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near and far. 

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The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2019


The stories behind Jess Wanderings top Instagram posts.

2019’s Most-Liked Instagram Posts

I can honestly say that I never thought this wild ride would last long enough for me to publish the 3rd annual “Stories Behind Your Most Liked Photos,” blog post. But here we are, saying goodbye to another year, and hello to a new decade! 2019 was a rollercoaster, with new highs, lows, and everything in between. While you can’t always tell from the images you see on Instagram, your most liked photos tell a bit of that story. And so, Without further adieu, let me introduce you to the stories behind your favorite posts of 2019. The good, the bad, and the ugly!

10. Taking The Polar Plunge In Finland

The first job that Quin and I had this year was with a tire company based out of Finland. Now, I knew that Finland was cold, but the week that we were there, it was consistently below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit for those not used to metric or have their smartphone handy) . So cold, it’s hard to think straight. And that’s pretty much the only explanation I have for this photograph of me lowering myself down into a hole cut into a frozen river.

But in my defense, the Finish people swear by ice swims. They insist that regular dips in freezing water increases both life expectancy and overall quality of life. And who am I to argue with some of the happiest people on earth! So in I went. . . over. . . and over. . . and over again. And I have to admit, I felt pretty high on life afterward!

I spent a week exploring Helsinki and the Finish Lapland and these were my favorite ways to Experience Finland In The Winter.

9. Kicking Off Summer At Lake Tahoe

Sunbathing on the rocks at Lake Tahoe.
Sunbathing on the rocks at Lake Tahoe.

I’ve been to Lake Tahoe more than any other location over the last couple of years. I love it there, and it always brings back fond memories from my childhood. It’s also one of my favorite places to photograph. But to get the best photos, the lake needs to be calm. Quin and I have always been pretty lucky in that respect. In a place known for its wind, we have generally managed to find at least a few hours of glassy clear goodness out on the water.

During our trip to Tahoe last summer, however, calm conditions proved to be a little more elusive. We woke up every morning before sunrise, hoping to catch smooth conditions before the afternoon winds picked up. But each morning was a bust. Then, on our fourth and last morning, we woke up to EPIC conditions. The best we had ever seen. The water was so calm you could see clear down into its blue depths probably 100 feet.

We quickly blew up the paddleboard, and jumped in the water at our favorite spot near Bonsai Rock. We shot for an hour straight, excitedly jumping from one composition to the next, frantically trying to capture as much as we could before the wind returned, and the glassy surface shattered.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I felt the first breeze, and we called it quits. Back in the van, we immediately went to import the photos. Although you’d never know it from Instagram, it’s not often that all the conditions come together like they did that day at Lake Tahoe. Especially if you don’t live there, it could be years before those stars aligned again. And when they do, there’s nothing better than reviewing the photographs.

And there’s nothing quite as devastating as the next few words that came out of Quin’s mouth, “there’s NO SD CARD IN THE CAMERA.”

Somehow in our excitement that morning, we had forgotten to put an SD card in the camera. Even more brilliantly, we hadn’t noticed the “NO SD CARD” warning in the camera’s viewfinder while shooting. But what about this photo? Well, the above photo was one of a couple test photos that Quin took on his phone before taking out the “real” camera. Better something than nothing.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Lake Tahoe a number of times in the past couple years. After exploring the entire area I put together the Perfect 72 Hour Lake Tahoe Itinerary, a Photography Guide to Lake Tahoe, and an Adventure Guide to Lake Tahoe and Reno.

8. Making Snow In Finish Lapland

Making it snow in Finish Lapland.
Making it snow in Finish Lapland.

Sometimes when Quin and I travel for a job, we are given a lot of freedom to run around and get the photographs that we need. Finland was not one of those jobs. Instead, we were shuttled around with about 20 other photographers from location to location. Unfortunately, most of those locations were tailored toward traditional media, not outdoor adventure photography. We spent vast portions of every day in fancy restaurants where we were served delicious multi-course meals. Awesome right? No! Not Awesome. Because when there are only 3 hours of daylight to get photographs, you don’t want to spend the entire time eating.

