2016 in Review

Welcome to my annual year in review! I’ve got lots of photos and stories to share with you from a very adventurous 2016.

This year I’m also doing something new: Instead of just recounting the past 12 months, I’m also doing a forward-looking review. I’m going to tell you now what I hope to have accomplished by the end of 2017.

The question I’m asking myself, as Chris Guillebeau puts it: “This time next year, what 3-5 things will have made the year amazing?”

By December 2017, I hope to tell you that I…

  • ran two impactful programs for self-directed young people that earned glowing feedback: the 12-week Argentina Semester and 7-week Southeast Asia trip.
  • gave presentations in England and Europe as part of a self-organized speaking tour meant to spread the ideas behind self-directed learning.
  • dedicated serious time to dance—tango and blues fusion—through festivals, private lessons, and social dancing.
  • built, tested, and launched my first online course.
  • spent at 30+ days hiking or backpacking.

I see this as a combination of new year’s resolutions, staying true to my goals, and fortune-telling. I’m not discounting the possibility or importance of serendipitous events; I’m just trying to go into 2017 with some clear intentions for how I’ll measure my success.

Alright—now back to 2016! I’ve divided the year into five parts:

  1. Guatemala
  2. New Zealand
  3. Argentina
  4. California
  5. On The Road

Part 1: Guatemala


On New Year’s day I woke in Xela, Guatemala, where I spent January escaping the winter, improving my Spanish, and reflecting on my nomadic lifestyle. I arrived on December 31st from Oaxaca (Southern Mexico) via a series of buses, taxis, and bicycle rickshaws. Traveling solo with a lingering lower back injury, I wasn’t able to walk very far, so I spent a lot of time working from my sweet top-floor apartment overlooking Xela (a.k.a. Quetzaltenango) which I rented for $550/month.

Xela, Guatemala

I split my days between writing (in the mornings), studying Spanish (in the afternoons), and socializing (in the evenings). My good friend David (who lives and works in Xela) introduced me to his community of long-term travelers and expats, providing me with an immediate social network. Within a week I was recognizing faces and saying hi to new friends each time I walked across town. Making new friends as a solo traveler became a big theme of the year.

One-on-one Spanish tutoring is exhausting!

In Xela I finished the first draft of an online book called How to Live Nowhere: a meditation on my nomadic lifestyle paired with actionable advice for others taking similar paths. This was my first big non-education-related writing project, and it felt good to reaffirm my weird, winding life path.

Part 2: New Zealand

February – April

In San Francisco I joined 11 teenagers and two co-leaders for the Unschool Adventures Simply New Zealand trip. For 6 weeks we traveled across New Zealand’s South Island, doing a combination of all-group and self-organized activities: exploring cities, hiking, biking camping, meditating, and journaling. The teens (ages 15-19) enjoyed large swaths of free time to make the experience their own.

Changing flights in Auckland, sleepily

Starting our big hike on the Kepler Track after being dropped off by a water taxi

Walking the 10km to town from our campground

The most epic group meeting spot, ever

You’d trust your kids with us three, right? Ingmar, Blake, and Kina on a Dunedin beach.

The trip was successful: the group bonded, everything went as planned (including the unplanned stuff), and we stayed within budget. Another one for the books! I’m continually amazed that I get paid to do this.

Another perk of the trip: on my days off I enjoyed long trail runs on the Kepler and Abel Tasman Tracks (two of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”) and the mountains surrounding Queenstown and Wanaka: two of my favorite mountain towns in the world.

When the trip ended my co-leaders took the group back to San Francisco, and I stayed in New Zealand for a few more weeks of personal adventures. I hitchhiked back to Wanaka and Queenstown for more outdoor adventures (including a mind-blowingly-beautiful, all-day run on the Routeburn Track), took kiteboarding lessons in Nelson, explored the capital city of Wellington for the first time, and popped over to Melbourne (Australia) for a quick week. I stayed in a combination of hostels and AirBnBs.

No car, no problem! The South Island is wonderful for hitchhiking.

Jumping for joy on a trail run near Wanaka

In early April I boarded the sexiest direct flight I can imagine—yes, flights can have sex appeal—from Auckland to Buenos Aires.

Part 3: Argentina

April – May

In Buenos Aires—my favorite big city on planet earth—I spent five weeks learning tango and apartment-hunting for the 2017 Unschool Adventures Argentina Semester. Finding four beautiful apartments was the easy part; learning tango was the hard part.

Argentine tango seduced me on the very first Unschool Adventures trip, way back in 2008. Since then I’ve been an on-and-off practitioner—mostly off—who had always wanted to get better. This trip was my big chance, so I committed myself in two big ways: by taking private lessons five days a week with a wonderful teacher, Alejandro Puerta, and attending milongas (tango social dances) six nights a week.

