When I think back to the start of 2021, it feels like a lifetime ago and at the same time feels as if it just started yesterday. This year was a Big year for us, with a capital B. Here are 21 of the most notable experiences we had this year.
We started doing “year in review” highlights back in 2014 when this blog was a little baby. And once I start something, it’s hard for me to quit on it. So it looks like this is a TWS tradition that’s sticking.
What started as more or less a highlight reel of our travels around the world has evolved a bit to include some non-travel experiences, as well as some “bumps” along the way (see #3 and #11).
2021 wasn’t filled with as much travel or adventure for us as some years in the past, but holy moly, was it a Big year for us, with a capital B.
Our lives have been utterly turned upside down from where we were one year ago today. And I can’t even begin to imagine what this next year will bring.
Honestly, that’s what I love about this life we’ve created for ourselves. We’ve been able to shape it into what we want. Something that is 100% ours.
I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished this year, and as I look back and reflect on everything as a whole, I see what a wild ride it was. So strap on your seatbelt and come along as we share our journey from the last 365 days.
If you follow us on Instagram, you might recognize some of the highlights on this list. But there are also quite a few things in here that we haven’t openly shared. Until now…
1. Snowboarding (a LOT) in January
We’re huge believers that if we’re going to live somewhere that experiences winter, we are going to embrace it fully! We both have grown to love winter (especially in Central Oregon where it’s pretty mild). We rarely get snow that sticks in town, but if you drive 20 minutes toward the mountains, you’ll find yourself in a full-on winter wonderland.
In late 2020, we came up with the perfect winter weekend combination, and we carried this over into 2021…
Just about every week in January, we loaded up our campervan on Wednesday afternoon and set off on a winter adventure that looked like this:
- Pack up campervan
- Head to our secret campsite in the woods
- Cook a hot meal and play board games
- Stop at a little bakery to grab huckleberry coffee cake and breakfast sandwiches
- Head to our local ski resort that has $25 lift tickets on Thursdays (score!)
- Snowboarding all morning!
- Come back to our van for lunch (a perk of having a campervan at the ski resort!)
Thursday afternoon & night
- Snowboard some more!
- Head to a nearby hot spring where we’d soak as the snow fell on our shoulders (aka magic!)
- Drive further into the forest where there’s a restaurant in the middle of nowhere that serves amazing burgers (and beer)
- Camp by the river for the night and fall asleep to the sound of rushing water
- Head back home after the perfect little getaway and plan to do it all over again next week!
We repeated this trip 5 or 6 times in early 2021 because it was just so damn good. And writing about it makes me itch to do it all over again!
Psst! We even wrote an article about how much we love winter in Bend Oregon on our sister site.
2. We tried winter camping for the first time
We’ve always wanted to try winter camping (are we crazy?!), and we finally made it happen.
First, we attended a workshop at REI to get some winter camping tips, which was super helpful.
Side note: If you haven’t been to REI’s community classes yet, give them a try! Many are free (the winter camping workshop was!), and they are really great opportunities to ask all those questions you have about a specific activity.
But I digress… Winter camping was (mostly!) an amazing experience. We showshoed in a few miles to a spot near a remote warming hut. Being winter camping newbies, we figured it would be a good idea to pitch our tent close to a shelter in case we got too cold.
We cooked a hot meal, drank bourbon + hot cinnamon tea (cold weather camping hack!), and had amazing conversations as the sky turned pink and the sun sank beneath the mountains.
One thing we noticed was how much quieter everything is in the winter. Without the rustle of critters, the chirping of birds, the rushing of water, the chatter of other campers, it was silent.
I’m going to be honest, even though we had a lot of layers, things got cold after the sun set. And truthfully, we didn’t sleep all that well during the night, but it sure was memorable. Plus, now we have a few ideas for how to make things more comfortable for the next time we winter camp!
3. Ben got some pretty major dental surgery… in Mexico!
In late February, we packed up our apartment, put all our belongings in storage, parked our campervan at a friend’s house, and boarded a one-way flight to Mexico where we stayed for 3 months.
Hold up for a second…
We didn’t go to Mexico for vacation this time… the reason behind this extended stay was not for pleasure, but instead for Ben to get some much-needed dental care.
Long story short, Ben has a genetic condition that meant he needed full-mouth reconstruction during his senior year of high school.
Fast-forward about a decade and a half, and there were some pretty major issues that needed to be taken care of. To get this dental work done in the United States, would have cost upwards of $50,000, whereas in Mexico, we were able to find quality care for a fraction of that cost.
Since Ben will likely need major dental procedures every so often for the rest of his life, we decided to establish care outside of the US.