By the last day of the trip, we were stressed out of our minds, not knowing how we were going to get the photographs that we needed to post for the job. A photo of my breakfast simply wasn’t going to fly.

So instead of dinner on our last evening, Quin and I stood outside in the freezing cold, trying to get this photograph.

The problem was that you have to use boiling water to get this effect – and super hot water is actually pretty tough to come by when you don’t have a kitchen. After our third attempt, it was clear that the lady in charge of hot water at the restaurant was no longer amused by our antics. When she wouldn’t give Quin any more water (you know of the “soup Nazi” from Seinfeld, yeah?), he sent me in to try. She begrudgingly agreed to fill up my water bottle one last time if I paid her – which I was happy to do. Luckily it worked out that time because there was no way I was going back in there to ask for more!

I spent a week exploring Helsinki and the Finish Lapland and these were my favorite ways to Experience Finland In The Winter.

7. Van Life At Mount Rainier

Enjoying views of Mount Rainier at sunrise.
Enjoying views of Mount Rainier at sunrise.

The last time Quin was up in Seattle, he told me that he had a concept for a “van life” shot in Mount Rainier National Park that he wanted to get. Apparently, he had visited the park a few other times, hoping to bring the photo to life, but Rainier is an elusive lady, and she had always been obscured by clouds. We checked the weather and decided we would try to make it happen the next day.

Usually, when we are planning a super early shoot, we drive the van to that location, so that we can just wake up, roll out of bed, and take the photographs. It’s probably my favorite thing about traveling in the van! No early morning drives. But of course, you can’t sleep in your car at Mount Rainier National Park,

(or any National Parks for that matter).

So instead, the next morning, we drove to the park in the pitch black, and then drove back and forth along an empty road looking for the spot that Quin had seen a couple years earlier. But it was dark, and we couldn’t see the mountain, which made framing the photo next to imposable. We decided we would park the van, watch an episode of the Office, and wait for it to get a little lighter out.

No sooner had the engine cooled down when we heard the heart-sinking sound of knocking on the van door. Two rangers stood outside, ready to write us a citation for car camping. We explained that we had just arrived in the park and were waiting for sunrise to take photos. Luckily they were super chill about it, and after a quick tour of the van, they headed off just in time for us to watch some of most stunning lenticular clouds of my life form over Rainier.

6. Cruising Around Oahu With Hawaii Beach Campervans

Van life in Oahu was a pretty great way to start out the year!
Van life in Oahu was a pretty great way to start out the year!

Every year since I’ve known Quin, he has spent the winter living on Oahu. But not this year. So when Hawaii Beach Campervans contacted us to see if we’d be interested in coming out to the island to try out one of their vans, we couldn’t say no. Hence last January, we spent one hot and sweaty week trying out van life on Oahu. I loved the retro vibe of the vintage Ford Econoline (or “grandpa van” as I have thought of them) with its tasteful interior), and it was a fresh new way to experience the island.

One day we drove out to this beach on the west side, and just spent the day relaxing and watching the waves roll in. It’s super rare that I have any down days when traveling, so it was a sweet treat. Even if we did end up taking a few pictures before we left. What can I say? We couldn’t help ourselves!

5. California’s Super Bloom & Poppy-Gate

California’s super bloom.
California’s super bloom.

In the end, I suppose I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We hadn’t planned on shooting the super bloom. That’s not why I was in California. I had just flown down to visit Quin for a few days and check on the progress of his new van conversion. Quin was living at his parents’ house while he worked on the conversion. As it turns out, that house is only about a 20-minute drive from where the California super bloom occurred last spring.

At one point, in between installing cabinets and laying down flooring, we decided to drive up the road to Lake Elsinore to see what all the fuss was about. It was surprisingly crowded for a weekday, but as far as natural phenomenons go, it was pretty darn exceptional, so that wasn’t a surprise. We took some photos and left.

Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of people descended onto the hills near Lake Elsinore. Among them were people who don’t ordinarily spend a lot of time in the outdoors, and had likely never heard of LNT (Leave No Trace).

Nevertheless, they saw photos on social media, in the news, from friends, and were inspired to check it out for themselves. And who can blame them?

Unfortunately, what ensued was mayhem – a social media armegeddan. People left trails, picked flowers, laid down in flowers, used the flowers to sell products, etc. The super bloom quickly turned into the most significant environmental catastrophe of this century – or at least that’s what you would have thought if you spent any time on Instagram during March 2019.

Now, my intent with this story is not to diminish the actual environmental damage that occurred.

BUT, for the most part, I don’t believe that these destructive actions were malicious.

Instead, I think they were the unintended negative consequence of a lot of inexperienced people amassing in one outdoor location without the infrastructure or knowledge base to do so responsibly. That’s not how the outdoor community saw it. Trolls hit social media in mass to hunt down anyone that had posted a photograph from the area (responsibly or not). Public shaming became a sport, and it was open season.

And that’s when cancel culture and online bullying became a very real part of my daily life. To be clear – I’m not doing anything wrong in the above photo. I’m on an established trail. I didn’t pick any flowers. I wasn’t selling anything. Maybe that’s why I managed to escape Poppy-Gate relatively unscathed. But it didn’t matter. . . the damage was done. I didn’t sleep well for weeks, I had nightmares about waking up to unwarranted public shaming by mobs of click-bate hungry trolls. I had anxiety before posting anything online. And it never really went away. . . .

I thought about just taking down the above photo. But deep down, I knew that it wasn’t about this particular photo. It wasn’t about LNT. Or even flowers. What haunted my thoughts was a much bigger issue. The entire online culture was changing. It wasn’t a place for community or productive conversations anymore. Instead, social media had become a forum for people to hide behind their screens while attacking other human beings. It’s a place where mob mentality rules, and stirring the pot is more important than truth or facts. Any mistake, no matter how small, no matter how remorseful you are, means days of relentless harassment. And on more than one occasion this year I thought. . . maybe I should just archive it all. Of course, then fear wins. So I didn’t.

4. It’s All A Matter Of Perspective In Hawaii

Playing with perspective on a hike in Oahu.
Playing with perspective on a hike in Oahu.

My poor parents. Every once in a while, I post a photo that elicits an immediately worried text from one of them. Did you really have no protection? How much exposure was there really? What was I thinking!? My parents have a lot of outdoor experience, so these are not completely irrational, naive concerns. “It wasn’t that high,” I always assure them. “It’s photographic perspective”. “It was perfectly safe.” And in this case, that was actually true! I’ve done this particular hike on Oahu a handful of times now.

I’m leaving the name of the trail out because it was recently closed down. . . apparently, someone actually did slip and fall to their death not too long ago. They were trying to do a handstand on the edge of a steep drop-off. Or at least that’s the story I heard.

Anyway, after doing the same hike a few times, you have to get pretty creative to come up with new perspectives. So Quin thought it would be fun to photograph this rock in a way that made it look like I was hundreds of feet off the ground. Essentially, he composed the photo so that you can’t see the ground right below me, but you can see the ocean way down below, so it creates the illusion that I’m a long way off the ground. I posed like I was in the middle of some gnarly free solo climb (or at least tried), and this image was the result!

3. Exploring Mexico’s Cenotes On The Yucatan Peninsula

For those of you that follow Quin (@everchanginhorizon), you know that he is currently in the middle of a pretty epic road trip that will eventually end at the southernmost tip of South America. What you probably don’t know is that the Mexico leg of that trip was supposed to start back in February.

The plan was to drive from San Diego across to Texas before crossing the border down into Mexico. Unfortunately, we had hardly crossed into Arizona before the first van breakdown. It broke down 2 more times before we hit Texas, each time setting us back days and hundreds of dollars.

It sucked, but at least we were still in the United States, where we had friends, resources, and cell service. All that would be gone in Mexico.

So after a lot of deliberating, we made the tough decision to call off the trip and return to San Diego.

