2020 in Review: Near > Far
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
With but a few weeks left in the year, it's time to look back and reflect on the limited but meaningful travel opportunities I had in the strange mess called 2020. Let's start way back in pre-COVID January, which feels like years ago.
January 17-19: A winter weekend in Western Pennsylvania
"Why on earth would you ever fly to Pittsburgh for a weekend? In January?!" you might ask. Here's why:
Long weekend with nothing better to do
Cheap nonstop airfare
To meet Vivian the sloth
For Julia's 9th birthday gift, we decided to get her a "sloth encounter" at the National Aviary (ok, #1, why is a sloth at an aviary, and #2, why is the National Aviary in Pittsburgh? Good questions. It was [not] fun to explain the absurdity to every single person who asked about it!)
The trip was preposterous from the start - drive to Boston on a Friday night after work, board a plane, land at 10pm, have one full day of sightseeing on Saturday, meet the sloth on Sunday, fly back again, have Monday (MLK Day) to recover. Whew. Things got even more interesting when our actual arrival time was 3am.
Arising on Saturday morn with approximately 3 hours' sleep, we battled the lovely combo of exhaustion and miserable weather - 35 degrees, sleet, freezing rain, and rain. Despite it all, our spirits (and the ceilings) soared at the Cathedral of Learning on the U. of Pittsburgh campus. A photographer's dream, this magnificent structure's interior was something straight out of Harry Potter.
As if the overall effect weren't wow-inducing enough, there are dozens of 'Nationality Rooms' one can peruse, each classroom decorated with art and architecture from a different country. I can honestly say it was one of the top 10, if not top 5, unique attractions I've ever visited.
We then bolted across town to Phipps Conservatory, a bright, flowery escape from the nasty Western Pennsylvania elements.
It was just what the doctor ordered, warming us physically and otherwise.
After attending Mass, we ate like locals at an unassuming Italian dive, then took a nighttime skyline drive. Bizarrely, it had warmed up considerably despite the darkness, even getting into the 50s that evening. I ambled along the Allegheny, grabbing some slick nighttime photos of the Steel City's robust skyline.
One would think I'd have rested well after our whirlwind day, but it was not meant to be. A fitful night ended with the dubious dawn of another grey morning. We grabbed a quick breakfast at a Starbucks knockoff, then headed over to the Aviary in a fierce snow squall. (The only weather we didn't experience in our 36 hours away was sunshine).
Any dour-weather doldrums we'd been subject to were shattered with the cacophony of color and chatter that was the aviary. But before getting up close and personal with our feathered friends, it was time to be led into a large, hushed room with a handful of other hardy souls to meet a sloth. The exorbitant prices ensured that only a select few individuals willing to forgo a mortgage payment were invited into the sloth's hushed inner sanctum.
The handful of us were introduced to Vivian in turn, and all able to pet and feed her briefly. Smiling family members tapped away at smartphone shutters, milking every second of the experience. Vivian ate gently-presented vegetables for 30 minutes straight without protest. A fun time was had by all.
As quick and strange as this trip was, it was enjoyable nonetheless. Visiting cities that folks ordinarily wouldn't seek out - in the winter no less - provides an authenticity that often gets lost in high season.
February 24-27: A Mid-Atlantic Sojourn (MD, DC, VA)
A few short weeks later, my second (and little did I know, last) real travel of 2020 would occur just before COVID gripped the nation. It was another oddity of a trip, beginning with a family visit to White Plains, NY. I then struck off on my own, weaving west and south before coming to rest in Frederick, Maryland.
The following day I'd explore this attractive old city center, our nation's capital (first time since 2011), Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and star-spangled Fort McHenry, before picking up my dad at BWI.
A mini Given Latitude road trip followed, with Dad and I heading toward Charlottesville, VA via Harpers Ferry, WV and Shenandoah National Park. It was my first time at all of those places, but hopefully not my last.
Harpers Ferry was atmospheric, to say the least. Really, it should have a post all its own. Suffice it to say that the minuscule town's dark history was perfectly symbolized by the raw, silent, drizzly aura of our time there.
