People and places are the reason for travel. This year-in-travel photoessay features my family, friends, traveling companions, and the destinations we visited in 2016.
Disclosure: Some links in this article are to travel brands and destinations that have sponsored my travel or contracted my services as a content creator. All observations and opinions are my own.
People frequently tell me I am living the dream. And I am.
Well, MY dream, at least.
As 2016 draws to a close, so does the first full year in my second chapter as a professional traveler.
Table of Contents
- 1 People and Places
- 1.1 January 2016
- 1.2 February 2016
- 1.3 March 2016
- 1.4 April 2016
- 1.5 May 2016
- 1.6 June 2016
- 1.7 July 2016
- 1.8 August 2016
- 1.9 September 2016
- 1.10 October 2016
- 1.11 November 2016
- 1.12 December 2016
- 1.13 Map It!
- 1.14 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 1.15 Pin this Post!
- 1.16 Travel Colleagues and Friends
- 1.17 Travel, Automotive, and Destination Partners
People and Places
A journey is best measured in friends, not in miles. ———Tim Cahill
In December 2015, when I published Transitions: A Year in the Life of a Travel Blogger, I compiled lists of accomplishments and goals, and I am glad I did. They helped me put into perspective what I had done and helped me envision what was to come.
I could do the same this year, but the hours it would take me to gather, compile, and report the data is time I can no longer spare.
What readers and followers do not see is the work that accompanies sponsored travel, press passes, and paid assignments. Travel simply for relaxation is a rare occurrence these days. Virtually every trip I take is a working trip, gathering information, taking endless photos, and posting to social media. When I return home, the work continues, playing catch-up from my time away, optimizing photos, brainstorming story angles, writing and publishing content, and finally content promotion.
Please understand, I am not complaining. I love my second career! Travel and writing are in my DNA! But I don’t have lofty goals for 2017; I prefer going with the flow.
If I had a New Year’s Resolution, it would be to bring BALANCE to my life. In 2016, the scales tipped heavily on the side of travel. I want to reel it in a bit so that I don’t neglect other elements of life that deserve my attention, as well.
SO . . . this year I decided to feature people and places that were part of my journey in 2016. After all, when it comes right down to it, people and places matter the most.
This post is photo-intensive and self-indulgent, but please don’t think it braggadocious. You will see my mug a lot, but you won’t see duck lips. I am not a selfie junkie, but I do love pix with my friends!
I did write this monster post for our readers and fellow travelers, but if the truth be told, I mostly wrote it for myself . . . .
Our first trip of 2016 was to New York City to attend the New York Times Travel Show.
This was Jerry’s first time in the Big Apple, so we literally hit the ground running with a visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on the afternoon of arrival.
Photo Credit: Cheryl MacDonald
We were honored to be invited to the CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) Water Wanderlust cocktail reception on the eve of the NYTTS where we made the rounds meeting with representatives of the member cruise lines. We were also reunited with old friends such as Erin Bender from Explore with Erin and made the acquaintance of new friends such as Deb Corbeil and Dave Bouskill from The Planet D.
No trip to NYC would be complete without taking in a couple of shows. This time it was the Broadway revival of The Color Purple and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, two moving productions that left us with pockets full of tunes to hum for days to come.
In February, I embarked on a Southern Mississippi Road Trip.
When I learned I would be driving from my home in Central Florida to the University of Southern Mississippi to deliver 12 boxes of research, manuscripts, and books to the de Grummond Collection, I decided I might as well explore more of the state while I was there.
I made a pit stop in Mobile, Alabama, to have coffee with a childhood friend I had not seen in over forty years. Mark Bryant (whose parents were also missionaries) lived just a few houses down from ours on Calle General Garay in Asunción, Paraguay.
I met up with Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, delivered the goods, took a tour of this vast repository, shared a cup of coffee and conversation, and then got back on the road. This story is detailed in the article How My Books Landed in the de Grummond Collection at USM.
- Visit Historical Natchez, Mississippi
- Mississippi Backroads Between Natchez & Vicksburg
- The Best Way to Visit Vicksburg National Military Park
- How to Spend 36 Hours in Vicksburg, Mississippi
- Civil Rights and Literary Driving Tours in Jackson, Mississippi
Mississippi photographer Ashleigh Coleman happened upon photos from my detour to the ghost town of Rodney while perusing social media. Long story short, Ashleigh contributed her own photos in a guest article entitled The Haunting Town of Rodney, Mississippi: A Photo Essay. This contribution has become Backroad Planet’s most popular post of all time!
In late February, I attended the Winter AutoFest in Lakeland, Florida. This massive classic car auction and swap meet also featured Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat and a 1969 General Lee Dodge Charger.
In the past, when someone would ask where I am from, I would say Tampa because it is the nearest major city. As the conversation evolved, and they learned that I am from the small town of Plant City, they would exclaim, “Oh, the home of the Florida Strawberry Festival.”
