Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge

In 2019: Highlights from the Year

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This year was the most exciting, beautiful, frustrating, empowering, overwhelming year. How can a single 12-month period be all these things? As has become my favorite holiday tradition for the past 11 years, I’m looking back in 2019 through the highs and lows and everything in between.

Skiing Banff Sunshine in Canada

In our travels…

My mom told a friend the other day that “Kristin doesn’t travel like she used to,” and it gave me pause. Is that true? I guess in a manner of speaking, I don’t travel to the places I once did, like Australia and New Zealand and Rwanda and Dubai, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m traveling less. I simply prefer shorter trips, destinations closer to home, and journeys that can be done by car—while I only visited eight states, three countries and one territory this year, the mileage put on my Jeep is out of control. SVV has been tracking it for our taxes, and we’ve almost logged 60,000 miles by car this year alone! We’ve traded long flights for long drives and have spent so much of the past few years being road warriors in the South, exploring lesser-covered corners of the region and working with cities of all size on their marketing plans. I prefer this, because while it means more time in the car, it means shorter trips and more time at my house with my dog. Maybe I am becoming a homebody?

Kristin Luna in New Orleans

Regardless, the year kicked off with a work trip to ski in Banff with several of good friends, followed by the first of three trips to Memphis for the year, in which we visited family but also explored the city’s restaurant scene, its musical soul and its many murals in partnership with the CVB.

Planning a Ski Trip to Lake Louise, Canada

Planning a Ski Trip to Lake Louise, Canada
Planning a Ski Trip to Lake Louise, Canada

After that, we spent a week in Puerto Rico with two of our best pals, Matt and Jason, for my birthday. It was so relaxing to actually travel for fun (imagine that!), have no game plan and be with a couple whose chill travel style so cohesively meshes with ours (sleep, eat, beach, cocktail, nap, repeat). Though this wasn’t a work trip, I do still plan to blog about our vacation to Vieques, Luquillo and San Juan … one day (soon, I hope).

Visiting Puerto Rico

Much of the following month was spent moving and getting situated in the Cedar House, so we were relatively homebound, but I did jet off for a long weekend in Panama City Beach, which ironically is where I currently am as I write this. It was one of four trips we took to Florida this year: three to the Gulf Coast and one to St. Augustine to spend Fourth of July weekend (aka SVV’s birthday) with Jade and her family.

St. Augustine vacation

A new city to both of us was Cincinnati, where we visited twice for four-day stretches—once in spring, once in fall—and hope to return to many times in the future as we just barely scratched the surface of all there is to do in the Queen City.

Cincinnati art scene: Murals, digital projections and more

We also went to one of our favorite cities, Oklahoma City, twice for four-day stretches: one in which some of our favorite people tagged along and the other where it was just us to explore OKC’s mural festival and the opening of Scissortail Park.

The art at the 21c Oklahoma City Hotel

Oklahoma City with friends
Oklahoma City with friends
Oklahoma City with friends

AcroYoga in Oklahoma City

We spent a lot of time exploring places in Tennessee like Bristol, home to the famed NASCAR racetrack, and Blount County—which lays claim to Maryville, Townsend and the Smoky Mountains—where we visited three times and are about to be back again in just two weeks. Being that close to Knoxville, of course, means I get to hit up some of my favorite college haunts on the way to and from.

NASCAR with Sugarlands Shine

The racetrack in Bristol, Tennessee
Smokies in the spring
Smokies in the summer

Locally, I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to Franklin, which is about an hour and a half from us—for meetings, whiskey tastings, blog content and a Big Secret Project I’ll be revealing very soon. I was even a “model” (ha) with three of my girls for Visit Franklin’s latest tourism video, which I’ve embedded below.

Fall Colors on the Natchez Trace Parkway

Franklin, Tennessee
Franklin, Tennessee
Franklin, Tennessee

In June, I took my mom with me to Boston for four days, during which she did her history thing and I mingled with conference attendees and fellow speakers at TravelCon, while catching up with some of my best buds like Alex in Wanderland.

TravelCon in Boston

2019 was the year we fell deeply in love with Huntsville, heading down to the Rocket City on three occasions: twice on overnight visits and the third to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing with NASA at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s less than 90 minutes from where we live, so I suspect our time spent in Huntsville will only increase over the coming years. We just love it a LOT, and in a day and age where our interest in Nashville is waning—sorry not sorry, Dallas, I mean Music City—it’s nice to have a new urban love interest for when we need our fill of the city now that we live in a more rural area.