Quin had been planning the Mexico itinerary for over a year, so he was crushed. As a consolation prize, I bought us plane tickets from San Diego to Cancun, and we spent a week cruising around the Yucatan Peninsula in a rental car. It wasn’t the trip we thought we were embarking on, but it was one of my favorites from this year.

Afterward: Quin ended up getting the Sprinter all fixed up at a specialty shop in California. But by then, he had his heart set on converting his own van from scratch (he had hired someone to do the Sprinter). So he sold the Sprinter, bought a ProMaster, and spent months converting it into his dream camper van. As I write this, I’m sitting on the bed of that camper van, listening to the sound of a massive waterfall in central Mexico!

Want to check out some of Mexico’s cenotes in person? I write an entire blog post about the best cenotes and other cool things to do and see on the Yucatan Peninsula.

2. Stranger Danger At Havasupai

The plan was to go to Yosemite. But when I landed in California, I had a text from Quin asking how I’d feel about going to Havasupai instead. I was skeptical. Havasupai permits are nearly impossible to come by. . . and last time I checked, we didn’t have any. Not only that, but the Havasupai campground had been closed for months due to significant flooding in the area.

Quin explained that sometime during my two-hour flight down to California, he had received a DM on Instagram from a friend asking if we were really going to Havasupai. Quin had no idea what he was talking about – because we had never mentioned going to Havasupai. Apparently, our friend had received an invitation to hike Havasupai from someone claiming to have a personal connection with the Havasupai people.

He also told our friend that Quin and I would be there as well. Now, when I heard this story, my stranger danger alarm immediately went off. It felt like the beginning of a bad horror film. I could just see the headlines: “Influencers Lured To Their Death By Promise of Elusive Havasupai Permits.” But when Quin heard the story, his reaction was, “Sweet! We’ll be there.”

We arranged to meet our friend and “Joe” (the stranger) with the Havasupai hookup, the next morning at the trailhead.

Now just to set the scene here, the Havasupai trailhead is located down a lonely 60 mile Indian Road, in the middle of the desert, with no cell service. . . .

It was a 9-hour drive from LA, for a shot in the dark. Still, it’s not every day that you get the opportunity to experience Havasupai without any other people.  Sure enough, when we arrived the next morning, everyone was there. Including Joe. . . and his 4-year-old son! Not exactly the company that you expect a serial killer to bring. Plus, everything Joe had promised was true! Joe had saved some lost hikers a few years earlier, and as thanks, the Havasupai rangers granted him a lifetime-permit as long as he gave them a heads-up.

So we spent the next few days frolicking in otherworld waterfalls, getting to know Joe, and hanging out with the coolest 4-year-old ever. And I learned a valuable lesson about strangers. . . turns out, they don’t all want to kill you.

1. On The Edge In Switzerland

Scrambling along a ridge in the Alpstein region of Switzerland.
Scrambling along a ridge in the Alpstein region of Switzerland.

I traveled to Switzerland for the first time during the summer of 2017 to hike the Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) with my family. I had plans to meet up with Quin afterward to explore Such Tyrol and the Italian Dolomites. One evening after a long day on the TMB, Quin sent me a video of some wild looking dude scootching his way along the ridge. His message simply said, “maybe we should spend a few days in Switzerland after Italy.” Pretty sure my response was, “lol.” But as usual, the joke was on me, because Quin was dead serious.

Due to some scheduling conflicts, the ridge scramble didn’t happen after Italy. Still, sure enough, a year later, when life sent us another opportunity to visit Switzerland, it was the first thing on the itinerary. We met Michi (the “wild-looking dude” from the video Quin had sent a year before), at one of the many mountain huts in the Alpstein region.

From there, he guided us to this ridge.

It was just as exposed and ridiculous in real life as it had appeared in the video (yes, this one did generate one of those above mentioned parental texts….along with a few others).