Now when asked, I just say Plant City. I am a fifth-generation native Floridian after all.
As a child, I loved going the Strawberry Festival and parade. After teaching at Tomlin Middle School (which adjoins the festival grounds) and parking cars as a school fundraiser and fighting traffic for eleven days each year, I didn’t love it quite as much.
This year, however, my beloved nephew Nathan Hood was showing his steer during the festival. So, I made an exception and spent an evening in the grandstands with my sister Carla Hood (C), cousin Brenda Shepherd (R), and forever friend Sherry Bunting (L).
Near the end of the month I drove up to Pinebox, my North Georgia cabin for springtime in the Blue Ridge mountains.
My first cousin Rhoda Vickers who runs the lifestyle blog Southern Hospitality and her sister Renee Sofge drove up from Atlanta to the cabin for a visit and later lunch in Blue Ridge.
On March 21, while I was still at the cabin, Jerry and I lost our dear friend Dr. Gloria Houston.
Gloria and I became instant friends the day we met at a book-signing in 1992. Over the years, this best-selling children’s author and educator would become my mentor, advocate, and source of unconditional love. Her absence has left a gaping hole in my heart, but it comforts me to know Gloria’s memory will live on in her children, her students, her books, and in the hearts of her fans around the world.
On Easter Sunday I shared lunch with Hinson family members including first cousins Doyle Hill and April Monjure and my sister Carla Hood.
In early April, Southern Ford Dealers loaned us a 2016 Explorer Platinum for a waterfall-chasing road trip to North Florida.
We conveniently routed the itinerary through Apalachicola for a couple dozen oysters.
We hiked backwoods trails, canoed the Suwannee River, and our efforts paid off, as revealed in our post Chasing Waterfalls in Florida.
The following weekend I hopped a flight to Phoenix and joined a group of international travel journalists for a 5-day press trip. I soon learned that I had made history as the first travel blogger ever hosted by Visit Arizona.
Our group included (L to R): Marjorie Magnusson (trip leader), Christian Ruf (Germany), Daniele Guido Gessa (Italy/UK), Cindy Agustín Flores (Mexico), Ernie Lozano (our driver), me (USA), Lu Yang (China), and Patrick Brennan (Canada/not pictured).
To date, I have reported on the first two days of our Arizona Road Trip.
- Phoenix to Tucson to Safford: An Arizona Road Trip
- Safford to Pinetop-Lakeside: An Arizona Road Trip
While in Phoenix I met up with my longtime friend Robin Lund for dinner.
I also reconnected in Mesa with Deb and Gary Szarowicz, two friends we had met during our Grand European cruise on the Viking Mimir.
Back home, and before the summer heat kicked in, Jerry and I hit several biking trails around Central Florida.
On May 9, we celebrated the life and legacy of my Aunt Mary Blount, who we affectionately called “Pooch.” This beautiful, godly woman was a powerful force of love and support in the lives of her extended family and friends. To know her was to love her, and I miss her so!
Later in the day, I wrangled a few of my Blount first cousins together for a family photo (L to R): Keith Blount, Kendra Harrell, Carla Hood, me, Renee Sofge, Rhoda Vickers, Brenda Shepherd, Dennis Blount, Jan Benton, Jacque Sweet.
On May 28, Jerry and I flew out for a weeklong Iceland Ring Road road trip. This was our first time visiting Iceland, and its scenic beauty can best be described as nature on steroids. It would become our favorite destination to date. If you have never traveled Iceland, I recommend making it a priority!
My first article, 13 Things to Know Before You Travel to Iceland, would publish on JohnnyJet.com in September. It was only fitting. I had won two round-trip tickets in an Icelandair contest on my bud Johnny’s site a year earlier. While you are poking around, you might also check out my interview for JohnnyJet’s Travel Style.
Photo Credit: Melody Pittman
In mid-June I joined a host of travel industry friends for a cruise to the Dominican Republic with Fathom Impact Travel. This would be my first time visiting the DR.
The MV Adonia carried us to Puerto Plata, where we docked at Amber Cove for three days of impact activities with various local educational, environmental, and economic agencies. I wrote candidly about my experiences in the article Do Fathom Impact Travel Activities Have Lasting Value?
Also along for the trip (L to R): Amelia Old of Passports from the Heart and her son Josh; Marilyn Worrix and her sister Donna Meyer from NomadWomen; Christina Thomas from Go Epicurista; cruise friends Kymoul and Anita Vanterpool; and some Dominican pals from Cabarete.
Midweek several members of our group set off on a day trip to descend the lower 12 of the 27 Rio Damajagua waterfalls. Our trusty Dominican guides accompanied Amelia, Josh, and me, along with Amanda Shute Taylor from Guide For Moms; Jesica Helgren from Mommy’s Bunch; Christina Riley and Carl Hedinger from Duke Stewart Writes.
