Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Our Crappy Year: Surviving Coronapocalypse 2020

Putting together my annual post-Christmas, year-end wrap up photo essay thing feels a little different this year, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, I'm writing in the middle (or hopefully somewhere in the second half of) a pandemic, and yes, the consensus is that 2020 was a pretty awful year. But what really feels different is that where I usually write about stuff that was exclusive to my own experience, 2020 was a shared trauma. So this year's post is more a document of "our" experience, or at least my perspective of it. And maybe that's one of the few saving graces of the last twelve months: that we went through it together.

In spite of the circumstances, I managed to take a lot of pictures in 2020, and there was a more journalistic theme in a lot of my efforts. Throughout the year I noted a number of images that seemed to capture the general sentiment of 2020, and I'll lead with one of my favorites: a message of optimism flanked by the sneaking suspicion that something else was getting ready to run us down:

As always, if you just want to see the full "best-of" gallery, go to my official website. It's got a lot more images, and if you're on a desktop computer (or at least a laptop), you'll be able to see the details that tend to get lost in the social media/smartphone format. If you're interested in my noble attempt to contextualize an event we still haven't emerged from, then read on...


For most people, the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic was a hard left turn that arrived somewhere in March after a couple months of distant rumors and other priorities. For me, the beginning of 2020 was more of a gradual, painful bend, like getting your arm twisted behind your back by Scott Farkus instead of just getting kicked in the head. Thanks to a variety of excellent experiences, I finished 2019 with high hopes for the new year. My resolution was to be "all in," and to enhance the good things I was trying to do already. But January must have sensed my good intentions, because it came out swinging.

I entered 2020 at the state capitol, surrounded by strangers, deafened by a throbbing PA system, vowing to never attend another single's dance. That ugly start got substantially worse a few days later when I found out that my weekly contributions to the Deseret News were about to be drastically reduced. This also meant that for the first time in seven years, I wasn't knocking around the Sundance Film Festival at the end of the month. Combined with a schedule reduction at Weber State, it was a bleak and financially strained start to the year.

I tried to stay focused on the good things, and gratefully, there were always good things. At church I started teaching the three-year-old Sunbeams, which was hilarious and adorable and inspiring all at once, and I also helped to coach the young men's basketball team. I managed to get out and take a few pictures here and there, and I made a special trip to a Jewish deli in Salt Lake to formally wrap up the first year of my Power Lunch project, but overall January 2020 was especially January-like, and the year was just getting started.

February started to get a little traction as I worked my way into my Weber class while attending annual Super Bowl and Oscar parties, and though the pace was greatly reduced, I kept trying to add friends to the Power Lunch series. But things really got into gear at the end of the month, when I joined my longtime adventure partner Chidsey for a cross-country train trip on Amtrack's famed California Zephyr. We spent the better part of two days winding through the Rocky Mountains and across America's Heartland before arriving in Chicago, where I spent a couple more days showing my friend around my second home. After two Illinois winters as a missionary, I was a little nervous about visiting Chicago in February, but the weather was surprisingly mild, and the timing really couldn't have been better.

After flying home from Chicago, I still had several days left on Weber State's Spring Break, which is typically scheduled for the beginning of March. I was a little worried about being over-indulgent, given my low-tide employment situation, but I eventually decided to head south for a few days, hitting favorites like Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Zion, and Bryce Canyon before heading home. As always, I tried to mix in new locations with the old favorites, and came away with more than enough files on my SD cards to justify the effort. And as with Chicago, my timing was more fortuitous than I realized.


Back on the last night of January, I was at Ensign Peak taking pictures of Downtown Salt Lake City when I met a tourist from Australia. Over the course of our conversation, he remarked that just after leaving home, someone down his street had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the killer virus that had been rampaging through China. I wasn't sure whether I should be concerned, whether my new friend might constitute any danger. But it was the first time the virus caught my attention.

By the time I returned from Southern Utah to resume class at Weber, the virus had seized center stage on a news cycle that already included a presidential impeachment, and was working its way through a fierce Democratic primary. Things officially got serious in my world when the church announced that its long-awaited April General Conference, which would mark 200 years from the First Vision, was going broadcast-only for the first time. Later that night, the entire NBA shut down as my hometown Jazz were about to face off with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Coronapocalypse had officially begun.

The next day, Weber State's classes officially went online, and for the next week or so, we all watched the news to see what was going to happen next. My reduced role with the Deseret News became a moot point as every film release for the foreseeable future was either postponed or canceled, and shortly after I decided to shift to home workouts, the gym closed anyway. We'd officially gone to the mattresses, with or without toilet paper, and as if I needed any more reason to think we'd entered The Twilight Zone, on March 18th Utah suffered a significant earthquake right around the spot where I'd been taking pictures at Saltair a few weeks earlier.

