In the past 365 days I have stood atop the highest mountains in three states, I saw my first total solar eclipse, discovered a place with goats on the roof, realized those “Dirty Dancing” style mountain resorts still exist, drove to the top of the scariest mountain ever, sprained my knee pretty severely, got horribly overwhelmed, and then decided to write my first travel book. Needless to say it’s been an amazingly horrible, fantastically wretched, excitedly depressing kind of year. I loved every minute of it.
What Went Right
Twitter The biggest thing that went right for me this year was Twitter. I’ve had an account since June 2010 but it wasn’t until about September this year that I really took it seriously. Up until that time I would simply post one or two times a day, always my own work, without really interacting in any way. I h ad 562 followers at the beginning of the year. I have 2,416 today. It’s a good increase, but I still have a long way to go. I have met some wonderful people on Twitter such as Chad and Stef, Elisa, Nicki, Mad Hatters NYC, and the RoarLoud couple who have promised to show me around New England if I ever make it up there. I have found some of my favorite weekly activities are now Twitter chats including #ParkChat, #PassionPassport, and #WeekendWanderlust. Twitter has become an invaluable tool for me, a way to increase traffic to my website, and a great place to meet interesting people to inspire, motivate, and maybe perhaps drink with me some day!
Southeast Eclipse Tour I traveled more this year than ever before. I started out there year back home in Southwest Virginia to enjoy a few days of snow. I visited Gatlinburg for a few days writing about Sugarlands Distilling (yes that would be moonshine). My biggest trip of the year was a three-month road trip from Charleston, SC to Paducah, KY traveling in the path of the total solar eclipse that arrived in August. I learned a lot about balancing travel with writing, gaining new clients and keeping the old, and how to enjoy myself while traveling endlessly. I ended the year with a couple of Christmas trips to Charleston and the Crystal Coast of North Carolina.
First Total Solar Eclipse Although not a really big travel success, I think my favorite moment of the year was witnessing my first total solar eclipse. Although I found so many amazing places to see the eclipse (Chattooga Bell Farms in South Carolina, Brasstown Bald in Georgia, and Paducah, Kentucky to name a few) I decided to go to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the big event. I arrived early, spent my day watching a silly movie and chatting with fellow observers, and then sat back for the main event. The moment the sun ducked behind the moon and a chilly shadow covered the Earth I couldn’t help but laugh. I giggled, really. I’m giggling now just remembering that event! It was the most amazing natural event I have ever witnessed and has made me determined to do more traveling to see something like this again. Did you know there will be another total solar eclipse to cross this country in 2024?
First Travel Book One of the biggest successes of the year, though, was a complete surprise to myself. After a little accident earlier this summer (more on that in a moment) I found myself unable to hike long distances. Even walking a few blocks around flat streets was difficult. With the rest of my year thrown into the air I spontaneously decided to do something completely different: write a travel book. One of the first things I always ask for when I walk into a visitor center is a self-guided walking tour. Usually the local CVB’s or chambers have a simple pamphlet with a walking tour around downtown. But I wanted to do something bigger, better, and knock the socks off the travel industry. So I focused on Charleston. I found myself a beach front condo to rent for a month and moved to the Holy City. I had this silly idea that I could research, write, and self publish a self-guided walking tour book about Charleston in a month. I’m still laughing at myself for that one. Two solid months later I’m still working at it, and I’m planning to take at least the first two months of 2018 to finish it.
At the end of the year I look back and realize I traveled more, visited more new places, and discovered more amazing destinations than any year before. I have made new travel friends. I have stronger connections to the travel industry. My social media game is getting stronger and my website numbers are climbing every week. It was a good year, despite everything you are about to read in the next section.
What Went Wrong
Overwhelmed I can’t talk about what went right without mentioning what went wrong this year. My biggest failure of the year was also my greatest triumph: the Southeast Eclipse Tour. I had this idea to spend three months road tripping across the Southeast from Charleston to Paducah, Kentucky. I wanted to visit all the places in the path of the total solar eclipse and write about where to eat, sleep, and play. I did months of research ahead of time and wrote as much as I could on individual pages. But I did not realize just how much work would be involved updating those pages while traveling. I started falling behind just a couple weeks into the trip and by the end of the first month I was horribly overwhelmed and realized this wasn’t going to work. I did my best to update a few photos and correct mistakes on the pages, but trying to do that while traveling at the same time was simply too much. I walked away with thousands of photos I haven’t looked at since the day I captured them, hundreds of stories I could write, and a lot of disappointed people. I let a lot of people down but I am hoping to correct that in a big way in 2018.
