asked if I had any COVID-19 symptoms, my temperature wasn’t taken, and no one was wearing masks. It was business as usual. Once again, COVID-19 felt as far away as it had during those periodic news updates we had gotten in South America. I wondered if the whole thing had been a mistake. Should we have stayed? Had I acted out of irrational fear rather than logic? The irony of leaving a place I felt safe to go home to the city that had documented the first cases of COIVD-19 in the US was not lost on me.
Of course, within a couple weeks, it became clear that we had made the responsible choice.
But I’ll never forget the uncertainty, chaos, and emotional whiplash that started with the world’s most improbable text.
4. Larch Madness In The Enchantments
As an “outdoorsy” person in Washington, there are certain rights of passage. Backpacking along the coast, summiting a volcano (I’m looking at you Rainier), experiencing Larch Madness, and of course, thru-hiking The Enchantments. If you can manage to kill two birds with one stone, even better! Thru-hiking The Enchantments has eluded me for years. There’s a competitive lottery system to get permits and let’s just say Luck hasn’t been my lady.
There is, however, a loophole that will get you around the permit system. But like all short cuts, there’s a catch – you must hike the entire 18ish mile trail in one day. I wasn’t going to let that stop me this year, though. Maybe in the past. But not this year. 2020 was not going to take The Enchantments from me too. Plus, there was an unseasonably lovely stretch of weather in October. Blue skies. Check. Golden Larches. Check. Ability to hike 18 miles in one push. . . let’s just say that where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Want More? Here’s my complete guide to Thru Hiking The Enchantments In One Day!
3. Swinging Into Salcantay
I’m not sure Quin and I have ever put so much effort into getting one shot. Or maybe more accurately, so much effort into getting an image that should have taken minimal effort.
Quin and I had been camped out in the small village of Soraypampa for three days in an attempt to catch some mountain views up at Humantay Lake. Each morning we would wake up in the van, peak outside, see blue skies and unobstructed views, excitedly throw on our hiking boots and head up the trail to the lake. And every morning, about halfway up the trail, a wall of clouds would materialize, dashing our dreams epic sky-piercing peaks with it. Every day on this hike, we’d walk past a hotel way up in the hills that appeared to have a giant platform attached to an even larger swing. The hotel appeared to be under construction, and we never saw anyone on the swing, so we gave it little thought until our last morning.
We woke up to familiar dark clouds in the distance on our last day. Short on time, we decided not to huff it back up to the lake for the fourth time.
Instead, we decided to go investigate the swing situation. Once there, we were promptly put into harnesses and helmets and ushered off the 2 story platform for the most intense swing experience of my life! While fun, the clouds we had anticipated didn’t fail to materialize, and there were no views. That being said, it was clear that with the right conditions, there was a pretty cool photo op to be had.
It was time to leave, though. We had a date with Cusco and the Ausangate Trek. Tough luck. You win some, you lose some. Or so you’d think. But if you’ve ever met Quin, then you know that once he gets his mind set on something, there’s no talking him out of it. Over the next few days, as we hiked through towering mountain passes and expansive mountain views on the Ausangate Trek, Quin kept bringing up the swing. It made no sense to go back. It was a four-hour drive in the wrong direction. And what about the clouds!?
There was no reason to think that the weather would be any better this time around. None of that mattered. I knew before he did – we were going back to the swing. And that’s precisely what we did!
Once we arrived, we had at most a few hours to get the shot before we needed to head back to Cusco for our train to Machu Pichu. When we arrived, the view was clear! But there was a new obstacle. No one was there. Specifically, the “swing guy” with the harnesses, helmets, and the know-how, was nowhere to be found. The only person we could find at the hotel was a teenage boy left to oversee the property while everyone was away for the weekend.
I watched as Quin desperately tried to convince him in Spanish to let us go on the swing without the “swing guy”.
There was a lot of head shaking and “no”s, followed by more Spanish and several phone calls. When I thought all hope was lost, the kid handed Quin the phone. There was more Spanish, some long pauses, and finally a green light. A compromise had been made: We could take photographs on the swing, but we couldn’t use the platform because there was no safety equipment. We would have to swing from the ground instead.
Better than nothing! We sprinted up the hill, terrified that the clouds would roll in any second. Quin ran back and forth, alternating between pushing me as high as possible and diving to the ground with his camera to photograph me. By the end, we both wanted to throw up. Me from swinging back and forth for an hour. Quin from the exertion of pushing me back and forth at 15,000 ft for an hour. The result – one of my favorite photos of 2020!
Want More? Here are The Most Beautiful Places In Peru You Need To Visit!
2. Over The RainboW In Peru
Clutching onto the hot mug of Coca leaf tea our porter had just handed me, I stared into the white abyss. It was the fourth day of our Ausangate Trek. We had chosen to veer off the traditional loop itinerary to catch the sunrise at Rainbow Mountain. Famed for its multi-colored stripes, the mountain was currently obscured by a wall of thick fog. I could have been anywhere in the world. Anywhere freezing cold at least.
At just over 17,000 ft, Rainbow Mountain was the highest point on our 4-day trek, and I was feeling it. We had left camp around 4 am primarily to make it up to the mountain for the sunrise that never quite materialized. But that wasn’t the only reason. We also wanted to avoid the crowds at Rainbow Mountain that others had warned us about. After days of not seeing anyone outside our little crew, it seemed incomprehensible that this spot that had taken us 4 days of trekking to get to would soon be flooded by hundreds of tourists.
But our guide assured us it was inevitable.
While we waited for the weather to clear, he told us about the ever-expanding network of roads that were being cut into the landscape to make this popular site more accessible. Each little community in a battle to claim the closest access to the colorful mountain – and in return, the financial benefit. As few as five ago, Rainbow mountain was relatively unknown. Now, large tour buses scoop people up in Cusco every morning and deposit them at the end of whichever road has managed to snake its way furthest up the mountain pass.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the fog evaporated. A stage curtain lifting to reveal Rainbow Mountain’s much anticipated multi-hued show. It was a landscape, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Although Yes, most photos you see (including this one) are edited to make the various colors pop just a little bit more. We finished taking photographs as the first day hikers arrived. Behind them, streams of tiny people slowly made their way up the trail, like ants marching to their hill. I couldn’t help but feel grateful that Rainbow Mountain was just a stop on our journey rather than the ultimate destination.
Want More? Here’s everything you need to know about hiking The Ausangate Trek To Rainbow Mountain in Peru!
1. The Worlds Largest Mirror
If you’ve read through the stories behind the last 9 posts, then you already know the primary story behind our photos from Bolivia’s Salar De Uyuni. But if you’ve never been there, then one thing you might not know is that the salt flats are razor sharp. Something that I had learned the hard way a few months earlier at the Dead Sea. Needless to say, it wasn’t a lesson I was anxious to repeat.
As soon as we arrived at Salar De Uyuni, I was reminded of a giant kaleidoscope. The sky bled into the earth, creating one oversized symmetrical pattern without a beginning or end. It was like peering into infinity, and I wanted nothing more than to capture that feeling in an image. The only issue was how to do it without looking like I got attacked by a pride of feral cats. After some brainstorming, I folded up a travel towel we had and laid it down between the salt and my bare skin. To my delight, once the water had settled, the reflection’s intensity completely obscured the submerged towel. And that’s the story behind your most-liked Instagram post of the year!