NASA in Huntsville

NASA in Huntsville
NASA in Huntsville

Weekend in Huntsville, Alabama

We managed a second Canada trip at the tail end of summer and road-tripped with Canada by Design through Alberta and Saskatchewan, exploring the lakes and parks and dinosaur country, a dream itinerary of a trip that I’ll be writing all about in early spring just in time for you to plan some epic summer travels.

Drumheller, Canada

SVV and I did one impulsive thing, something not usually in my lexicon, and took a quick overnight trip to Chicago for Hamilton to meet up with his sister and see the show a second time before it leaves town in January. We had the best 36 hours in Chicago, and it’s made me want to go back for longer with him, as it was our first visit to the Windy City together.

The Bean in Chicago

Want to know somewhere else we’d only visited separately but never together until 2019? New Orleans! One of my very favorite places in the world, it turns out, is doubly as fun with my favorite drinking buddy in tow.

Sazeracs in New Orleans

I did go somewhere without him, though, and that’s to his hometown of San Francisco. I was there to give a workshop at eTourism with a few of my tourism friends, and it was really nice having four days to bounce around the city with no obligations. And during the dreamy Indian summer, too—it was the kind of weather that entices poor unsuspecting souls to relocate to the Bay Area without giving it a second thought!

eTourism Summit in San Francisco

After I returned from San Francisco, we started our exploration of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile stretch of national park running from Middle Tennessee down to Southern Mississippi. We’ll be slowly exploring every inch of the trace in partnership with the Natchez Trace Compact over the coming year, and it’s going to be a very exciting project indeed.

Fall Colors on the Natchez Trace Parkway

My last big trip of the year, unless you count our current visit to Florida for our friends’ wedding, was to Bermuda with my sister and my mom to celebrate her 70th birthday. We did a whole lot of nothing but reading, napping and drinking (well, except for my sister, who was already starting her second trimester by this point!).


At home…

Not only did our marriage turn a decade old right at the end of 2019, but we traded our life in an 1800s Victorian for a much peaceful retreat: a midcentury modern home built out of entirely cedar. And let’s just say we are both much happier: thanks to the location, thanks to the space itself and thanks to escaping the toxic environment in which we previously lived. We’re both fans of altering our environment if the current one simply isn’t working out, and it was this day last year that we made an offer on what would come to be known as the Cedar House. We kept it quiet a few months as we decided what to do with the Victorian and finally got fed up with it one day, rented a U-Haul and moved all of our belongings—in four trips, mind you—just the two of us, like usual.

Midcentury Modern Cedar House

But we didn’t sell the Victorian, as many people just assumed we did. Not after the seven years of blood, sweat, tears and money we invested into that old girl. Rather, we got to work fixing it up even more to make it the perfect commercial rental, which paid off as we got the most ideal commercial tenant who moved in just a month ago and did the house up to the nines for Christmas. She has never looked so festive! On the docket for early 2020 is getting Myrtle, the smaller 1,700-square-foot commercial property behind the Victorian, rented. So if you’re in the market for a commercial space in downtown Manchester, Tennessee, let me know! It would be perfect for a daycare, law firm or even accounting practice.

Our First Home: A Queen Anne Victorian in Manchester, Tennessee

Though SVV has been working on the landscaping of the Cedar House for the past six months, we’re about to hit the throttle hard with her interior renovation. The previous owners left her a bit trashed—and without flooring in parts—so first on the docket (very soon) is laying parquet and replacing the carpet in both of our offices and the master bedroom so we can refinance her in Q1. After those renovations take place, I promise a proper house tour! In the meantime, I did write a brief intro post to the Cedar House you can peruse if you’re nosy bored.

Midcentury Modern Cedar House

We still own and manage our two Nashville properties, which are pretty turnkey as long-term rentals now, other than the occasional maintenance nightmare that has SVV dropping everything to fix a broken sink or snake a drain. I imagine we’ll be looking at further expanding our real estate portfolio in the next year or two as part of our retirement plan.