Injured Just six weeks into my trip the rest of the year was unraveled with a single embarrassing moment. I was whitewater rafting with the NOC on the Nantahala River in North Carolina when I fell out of the boat at the very last waterfall. I severely sprained my left knee, my shorts ended up down around my ankles so I flashed pretty much everybody in sight (really sorry for anyone who had to see that), and the rest of the trip was dictated by what my knee was willing to do that day. Six months later I still have stiffness and pain every once in awhile. Physical therapy has done little to help so now it’s up to surgery right after the New Year.
Van Life Before I started the road trip across the country I spent a month and about $2,000 converting a Chrysler Town & Country into a camper van. I added solar panels to the roof for power, built a small kitchen in the back with fresh water and a propane stove, added a nice bed with storage underneath, and wedged a desk with large monitor for my Mac Mini into the backseat. I was all set and ready to go and couldn’t have been more excited! But then a heat wave hit for about three weeks while traveling across Tennessee. Even at night it was 85+ degrees inside the van at night so I had to keep the engine running to have the air conditioning. It was unbearably hot to be standing outside cooking dinner so I started eating most fast food. Combined with my knee injury I had difficulty sleeping, which made me slower during the day, and I gained a lot of weight from eating out all the time. The van life started out great, and I still want to enjoy it, but I need to save up for a more “proper” van.
What I Learned
Less Is More I’ve learned this lesson before, but I just haven’t put it into practice. Now I am. I remember a pastor at a church I attended a long time ago had a very popular saying: It’s better to do one thing right than many things wrong. I did many things wrong this year. No more. First I am going to start writing less on my website; instead of several smaller stories about individual attractions, restaurants, or destinations, I am going to focus on bigger, more comprehensive stories. I plan to write 2-3 big stories a week. Second I plan to travel less. Instead of attempting something like a three-month road trip and traveling every single day of the week I am limiting myself much as a full-time job: four days of travel per week with the other three for relaxing, editing photos, and writing stories. No more sunrise to sunset working, and no more three-week trips with nothing but thousands of photos and nothing to show for it.
Focus Earlier this year I decided to refocus my efforts as a travel writer and photographer toward anything you can do outside. I even told people that “I enjoy doing anything literally under the sun”. It was a good slogan and I plan to keep using it. But I still faltered. I was still tempted to shoot food photography at restaurants and invest so many hours writing reviews of lodging. No more. Everyone has their niche. Mine is anything that gets me outside under that sun. Outdoor recreation, self guided walking tours, state and national parks, anything under that great big orb in the sky. The only reason I will do anything with lodging, museums, shopping, or restaurants is if it directly relates to an outdoor story I am writing.
Maybe More Personality I’ve seen two schools of thought on the topic of adding personality to travel writing. One side believes you should never add any personality because people just may not like you, so the stories should be objective and informational. The other side believes personality is just as important as grammar and syntax to a story. I’ve bounced back and forth between the two, writing completely objective stories like what you would find in a newspaper or magazine, and then writing really personal stories that puts you in my shoes. Well after all these years it really comes down to this: my personality is just too big to stuff it into a box whenever I write. Like it or not I am going to write more personally, showing you my experiences at a particular destination and sharing silly stories about how I explored a park or trail or monument. Hey, dogs love me. I don’t know what that has to do with anything but dogs love me so surely that counts for something?
Best Travel Destinations of the Year
I traveled over 10,000 miles this year. Yes, ten thousand. Just travel. I visited 8 states, 12 national parks, slept at 92 different Walmarts, and got kicked out of one (in Kentucky). But what were my favorite travel destinations this year? Here are a few places that really stood out to me, and places I will be writing about a lot in 2018.
Mountain Lakes of South Carolina The Palmetto State isn’t known for the mountains because it barely includes just the foothills of the Appalachians. But there is no place more beautiful along those foothills in any state than right there in South Carolina. The little towns of Walhalla and Seneca have some great places to eat and shop. The county parks are on par with most state parks with water activities, lakes, boat ramps, cabins, and campgrounds. I could spend days writing about Lake Jocassee so let me just sum it up in six words: best freshwater lake in the country.