While Ben’s surgeries were painful and the healing time was long, it feels so good to have these procedures started. (We will need to return a couple of more times in 2022 to have the work finished.)
We are grateful that we both have very flexible jobs as travel bloggers, making this a great opportunity to save money while also working remotely. We actually spent a lot of our time in Mexico working. Plus, healing in Mexico wasn’t all bad (more on that in the next few highlights!).
Psst! If you’re curious to know more about Ben’s condition and why we specifically chose Mexico to get care, we made a video that you can check out here.
4. We explored the Yucatán Peninsula
Our reason for being down in Mexico wasn’t fun, but on a positive note, we were able to explore the Yucatán Peninsula quite a bit during our 3-month stay.
We road tripped around the peninsula, took Spanish classes, spent my birthday on an island with no cars, sailed around one of the bluest lagoons we’ve ever laid eyes on (Bacalar), explored ancient Mayan ruins, and discovered all sorts of fun things to do in Merida (a lively colonial city!).
5. We went on some pretty epic dives
Before Ben’s first surgery, we made sure to sneak in a couple of dives because:
- a) we LOVE scuba diving
- b) we were staying near some of the best dive sites in the world
- c) we knew that once Ben has his surgery, we wouldn’t be able to dive for a while
And also, it was a good thing we did our dives right away because little did we know, I wouldn’t be able to dive for a totally different reason… (hint, hint!)
We did some reef dives off of Cozumel as well as a (really epic) wreck dive. But our favorite scuba experience in Mexico was diving in two different cenotes.
Wait, back up… what is a cenote, you ask?
Essentially, these are sinkholes filled with water, and they are plentiful throughout the Yucatán. In fact, there are thousands of cenotes in Mexico, and each is unique.
Some are cave-like and even have stalactites and stalagmites, while others look similar to a lake. Many of them make excellent places to swim or snorkel or even scuba dive!
If you’re a scuba diver and you find yourself in the Yucatán, don’t miss this experience. It’s truly like entering another world and one of the most unique and memorable dives we’ve ever done.
6. Launched a course that teaches people how to build campervans
Remember how I said we were working while we were in Mexico? Well, we were working pretty hard, actually!
It was while we were in Mexico that we finished and launched a huge project we had been working on for about a year…
This is a course we created that teaches people how to build a campervan conversion in less time!
We spent hundreds of hours putting together instructional videos and step-by-step modules that walk students through building a campervan from scratch!
Bonus: Our editor, Amanda, was also living in Playa del Carmen at the same time as us, so we were able to work together in person, which doesn’t happen very often for us!
7. #Vanlife Summer
After 3 months of living, healing, exploring, and working in Mexico, we returned to Oregon. We picked up our campervan and transitioned pretty seamlessly back into vanlife.
We spent the summer exploring some of our favorite places in the PNW, living simply, and all the while, keeping a pretty big secret…
8. We made a BIG announcement…
In July, we shared a BIG secret we had been keeping since March…
We were EXPECTING A BABY!
Whew, what a crazy mix of emotions this brought for us.
It felt so good to finally let the secret out and share our excitement. But this time was also full of lots of questions… Remember, we were living in a van, and we were very much trying to figure out our next steps.
But the good news was that my second trimester of pregnancy was a dream. I had tons of energy and the nausea that plagued me daily during my first trimester completely subsided.
I still look back on these months with so much gratitude that I felt so good. Because if I hadn’t, spending our summer living in a campervan may not have worked out so well!
9. Backpacked the Enchanted Valley
Remember how I said I had tons of energy in my second trimester of pregnancy?
Well, I felt so great that we actually did some pretty major hikes that had been on our wish list for years.
One of these hikes was the Enchanted Valley in the Olympic Peninsula.
We lucked out and got backpacking permits at the last minute. At more than 30-miles round trip, this is a multi-day trek and it brings hikers through some of the most spectacular parts of the Olympic National Park. It was absolutely epic. If you’re ever curious about doing it yourself, we even created a guide to the Enchanted Valley Trail on our second website, Go Wander Wild.
Even though I was a little nervous about doing this hike mid-way through pregnancy, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, so we went. And I surprised myself!
In fact, after doing this backpacking trip and feeling confident in my abilities, we went on to do quite a few other major hikes in Olympic National Park.
10. Hiked part of the Wonderland Trail
Another hike that has been on our list for quite some time is the Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates Mount Rainier. It typically takes hikers 7-10 days to complete the circuit, and it includes some gnarly elevation gain.
When we didn’t get permits in the annual lottery, we were bummed but thought we’d try our luck by just showing up and seeing if the ranger station had any available.
