I failed to finish my annual letter last year because, well, I didn’t know how to write about something painful, but something that felt too important to simply leave out. How ironic given how 2020 turned out, huh? Just the “save the date “s on my fridge alone seem to share the painful truth that most of us couldn’t compose a summary of the year without including a loss of some sort.
It feels wrong to attempt to write about 2020 without discussing 2019 first. Not every year is full of only good things, though I’m a fortunate soul that this is generally the case. I’m making an attempt to ensure, if only for myself, that I remember the tough things a year brought as well. Also, skipping 2019 would leave me with little to say, and all of it would be, well, not great. 2020 has given me at least one gift: being able to look at 2019 with a sense of gratitude that helped clear the blockage of the things that didn’t go so well.
We stayed in or kept explorations local for the first few months of 2019: from hikes to art museums to local camping. In May, we traveled to Memphis to watch my cousin, Sidney, graduate from high school. It was perfectly timed to enjoy one of my favorite times back home: “Memphis in May.” We were there for the BBQ world championships, which is only one week in a month’s worth of celebrations.
Back home in California, friends came to visit & we headed to Redwood National Park for a few days. It was so beautiful that we went back again, just the two of us, for July 4th.
When the Segars family visited in July, we managed to get the most coveted camping permit in the Bay Area: Kirby Cove. Feeling lucky, Shawn & I managed walk-up backpacking permits out of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows the following weekend for a few days.
It is becoming an almost annual tradition in Shawn’s family for a cousin to get married, and 2019 was no different as we traveled to Indiana for Brett and Earl’s wedding. I’m proud that Earl made good on a promise to get a photo with only us plus-ones (the “out-laws”) of the family. From there, we went with Shawn’s parents back to California to enjoy Disneyland and D23 (a Disney convention of sorts).
I was back in Southern California the next month as my friend, Nina, and I made a mini weekend road trip between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. If you’re in the area, we made a worthy stop for an incredible hike up a giant sand dune in Mojave National Preserve. After this trip, I ended just over two years of work at Enjoy, the hardest job-goodbye I’ve had to make yet.
I kept busy with my time off, joining Conrad’s friends in Manhattan for his surprise 31st birthday party and visiting my grandfather nearby in New Jersey. A couple of weeks until a scheduled family trip, I headed out on a solo backpacking trip to section hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail.
About halfway through the trip, a snowstorm hit. I wasn’t fully prepared for the weather but had pushed to make miles, so I would only spend one night with the snow before hopping off the trail to get a resupply the next day. I’m fearful of the snow, given my little experience, and have generally kept my backpacking to summer-only. Just like trips before this one, though, I had made several trail friends, which made the experience feel not only safer but downright fun. We opened our tents to a calm and beautiful scene. What a sight to see the world in Fall and watch it become something completely different in Winter within one day.
It wasn’t just the season that would change within a day, but my life. Within a few hours of leaving camp, I hit the “SOS” button on my tracking device for the first time. I rewrote the story many times before finally giving up on sending a 2019 New Year’s card at all. I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story without completely crushing this letter’s intended mood. Is it possible to say it in a way that doesn’t worry anyone for my next backpacking trip? In short, I was too late to save a trail friend from passing away at the hand of hypothermia. While a painful experience, I walked away with gratitude that most of my trips don’t end like this. If something terrible does happen, I carry a device that actually works and hails the help of some incredible people who volunteer as search-and-rescue members.
I opted out of continuing on for another week to give myself to go home and just, well, process the experience before packing bags again, this time for Walt Disney World. Our visit to the happiest place on earth with Shawn’s family was well-timed. Not only did it lift my spirits, but it also happened to mark 10 years since Shawn and I were interns there. We spent a semester driving the rafts at Tom Sawyer’s Island and hosting shows at the Country Bear Jamboree for those unaware. Some of us extended the trip a bit with a road trip to Gatlinburg before heading home.
Family hiking, camping, and road-tripping was the perfect transition to my new company: Hipcamp (think Airbnb, where folks host glampers, campers, & RVers on their land).
Having just started at new job, I couldn’t justify taking time off to go home for Thanksgiving, so Shawn surprised me with a quick trip to Disneyland, just us.
We joined his family for another wonderful Christmas in Indiana before a vacation with my family in Montreal to close out the year. With my cousin James’ help, we got dad not just out of the country but on a snow vacation at Mont Tremblant. It was an incredible adventure, from snowshoeing through a whiteout blizzard to learning to alpine ski to soaking in tubs at a Scandinavian Spa. My favorite, though, may have been learning to cross-country ski.
I can’t tell you how strange it is to read everything above. It feels like it was written by a different person, and, in many ways, it was. Madison of a year ago can’t help but feel a bit dismissive of how difficult it was to process a trail friend’s death given how much more pain there would be to process in the next year. It also feels like the Disney trips were underemphasized. I care less about trying to edit the letter to fit neatly on the back of the card and more about emphasizing memories that would become even more meaningful in 2020.
Unable to handle the long commute, I left Hipcamp before the end of January and decided to go back to Enjoy. I traded a 3-hour round trip commute on public transit for just 30 minutes of walking each way. Of course, as 2020 would have it, I would have no commute at all within a couple months.