During those first uncertain days, it helped to hear from President Russell M. Nelson, as he assured the faithful that though challenging, our situation was temporary. Over the coming weeks, driving around town, I started to notice evidence of the shutdown, particularly the various billboards and business marquees posting uplifting and unifying messages. Since I wouldn't be heading out of town anytime soon, I started to document what I was seeing close to home, and the "Signs of the Times" turned into a side project that I continued to populate throughout the year. (Big thanks to my mom here, whose willingness to drive helped me get a number of I-15 billboards I couldn't have photographed on my own.)

As frustrating and ambiguous as the situation was during a few weeks that felt like a few years, the billboard reaction helped. Even social media seemed to be more positive than usual. Then sometime in April my longtime friend Steve approached me with a project idea. His wife Sarah had noticed a fun trend online featuring Covid-themed family portraits, taken on their front porches to document the "shelter in place" experience. She suggested that Steve and I do the same for our neighborhood, and when our first shoot went well, we wound up making our way through our entire ward. It turned out to be a very valuable experience, partially because it was just nice to interact with our friends and neighbors. But it also became a timely effort when the ward was split for the first time in 40 years the following fall.

Between the Porch Portraits, the billboards, and the other local shoots I tried to fit in, the transition from spring into summer enjoyed a sense of productivity and goodwill that turned at least a few of 2020's lemons into lemonade. Even putting in new sod and overhauling the sprinklers in the front yard offered a sense of satisfaction. But the 2020 news cycle never rested for long, and at the end of May, late on a Saturday morning as my mom and I drove into downtown Salt Lake City to pick up some cupcakes for my sister's upcoming birthday, we came up over Capitol Hill and drove straight into a massive protest. Tensions had been building over the death of a man named George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of a local policeman, and a number of protests rallied around the country that weekend. People honked their horns and waved banners as they hung out of cars and pickups, but as my mom and I passed the capitol building and saw the spray paint all over its front columns, my heart sunk.

I took a lot of mixed feelings from the experience, but one lesson I could pin down was that I should never leave the house without my camera. I didn't get any pictures that day, but I did come across some protestors in the weeks to come, so I was still able to mark the moment. We weren't even halfway through 2020, yet the year already felt like a century.


Once everything shut down in the spring, time started to feel like this weird nebulous mass, long and short, instant and eternal at once. Luckily my school schedule still gave me some semblance of time and space, and as spring transitioned into summer, a new routine started to form.

With the gym off the table, I started running three times a week, mixing in home workouts and weekly drum practice sessions on the days in-between. A summer class for Weber started in May and stretched through July, so I had a few things to keep me occupied in-between getting takeout food and marathoning more TV shows than I care to admit--including a timely first run through the surreal 1990's cult drama "Twin Peaks." I also kept trying to get out and take pictures regularly, and thanks to an old friend from KJZZ, the summer months officially kicked off with, of all things, a wedding shoot. 

By mid-summer I added a weekly hike to my workout regiment, and to my surprise the habit lasted all the way into November. Seeking out new trails every week turned into a mini-adventure that helped curb the disappointment at having to cancel more ambitious summer trips to Willow Flats and Rocky Mountain National Park (more on that in a second), and after I explored new destinations like Bald Mountain, Stewart Falls, and Lake Catherine, I capped off my summer effort with my first return to Logan Canyon's Wind Caves since I had a super fun encounter with a rattlesnake back in 2009.

The combination of the protests and my dread about the upcoming presidential election prompted a social media break for a few weeks in mid-summer, but fortunately I logged back onto Facebook in time to get some critical news about my mission president Neal Cox, who passed away after a nasty fall at home. President Cox was a kind of surrogate father to me in the mission field, and though my testimony of the gospel buffered my grief the same way it did when my own dad passed away six years ago, the news cast a gloomy shadow over an already difficult year. In true 2020 fashion, I watched his funeral online, and over several days I spent a lot of time thinking about my experience as a missionary, and reflecting on what had happened--good and bad--since I returned home. The news was also hard because I had been trying to line up a time to meet President Cox for lunch, and include him in my Power Lunch project. Without him, the project will always feel incomplete.

On a brighter note, I was eventually able to add a couple more friends to the lunch project, thanks to some outdoor locales and tactful social distancing. Though I generally consider myself an introvert, I missed the ability to spend time with friends in 2020 the same way I did so casually in 2019. Luckily I don't think that will be one of the permanent changes that emerges from the Coronapocalypse.

