2021: A Year Worthy of Review
The Year Of Firsts
Whenever the next right word to write escapes me, my gaze turns out the east window. Snow and the red sheds of my parent’s farm greet me. In winter it is a zoo of activity, the variety of birds at the feeder below and squirrels that run across the ground and leap through the trees. As I get older it feels important to take stock of your life from time to time. The days go too fast and I am broadsided by every sunset, marking the passage of another. Not only days but years too. I have to admit, my parents were right.
So to honor the fact that an entire year has passed and with it, a heck of a lot of stuff occurred during it, I write a yearly review. A post that is waaaay too long, takes waaaay to much time to write, and no one will read. Except maybe my nephew in forty years when he wonders who that weird uncle he had was.
I also try to set some type of goals each year, find that project here.
January began like any good year should, with a polar plunge in the baptismal waters of Lake Superior. I am trying to make it a yearly tradition to celebrate New Year’s by jumping into a different Great Lake every year. Unsurprisingly, only my friend Eric, with whom I started this movement, joined me. We live-streamed it for two others who probably just wanted to make sure we didn’t die.
My friend and I had rented an AirBNB for a week in Muskegon. He worked remotely while I bought groceries and wandered around town. In this town of no street parking, we juggled cars in various parking lots, exploring the outdoors around us (also because all indoor activities were COVID-closed). So instead of breweries we played snowdrift disc golf, hiked up to Sugarloaf Viewpoint, paddle boarded on the lake, fat tire biked, got lost looking for the Eben Ice Caves, cross country skied, made cocktails, and watched Banff Film Festival videos. It was pretty epic, to say the least.
However, real-life called and I had to return home to bottle the rhubarb and dandelion wines I had started spring of 2020. There was also an engagement shoot for old college friends taken down in Decorah, IA. After this quick unpack and reset, I was soon on the road again.
The idea was to escape Minnesota winter with a focus on photo editing in a remote location. So what I did was meet a friend in Iowa City where I assisted with the brewing of beer, rode a motorcycle & played disc golf inside said brewery, and visited competitors’ breweries. This was to be a large theme of the year, catching up with old friends. Once I left this wonderful host, I met up with my former Antarctic-night-shift-janitorial-crew lead in Detroit. It was as if the last six years had never passed, laughing and joking like schoolboys while we explored the inner workings of the Ford F150 plant and the finer neighborhoods of Motown.
Finally, I would arrive at my destination with a week of January to spare. The destination was the dead-end of a forested road deep in Virginia. Between the added extra hour to avoid road tolls and Google Maps sent me through an impassable farmer’s field I did not arrive until after dark. Eric from New Year’s and many, many other adventures met me at the door and we began the process of unloading.
This was his little farm in the woods. Perched above the New River, I would find stepping out onto the pee-porch and listening to its constant rush a constant comfort. The back hillside was covered with apple trees we would later sacrifice and burn to honor the beer gods (they legitimately needed pruning). I slept in a room with no heat, so really appreciated the heated blanket. We kept the main room warm with firewood in the basement furnace. Which is also where the shower was. And the beer cache.
Visiting the farm is a unique experience and I could never cover all its adventures here. Highlights included walks to the top of the hill for cell service, canoeing the river below, midnight river walks, seeing the International Space Station cross the sky, birthday tequila, wood projects, firearm target practice, cutting bamboo, binge-watching James Bond films from the very beginning…well you get the idea.
Though I had planned to settle in and focus on photo editing, by mid-February I was called back to Minneapolis. I left with the task of learning to juggle, an old book to teach me, and a new wood-burned balance board.
I swung through the home in Grand Meadow to swap out gear and prepare for a life in the Twin Cities. My first destination was Lakeville, where I would be sleeping on a friend’s couch. This was my new home base and when his family was gone I became the live-in dog sitter. That’s classic Ian, working by day and walking the giant Samoyed, Tiberius, by night. He always has a lot to say and plays hard. There was nothing pleasant about being jumped by him on late night walks when he got that look in his eye.
Work was interesting. Going from living in the woods and mostly silence to talking all day was hard on the throat. I was photographing children for school pictures and we have the process down to a science. A very repetitive science. It combines the fun aspect of working in a new place every day with the herculean task of convincing hundreds of people a day to smile. Say cheese!
This was on and off through the end of April. During this period I moved from the couch to my cousin’s spare bedroom, back home, to another friend’s studio apartment, to dogsit at another friend of a friend’s. There are many times during the year that I can look back and see I have slept in five different places five nights in a row. I always wonder if people realize that when they talk about how they wish they had this life.
Also during that time, I began to use the pandemic stimulus money to try things I had never tried before. Namely investing, as living the car camping cowboy lifestyle kept expenses lower than normal. I started in crypto wishing I had begun earlier, and collectible card games. I was also making my game plan for the rest of the year, to start my journey as a fine art photographer selling work at art shows. I applied to at least ten in the Minnesota area from Austin to Duluth and worked with an old friend Jay Rasmussen to help me make my plan.