Photo Credit: Cathy Merrifield
On our last night aboard the Adonia, a few of us gathered for a group shot.
Carl and Christina; Dan and Nedra McDaniel from Adventure Mom; Katie Faherty; Kirsten Maxwell from Kids are a Trip; Cathy Merrifield and Frank Parrott of RoarLoud; Erin Faherty of 10 Miles Behind Me; Charles McCool of McCool Travel; Lisa Niver of We Said Go Travel; Carolann Hughes and Macrae Sutton of One Modern Couple; Christina, me, Amelia, and the pesky Melody Pittman who shall be dealt with later on.
Some mornings when you wake, you have no idea what the day will bring. July 1, was one of those days. Suddenly, a message popped up from Priscilla Cheney, a college friend I had not seen in nearly forty years, letting me know she would be in town. Long story short, we met up for lunch, and although we had lots of catching up to do, somehow it was as if nothing had changed.
Then it was time to head back up to the cabin for a couple of weeks.
There is nothing quite like the bounty of summer at the Union County Farmer’s Market.
While in the mountains, I met up with my cousins Carmen and Rhenda Booth for dinner and a concert.
I had another surprise reunion at Tampa International Airport with Beth Foley, a teacher friend I had not seen in almost twenty-five years. Social media is amazing!
Ford Motor Company invited me to Denver for a two-day turnaround media drive. I literally flew out one day and returned the next. I wrote about the experience in my article The All-New 2017 Ford Super Duty Owns Recreation!
August was all about Travel Media Showcase, my favorite travel show hands down, this year hosted by Visit Grapevine, Texas! I went on associated media trips before and after the conference with Visit Amarillo, Visit Lubbock, Waco: Heart of Texas, and Visit Granbury.
My articles from the TMS trip published so far include:
- Revisit Retro Road Travel in Amarillo, Texas
- 8 First-Rate Cultural Sites in Lubbock, Texas
- Walk through History in Grapevine, Texas
Photo Credit: Hope Stokes
My travel companions during the first leg of the pre-conference trips were (L to R): Jackie Sheckler Finch (Homes & Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, Terri Marshall (TravelingMom), Nancy Parode (About.com), Esther Irish (Laugh With Us Blog), Jody Halsted (Family Rambling), Helen Anders (Austin American-Statesman), and Charles McCool.
I grabbed a few selfie shots, most from the marketplace floor with: my Plant City partner Terri Marshall; the amazing hostess-with-the-mostest Leigh Lyons from Visit Grapevine; our uber-energetic Mother Hen and President of TMS Joanne Vero; my Australian nomad colleague Erin Bender wearing her trademark excited smile; my longtime online friend Cacinda Maloney from Points and Travel, who I finally met in person.
Alas, I didn’t get to meet the real Chip and Joanna Gaines from HGTV’s Fixer Upper while in Waco, but I did meet David Ridley from Waco Tours whose home was featured on the “Most Eligible Bachelor” episode.
In September I attended the Mid-Atlantic Tourism Public Relations Alliance (MATPRA) Media Marketplace for the first time. The conference was sponsored by Talbot County, Maryland, and again I participated in media trips before and after the event. My hosts this time were Visit Maryland and Visit Southern Delaware.
Mazda USA loaned me a Mazda CX-3 CUV for the week to carry me through the Maryland and Delaware backroads.
Some of my friends and travel mates on this adventure (L to R): Julie McCool from Fun in Fairfax; Charles McCool; Jill Gleeson from Gleeson Reboots; Malerie Yolen-Cohen from Getaway Mavens; freelance journalist Vanessa Orr; Chris Temple from Visit Erie.
Photo Credit: Vanessa Orr
I went kayaking for the first time, second time, and third time (can you believe it?) during the week in Maryland and Delaware.
On September 17, while I was still in Delaware, Jerry welcomed his first grandchild Jude Avery Music into the world. #thatsmyJAMusic
I attended FLBlogCon 2016 in Orlando on September 24, and met up with my colleague Christina Thomas. I also got to have lunch with my brother/cousin Doyle Hill.
Jerry met me in Orlando, and we drove up to St. Augustine for a spooky assignment with VISIT FLORIDA. I wrote about our encounters with the local spirits in my article Experience Haunted St. Augustine, Florida.
October would be my busiest travel month, and the tipping point in my quest for balance. I was literally at home in Florida four days with two 1-day turnarounds and one 2-day turnaround between trips.
My first trip in October was a Kansas and Missouri road trip. My primary sponsors were Travel Kansas, Visit Wichita, Visit Topeka, and Visit Kansas City. I spent my 58th birthday driving the Kansas backroads blaring Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, and I was in heaven!
I meet all types of people in my travels, and this trip was no different.