I knew going in that summer 2020 wouldn't match the prolific travel and photography of 2019, but I still hoped I would get in at least one solid COVID-friendly journey. Late in July I booked an ambitious itinerary for early August that would take me out to Rocky Mountain National Park and up to Badlands before heading over to Devil's Tower for the first time in ten years. I was even trying to figure out a way to cap things off with a stop in Driggs, Idaho, where I would finally take in a movie at The Spud Drive-In. In preparation, I bought a brand-new set of tires for the journey, which just added insult to injury when two days later, I hit a piece of debris on I-215 that wound up derailing the entire trip.

Thanks to my local projects, including a brand-new front door install courtesy of my neighbor Brad, I was able to keep busy and buffer some of the frustration from the experience. But the more poignant lesson came as I was trying to get my car fixed in time to salvage the trip. For several days after the collision, I desperately tried to stay on top of the repair schedule, coordinating with the Honda people and my insurance people, trying to anticipate any hiccups and neutralize potential issues. But every time it seemed like a problem would be solved, another one would take its place, and after a certain point, I realized I just had to let go. The trip just wasn't going to happen. Luckily I was only dealing with a road trip, and not something more serious. But I wondered if there weren't a more universal application for the lesson that I just wasn't willing to face.

L to R: my new door, my new doorbell, Brad. 


By the end of the summer, Hollywood tried to leak out a few new releases, including a long-awaited Bill and Ted sequel and Christopher Nolan's most confusing movie yet. It didn't get things back to normal, but it did provide a little material to keep me in the game as Chidsey and I resurrected my YouTube channel. Going into September, I had a full slate of online classes for Fall Semester, I was back at the gym, albeit with proper social distancing protocols, and my hiking and signs of the times projects were keeping me active behind the camera as well as on track with my exercise goals. I was disappointed that my summer trip had fallen through, but optimistic that I could put something together for my upcoming Fall Break.

Then this happened:

The most telling thing about the Windstorm of 2020 (or Windstorm 2.0, if you recall the storm of 2011), was our reaction to it. It was awful to lose trees that had been behind my parents' house since before my family moved in almost 40 years ago, and as I went out with my camera in the aftermath, it was easy to see that we were not alone in the devastation. But as with 2011, the collective rally to clean up and rebuild was swift and decisive, and given the circumstances, the attitude seemed to be, "meh, this is only about the third worst thing to happen this year." For me, this was the moment in 2020 where I was officially just rolling with it.

The storm hit the pause button on one of 2020's best subplots: a run of non-photography projects that started with the spring sod install, and continued with that front door installation and a couple of room remodels in my basement. I've never considered myself a handyman, so even my modest triumphs felt like a great leap forward. But one of my most rewarding projects was a little more up my alley.

For years I'd put an old box of my dad's photo slides on my "to do" list, intending to scan them for posterity. Though I'd always known my dad was a photographer, I'd never seen the bulk of his work, and when I finally broke down and ordered a scanner, one of my most cherished experiences of 2020 arrived in its wake. Looking over my dad's stuff bonded me to him in a way I hadn't expected. I could see my own tendencies in his style, and I could picture him taking out his camera at family functions the way I did now. I could see myself in his work, and I felt like I understood myself a little better as a result. Though the project itself is far from finished, seeing those first few scans of the past, often of people long gone, was a transcendent moment for me.

Bridal Veil Falls, one of my dad's favorite destinations.

My maternal grandparents.

Though it wasn't the plan, my weekly hiking tradition kept rolling right through the fall, and combined with my efforts to get out and photograph the changing leaves, 2020 just might have been my most prolific autumn on record. By the time my birthday rolled around in October, I'd trekked out another half-dozen new trails--including Lake Blanche and Malan's Peak--and made multiple runs along traditional fall drives like the Alpine Loop.

Before my birthday delivered the usual combination of celebration and self-generated angst--highlighted by my first visit to the Spiral Jetty, where the water really is pink--the family celebrated another birthday as my sister gave birth to her fourth little girl early in October. This rare bit of genuinely good 2020 news took me back to 2008, when my sister's wedding proved to be one of the lone highlights of another challenging year.

It was really disappointing to have to cancel my road trip in August, but one nice thing about getting older is that time moves pretty fast, so I knew it wouldn't take long until my next opportunity arrived. I still wound up pushing back my trip window thanks to lingering haze from the California wildfires, then, on the second of November, I finally set out for my first legit road trip since the Coronapocalypse turned 2020 on its ear. My first stops were familiar favorites--Valley of Fire, Las Vegas, Death Valley--though I tried to seek out some new options and compositions in each spot. 

Things really got interesting on day three, as I finally arrived in Yosemite National Park for the first time. This one was a true bucket list experience. I was apprehensive to find so much haze floating around Ansel Adams' playground as I crossed the Tioga Pass and dropped down into the famous Yosemite Valley, but over the next couple of days, that long-awaited visit more than lived up to its anticipation. Things got nuts on the way home (one of many 2020 stories worthy of its own post), and I had to bump planned stops at the Goldfield Car Forest and Cathedral Gorge State Park in Nevada, but I still managed a productive shoot at the Bonneville Salt Flats that capped off one of my most cherished experiences of 2020.

