• Justin Key

Top 10 Experiences of 2019

I've always felt like this particular episode you find in the majority of television series is where the writers ran out of ideas. Think back through your favorite series and you can probably recall the episode that just consists of clips from previous episodes. It's not too different from what I do with this list though. Traveling back through the previous year, I'm looking for the ten moments that stand out above the rest. Unlike on TV, however, you haven't read all of this before. This list shows up every year in my 10 lists of 10 but every year it has 10 new items and the 2019 list is packed with amazing memories.

10. Exploring the Mayan Ruins in Belize



Initially, Sarah and I had planned on going to Belize for our second wedding anniversary trip in 2018. A late summer hail storm put the kibosh on that in the form of a new roof. Without any financial setbacks last year, we were able to visit the Central American paradise. As part of the trip, we traveled deep into the Belizean jungle to explore one of the many Mayan ruins sites in the small country. After a plane ride to the mainland, a shuttle into the countryside and a river cruise through the jungle we arrived at the archeological site. It was eerie wandering through a time in history I couldn't comprehend, a time so distant, mother nature has buried multiple stories of man-made structures deep beneath the jungle. The majority of the city has yet to be uncovered but the few temples that have been unearthed were incredible to behold. Imagine trying to understand our culture today with access to just the top floors of a couple of skyscrapers. The tour allowed us to scale the temple steps that extended above the forest canopy where Belize was laid out before us in all directions. I could only imagine standing in that same place at the height of the Mayan civilization and seeing all the other temples from the surrounding villages stretching above the jungle.

9. Garden on Steroids

My first project after buying a home was to put in a garden. As a kid, I grew up with a garden of my own and took great pride in it. After moving into our home I built a garden in the backyard. In year two, I planted our first crop but a tough spring held it back. Finally last year I not only watched it flourish but grow out of control. In all my years growing produce, I've never seen a plot so overgrown. The tomato plants swallowed their cages and engulfed the enclosure while reaching over five feet in height. The pickle plants took so well it became frustrating how often I was making pickles. By the end of the year, I was shipping coolers full of jars home and giving bags away to friends. Unfortunately, the tomatoes suffocated the remaining plants so only two species were harvested. It was still thrilling to see my personal garden take off like it did.

8. Shooting downtown



Urban photography has been a developing interest of mine. Nature is still my muse so only by traveling to new cities do I attempt to photograph from the street. Last summer I met up with a fellow photographer for an urban photo safari through downtown Denver. I've spent a lot of time downtown but rarely with my camera. With no purpose beyond photography, I began to see the city in a new light. I'd had my hesitations going into the afternoon but it didn't take long for those doubts to fade and my creativity to spark. I quickly found inspiration in the shapes and patterns of the architecture much like I focus on textures in a landscape. Soon the towers of glass and steel were guiding my eye. The results of that photoshoot were so impressive it's given me a new perspective on the urban landscape. That afternoon was proof that it's good to get out of your comfort level from time to time.

7. Whales in Maui



Sarah and I traveled to Hawaii at the beginning of March last year which aligned perfectly with the migrating humpback whales. Unaware of the sheer number of whales in the area, we thought maybe we'd see a few on a whale watching tour if we were lucky. During our first breakfast in Maui, we sat on the deck of the restaurant overlooking the ocean from a good distance. When the silhouette of a whale breached just offshore, an emotional cocktail of excitement and disbelief came over us. Over the course of the week, whale sightings were as common as billboards along the highway. Just watching the ocean would inevitably lead to a sighting either from a breach or a geyser of ocean spray. We didn't even need to take the tour although it led to an encounter with a calf and getting a better understanding of the incredible size of those animals. As an animal lover, it made for one memorable trip.

6. Winter in Marquette



Winter in Northern Michigan can be so peaceful. The snow serves as insulation that deafens the forest. Everything gets covered in snow or ice, and the deeper into winter you get the smoother the landscape becomes. After driving over 1,000 miles I found myself hiking through those familiar woods. It'd been six years since my last visit but standing on the shores of Lake Superior again I feel at home. In a clean heap of snow, I settled in to watch the frigid black water lap at the icy shore. The lake hasn't frozen over but the cold seems to have made the liquid thicker. The world seemed to slow like the gentle rolling of the lake from my perch atop the ice shelf. In all my meditation sits, I've never been able to release like that. Embracing the winter in Marquette was well worth the white-knuckled drive across the country.