North Georgia Mountains The first place I visited in Georgia this summer was Black Rock Mountain State Park. Holy wow what a breathtaking view from the overlook beside the visitor center! I mean seriously it took my breath away. That first evening I joined a ranger-led hike to the Tennessee Rock Overlook for an amazing sunset view. Over the next several days I hiked to beautiful waterfalls, discovered some nice small towns like the Alpine Village at Helen and downtown Clayton, found some goats on the roof at the aptly-named Goats on the Roof, and spent a night sleeping at the Tiger Drive In Theater after watching the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
High Hampton Inn I didn’t realize those old-fashioned family mountain resorts like you see in the movie “Dirty Dancing” still existed before I spent two nights at High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, North Carolina. It was probably the two most relaxing nights of the year for me. I spent my mornings watching fog drift over the lake from my window table in the dining room, days spent kayaking the lake or driving around the golf course, and my evenings were filled with family entertainment and drinks at the bar with a gorgeous view. Even though I fly completely solo I plan to spend a few nights a year here because I feel I got some of my best writing ever done from that dining room table.
Cleveland, TN About half an hour outside Chattanooga is a beautiful country city right in the middle of all sorts of amazingness. They Ocoee River is just a twenty minute drive where you can go whitewater rafting, kayaking, and visit the Ocoee Whitewater Center. Chilhowee Mountain has some amazing views and a nice campground. There are some great places to eat and shop in Cleveland, too. But for me the best part was visiting Red Clay State Park and learning about the area’s connection to the Trail of Tears, then visiting some of the nearby memorials for the Trail.
Nashville It’s funny how little country I found in Nashville. It is still very much the heart of country music but it is so much more! I found the best library in the country to explore, listened to all kinds of live music, browsed some stores with cowboy boots and stilettos, and watched sunsets across the river. But one of the most interesting things I found all year was the lifesize recreation of the Parthenon; inside I took a tour through an art gallery and found the creepy statue of Athena on the top floor (I swear she was watching me wherever I walked!). Before leaving Nashville I discovered a few trails at local parks, the north end of the Natchez Trace Parkway, and of course visited the Johnny Cash Museum.
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area This was without a doubt my four favorite days of outdoor adventure all year. I spent my days watching the elk and bison in a massive prairie as they walked right in front my van, spotted hundreds of hummingbirds at the Nature Station, and got out to the water as many times as possible (I should have brought a kayak, though). Each night I found a different campground ranging from ultra-primitive to the very nice Hillman Ferry Campground. In between I enjoyed a planetarium show, amazing sunrises and sunsets, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with absolute silence, and perfect weather.
Paducah, KY Before visiting this gorgeous waterfront town I had no idea there was such a thing as a UNESCO Creative City. It was easy to believe, though: artwork adorns every streetcorner and restaurant, artisans are hard at work in dozens of studios, and the National Quilt Museum has an amazing display of fiber artwork with details I didn’t know was possible with needle and thread. Museums, breweries, restaurants, friendly locals, gorgeous sights, and the only visitor center in the country located inside an Antebellum-era house made Paducah a place I will never forget.
Charleston, SC I’ve spent a lot of time in Charleston over the years but I feel I have gotten my best feel for the crown jewel of Southern hospitality over the last few months. I moved down here on November 1 with the plan to write a travel book about self-guided walking tours. Two months later I’m still living here, exploring the city each and every day. I have found a quaint beauty to the city I didn’t find before by getting off the beaten path. Small parks with amazing views, local dining that won’t cost you an arm and two legs, and a history that dates back long before the founding of this country make Charleston a place for anybody to visit.
Crystal Coast of North Carolina The funny thing about living somewhere for six years is that you don’t experience it like a tourist. Nearly ten years after leaving Emerald Isle I returned for four days while exploring a Christmas story for next year. In Swansboro I found narrow streets lined with Christmas decor and amazing shopping. In Beaufort I found a town that time will never forget with great local eateries, shopping, and a boardwalk along the marina. I had forgotten just how beautiful Fort Macon State Park is to explore with one of the most complete and amazing Civil War-era forts in the country. I called this place home for a long time but now, after returning for a short visit, I think I need to call this place my home away from home at least one week each year.
Best Travel Stories of the Year
I didn’t write as much as I wanted this year (something I will remedy in 2018) but I did get some good pieces out there. In total I had over over a million visitors to my website this year (record number for me) and thousands of shares across social media. Here are my most-liked, most-shared stories from the year, starting in January.
Best Travel Photography of the Year
My greatest passion will always be photography. I always travel with my camera bag with two complete DSLR camera bodies and several lenses. I’m always on the lookout for great sunset photos, unique destinations to visit, and anything that involves water. Here are a few of my favorite travel photos from 2017 (although really they are all my favorite).