Not me.


By the time I returned from Yosemite, I'd gotten used to the parade of catastrophes that turned 2020 into a four-letter-word. And for every personal setback, I noted family and friends who seemed to be encountering far worse. But somehow the funk that pervaded November felt different. Yes, there was a contested election, but as the weather turned bad, there was also a sense that everything I had done to offset the year's limitations weren't going to be options moving forward, and with COVID cases spiking and a vaccine still months away, the reality was that the holidays--and life in general--were going to be severely compromised. I was rolling with things in September, but by mid-November I was officially fed up with 2020.

As always, it was important to focus on the positive. A fun studio shoot with Chidsey and some timely family portrait shoots brought in some work, and a special #givethanks social media campaign from President Nelson helped stir up some good vibes. Thanksgiving dinner turned into yet another Zoom experience, but life kept chugging along, even if I couldn't keep my students from finding ways to write argument papers about video games.

Thanks to the pandemic, the Christmas season was a dramatically different experience from previous years. There were only a couple of new movies to cover ("Soul" would have been a favorite even in a normal year), and mercifully, the semester wrapped without incident. I wound up pushing back my semi-traditional pre-Christmas photo trip, but kept busy with other efforts, like putting together a brand-new home office in the basement. The season felt compromised, but once again the good things helped. A Zoom message from our local sister missionaries on Christmas Eve, another Zoom-enabled Yahtzee game with one of my nieces earlier in the week. Temple Square was closed to the public, but I still managed to get some Christmas pictures, including a trip out to Antelope Island to shoot the "Christmas Star" just after sundown one evening.

In spite of the complications, Christmas itself turned out well, and without some of the usual distractions, I think it was a little easier to think about the significance of the holiday. I wasn't a huge fan of "Frozen 2," but watching my mom and three of my nieces piled up on the couch watching last year's animated sequel was about as satisfying an image as I'll take from 2020. Over the last few years it had become clear that as much as I loved travel and photography and food any number of worldly things, it was the people around me who added the most to my life. That remained true this year, even if that companionship often had to come at a safe distance.

Trust me, the Christmas Star is in this shot somewhere.

*     *     *

When President Nelson announced the #givethanks campaign back in November, it was easy to think of plenty of things I was grateful for. I posted a few of them to social media, but one thing stuck out to me as the campaign wound down. I didn't post it at the time, and as I've been putting together this wrap-up in recent weeks, I have second-guessed my sentiments almost daily. But I have to admit the truth: I am grateful for 2020.

From the moment it started, 2020 has been a merciless slog, a relentless wave of bad news, hassles, and outright tragedy. And yet, when I look back on this year, I see an awful lot of lemonade that came from 2020's lemons. When things first shut down and we all had to shelter in place, I'll remember going around the neighborhood with my longtime friend, taking porch portraits and keeping people's spirits up. When the gym closed and I had to find other ways to exercise, I wound up hiking all over Northern Utah. When the windstorm took out a pair of trees that had been in my parents' backyard for pushing six decades, my neighbors banded together and did what neighbors do. Not everything bad had an instant counterpoint, and there are plenty of loose ends heading into 2021, but that misses the point. 2020 was a test of our resolve, and even though it was ugly at times--spectacularly ugly at times--resilience won.

One night in December, I drove down to the Provo City Center Temple to take some pictures around sunset. Though I've never attended this particular temple, it has always been one of my favorites. Years ago, the Provo City Center Temple used to be the Provo Tabernacle, a beloved historic building that hosted all sorts of meetings over decades of service. Ten years before my visit--almost to the day--a fire gutted the iconic building, leaving little more than a shell behind. But rather than raze the remains, I wasn't surprised at all when then-President Thomas S. Monson announced that the building would be fully restored, and upgraded to a functioning temple. I wasn't surprised because that's what the Atonement of Jesus Christ does. It takes gutted, empty souls and makes them better than they were before.

2020 gutted all of us. Even before the pandemic kicked in, for months it seemed to me as if more of my friends and family and acquaintances were struggling with serious challenges and trials than usual. As my sister observed early on, COVID-19 just kind of concentrated the pain, and brought everything else into amplified relief. But with a little gratitude, a little resilience, and some valuable perspective, this year may turn us into something even better than we were before. It may still take a while; we can't count on convenient measures of time to magically solve our problems. January is January. But in the meantime, there's always good stuff; there are always silver linings. There is always hope.

For one thing, I won't have to spend New Year's Eve at a single's dance.

Happy New Year, everyone. We've earned it.