5. Snorkeling in Belize

Life underwater has always fascinated me. Once I got over my insecurities with swimming, snorkeling became a favorite hobby of mine. Aruba set the bar high with shipwrecks and a chance encounter with an octopus. Right below that was Hawaii which put me up close and personal with a sea turtle. Then in October of 2019, the snorkeling ceiling was shattered in Belize. The reef off the coast of Belize is among the healthiest in the world and while it may not feature a rainbow of bright corals like the Great Barrier, the reef was brimming with life. Countless varieties of coral grew to unbelievable sizes and stunning quantities while providing shelter for a wide range of creatures. From eagle rays to lobsters, sharks, and barracuda the number of species we saw set unreal expectations for all future excursions to come. It took a little more effort to explore the reef than in Aruba and Hawaii but that could also be why it's thriving.

4. Festival Failures

The majority of experiences on this list are of the happy variety. Last summer's festival season was far from that. With four festivals on the books, I approached each one with high hopes. As one after the other was packed up, I was sent on a downhill spiral. I've been waiting for the day where photography becomes my full-time gig and I can call myself a career artist. I thought festivals would be the avenue to take me to that next level. After a long summer of disappointment, I was left doubting my future. The focus then shifted from how to make festivals worthwhile to is this really the path I want to take. With all the letdowns dragging me down the decision was undoubtedly, yes. The failures from last summer have only strengthened my hunger to find the right formula to make this happen. Knowing I can overcome that low point and continue this pursuit will only help me stay determined going forward.

3. Idaho Hot Springs



My first time in Idaho luckily came after moving to Colorado. Had we stopped in Boise first I'd have been pushing hard for a move there over Denver. After a long hike through the Idaho mountains, our friends we were visiting took Sarah and me to a hot spring. Soaking in the natural bath surrounded by snowcapped peaks, the complete immersion with nature brought a feeling of ease. Life seemed so simple at that moment and I couldn't help but want to indulge more in the simple pleasures of nature. Instead, we drove back to Boise for dinner but I've come to appreciate those moments where time comes to a halt and the schedule gets forgotten to enjoy to present. That's exactly what happened in the pool in Idaho, I caught a glimpse of what was truly important.

2. Haleakala Bamboo Forest



Hawaii is full of natural wonders and during our March trip last year I got to explore yet another unique location. There are groves of bamboo growing along the road to Hana but those are dwarfed in comparison to the bamboo forest in Haleakala National Park. As neat as it was to hike the trails cut through the young groves, the massive stalks that grow in the national park are far more impressive. The photographer in me went wild looking at the texture and color of each stalk while the traveler in me marveled at the overwhelming size and magnitude of the forest. Detouring from the trail was nearly impossible with the wall of bamboo on either side. The part of me that enjoys getting lost didn't mind playing follow the leader though because there was enough to see from the trail alone. It was so astounding, the light left before I did and Sarah and I had to scurry back to the car before night set in. I don't like to recommend places for people to visit, see the things that interest you has always been my approach, but if you ever go to Maui this is a place to go.

1. Sarah Goes Full Time

I like to think there's a plan for everyone and you're never given more than you can handle. Sometimes though the universe has to shove you over the cliff rather than wait for you to jump. Both Sarah and I have had the goal to work from home full time. While that goal aligned nicely with both of our passions, it was also important for us to be there when our family eventually expands. This summer fate threw Sarah into the fire as a full-time travel agent and she has been crushing it. I saw my wife go from working a 40 hour a week job with such despair to grinding out seven days a week at home with excitement. Her love for what she's doing has carried her through the transition and it's been a night and day difference. My goal to join her has become all the more pressing after seeing the positive change occur. The day both of us are working together from home full time can't get here fast enough.

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