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Transitions and Travel: A Look Back at 2021

Another year is in the books, and I'm again taking a moment to write free-form about my travel and life experiences.

Looking back, winter 2020/21 was an emotional low point for me in the pandemic.

The isolation, including holidays alone, took a toll on my mental health I didn't fully appreciate until months later when I was vaccinated and socializing more often.

Namely, I was feeling more anxiety than usual and not sleeping well, either.

Downtown Austin

Until Dec. 25, 2020, I'd only ever spent two Christmases away from family, and those were when I was on my dream trip around the world.

The first was Christmas in Queenstown, New Zealand, spent with other backpackers from my hostel; the second was in Brussels.

Following those experiences traveling solo abroad, I prioritized visiting family in the U.S. every Christmas.

Since moving to Austin, Texas, that's been more manageable. But, in 2020, I didn't go out of concern for my parent's health.

Sadly, the pandemic caused me to lose out on celebrating my mom's last Hanukkah and Christmas. She passed away in July 2021.

It wasn't all anxiety and sadness, though. The year had many highs, including a new relationship and travel adventures.

Continue reading to see how one of the more memorable years of my life unfolded.

Highlights From Austin

Daydreaming about Copacabana Beach, Brazil in my Nepali yak wool scarf during a severe winter storm in Central Texas.
Daydreaming about Copacabana Beach, Brazil

January

I kicked off 2021 watching a significant amount of fireworks at midnight from my balcony–free entertainment!

On Jan. 6, I turned on the news at lunch to see what was happening, only to find the U.S. Capitol under siege by insurrectionists.

I had a similar gut-wrenching feeling as the day I walked into work at Careerbuilder.com on Sept. 11, 2001, and saw the World Trade Centers being attacked on TV.

The next day, my pent-up anxiety resulted in a panic attack during a virtual summons for grand jury duty.

I asked the judge to excuse me from consideration, and thankfully, she did.

February

In February, the hits kept coming when a winter storm knocked out power to much of Austin and Central Texas.

I bundled up and spent the first night trying to stay warm in my apartment, which had also lost heat.

I ate what little food I had in the cupboards, including beef jerky and tuna, and budgeted the portable power bank I had to keep my phone working.

The next day, as my thermostat dropped to 58 F, and it became clear electricity would not be restored for days, I asked a friend to pick me up.

At his place, which still had power, I read a book, kept up with the news on social media, watched movies, and followed NASA's Perseverance rover landing on Mars (Feb. 18, 2021).

Several days later, power was restored to my building, and I returned home.

Warmer temperatures quickly melted the snow and ice, and within days it was like it had never happened.

Only it did, and I realized how vulnerable we are to poor energy policy decisions at the state government level and extreme weather due to climate change.

Dave outside the Texas State Capitol, wearing a new Austin FC hat.
Outside the Texas State Capitol

March

Spring weather arrives early in Austin. I began to feel more optimistic as leaves appeared on trees and flowers bloomed.

I bought a few new shirts and jumped back on the dating apps, which I'd abandoned in 2020.

My dream was to find a partner who appreciated me for who I am and with whom I could travel the world.

I was also excited for the inaugural season of Austin FC, the city's Major League Soccer club, which would be playing at a brand new $250 million stadium.

April

In early April, I received my first COVID-19 vaccination. What a relief!

My pandemic-related anxiety eased as my body got to work producing antibodies.

I began seeing friends more often, though I continued to prefer outdoor seating at bars and restaurants.

In April, I also did a home sleep study after becoming concerned about daytime fatigue and the sounds of my snoring (as captured in an app I use).

The results showed I have sleep apnea, which explained my fatigue and trouble concentrating (and, therefore, difficulty getting work done).

It may have been contributing to my increased anxiety and irritability, too.

Once I began sleep therapy using a CPAP machine, my symptoms improved within weeks.

The downside is I have to use it every night; otherwise, I won't sleep well, and the symptoms will return.

