2016 Holiday Letter
Dear Readers, Friends, and Loved Ones,
Happy Holidays from Loja, Ecuador! When I wrote the first draft of this holiday letter, less than two weeks ago, I had no idea that a few days later I’d be on a flight to South America! Let me back up to the beginning of the year and fill you in on how we got here.
We started out the year in Dickinson, North Dakota. Keith worked 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, including all holidays. He had started around November 1, 2015.
To celebrate the end of Keith’s job in March, we spent a couple of days in Lead, South Dakota on the way back to Kansas and went skiing for the first time since we lived in Leadville, Colorado in 2011.
Normally we take off and travel between Keith’s jobs, but this time he did what he’s been doing the last couple of years and traded his 12-hour days working for other companies, for 12-hour days building his parents’ earthbag home. We hired contractors to put the roof on.
Keith and his Uncle Frank set about spraying on the final layers of papercrete, which provide insulation for the house and protection for the earthbags. Denise, Keith’s sister, came out to help, too. This process took weeks, and by the end of it, our trusty papercrete mixer gave up the ghost, and they mixed the last few loads by hand.
At the end of April, my mom and I attended The Missouri Writer’s Guild Conference in Kansas City and pitched our manuscript to a panel of agents. They all seemed impressed, and one of them was eager to read it. “When you finish your manuscript, whether that takes six weeks or six months, I want to see it,” she said, handing us her card.
In May, I drove up to Michigan to visit a good friend I hadn’t seen in several years. Together we participated in my first ever adventure race, which was a complete blast! I’m hooked and I want to do it again next year!
The papercrete process on the house ended around June 1, then Keith and I took a couple of weeks off to travel to Washington and Washington (first D.C., then the state). I had just earned the Southwest Companion Pass and we spent a whopping $22.40 total in airfare on the multi-city itinerary. (In case you’re not already aware, I am an avid travel hacker.) We enjoyed our first significant chunk of time off together since our trip to Ecuador in 2014. We attended some events, went sightseeing, enjoyed good food, visited friends and family, and backpacked in the mountains.
When we returned, Keith and his Uncle Frank began applying the lime plaster over the papercrete on the earthbag house. Keith’s sister, Denise, also took a week off to help. Keith also worked on the floor of the earthbag house, installing all the pipes and adding one layer after another to what will eventually become a beautiful polished earthen floor. (See my blog post for more details.)
While Keith worked on the house, I worked on the book, Seven Years Running. In July, I drove out to Colorado for a few days of focused work on the book with my mom.
We finished most of our manuscript and sent it off to our beta readers to look at just in time for Keith’s and my next adventure.
On August first, Keith and I left on a 5-week vacation to Scandinavia for our first trip abroad since early 2014. (Airfare: $160 each for tickets from Kansas City to Oslo to Copenhagen to Amsterdam to Frankfurt and back to Kansas City. Plus free entrance to a first class lounge in London during a layover. Gotta love travel hacking.) Our excuse: a good friend was getting married! We attended their beautiful wedding in Norway, and also visited other friends who happen to live in Oslo. After that, we hopped on a train and began our exploration of the scenic country, from the fjords to the high mountains, and from the southern tip of the country all the way up to Tromsø, well into the Arctic Circle. We joined our friends (the newlyweds) for a backpacking trip, traveled by train and by ship, and spent a few days at a time in different parts of the country. (See my photos from Norway on Facebook, HERE.) While we were in the Arctic Circle, I decided to do an Arctic Plunge. Here’s the video of that momentous occasion:
From Tromsø, Norway, we took a bus across the border to Finland. First, we disembarked in Kilpisjärvi to hike to the point where Norway, Sweden, and Finland meet, and stood in all three countries simultaneously!
Keith also swam through all three countries. Here’s the video:
One of the coolest things we saw on the “Three Countries” hike was an albino reindeer!
We also saw several other reindeer:
After this hike, we traveled by bus, train, and ship through Helsinki, Stockholm, and back to Oslo. Then we flew to Denmark and spent a night (free, thanks to hotel points) in Copenhagen, then a week in Amsterdam, and a final night (also free with hotel points) in Frankfurt, Germany before returning to the States just after Labor Day weekend. (For pictures from the Finland-to-Germany section of our European trip, see my Facebook photo album HERE.)
We felt so happy to have the opportunity to travel abroad again, and especially to such beautiful countries!
Back in Kansas, Keith went back to work on the house, and I returned to the book manuscript, re-writing based on the feedback from our early readers.