We wrapped on school photography by the end of April and I returned home to the farm. There is no rest for the wicked so I fired up the chainsaws and began clearing up winter’s storm damage. My great aunt had also passed away during the spring at the ripe young age of 101. I had been a pallbearer for her. She was the last of the three elders I had known that grew up on this farm, including my grandfather and his brother. It felt right then, to plant some trees in their honor. They each received a different variety, hers was a flowering crabapple. Grandpa got a ponderosa pine and great uncle is represented by a weeping willow. These were all planted around our old firepit and I cannot wait for them to stretch towards the skies. I intend to make sure they fare better than my fruit orchard of 2020, which was completely and mercilessly girdled to death over winter. I spent days preparing the remaining branches in sand with growth hormone to hopefully encourage some sprouting.
May started with Dad’s birthday and Mother’s Day. We picked a beautiful day to head to Red Wing and see the sights. Days were spent selling collectibles online and preparing for art shows. Until I received an email. I had been put ‘on deck’ as they say, for the job I had interviewed for in March. Someone had literally walked off the boat, and they were scrambling to fill the position I had applied for. The ship was to sail for Alaska, with passengers, in five days. Could I be there tomorrow?
Arms crossed, staring at the computer screen, I pondered. For half an hour, I contemplated as many ramifications as I could. Will I get this chance again? What will I be missing? What will I have to back out of? Could I make more money staying in Minnesota? In my heart, I am sure I knew all along, and quickly I came to the conclusion, “$&%# it, let’s do it.”
Thirty-six hours later, I was staring up at my new summer home. It was the middle of the night and my Lyft driver had just taken a picture of my boots he was so impressed by them (link to buy them). My body was full of feelings, tired from the full day of travel, nostalgia for being in Seattle again, and excitement to try something new for the first time in a very, very long time. I was learning again that life can change in a moment in two ways. It can hit you like a wall of bricks seemingly from nowhere, or, you can choose your own path.
There is so much to say about working on an Alaskan cruise ship. Especially during a year where COVID-19 is running rampant and turning the playbook inside out. I will have a separate post and link it here to dive into the excitement of that summer.
As a quick summary, it was a roller coaster. I met a ton of new people, learned a completely new job and what life is like at sea. Well, at sea always in view of land. There were moments of great frustration and great elation. I learned that my heart was not emotionally dead as I thought it had been. I tried matcha and microwave lattes, mushrooms from the woods, and enjoyed chef-cooked meals every day for months. I exercised nearly every day, and for a while it was fun to look in the mirror. There was a short window of vacation that I spent north by Denali and Anchorage. And ironically, all of us who had planned to canoe through Alaska this summer found a way to meet here anyways. I fell a little bit in love with Juneau, where it only takes a few days to believe that you’re a local there. Now the memories are flooding back, damn, you’ll have to follow along for the rest of all these stories.
I coordinated my return to Minnesota with the friend I had worked for in Minneapolis. School photography had already begun and it was a matter of plugging me in as soon as I arrived. I took a day at home to unpack, wash clothes and switch out gear. I checked those potted roots…all dead. However, eight of the ten trees still in the ground, had miraculously regrown. Unable to find a suitable rental situation, I was welcomed to the basement futon at my brother’s new house. Some mornings I was lucky to catch my nephew before work and eat with the family in the evening. Allergies were back and had been since I switched planes in Chicago. That’s when I realized I had just experienced a summer of no allergies. This meant, that for the first time in my entire life of travel and adventure, I had spent a summer away from the Midwest.
At work, it felt as though the entirety of summer had never happened. Though the workload had increased greatly to about fifty thousand students around the metro, it was exactly the same as the previous spring. It felt a bit like a dream. I think school photography deserves another post on its own as well.
I could have worked just about every weekend but after 40+ days of continual employment, I had a new goal. To take some of that free time and actually, you know, do something. This mindset took me to beer festivals, a magical camping weekend of dancing under disco balls, a bluegrass festival, visiting home, the Renaissance Festival, board gaming days, and such various activities. Time spent sitting around just didn’t happen.
Time was flying. The system was never designed for temporary workers and I couldn’t find my own place to live. My cousin with whom I had stayed in the spring, reminded me of the offer to take the spare bedroom again for a bit. I took them up on this offer and from this new home base enjoyed tequila, games of pool, and catching up with family. I continued making future plans and bought flights for December’s adventures which would include stops in Kentucky and Las Vegas. After Halloween, I moved out into the heart of Minneapolis.
November meant yet another big first for me. I would sublet an apartment, by my very own self. When I realized this I pondered, “How could I have gone so long without ever doing this?” It would be a great experience and further, solidify my resolve to one day have my own space.