Michi roped us up and then crossed to the other side, where he patiently waited for Quin and me to inch our way across. We made it unscathed and even got the photos to prove it! When it was all over, Michi threw on a paraglider and literally flew off the mountain into the sunset. From beginning to end, it was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had – and definitely a highlight from this year.

And That’s a wrap! Thank you so much for being part of my 2019. I know I’ve said it before, but without your support, I wouldn’t be able to live this life that has brought me so much joy over the past few years. I’m continually looking for ways to give back to this community. If there’s anything I can do in the new year to bring more value to you or your bucket list, please let me know. Wishing you nothing but the best for 2020!

More Posts To Spark Your Wanderlust

The Stores Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2020

The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2018

The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2017

Inspirational Quotes For Living Your Best Life

5 Places You Have To See To Believe In Austria

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  1. Jamie Fox says:

    Wow, the Tahoe story! Well… I can’t say I’ve never made the same mistake during perfect enginatic weather 😉 Great stories, I really enjoyed reading all of them!! Peace 2019.

  2. Acey says:

    Jess, what a wonderful post. I’ve been following you for more than 2 years. You’re such a brave, sweet, inspirational person. I am so sorry to hear about the trolling and the experience you had to go through. Gladly you overcame and I’m sure you surround yourself with people who supported you. It happened during the time I had closed my IG account temporarily.
    You and Quin are one of the few accounts that I will not skip to watch their stories if I’m short in time, along side Alex Strohl, Benjamin Hardman.

    All the best,


    • Thank you so much Acey! I really appreciate you taking the time to come by and read the post. I know it was a long one. Unfortunately I think trolling is just part of the gig at this point, but I’ve learned over time that it’s generally just unhappy people venting their frustrations. Luckily, there are far more wonderful and supportive people out there. Have a fantastic New Year!

  3. Kirtan P. says:

    Happy New Year, Jess! Thanks for sharing the behind the scenes details, loved the Seinfeld reference, haha. I am looking forward to your 2020 adventures.

  4. Erin says:

    I enjoy reading about what happens behind the scenes, because I certainly know it doesn’t magically happen.

    • Thanks Erin! I think there’s so many misconceptions about what this lifestyle looks life in real life. That’s why I enjoy putting together this post each year. Serves as a little reality check. Happy New Year!

  5. Jem says:

    Great post! Love the extra context!

  6. Liss says:

    I so enjoyed reading this and was ecstatic to see my home made the list, but I’m sorry it also happened to be one of the toughest parts of your photo year. Thank you for not only opening up the world to your viewership, but also for easing everyone in to how to respect it with a tone of openness and non-judgement.

    • Aww thanks Liss! It was still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I really love that area of California. Always makes me feel happy. I think it’s all the sun (compared to Seattle). Thanks again for the kind note. Happy New Year!

  7. Kim says:

    What a year you have had! Your words and photos are incredible. Keep up the good work in 2020 and thank you for sharing your life with all of us.

    • It was quite a year. It’s funny I didn’t realize how much ground I had actually covered until I started preparing for this post. Thanks for all the support along the way! Xo

  8. Attila says:

    Please tell us the name if the ridge.

  9. Courtney Phillips says:

    Ah loved reading all of these! I had no idea the poppy online mob mess effected (affected?) you so much! I’m so sorry. No one should ever feel like they are going to be attacked. I fell trap into that for a minute, and snapped out of like quickly. It didn’t feel good. These were some epic photos and experiences! <3

    • Thanks so much, Courtney! I really appreciate you stopping by the blog. Yeah, the whole experience was really interesting – and of course, call-out culture is still alive and well. I still get anxious before every post lol. . . but I think at the end of the day it’s worth sharing these beautiful places with other people. I really feel like the more people experience mother nature, the more likely they are to protect her. Xo

  10. Kim says:

    I feel like you should do a travel book! Your writing is so colorful and detailed. Thank you as always for sharing your adventures!

    • Aww thanks! I don’t think I could pull off a book, but I definitely would like to at least start keeping a journal. I’m happy I have these blog posts each year to help me remember some of my favorite stories, but there are so many more I’m afraid I’ll forget.

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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