In writing…

While I no longer consider myself a full-time freelance writer like I once did—we simply do so much more than just writing now that content creator, marketer or entrepreneur more accurately describe what we both do—I did take on a number of big assignments this past year. I continued to write my Tennessee pages in each issue of AAA Living and penned cover stories and features for such publications as Parade, AARP, Airbnb magazine, the Sacramento Bee, Inspirato, Marriott Bonvoy and the annual Tennessee Vacation Guide, produced by the state’s tourism department. I also served as a source/expert for more than a dozen publications, from Fortune to NBC News, as well as on TV and in podcasts, and SVV and I are newly-minted writers/experts for This Old House, which is a fun melding of our skill sets. One day, we’ll get around to updating my writing portfolio with all my clips from the last, er, four years.

Kristin Luna, journalist

In the office…

2019 was a banner year for Odinn Media, the media production and marketing company SVV and I co-own and run together. We did away with smaller, one-off projects, instead opting for long-term clients we could grow with over the years. At our core, we’re still most passionate about tourism marketing and assisting CVBs and city governments with building brand awareness and reputation, but we’ve become much choosier with who we’ll work with. We’re in the growing pains phase where there are just two of us and so many hours in the day, and we’d prefer not to work seven days a week, all hours of the day for the rest of our lives. 2020 is about finding that balance (though I feel like I might have said these same words last year?).

Smoky Mountains in the Fall

In 2019, the Tullahoma Chamber of Commerce awarded us with the Extra Miler of the Year Award, which was humbling and a big surprise. We dabbled in more video work this past year, completing a couple of highlight reels for cities around us. I’ve been slowly learning Premiere over the last 18 months, thanks to the help of an ace cinematographer teacher out of North Carolina, and I’ve loved adding a new skill to my repertoire. The saying’s true: You’re never too old to learn!

Something new for me in 2019 was my growing number of speaking gigs that included National Travel & Tourism Week for Visit South Walton, TravelCon for a second time, a women’s entrepreneur conference, eTourism and several TV spots. It’s funny that someone who once identified as painfully shy, a writer who would much rather hide behind a computer than stand up on a stage in front of a crowd, has turned into someone who actually enjoys public speaking. I already have four speaking gigs lined up for 2020, including a pair of talks at Wyoming’s Governor’s Conference on my birthday in February.

Smoky Mountains in the fall

Aside from Odinn Media and our real estate group, we started a third company in 2018 and, in the second half of 2019, successfully converted to a 501(c)(3). DMA-events was born out of our desire to alter our environment and fix up the dilapidated buildings around us, of which there are many in the area where we live. To date, DMA (Do. More. Art.) has successfully commissioned 13 murals in Tullahoma and Manchester, and this past October, Jack Daniel’s sponsored our first ever mural festival, which brought seven artists to town to paint five new murals. SVV produced his second major art event, including a juried art festival, in less than a year, though I think we’ve both agreed that while we may do more event production in the future, we’ll stick to car shows and mural installations. We also added our dear friend—Minneapolis-based cultural anthropologist and bona fide genius Emilie Hitch—to our executive board, which is a huge win for DMA, and have started building our advisory council on the side.

DMA Events: Mural Program in Tennessee

DMA has not only been a catalyst for change in our community, but the genesis of so many relationships we’ve made with artists like Good of the Hive founder Matt Willey, Nathan Brown, Ty Christian, Sarah Painter, Cosby Hayes, forBecks, and Nashville muralists Tara Aversa, Mobe Oner and Folek, all of whom came down to paint for us a second time. They may leave us with a beautiful piece of art when they’re done, but ultimately it’s the friendships we’ve made that I cherish the most (and OK, the art is awesome, too!).

Channing Smith anti-bullying mural in Manchester, Tennessee

Next year is going to be huge for DMA as we have a major month-long project taking place in the summer that I absolutely cannot wait to share with you. I’ve been dreaming and scheming about this very project for a year now, and I can’t believe we’ve figured out a way to (hopefully) bring it fruition!

Murals in Tullahoma, Tennessee

But I’m not one to only dwell on the highlights and gloss over the low points—there were plenty of those, as well. Most notably was the city of Manchester, Tennessee, known far and wide for its corrupt politicians, completely swindling us out of the money they owed us for a year-long marketing and website project we completed for them. They completely ignored copyright, were in breach of contract and also may have committed a few blatant Sunshine Law violations. After eight months of pursuing legal action, we finally released our lawyer from retainer, as Manchester’s MO is to use taxpayer funds to enlist the services of a slick attorney known to delay lawsuits for years. That doesn’t mean we’re done with this—you better believe we don’t let snakes get away with murder like this. 2020 is a local election year, and there’s about to be a big shake-up in Manchester.