Early on, I had to take my machine, a medical device, as a carry-on for flights. The padded case is about the size of a messenger bag.

It doesn't count as a “personal item,” but it's still an extra bag I needed to carry through airports.

After a few trips, I invested in a travel-size CPAP machine that is small enough to fit in a daypack.

As I've become comfortable with the device, I've realized it doesn't have too significant an impact on my travels.

However, I think it spells the end of my staying in hostel dorms.

In the future, if I stay in a hostel, it'll be in a private room so as not to disturb others.

Central Machine Works brewery
Central Machine Works brewery

May

On May 12, I showed up a little before 5:30 p.m. at Central Machine Works brewery for my last first date of the year.

I'd been exchanging messages with Kel through a dating site for over a month, but we'd kept it light.

I felt comfortable and relaxed in her presence. She was fun, engaging, and talkative, not to mention quite pretty.

It's now eight months later, and I feel so grateful to have met her. As you'll see, it didn't take long for us to begin traveling together.

Travel Experiences

Clearwater Beach, FL
Clearwater Beach, FL

Florida in May

Tampa Bay

Two weeks after my second vaccination shot, I felt okay to visit my parents in Florida.

The family visit was a big relief. Our first lunch at a beachside restaurant was the first time my parents had eaten out at a restaurant since the pandemic began.

I joined them for their 49th wedding anniversary dinner at a Chinese restaurant specializing in Peking duck.

And right before I left to catch an Uber to Clearwater Beach for a few days of relaxation, I snapped a selfie with my mom.

It's not something I typically do, as she's never been much for being photographed, but I'm glad I did this time.

Clearwater Beach

It was about a 90-minute ride from my parent's house to Clearwater Beach, where I'd booked a one-bedroom apartment at the Sta'n Pla Motel one block from the beach.

Going to the beach was number one on my list of things to do once I'd seen my parents, and Clearwater was reputedly one of the best beaches in the United States.

I found Clearwater's white sand beach lived up to its reputation.

Plus, my friend Shannon who lives in Barcelona, happened to be in the area, so I got to catch up with her over a leisurely lunch.

For my last night, I used points earned from attending a timeshare presentation to stay in an ocean view room at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach resort.

It was a luxurious end to my first trip in a year and a half.

View of Cocoa Beach from our Airbnb
View of Cocoa Beach from our Airbnb

Florida in August

Tampa Bay

Little did I know when I said goodbye to my mom in May, I'd never spend time with her in person again.

In late July, she passed away unexpectedly at the age of 76.

I returned to Florida, this time with Kel, and spent a long weekend with my dad and brother mourning our loss.

It was devastating, and not a day goes by that I don't think about her.

I thought I could write about her as a form of catharsis. However, I still find those emotions and memories too challenging.

Cocoa Beach

After time with family, Kel and I drove east across Florida for a work event she had scheduled.

Once that was finished, we spent a weekend in Cocoa Beach, which I'd first heard about from my friend Earl.

Cocoa Beach is a half-hour south of Cape Canaveral, making it an excellent base for visiting the Kennedy Space Center.

The day we spent looking at Saturn V rockets, and the Space Shuttle Columbia helped to distract me, if only temporarily, from my grief.

Read more about Florida

Golden Gate Bridge selfie
Golden Gate Bridge selfie

San Francisco

Visiting San Francisco was the first of several unexpected trips in the second half of 2021.

Kel had invited me to join her on an end-of-summer vacation to Honolulu, Hawaii.

To help break up the long flights there, I arranged to spend a weekend in San Francisco, a city I'd long wanted to see.

I made the most of the long layover, crisscrossing the city and taking in as much as possible, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, sea lions at Pier 39, Chinatown, and Beat Generation landmarks like the City Lights Bookstore.

I'd love to return to San Francisco and continue exploring the city.

