Our Year in Review: Van Living, Chasing Landscapes, and Seeking Balance [2019]

Our Year in Review 2019 | Diana Southern and Ian Norman, North to South

This final year of the decade was a successful year of finding balance for us, both in our adventures and in our personal lives. We spent a majority of the year focused on two things: the van and photography.

Ups and downs both played a part in our 2019 story, and that forced us to reprioritize what to focus on this year, but we pressed onward and made it through with a better understanding of ourselves and a new perspective to accompany us into the new year.

With the new decade now upon us, it’s time for a look back to appreciate all the great memories we made in 2019!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Seattle

January 2019

Winter in The Pacific Northwest

After spending the holidays in Southern California and closing out our winter work on our camper van, we started off 2019 with a chilly West Coast trip to Seattle.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Seattle
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Seattle

We skied, drank beer, visited friends, played video games, toured our friends’ hip workplaces, and both tried karaoke for the first time ever!

Ian’s Birthday in Olympic National Park

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | La Push, Washington

For Ian’s birthday, we explored a quiet Olympic National Park and the surrounding area during the U.S. government shutdown.

We booked a unique stay at a tiny house in Forks, Washington. Though I never read the Twilight series, we found that the town’s pride as the ‘home of Twilight’ made it a fun place to visit during a quiet time of year.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Forks, Washington Tiny House

Here on the blog, we announced our camper van build plans and set a start date for February in California.

Read We bought a van! And this is our plan…

The Coldest Day in Chicago

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | The Coldest Day in Chicago, Illinois

We then geared up to withstand the beautiful but bitterly cold day in our home base city of Chicago. On January 30, 2019, it reached 23 below zero, just 4 degrees F from the coldest temperature ever recorded in Chicago!

We went outside for about 20 minutes for the short walk to the lakeshore to experience the frigid cold firsthand, take some photos, and freeze our eyelashes.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Lake Michigan, Chicago

The rest of the winter was more tolerable weather-wise. We stayed warm with a variety of activities including volunteering at our local dog shelter, Just Dance game nights, singing karaoke with friends, and finalizing our travel plans for the rest of the year.

We also took the opportunity of spending time at our Chicago home to update our product packaging for our PureNight astrophotography light pollution filter.

February 2019

Slow Movement on the Van Build

We spent the month of February mostly in Southern California working on our camper van.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Our Campervan Interior

Despite a major setback when an allergic reaction wiped me out for a few weeks, we managed to make some progress on the van. We installed our water heater, designed and built our first storage bench, and attached our new personalized license plate.

See more photos of our van interior in Camper Van Update: Our First Trip!

Tiger got excited about our van build, too, and insisted on lounging in his bed and supervising for most of the build. We let him join us every day until he flew out and down the street chasing a rabbit. (We’ve since improved our Tiger setup in the van.)

My Dad’s Birthday

Dad's Birthday

Before we headed abroad again, my family all gathered in Simi Valley to celebrate my Dad’s birthday.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Vermillion Lakes, Banff, Canada

March 2019

A Winter Wedding in Canada

In March we flew north to Canada for our friends’ wedding, and we took the opportunity to enjoy the snowy outdoors while there.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Banff National Park

Not wanting to miss a photography opportunity, we endured the cold night temperatures at the Vermilion Lakes to shoot astrophotography.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Ice Hockey on Lake Louise
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Banff Skiing

We ice skated and played hockey on a frozen Lake Louise (the best wedding cocktail hour we’ve ever attended), and Ian’s parents even met up with us for some skiing.

A Birthday Celebration in Guatemala

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Antigua, Guatemala

From Calgary, we quickly ditched our ski gear in LA (thanks to my brother for taking home extra luggage from the airport), and we flew to Guatemala to meet up with our Chicago friends for a 30th birthday celebration.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

We split our time in Guatemala between the cobblestoned cultural city of Antigua (it’s a UNESCO world heritage site) and Lake Atitlán, a volcanic crater lake with several towns around the massive shore.

Both places were surrounded by volcanoes, making Guatemala one of the most visually unique places we’ve ever visited. (We’re excited to be returning to Antigua in 2020 for a wedding!)

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Camping under the stars at Red Rock Canyon, California

April 2019

Campervan Testing in California

Upon our return to the States, we decided it was time to test out our new additions to the van. We headed out for a two-night camping trip, our van’s first shake down since the addition of the kitchen and storage bench.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Rincon Parkway, California with Tiger
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Rincon Parkway, California

A YouTube Milestone

I finally got over my fear of talking to the camera on video this year, and I published our first video van tour on YouTube.

Watch the video to see what the van looked like at this stage (give it a thumbs up if you like it), and subscribe if you want to see more videos!