During a couple of weeks between the two jobs, we decided to go to Indiana. Shawn’s dad, Rob, had been on the lung transplant list, and we were hopeful that maybe the universe would work its magic during that time and we could be there when the call came. The call came…a few days after we got back to California. 🤣️
Having just started back at my job, Shawn made the trip alone. It was mid-February, and things would change suddenly and then not very much at all for the rest of the year.
Rob made it out of the surgery, though in precarious health due to complications along the way. Transplant patients have compromised immune systems anyway, so visitor restrictions are common. As you can imagine, they would continue to get tighter when March arrived until no one was allowed at all within a few weeks.
Back in the Bay Area, we were the first region in the country to go into lockdown on March 16th. As the extent of quarantine and Rob’s recovery grew to be greater unknowns, I’ll admit I was a bit worried about how long I would be alone. This seemed as good a time as any to foster a cat and a co-worker quickly connected me with two that needed a foster home . Within a week, they were “foster fails” that we now call Scoop (dark coat, boy) and Bluebell (light coat, girl).
Shawn stayed in Indiana until Rob had a release date, which didn’t happen until July, so the cats and I were the three amigos for most of the year. Besides Zoom parties put on by awesome friends, I turned 30 with just my cats in attendance – an omen if I’ve ever heard one. I built up the most consistent work-out routine of my life through a solo quarantine and left town once for a backpacking trip in Yosemite with a friend.
It was strange to experience quarantine as everyone else had in March when Shawn returned home in July. Adjusting to being around each other so much while working from home was…trying. Unfortunately, Shawn was only home a couple of weeks before we got a call on July 18th. Rob had passed away within a few days of finally making it home himself.
Rob and Carol have always treated their sons’ partners as one of their own. Rob took all parts of this duty seriously – whether it was serious or not. He was unafraid to chime in with advice or make sure I was still contributing to retirement accounts, yet never missed an opportunity to make a silly joke (even when it seemed no one was listening). Of course, my favorite was a blend of both sides when we became sparring pals in the political arena. I like to think we both opened each other up to different ways of thinking about the world as we worked through ways to find consensus when we disagreed. Naturally, there were times when we just had to learn to be okay with disagreeing. Those topics, more than others, bubbled up frequently as playful jokes. In the current political climate, I long for these conversations with him. Not only do I wonder what he would think of different situations, but I miss the act of respectfully talking through them. It’s painful to look out at the country and see how rarely we seem to be respectfully engaging with people we disagree with, seeking to understand first.
Because of the long journey after the surgery, the whole experience just felt like he was still back in the hospital. Sometimes it still does. At other times, the painful reality wells up at seemingly random times that halt anything I was trying to do, like, say, write a New Year’s letter, to just sit with the pain.
I couldn’t stay much longer beyond the funeral, so I returned to California alone. Shawn and I returned to our regularly scheduled quarantine life as a separated couple that mostly connected through the week by playing Animal Crossing together. How odd that this was our “normal” for 2020.
Eager for Shawn’s return and an escape from the hamster wheel that was every dang day, I booked permits for us to go backpacking in Yosemite together in September. The wildfires that ravaged California had different plans, of course, so yet another plan was added to the “2020 graveyard of fun” pile. If we couldn’t go backpacking, then we were at least going to escape somewhere with clean air with the time off instead. Using the smoke maps and statistics for the least-visited national parks, we set off for Petrified Forest in Arizona, camping along the way. We threw in a few days of day-hiking in Sedona on the way there and some on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (far less busy, and, in my opinion, prettier than the South Rim) on the way back.
We decided to try our luck for a Yosemite backpacking trip again for early November and escape election stress while we were at it. We figured that there wouldn’t be election results for at least the first week anyway. It seems the timing was right between the perfect weather and election results coming out just as we were re-entering reception again.
We were looking at likely spending the holidays without our families, given how the pandemic was going. I couldn’t live with myself if we brought COVID home. However, it brought little comfort to miss another Thanksgiving with my family and the first Christmas without Rob amongst Shawn’s family. Whatever it took to just get through the rest of the year without any other hiccups, I would do it.
Of course, I can only control so much of the universe, which is to say practically none of it. This doesn’t stop my brain from worrying as if it would yield any control, though. On December 1st, we were yet again the recipients of one of those terrible phone calls. My great grandmother had passed away, another one of the many victims of COVID-19.
Grandma Brooks wasn’t just a Memphian by birth; she was Memphian by heart. She was the first to introduce me to what would later be my alma mater (University of Memphis). Some of my earliest memories involve running around her home full of “Memphis Tigers” decor dressed in a “Memphis” cheerleader outfit she put me in herself. At 94, she had a deep well of stories. My favorites were any that involved pulling out the family photos she always carried with her. No, not those adorable wallet photos of us kids, but the ones from her own childhood with her classmate, Elvis Presley.
With COVID kicking into high gear, it didn’t feel wise to risk going home for her funeral. As with Rob, this past year’s distance has made it challenging to process she won’t be there next time I’m home for a visit. I wouldn’t be surprised if I absent-mindedly drive towards her nursing home expecting to stop by and see her on my way from the airport next time I’m in Memphis.
Thankfully, the rest of the year was quiet, though painful, as we processed everything the year had brought us. I don’t know about you, but I’m hanging an unhealthy amount of hope on 2021. Tired of making plans that get canceled, I’ve opted to make none (a giant first for me). If all I get out of the year is to be able to sit down to write this letter next year with less pain and send it to just as many, if not more, recipients, that’s enough for me.
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021!