Read more about California

Nu'uanu Pali lookout - Oahu, Hawaii
Nu'uanu Pali lookout

Oahu, Hawaii

I flew from San Francisco to Honolulu and met up with Kel soon after she landed. We proceeded to spend a wonderful week together.

I'd visited Waikiki Beach on a family vacation when I was 13; it was the first place I tried surfing and my best experience.

A highlight of the trip was renting a car for a scenic drive around Oahu, ending with sunset on the North Shore. Dreams do come true!

While I'd visited the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor as a teen, the USS Missouri, a World War II battleship, was still in service at the time. Today, it's a floating museum.

Mighty Mo was the site of Japan's official surrender, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S.

We also had time to hike Diamond Head crater at sunrise and tour Iolani Palace, home of Hawaii's last monarchs.

Read more about Hawaii

Hanging out in Marfa (photo: Kelly Lemons)
Hanging out in Marfa (photo: Kelly Lemons)

West Texas

Back in Austin, I felt inspired by how well Kel and I traveled together.

I suggested we make a road trip to West Texas, spend a few nights in Marfa before driving to nearby Terlingua, and use the historic ghost town as a base for day trips into Big Bend National Park.

She liked the idea, and before I knew it, we were driving west into the desert.

Marfa

After moving to Austin, I learned about Marfa, a small town in West Texas that attracts artists. It's a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin.

If you think you'll save time by flying to El Paso, you've still got a three-hour drive in a rental car to reach Marfa.

The drive out was worth the effort, though, as it's a neat little town with an interesting history.

We took a day to visit McDonald Observatory for a sun tour, which included a lecture and live viewing of the sun through one of their special telescopes.

Unfortunately, the nighttime stargazing parties are booked months in advance.

We also stopped by the famous Prada Marfa art installation 45 minutes outside town.

Hiking into Santa Elena Canyon (photo: Kelly Lemons)
Hiking into Santa Elena Canyon (photo: Kelly Lemons)

Big Bend National Park

Our West Texas desert adventure continued with two full days hiking in Big Bend National Park.

Bordering Mexico to the south, Big Bend NP is one of the most remote national parks in the United States.

As a result, it receives less than one million visitors per year, with a high season happening around March and spring break each year.

Winters are cold, and summers dangerously hot. Spring and fall are the sweet spots for hiking and camping in this region.

Our day hikes included:

  • Santa Elena Canyon Trail
  • Hot Springs Trail
  • Chisos Basin Loop Trail
  • Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff

We saw a deer up-close, but no mountain lions or bears, though both live in the park.

Nights were spent gazing up at the sparkling stars, finding constellations, and admiring how the Milky Way stretches across the sky.

Driving out to remote West Texas is not a journey I would've taken on my own, yet it felt fun and exciting to go with Kel.

Read more about U.S. national parks

Kel and Dave

Staniel Cay, The Bahamas

Before we left for our West Texas road trip, I'd received an invitation to visit Staniel Cay and swim with pigs in the Bahamas.

It didn't take long to accept, and we made the trip the week before Thanksgiving, which I spent back in Florida with my dad and brother.

Swimming with pigs and sharks was a blast, as was spending two days on boat tours seeing all the Exuma cays have to offer in the Bahamas.

Read more about the Bahamas

Plans for 2022

As the travel industry continues to rebound, I hope international travel will feel safer in 2022.

Until then, I'm looking forward to continuing to visit more of the U.S.

I see a first-time trip to Seattle and return visits to New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York City in my future.

Top spots on my Caribbean bucket list include Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, and Guyana in South America.

I hope you'll join me here for these future adventures and more. Safe travels!

Prior Annual Reviews

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Keith Robinson

Thursday 13th of January 2022

What a year!

Dave Lee

Friday 14th of January 2022

Thanks, Keith! And it's been great to have you contributing to Go Backpacking as well. I'm inspired to prioritize more state and national parks with each of the stories I've read.