We visited both the beach and the desert. It was also a good time for us to determine what to add next. A ramp for Tiger, refrigerator, mounted solar panels, and rooftop fan were at the top of our list.

Travel Prep in Chicago

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Lincoln Park, Chicago moonrise at night

Next it was time for a short return to Chicago to regroup and prepare for Europe and summer van life in the U.S.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Kirkjufell, Iceland

May 2019

May was one of our all time favorite travel months!

Stopover in London

We flew into Europe via London, where our trip started off rough when I got food poisoning for the first time ever from takeout food. We canceled a whole day’s worth of plans there — including an Airbnb Experience I was really looking forward to that involved riding vintage road bikes and drinking beer. We did manage to enjoy ourselves a little bit in London, wandering around the parks in springtime and having dinner and drinks at the local pub, plus a funny moment when a stranger flagged us down in the street to help transfer her elderly neighbor into her motorized wheelchair (said stranger left while this was in process). We locked the woman’s front door for her, closed her garage and watched her ride off down the cobblestone street and into the sunset. (Of course we didn’t think to take a photo, but the memory is forever engrained in my mind because it was such an out-of-the-ordinary experience.)

Adventure in Iceland

After London, we called Iceland home for three weeks of amazing scenery, furry horses, and gorgeously lit landscapes.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

Our focus in Iceland was mostly on photography, but we were happy to be joined by some of our LA friends for our final week in the Land of Fire and Ice.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Helgufoss, Iceland

We saw and photographed countless waterfalls, visited Blue Lagoon for the third time, tried our first Airbnb “Experience,” hiked on a glacier, and even tried ice climbing for the first time! We stayed at some pretty cool Airbnbs, mostly with hot tubs and fantastic views.

If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, use our referral link to save money on your first booking.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Glacier Hiking in Iceland
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | White Arctic Fox in Iceland

We Spot Foxes!

Spotting three foxes was a highlight of our trip, and despite my epic scrambling with a mess of photo gear, I managed to capture a couple of decent images of the snowy white fox we saw!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | The "Secret" Waterfall, Gljúfrafoss, Iceland

When our L.A. friends arrived, we returned our economy car and picked up some trucks to tour around the country in.

Our Epic Iceland Road Trip

We visited even more waterfalls with our friends and many new destinations we hadn’t seen on our previous Iceland trips — the Golden Circle, Diamond Beach/Lagoon, Vestrahorn, Seyðisfjörður, and Akureyri — to name a few highlights.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | 4x4 Driving on Iceland's F Roads

On our last day, we wrapped up our trip with the sunniest weather we’ve ever seen in Iceland. This created a uniquely pretty and unforgettable atmosphere at Blue Lagoon.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Blue Lagoon, Iceland

At the end of the month, we left the moody land of forever setting sun to join a fantastic group of photographers for our second year as PhotoPills Camp Masters on the Balearic Island of Menorca.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Milky Way at Photopills Camp, Cala Pregonda, Menorca

June 2019

Imagine. Plan. PhotoPills Camp.

Warmer weather in Menorca this year made camp even more fun as we spent another photography-filled week with some new and familiar faces from all over the world.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Photopills Camp, Pont d'en Gil, Menorca
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Photopills Camp, Cala Pregonda, Menorca

At Camp we did nearly all of our favorite things: went to the spa, spent time near the water, ate yummy food, and made loads of new friends. We even jumped in the ocean for a swim on boat day this year!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Photopills Camp, Menorca

When the camp drew to a close, we stayed on the island for a few extra days to relax and explore more on our own.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Caldea Spa, Andorra

Unwinding in Andorra

We flew to the mainland and rented a car next, heading toward Andorra: a small scenic country in the Pyrenees mountains on the border of France and Spain.

There we found dark skies for astrophotography, and we visited the famous Caldea Spa for a fun day of relaxation (the third spa we visited this year).

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Milky Way in Andorra, Pyrenees Mountains
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Caldea Spa, Andorra

In Andorra we also recorded and shared a series of short instructional videos on astrophotography editing for our first Instagram takeover of B&H Photo.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

When we returned from the Pyrenees, before heading back to the States, we spent a day in Barcelona and toured the famous Sagrada Familia basilica.

July 2019

Van Build in California

After owning our van for eight months already, we were eager to build it out more, so we dedicated a month in California to do just that.

We Have a Hole!

We jumped right in with installing our fan by cutting a hole in our roof.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Van Build in California

Solar Panels and roof rails were next (both pretty big projects to research and execute), and building our second storage bench — including space for our refrigerator — was the last big item we completed this summer.

Maximum Van Optimization

We also fine-tuned some smaller items to maximize our van enjoyment (a small projector and screen, a leash clip and a ramp for Tiger, and the start of thermal window covers for all the windows).