Then, Shenandoah. As we climbed up into the mountains, views were obscured for awhile until the clouds tentatively and temporarily parted. Dramatic scenery opened before and around us, the park stunningly empty of visitors. Visiting a National Park during the offseason can be a wonderful thing: there may not be foliage to admire, but the views are just as stunning, and in fact can be even more open without said foliage.
Dad and I did a small hike and were rewarded with a sweeping view of Virginia's peaceful valleys. It was stunningly mild, nearly 60 degrees even at 4,000 feet! We spent that evening in Charlottesville - a historic yet hip college town of about 50,000 - dining at a funky little place on the pedestrian mall that specialized in southern comfort food. I got a pulled pork sandwich, which was to die for.
The following day we visited what most folks come to Charlottesville for - Jefferson's Monticello estate. Weather was cool and drizzly, but ordinarily I'd be shoveling snow in late February, so it was met with an embrace. We also stopped briefly and walked around the campus of University of Virginia, which possessed a stately beauty even in the gloom.
Turning north again, we wended our way along rural Virginia highways en route to the National Air & Space Museum in suburban DC that afternoon. A final morning in Baltimore perambulating the Inner Harbor to an icy wind, then ducking into the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum, rounded out a very pleasant several days in the mid-Atlantic.
I would not set foot outside New Hampshire until September 25, nearly 9 months later. Despite being extremely antsy to travel again, I was and remain thankful that I'm in good health and surrounded by loved ones, even if sharing a 1,250 square foot space for all those months wasn't always butterflies and roses!
March 1 - September 24: The Home Front
When a pandemic strikes and all travel ceases, I did what any good traveler would do: seek out unique places in your own home state. The family and I did just that, exploring a stunning variety of landscapes and towns in our diminutive Granite State.
Hiking, walking rail trails, boating, sightseeing, exploring small towns, even an Isles of Shoals Cruise on Father's Day. Given the stay-at-home orders (and a kidney stone surgery in late July to boot), I'm extraordinarily proud of how much ground I/the family was able to cover in New Hampshire this year.
September 25: Martha's Vineyard
My dad and I escaped to the Vineyard in late September; if you haven't already, please read the 'Vineyard Vibes' post!
October 23: Quechee, VT
Julia and I got one more daddy-daughter trip in before the virus started picking up again. We crossed the Vermont border as if it was a more exotic one, having traveled so little all year. Foliage was past peak, but the smattering of rust-colored leaves retained a solemn elegance, clinging stubbornly to outstretched branches.
First we hiked into the gorge, something I had done as a child myself, and again with Alyse perhaps a dozen years earlier. We more or less had the place to ourselves, relaxed conversation occasionally punctuating the crunch of our shoes on pebbles and leaves. The air was a moist 55 degrees.
After taking dozens of photos in the gorge, we picked up an inexpensive lunch at Dunkin and climbed down a steep rocky embankment to eat it at a dramatic little spot next to the Ottauquechee River. The view of river, waterfall, and covered bridge was surpassed only by the precious company.
Our third and final stop was the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), a kid-friendly nature center whose specialty was rehabilitating injured raptors (not the Jurassic Park kind). We witnessed hawks, falcons, and owls in action, as well as climbed a very unique wooden "canopy walk" that placed us 65 feet above the forest floor. We flew together, like the birds.
On the ride home the sun pierced the clouds for five minutes, the first time it had done so all day. Then, almost imperceptibly, the daylight faded, the way air seeps from a child's ball as she gradually loses interest in it over the years. I fruitlessly tried to cling to the light, to the moments we had. I hoped desperately that she'd remember the day with nostalgia 5, 10, 20 years from now. As I get older, I find that sometimes memories evoke stronger feelings than the events themselves.
So little about this year has been "normal". But in travel or in life, you make the most of the hand you're dealt. Even with major travel absent, I didn't feel cheated out of meaningful journeys. Just as I've looked closer to home for novel experiences, so too have I realized what exquisite blessings are right here within my reach.
Just like New Hampshire's tiny size belies the extraordinary range of beautiful landscapes, so too has 2020 invited me to find such richness, both in the world and within myself. COVID or not, the journey continues on...