It was a good news/bad news situation:
- Good news: They had permits, YAY!
- Bad news: Recent heat waves meant a ton of snowmelt came down from the mountains faster than usual, tearing out bridges and making river crossings extra treacherous. The ranger told us he only knew of one person who had completed the trail at that point in the season.
So we compromised. We did 3 days of the hike instead of attempting to do the whole thing in somewhat dangerous conditions.
It was spectacular. Very hard, but some of the most beautiful views we’ve ever seen. I would go back and do it again (hopefully the whole thing this time!) in a heartbeat.
If you’re not into the whole multi-day hike thing, we’d still encourage you to get out to Mount Rainier National Park. This was the most time we spent in the area and holy crap, it is insanely gorgeous. There are some really great day hikes and it’s just a short drive from Seattle.
11. The big migration…
Want a little peek behind-the-scenes of blogging?
This highlight isn’t as sexy to talk about as, say, scuba diving or checking some epic hikes off our bucket list, but nevertheless, it was a major part of our year.
(If you’d rather read more about our adventures and less about the business side of things, go ahead and skip this highlight!)
Without getting too nerdy about the backend stuff, here’s the scoop:
We had been running Two Wandering Soles on Squarespace for almost 7 years and things were good. We liked the simplicity of it and really had nothing but a positive experience. In all our years of blogging, we outranked websites on the leading platform, WordPress, so we never really felt the need to switch… until this year.
When May came around, our website traffic had even surpassed pre-pandemic numbers – hallelujah! – and things were looking up.
But then, Google did a major update.
For all the non-blogging nerds out there, Google does many updates to their algorithm each year. Most are small and the majority of users don’t notice a thing. But every once in a while, they shake things up A LOT. And this is a big deal for us bloggers.
It can mean that one day, we rank on the first page of Google search results for several topics; but with a shift in the algorithm, we lose all those rankings overnight. Again, without getting too nerdy about it all, rankings = traffic = income.
The Google update in June of this year focused a ton on website speed. At the time, ours was atrocious. We had constantly been reaching out to Squarespace and their developers, who just couldn’t give us any solutions to improve our speed. Essentially, Squarespace isn’t meant for websites as large as ours or for blogs that rely mainly on organic traffic from Google.
So as we watched our traffic shrink day by day, we knew we needed to do something. And that something was a BIG task.
We decided to move our 700+ page website to a totally different platform, which was a GIGANTIC undertaking. We were living in our campervan at the time and trying to figure out this whole pregnancy thing. Plus, we were about to take off on our first real international trip in 2 years (to Iceland!), and we knew we couldn’t do this on our own.
So we hired a team: Ben, a designer, an SEO expert, a developer, Amanda (our amazing editor), and our VA, got to work on migrating our site from Squarespace to WordPress.
It wasn’t pretty or fun work, trust us. It was frustrating and slow and complex.
And we’re still tying up loose ends. But things are way better. Our website is much, much faster, which is good for us and for our readers.
So while this migration was slow and painful, we are so incredibly happy that it’s (mostly) done and we are starting to see things improve.
I hope this illustrates that being a travel blogger isn’t always glamorous. In fact, about 75% of the time, it’s pretty UN-glamorous. Especially when backend stuff like this is involved.
12. We went to our hometown twice
If you’ve been following us for a while, you may already know that we’re both from the Midwest; Minnesota specifically.
Most of our family and friends are still there, so we try our best to get back as often as we can. As we all know, 2020 kind of screwed up family visits for a while, so we felt especially lucky to get to Minnesota twice in 2021.
- We visited in August, and spent time at family cabins.
- And we came back in mid-October for a couple of baby showers, where we were able to hug some of our extended family for the first time in a few years.
13. Iceland, baby!
Ever since we spent a week in Iceland back in 2016, we’ve been dreaming of going back. And 2021 was our year to make a return trip!
We spent 2 weeks driving around the Ring Road, exploring Iceland in a campervan. It was every bit as dreamy as it sounds and made quite the adventurous “babymoon”!
Highlights of our trip to Iceland:
- Hiking the Fimmvorduhals Trail, a 15.5-mile hike that passes by 26 waterfalls, crosses glaciers and volcanoes and descends into a magical valley named after the Norse god Thor. There’s a reason it’s often ranked among the best day hikes in the world!
- Soaking in as many Icelandic hot springs as possible! We found remote hot springs where we had the entire pool to ourselves, and we also felt pampered at some of the most luxe hot spring resorts in the country. Both are amazing experiences!
- We saw tons of waterfalls in Iceland. To the point where I can’t even count how many we saw! They are seriously around every corner, it seems.