See our summer van updates in 5 Exciting New Additions to Our Van.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Simi Valley wildfire regrowth

Every now and then — but probably not often enough — we took a break from van building to head out on a hike with our cameras.

August 2019

Van Life Begins

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Van Life

After a month of van building, we were excited to start traveling in the van.

Our first planned destination was to head north to visit Ian’s family for his dad’s birthday in Montana. We made our first stop for the night in June Lake, California.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Van Life Under the Milky Way

We headed east and onward, camper-vanning our way through Nevada and Idaho, and enjoyed some night photography opportunities every night.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Van Life in Little Salmon River, Idaho

Check out our amazing camping spot for our second night of vanlife in my post: A Lonely Lakeside Campsite in Little Salmon River and Our Luxury #VanLifeGoals.

Ian’s Dad’s Birthday in Montana

In Montana, we spent time with family on Flathead Lake with Tiger, taking him paddleboarding and on his first boat ride (which Tiger tolerated but didn’t seem too happy about). Tiger also saw his first bison and was in awe!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | National Bison Range with Tiger
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Glacier National Park

After Montana we headed north through Glacier National Park to Waterton Lakes in Canada, where we spent several days getting Tiger and us used to van life, staying at the park campground.

Camper Vanning in Canada

Here I started a new series on the blog: VanLife Chronicles, and Tiger wrote his first blog posts!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

Returning to Banff National Park was next on our list, but it was so crowded there, we soon decided to move on. A bit tired from the stress of driving and having an unplanned itinerary, we were ready to head back to the States, so we set our route to take us back through the Pacific Northwest.

Southbound on the West Coast

We found an awesome campground with flat parking spaces (harder to come by than you may think) near Mt Rainier National Park, all surrounded by trees and green and quiet. It was the perfect place to walk Tiger around, and we had a large campsite with extra privacy because the campground wasn’t super busy midweek.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Silver Springs Campground, Mt Rainier National Park

Ian wrote his first post on North to South this summer, reflecting on vanlife, some of its challenges, and sharing some of the photos he took at the campground in Washington. Read it here!

We bought a heavy long lens for Ian to shoot astrophotography panoramas with this year, which he basically carried around for the entire year, making use of it in daytime, too. (Tiger was the perfect subject.)

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Camping with Tiger in The Pacific Northwest

On the way back down to southern California, we took a detour to Reno to pick up an inflatable kayak before spending three nights camping at Silver Lake Campground in June Lake.

Tiger Time on Silver Lake

We took Tiger kayaking every day (which he loved), and got as much relaxation in as we possibly could camping next to stinging nettles on a busy weekend in the campground.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | June Lake Kayaking

Check out our kayak review to see more photos of Tiger loving it!

A Starry Wrap to Our Trip

A final night camping at Alabama Hills in Lone Pine rounded out our first summer van life trip. We headed back to Simi Valley to start preparing for our fall photography plans and do some more work on the van.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Milky Way Moonrise at Alabama Hills, California

At the end of August I had a minor but persistent health symptom emerge, and much of the rest of our year was steered by our quest to resolve it. This meant increased stress levels, several doctor visits, and a lot of bouncing back and forth between Chicago and California. Everything is manageable now, but it was stressful then, and we’re very much looking forward to a fresh start in the new year!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Milky Way Moonrise at Silver Lake Campground, June Lake, California

September 2019

Our 2-Year Anniversary on the Central Coast

In September, we planned an anniversary trip up the coast to the area where we got married two years ago. We picked up a mini replica of our wedding cake, went kayaking in Morro Bay, and stayed at the same beachfront hotel that we stayed at for our wedding.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Kayaking with Cake in Morro Bay
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Elephant Seals, San Simeon, California

We also stopped to see the elephant seals in San Simeon (watch them on their live web cam here) and finally went on a tour of Hearst Castle.

Photo Scouting in Mammoth

Later in the month, we headed back up to Mammoth Lakes with Tiger to do some pre-workshop scouting. We spent a few days photographing the area, and stopped at our favorite campground along the 14 on the way back.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Milky Way at Red Rock Canyon, California

October 2019

Mammoth Photo Fest

The first year of the Mammoth Photo Fest was a success, and we were happy to be a part of it. It was a great time to connect with photography friends, both old and new. We gave an opening presentation together (for the first time) at this photography conference, and we were happy that it went really well!

Near the end of the Photo Fest, we jumped at the opportunity to shoot the full moon rising over the mountains — especially fun for us since we’re normally out shooting without the moon.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Mammoth Lakes Moonrise, Mammoth Photo Fest 2019
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Hot Springs in Mammoth Lakes

We also managed to find some time to enjoy the natural beauty of the area, driving out to the hot springs for a moonlit, late-night soak with some fantastically fun new friends.