The City of Manchester, Tennessee Illegally Used Our Copyrighted Material Without Paying

Speaking of elections, we got to help out with our first local one this past year, as our girl Rupa Blackwell was the first ever woman of color to be elected to Tullahoma’s board of mayor and aldermen—and by a landslide at that. I have never been as proud of anyone as I was Rupa for the more than 2,000 doors she knocked on while eight months pregnant in the heat of the Southern summer humidity, but dang, she got it done. And SVV and I were stoked to be on her team for all of that!

Rupa Blackwell for Alderman

In the family…

Our move last spring meant being so much closer to my family, which most importantly meant so much quality time with Charlotte Rose, who turns two very soon. She’s the apple of all of our eyes, but she’s about to have competition soon … a baby brother joining our wild, wacky crew in May (or maybe June). Baby girl has no idea how her world is about to be rocked, but luckily her Aunt Kiki lives close enough to scoop her up anytime she needs some spoiling pampering.

Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee

Dad continues to make minor improvements, nearly four years post-stroke. He and Maggie, his giant protector of a goldendoodle, walk one to three miles a day without fail, which is one to three miles further than he ever walked pre-stroke. He’s also taken up darts again and plays every Sunday afternoon with two of his best friends, Kim and Tony. Charlotte is the absolute light of his life, and the fact that she stays with him and my mom at least five days a week has been a huge mood-booster for him these past two years.

Christmas in Tennessee

Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee

We saw my cousin Rebecca and her crew several times—in addition to the girls, McKayla and Margaret, spending two weeks with us over the summer, the whole family came three weekends and we went to see them in Memphis several times, including for Thanksgiving—and SVV’s mom Joan and our niece Kiva, who turns 16 next week, came out for five days. The Clarey clan, my brother-in-law Josh’s awesome family, made their annual pilgrimage from Charleston to Tennessee during this time, too, so we had a whole lot of family here at once, and it was awesome.

Rawlinson family

Christmas in Tennessee
Christmas in Tennessee

Manchester magnolia mural

I almost closed this post without mentioning the most important family member of all: ELLA! She says to tell you all she’s doing fine and might pick up blogging again soon if you’re lucky. And oh yeah, she now has TWO kitten brothers that she’s not so sure about….

Ella at the Cedar House

Bobcat rescue kittens
Bobcat rescue kittens
Bobcat rescue kittens

2019 by the numbers…

  • Days on the road: 137
  • Flights taken: 38 flights on 4 airlines
  • Miles driven: 58,000
  • Countries visited: 3
  • States visited: 8 + 1 territory
  • TV appearances: 6
  • Podcast guest spots: 3

As always, thanks for sticking with us over all these years. It’s hard to believe that 2020 marks the start of Camels & Chocolate’s 13th year! Let’s hope it’s as lucky as the past 12 have proven to be.

Ski Trip to Banff and Lake Louise, Canada

What were your major highlights of the past 12 months?

For past year-end reviews, see my recaps here: 2018, 201720162015201420132012201120102009 and 2008.
  • December 30, 2019
    Sally Singles

    Beautiful pictures, what adventures you have been on. May your next year be just if not more exciting as the last. Happy New Year.
    Sally Singles
    Public Relations Manager Raconteur House Publishers

  • December 30, 2019

    Hopefully 2020 will have more of me in your life!

  • December 30, 2019

    Awwww, this is a really cute round-up! These warm feelings are highly influenced by your ending with family, pets and an awesome couple photo! I’m frantically trying to wrap up monthly summaries on my blog so I can move into 2020 with a resolution to be a better blogger! Do you have any New Year’s resolutions or do your projects in the works cover it?

  • December 30, 2019
    Briel K.

    Happy (almost) New Year! Those pics of your dad and Charlotte are so precious! Isn’t it great that your parents are able to spend so much time with her? My parents are practically helping raise my 2 nieces and I’m really thankful that they are able to be there for them every day. And we have one more niece due any day now from my other brother. Her name will be Charlotte as well. 🙂

    Can’t wait to see more of your cute new kittens! <3

  • December 31, 2019

    Happy new year! Bring on 2020 and even more goals for you guys to kick. You continue to inspire me with all the different things to do and your incredible work ethic – but also how much fun you have! All the best for 2020 🙂

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