I met Jay Dot CA and members of the heavy metal band Media Solution on Orleans Street between Westboro Baptist Church and the Equality House in Topeka. In our brief conversation we learned that we were both former Assembly of God church boys, and even though our paths had taken different directions, we had so much more in common.
In KCMO, I had the pleasure of working with the lovely Toni Alexander, who designed an incredible itinerary of the best historical sites, museums, and dining experiences Kansas City has to offer.
With a 1-day turnaround, I embarked on my second cruise with Fathom Impact Travel, this time for a week circumnavigating Cuba.
As always, it was great to travel with colleagues old and new (clockwise from center front): Mary Fitzgerald Edwards from Florida Bloggess; Melody Pittman; Keryn Means from Walking On Travels, Justin Walter from Around the World with Justin; freelance writer Tai Kojro-Badziak; Cheryl MacDonald and Lisa Chavis from What Boundaries? Live Your Dream!; Lucee Arvanitis-Santini from MomJunky.
There is no denying that one of my traveling companions seems to be on the radar more often than others. Her name is Melody Pittman, and she runs the travel blog Wherever I May Roam with her daughter Taylor.
Melody and I appear together in public so frequently that our industry colleagues affectionately call her my “travel wife.” Our connection is strictly platonic, and our tastes could not be more different. She loves Disney. I don’t. She loves football. Again, I don’t. And don’t even open the can of worms called politics. We are an odd couple, but somehow we click and have a lot of fun on the road laughing, bouncing around ideas, and serving as mutual “flytographers.”
I was home for two days before heading back up to Pinebox for my favorite time of year. There is no autumn in Florida, which is why I always plan to be in the mountains for the third week of October when leaves are typically at their peak.
It has become an annual tradition for my college roommate Bishop Jim Swilley, who leads the Metron Community in Atlanta, to drive up with his husband Ken Marshall for a couple of days tromping through the woods, chasing waterfalls, and sitting around the fire. I am blessed to have two brothers from other mothers!
I spent my second 1-day turnaround at home before Jerry and I flew out to Cancun, Mexico, to join a Day of the Dead media trip with Experiencias Xcaret. Mexico carried us into November.
For two days we explored the Xcaret, Xplor, and Xenses parks, and our final day we went on an adventure rapelling, snorkeling, kayaking, and ziplining the Xenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula.
We did not get a Day of the Dead group shot, but we were joined on this trip by Lance and Laura Longwell of Travel Addicts and Dayvee Sutton of Dream Network Media (pictured right with Jerry). It was also a great surprise to reconnect at dinner with one of my first travel industry friends, Christa Thompson of The Fairytale Traveler and her son Gage who were in Cancun for another assignment with Xcaret.
The day after our return from Mexico, I met up with a small group of educator friends who taught together at Lincoln Elementary in Plant City over twenty years ago (L to R): Fredda Johnson, Donna Allen-Krug, Linda Navicky, Richard Humphrey, Elisa Humphrey.
Regarding the US 2016 election, let’s just say I did my part and leave it right there . . . .
My final journey of the year would be a Rhine Getaway Christmas Markets #VikingSocial media trip with Viking Cruises. This cruise would take me through Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Partnering with Viking Cruises has been my greatest joy since embarking on my second chapter in the travel industry. This is due not only to the superior products and services they provide, but also to the incredible corporate, PR, and ship-based personnel I have come to know and love.
Many of my #VikingSocial travel companions have become friends for life, bringing even greater joy to the journey.
I wasn’t able to get selfies with everyone, but I did get a few (L to R): Jennifer Weatherhead Harrington from Travel & Style, her photographer husband Justin Harrington, Amanda and Konrad, our amazing hosts on behalf of Viking; Rachelle Lucas from The Travel Bite and her husband Pete Wallace; Instagrammer phenom Kael Rebick from @punkodelish and photographer extraordinaire Mary Quincy; Mike Faust, social media manager at CLIA, and his lovely mother Joni; Carolyn Scott-Hamilton from The Healthy Voyager; Teri Didjurgis from Blue Sky Traveler and Julie Cohn from A Cork, Fork & Passport.
This photo at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Netherlands, has redemptive significance for me. This is the site where on July 20, 2014, the retina in my right eye detached and tore on the first day of a Viking Cruise, and I had to be evacuated back to the US for surgery. I have now returned to this site twice with Viking in June of 2015 and December of 2016.
Jerry and I spent Christmas morning with our main men. Jerry presented Jude with a handmade cedar chair, and I gave my nephew Nathan a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators. Love our boys!
Before closing, I couldn’t resist including some of the furry friends we met during our travels in 2016. When we are away from Axle, it’s always nice to get a surrogate puppy-sugar fix!
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share stories about people and places they encountered during their travels. Have you met someone truly amazing on the road? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!
Pin this Post!