Lonely Speck Meetup at Trona Pinnacles

After Mammoth, we squeezed in one more photography excursion for the year: our 2019 pop-up Lonely Speck Meet-up at Trona Pinnacles. We had a great turnout for our last-minute fall gathering, with only a few clouds in the sky. The temperature was much more reasonable this time of year (our summer 2016 meetup there was very warm), so it was an all-around beautiful night for winding down our summer photography season.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Lonely Speck Meet-up at Trona Pinnacles

A Fall Weekend in NYC

We closed out the month with a trip to New York City to visit my twin brother, sister-in-law, and their dog Sky at their new New York home.

The fall weather was nice for bike riding and walking in the park, and we also stopped by the PhotoPlus photography conference to say hello to some of our photo friends.

November – December 2019

There’s No Place Like Home

For the last two months of the year, we decided to spend most of our time at our condo in Chicago.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Chicago Home

With all the van building, doctor appointments and workshops keeping us busy, we wanted some focused time to go through our photos, get organized, and regroup. We’re happy we were able to do just that, and we started finalizing and publishing some of the content we’ve been working on for the past year.

As winter approached, we took advantage of the early sunsets and brought our cameras out in the city several times.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Chicago Photography
North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Chicago, Illinois

PAWS on Ice

When a volunteer opportunity came up to take two cute puppies to the United Center to play on the ice with some Blackhawks players, we couldn’t say ‘no’ (though I’m a Blues fan, through and through).

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | PAWS Chicago at Blackhawks

Christmas in California

For the holidays we headed to Simi Valley and enjoyed spending time with my grandma, uncle, parents, brothers, and Tiger. We played lots of games (mostly Trivial Pursuit: ‘Stranger Things’ Edition and Throw Throw Burrito), watched lots of holiday movies, and walked through the holiday lights at Descanso Gardens.

Five dogs made the house a more lively experience, and we had fun attempting to use my mom’s new pottery wheel.

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Mojave National Preserve Outer Milky Way

We also squeezed in a winter van trip to Joshua Tree and Mojave National Preserve, bundling ourselves and Tiger up for temperatures in the thirties and enjoying the opportunity to shoot the winter night sky.

PJs for Tiggy

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Camping at Joshua Tree with Tiger

I ordered Tiger several sweaters and some PJs for Christmas, and he proudly wore all of his presents around for the two weeks we were in town. Tiger and his cousin Eddie got matching reindeer snoods!

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Christmas in Simi Valley, Reindeer Dogs

A YouTube Milestone

Just after Christmas, we published our first “how to” video together — How to Photograph the Milky Way in Under 5 Minutes — and we were excited to see that our YouTube subscribers have been really happy to see us again!

Afternoon Paddle in Oxnard

North to South's Year in Review 2019 | Kayaking and Paddleboarding in Channel Island Harbor

Missing our summer kayaking adventures and eager for some post-holiday exercise, we planned a day trip with my brother and his wife to Channel Island Harbor in Oxnard to get some use of our inflatable vessels.

Celebrating the New Year at Home

We closed out the year with an evening flight back to Chicago on New Year’s Eve, and at 12:01am we arrived at a party to celebrate the New Year with our friends in Chicago.

It’s been a fantastic and memorable year! Thanks for following along with us here on the blog, and a big hug to everyone we were lucky enough to share our adventures with this year.


Now Let’s Talk Goals…

Here’s a quick overview of what we’re hoping to accomplish in the new year:

  • visit South America and plan a trip to Antarctica or Africa
  • publish the content from 2019 that we’ve yet to share (Iceland travel planning, glacier hiking and ice climbing review, and more)
  • plan and conduct some Lonely Speck astrophotography workshops this year
  • update North to South with a fresh new look
  • prioritize our health

And the goals we reached this past year:

  • completed most of our van build
  • worked on more projects together to cross-market our photography and travel blogs
  • printed more of our photos to display in our home
  • connected with like-minded people as much as possible
  • simplified our lives, doing fewer things in a more meaningful way

What’s next for us? We’ve got a few things in mind… Follow our blog on Instagram or Facebook to stay up to date on our 2019 travel plans! Want to see what we did in previous years? Check out Our Year in Review 2018Our Year in Review 2017Our Year in Review 2016Our Year in Review 2015 and Our Year in Review 2014.

About the Author

Diana Southern
In March 2014, Diana called it quits on her traditional American working life and set out to explore the world with her partner in crime (and love of her life) Ian Norman. They now live a sustainable life of full time travel, working for themselves and seeking adventure at the same time. Here on North to South, Diana documents their journey in achieving and maintaining this "road less traveled" way of life.

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