At the beginning of October, I flew to Nashville, TN to attend a book marketing conference with my favorite book marketing guru, Tim Grahl. I got to meet Jeff Goins and a few other famous people in the writing and online marketing worlds.
If any writers are reading this and interested in learning more about book marketing, I highly recommend Tim’s material. HERE are the notes I took at the Bestseller Summit, for anyone who is interested.
My mom came out to Kansas later in October and spent a week finishing the book with me. We all attended the Mother Earth News Fair together, also. Once the earthbag house is done and Keith has finished a book about it, maybe he will become one of the Mother Earth News Fair speakers!
Finally, at the end of October, the book was done! At least, done enough to start sending it to agents, until one of them chooses to work with us and gives us a list of more changes to make. We’re also still taking feedback from early readers. I sent the manuscript to the agent who requested it at the writer’s conference in April and am awaiting her response! We’re preparing to submit to other agents, too.
Keith continued working tirelessly on the earthbag house, and we also found some contractors to come and put the roof on our RV shelter so we have a place to store our motorhome when we’re traveling abroad!
On Thanksgiving week, Keith and I once again used the Southwest companion pass to fly to Arizona (again, $22.40 round trip). We hiked the Grand Canyon with my parents and some friends, then celebrated the holiday with my grandparents. Afterward, Keith and I spent three more days of rest and relaxation in Scottsdale (for free, thanks to a hotel promotion) before returning to Kansas.
Then it was time to return to work. Keith called around to line up the best job, with an eye on a solar project in Minnesota (brrr!). However, we rarely know where exactly he will end up working until just a few days before the job starts.
Keith also did a little more work on the earthbag house. Here’s what it looks like on the outside now:
The inside is closer to done, too, with drywall on all the interior walls, a wood stove, and most of the plumbing and electrical work done! We are just a few months away from being finished now. Hallelujah.
I sorted through our things, preparing to pack on a moment’s notice for wherever we might go, depending on the type of job and type of climate, and whether or not we’d be able to take the motorhome. And then…
Keith discovered that the project in Minnesota required a current license in the state before he could begin working, and not just a reciprocal license, which is what the job ad made it sound like. Obtaining the license would take several weeks. Furthermore, several job sites were closing for the winter, and jobs in general were slowing down for the holidays. The only job with decent pay was not something Keith wanted to do (an oil job in the frigid outdoors of North Dakota, with an extreme cold front predicted around the time he would start).
“Why don’t we just go back to Loja until January?” Keith suggested.
I’d already been thinking of updating my Loja book and missing Ecuador so much it ached, so he didn’t have to convince me. I jumped onto my computer and looked up our options and in short order I had everything figured out:
- Flights for $175 each round trip (would have only been $100 but since we were booking less than 21 days from the flight we had to pay an additional $75 fee per ticket). Oh, and on the way down we would fly first class.
- Travel credit + a gift card to use on AirBnB + a significant discount if we rent for a full month. (By the way, if you haven’t used AirBnB yet, it is an amazing way to travel. We often find whole homes or apartments for less than the cost of a hotel room, and it’s way more fun and authentic to stay in a neighborhood than a big box hotel. Use my referral link HERE to get $35 off your first stay, and/or list your own spare room or home and make some extra money!)
- Very low food cost and low transportation cost once on the ground in Ecuador.
We could spend the next 5-6 weeks in Loja for less than it would cost to sit at home during the Kansas winter, AND since I would be working on my Loja book, the travel expenses we did incur would be tax deductible.
We made all our reservations, Keith sent off the application for his Minnesota license so that could be processing while we were abroad, and soon we were on a plane! Walking down the street in our beloved Loja a few days later felt surreal.
It has been almost three years since we stayed in Loja the first time. While we were here, the elections took place for the mayor of the city. Our friends were excited when the current mayor was elected and they predicted that many good changes would come, since the same man had been mayor a few years earlier and made many positive changes at that time. They were right. The bus system has improved, the walking trails in the parks have been extended, a beautiful and modern National Theater has been completed, and it is much easier to find information on tourist attractions and cultural events. There is also a new shopping mall and several new large stores, which gives me mixed feelings because I know the big box stores tend to ruin local businesses. So far, however, the local mercados appear to be as busy as ever.
We are thrilled to be back in Loja and I will be posting more about it on the blog, so stay tuned!
And that, my dear readers, is how 2016 went for us. We had a really good year and my heart is brimming with gratitude! Best of all for me was traveling again and having fun times with friends, family, and loved ones all over the world, and making some new friends, too.
From our temporary home in Loja Ecuador, to yours in whatever part of the world you may be, have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
With lots of love from Lily and Keith.