Writing this I am confused how I fit so much into a single month? It was calendar season again, meaning, I designed my hopefully annual, 2022 adventure calendar. I used images from my summer in Alaska which surprised me that I had enough to work with. These were designed, ordered, and shipped all in one month. I made plans with a friend interested in selling his Magic The Gathering collection. He visited and at the same time, brought another old friend when they came from Madison. Turned out, another old friend was in town the same weekend. Old college buddies, we hadn’t all four been together at the same time since 2015. I am reminded right now that I again, forgot to take a picture to commemorate the moment. November was also the month of my brother’s birthday, and Thanksgiving, two elongated weekends back home on the farm. Additionally, I started working out at a new gym that promised their techniques would help make my chronic back and shoulder pains disappear. Plus for the first time, I would be living within walking distance of another great friend. She and I decided that for the short time, it would be nice to have an establishment that we could frequent frequently. An evening of pub crawling was the research we needed to decide our location. There are now talks of her potential employment there, and purchasing a condo within walking distance to continue the trend. The trend of visiting old friends continued as we headed up to Stacy, MN for a projector movie night and White Russians. School photography petered out, my employment with it as well. Continuing the trend of firsts, I picked a friend up and we went to the Gay 90’s for a drag show on a Sunday night. Because Minnesota is the world’s largest small town, of course I knew the host, or rather recognized them as a former science teacher from my small-town high school. The next day I moved out of my apartment and driving home felt an intense nostalgic heartbreak. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever be in that town again in the way I had just experienced it this fall.
I unpacked and settled in.
For one day. My flight to Kentucky left on the afternoon of December 1st. A newer friend picked me up in Lexington. Though I was new to the land of horses, whiskey, and white picket fences, I was there to work. I learned to gauge the height of power lines from the ground and measure distance with a rolling wheel while riding a Onewheel. When we weren’t on the road in hotels, I slept in a generous family’s basement next to the snapping turtle & fish tanks. Life as an AT&T field technician was great until it was time to move again.
I have this preconceived notion that when it’s 0 degrees at home in MN, it should be warm everywhere south. The sun was down and we were changing brakes in a pull-off just north of Joshua Tree. It was cold enough to freeze my fingers and make it generally uncomfortable. I had been picked up by a girl in a van in Las Vegas, she told me I’d know it was her because I will have heard the rig coming from a mile away. We left Nevada immediately and spent the first couple of days doing planned maintenance, namely brakes, brake lines, then finding places for tacos and hikes.
I thought back to 2017. It was the last time I had been to California and I remember distinctly thinking to myself…I need to come back and spend some time here soon. I remembered why all over again, though our mission was to cross the border at Calexico and explore Baja California.
Which we did. We explored places such as Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857 (wild dirt roads) looking for Laguna Hanson (a SEASONAL lake we found out). We got stuck on the beach in San Felipe but enlisted the local ex-pats to dig us out which in a roundabout way led to us driving a side-by-side atv through sandy canyons the next morning. We sat in hot springs by the ocean, surfed with dolphins, relaxed in wineries, drank from coconuts, buried our belongings like pirates, lost our spare tires…
All good things must come to an end. Our vehicle overheated in the line for the border crossing but we were soon back in Vegas for some stateside travel. Flying back into Minneapolis we arrived just in time for the photography company’s Christmas party and I felt as though I had been gone for eons. I won an award for “Most Nomadic Photographer” but in my rush to collect all the people and belongings I needed I sadly left it behind.
Christmas on the farm was just like normal. We attended candlelight church service, opened presents (or rather my nephew opened everyone’s presents), ate too much, and played games. The nephew had his birthday a couple of days later which in turn equaled more presents and cake. Finally, it was off and away again to end the year exactly as it started.
I picked up my co-pilot and her papillon in Minneapolis. The following morning we turned east and north, headed for Michigan. Plans changed by the hour as we followed closely with a friend’s COVID-19 results. When it was deemed they tested positive, instead of staying with them in Chicago, we turned north. It was my friend’s first-time car-camping, and of course, it was 5 degrees that night. No one slept well, she was very cold and I felt bad.
We survived and arrived in Alpena, MI, the following day. First time ever crossing the Mackinac Bridge, and at the Airbnb would be the first time trying a real-life bidet. From our potential 11 guests, only 4 of us made it to New Year’s. It did not extinguish the fun, however, as we made cocktails, explored state parks, watched movies, played games via Zoom with our missing friends, and even exercised. Then we washed it all down with a quick dip in Lake Huron, the annual polar plunge that unequivocally resets your clock.
As I write this, 2021 already seems a long time ago. It was one hell of a ride, I had no idea at the beginning how many firsts I would experience along the way. The change of pace was much needed because even though on the outside you might not guess it, I was living a pretty repetitious, cyclical lifestyle. So here’s to honoring the past, yet looking more heavily towards the future. With the prospect of continued shaking up and growth in further knowledge, I cannot wait to share what adventures lay ahead. Thanks for coming along for the ride!