Psst! If the “Land of Fire and Ice” is on your travel dream list, we have pretty much everything you need to start planning your trip to Iceland. And if you have questions, feel free to reach out because we might just be able to help, or at least point you in the right direction!
14. We saw a volcano erupt up close
One of the major highlights of our trip to Iceland was being able to see Fagradalsfjall volcano erupt in person.
This eruption started in March 2021 and continued for much of the summer months. By the time we were in Iceland, the volcano wasn’t as active as it had been months before, so we weren’t sure we’d be able to see any activity.
It was one of those “perfect timing” things because the day before and the day after we hiked to the volcano, there was no activity. So we caught it at just the right time (which certainly isn’t always the case for us!). It was a pretty magical experience and we felt incredibly lucky to have been able to see it, as it stopped spewing lava just 3 weeks later.
Interested in volcanoes?! The only thing we can compare it to was when we were in Guatemala a couple of years ago and did the famous Acatenango hike, where you camp overnight and can watch a nearby volcano erupt all night long. It is insane, and should definitely be on your list of things to do in Guatemala.
15. We bought a house! (& did some pretty big renos!)
Truly, I never thought I’d be typing those words, but it’s true: 2021 was the year we bought our first house.
If you know anything about the housing market recently – and specifically the housing market in Bend, Oregon (one of the craziest markets in the US right now!) – you’ll understand how big of a deal it was for us to get keys in our hands.
Without going into too much detail, we had a really, really long and rough house hunt. In fact, we had been searching for over a year and had even gotten into a legal battle at one point. So to finally end this process with a house was a huge win.
We feel super grateful for an incredible realtor (if you know someone moving to Bend let us know and we’d be happy to give you a recommendation!), and also for my parents who camped in our driveway while helping us do all sorts of house projects to make this place feel like ours.
After 9+ years of living together in rented spaces, it feels nice to be able to paint the walls something other than “renters beige” and to hang things on the walls with nails instead of 3M hooks!
We’ve finally been able to surround ourselves with artwork that we’ve collected on our travels around the world (something I’ve dreamed about for years!). This house really feels like ours, which is something we haven’t really felt before.
I counted, and it turns out we’ve lived in 4 different places just this year – an apartment in Bend, a rental in Mexico, our campervan, and now this house.
In years past, we moved around much more than 4 times, but after craving a little more stability, financial equity, and a place that we could make our own, we feel incredibly lucky.
16. Spent our anniversary in a fire lookout
If you’re not familiar, fire lookouts are a big deal on the west coast. These structures are often located in really remote areas and have incredible views above the treeline (for obvious reasons!).
Many of the lookouts that are no longer in use are available to rent out for the night. However –and this is a big however – they are incredibly difficult to book because the demand is so high.
When we first moved to Bend in 2019, we woke up early nearly every morning for 3 months to try to book a fire lookout, and finally, finally got a reservation for the summer of 2020.
You can probably already guess that, like many things in 2020, this reservation was cancelled.
Thankfully, we were able to reschedule for 2021, so we booked it for our anniversary.
Not gonna lie, we didn’t get the best sleep of our lives here, but it was quite the memorable stay. Waking up to 360-degree views and not another soul for miles is just something that you can’t quite put into words.
We hope this is the first of many fire lookout stays in the future. Next time, though, we’ll have a third wheel with us!
17. We had visitors!
One thing that we’ve always dreamed about is the day that we’d be able to host family and friends. And that finally happened – three times this year!
- We were able to host Ben’s family and show them all around Bend for the first time.
- Right after we moved into our house, we hosted my parents who camped in our driveway (they are troopers!) and helped us complete all sorts of house projects. They came again in early December for a pretty good reason (more on that in #21!)
- And once we were all settled, we had good friends come visit for a long weekend.
After nearly 8 years of being somewhat nomadic, it feels surreal to be in a place where we can be the hosts instead of the other way around.
18. Explored more of our new hometown, Bend
One of the things we love most about where we live is that there are so many things to do in Bend.
We were lucky to spend a good portion of the summer and fall exploring as much as we could – hiking, floating on the Deschutes, going to outdoor concerts, and of course, trying out all sorts of amazing restaurants in Bend.
We moved to Bend just before the world turned upside down, so it has been a really strange time trying to make friends and do all the things around town. But it’s finally starting to feel a little more normal. And a little more like “home”.
19. We hired our editor on full time
Back in the summer of 2019, we welcomed Amanda onto our Two Wandering Soles team. She is an absolute rockstar and does all sorts of things behind the scenes of this site as well as our second website, Go Wander Wild.
Today, Amanda is a digital nomad and lives all around the world, but we actually grew up across the street from each other, so I’ve known her for most of my life.
This fall, we hired her on as a full-time member of Two Wandering Soles and promoted Amanda to Director of Content. We’re super grateful to have her on our team (especially as we take some time off in the next couple of months to spend time with our little one!).
20. We bought a new van!
As if buying our first house wasn’t enough, we also signed the papers for a BRAND NEW van. Gasp!
Honestly, we never wanted to buy a vehicle brand new (for many reasons). However, the used vehicle market (particularly high roof cargo vans) is absolutely insane right now!
Our goal is to have a campervan for next spring and summer, and as much as we adore “Pearl” (our current campervan), she just doesn’t have the space for another human being. Womp, womp.
We ended up purchasing a much larger model cargo van, and we’ve got all sorts of ideas for a layout that’ll include a bench seat (for little babe!), and some other fun features… like maybe an indoor shower?!
Stay tuned because we’re so stoked to get started on what will be our third campervan build very soon!
21. We had a BABY!
That’s right; on December 4th, we welcomed our sweet baby girl into this world.
Allow us to introduce you to Juniper Reese Zweber.
We waited to find out the gender (to which people either responded with, “that’s so special!” or “that’s crazy; I could never do that!”) until birth, and I’ve gotta say, it was a pretty great reward. Especially since I had a long labor.
And when I say long, I mean it.
If you’re interested, below is [the quick version of] our birth story… (Plus, we’re sharing why the date Juniper was born is so special to us and the meaning behind her middle name.)
Our Birth Story
There’s something pretty special about the date that Juniper arrived. Not only did she come on her exact due date (which supposedly is only the case for about 5% of babies), but December 4th has a deeper meaning for us…
It was on that day 15 years ago that Ben’s mom suddenly passed away.
When we were told December 4th was our due date we thought it was a sweet sign. Ben’s sister calls things like this “God winks”, which I find so fitting.
But when I went into labor on December 1st, I thought there’d be no way she’d arrive 3 days later.
That’s right. I starting having some pretty major contractions Wednesday night (12/1). I finished up a bit of last minute work (crazy, I know!), and decided to *try* to get some sleep. In reality, it probably amounted to 3 hours of semi-sleep broken into 15-minute “naps”.
Morning came and contractions had slowed down a bit (but were still definitely there), so we decided to distract ourselves. Ben cooked a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs and chocolate chip pancakes. We attempted to go on a walk (I made it half a block before needing to turn around!), I took a luxuriously long bath, and we watched “Elf”, punctuated with moans and expletives.
Again, contractions were too far apart to go to the hospital, so we braced ourselves for another long and sleepless night.
I’ll spare you the details, but by 4 in the morning, we knew it was time to grab our bag and go.
When we checked in around 5 a.m., the nurse told me I was dilated to 8.5 cm and added, “First time moms rarely get this far along before they come into the hospital. You should be meeting your baby very soon!”
After two nights of very little sleep, I was so ready.
But Juniper had other plans in mind.
So we waited.
The minutes turned to hours (most of which were spent in a bathtub!), and before we knew it, it was December 4th.
And at 6:44 in the morning she made her arrival into this world.
For those of you keeping track, I had a 55+ hour labor. Four hours of which were spent straight up pushing.
After Juniper was set on my chest and we had a few minutes to soak her in, Ben turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “December 4th isn’t going to be a sad day anymore.”
We hadn’t quite decided on a middle name yet. But being that she arrived on December 4th, we just knew that Juniper’s middle name should be Reese, her Grandma Becky’s maiden name.
In the weeks since she was born, we’ve been soaking up all the squishy baby cuddles and naps we can possibly squeeze in.
This is what people keep telling us will be our “greatest adventure yet”, and so far, we’ve gotta say we agree. While it’s a pretty different adventure from hiking to Everest Base Camp or winter camping, we’ve found ourselves completely wrapped up in these sweet moments and relying on each other now more than ever before.
We’ve definitely been challenged in many ways and we’re both running off of coffee and a bit of delirium. That said, we are already so in love and have big dreams of all the adventures we’ll take together as a little family.
And we can’t wait to bring you along for the ride in 2022. We have a feeling it’ll be our best year yet!
Wanna see how this year compares to years past?
We’ve done these round-up articles each year since 2014, so you can dig in deep!
- Highs & Lows of 2020 (you didn’t expect 2020 to be only a highlight reel, now did you?!)
- 19 Highlights of 2019
- 18 Memories from 2018
- 17 Highlights from 2017
- 16 Stories from 2016
- 15 Memories from 2015
- 14 Lessons Learned in 2014