Alejandro teaches Zoe about front ochos

While I’m very good at coming up with lofty goals related to things that scare me (i.e. tango), I’m even better at subverting those goals (i.e. by quitting or scaling back my commitment). Knowing this about myself, I created a few accountability mechanisms. For the private lessons, I invited my good friend Zoe, who was also in Buenos Aires, to join my lessons. Zoe’s an incredible dance partner who made learning fun and easy.

For the milongas—a much bigger challenge, considering my early-bird habits (most milongas start at 10pm)—I made a $100/week Stickk commitment. For each week that I failed to dance 6 nights, my credit card was charged $100 (which went to charity). I completed four of the five weeks!

Dancing at an uncrowded milonga (La Catedral) with Zoe

I lived in a $800/month, centrally located AirBnB studio during my time in Buenos Aires, from which I was able to walk or take public transport to lessons, classes, milongas, and pretty much everything else. I used the Couchsurfing network to meet people who shared my interests in tango and slacklining, which gave me a small social network with whom I look forward to reconnecting in early 2017.

Dancing to a live band with Zoe at Los Laureles, a venue introduced to us by our Couchsurfing friend Fernanda

Late spring interlude: In late May I returned to California, reclaimed my car, and went on a few mini-adventures: recertifying my Wilderness First Responder in the Marin Headlands, giving a keynote talk at a small homeschool fair, driving to Colorado to visit the Unschool Adventures Real World Retreat (one of very few Unschool Adventures programs run without me), and turning the return drive into a 3-day-long, Colorado-to-California roadtrip-and-camping-first-date with a woman I met on OKCupid.

Matt Sanderson and his Real World Retreat crew in Crested Butte, Colorado

Part 4: Tahoe

June – October

In the summer I rented small cabin in South Lake Tahoe, CA, that served as my High Sierra home base. I used it to host a huge number of friends and Couchsurfers, as a launchpad for outdoor adventures, and have a quiet place to call my own after 5 months abroad. The cabin cost $1100/month.

A few highlights from the summer months:


  • Completing a 55k (34-mile) organized race at the Tahoe Rim Trail endurance runs—my longest run ever.
  • Completing a 22-mile run on the Tahoe Rim Trail by myself, unsupported, on a stretch of the trail I’d never seen before, on a very hot day—my hardest run ever. (At mile 21 I immersed my entire body in an cold stream and ran the last mile to my car dripping wet.)
  • Going on countless medium-length runs (7-12 miles) up Cold Creek, my favorite local canyon.
  • Doing all this while dealing with those pesky recurring lower back spasms, which I finally overcame in August.

Backpacking and Hiking

  • Backpacking cross-country to summit Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite (the same one climbed by Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums).
  • Backpacking in Desolation Wilderness with my friend Nicole (to visit Deer Crossing Camp) and my little sister Olivia (who had just completed Deer Crossing Camp’s intensive teen leadership program).
  • Backpacking cross-country for five days across King’s Canyon with Julie and Fred—my burliest backpacking trip, ever.
  • Attempting to day hike Mount Whitney with my sister and failing—my third attempting and failing this day hike!
  • Summiting the seven highest peaks in Desolation Wilderness in one day with Hannah: 27 miles (half off-trail), 10,500′ elevation gain, 16 hours.
  • Swimming at 6am twice a week as part of a local Master’s group (not hiking-related, but I had to put it somewhere).

Summer Camps

  • Deer Crossing Camp: Visiting to run Wilderness First Aid training scenarios for instructors, seeing my two youngest siblings attend camp, and helping to reshingle the camp lodge. Also: Hosting large numbers of Deer Crossing Camp instructors at my cabin on their days off.
  • Not Back to School Camp: Working my 11th straight summer as an advisor to self-directed teenagers.


  • Putting my tango skills to good use at BurningTango, a 3-day festival held near Mount Shasta, CA.
  • Getting introduced to “fusion” dancing at the Recess High Sierra Massive dance event. I AM HOOKED.


  • Publishing Off-Trail Learning, a resource website for teenage and college-aged self-directed learners (motivated by another Stickk goal, this time for $1000).
  • Restarting my podcast and interviewing some fascinating young adult self-directed learners.
  • Enjoying the community of the Tahoe Mountain Lab, a new coworking center in South Lake Tahoe.
  • Attending the NOLS Wilderness Risk Management conference in Salt Lake City. (Gettin’ my risk management on!)

Hannah and I reveling in our sixth of seven summits (Mt. Tallac)—right before things got GNARLY

An epic game of Catan with friends new and old

The Not Back to School Camp staff, in all our glory Slow dancing with Rob at the NBTSC prom (while eating an apple, naturally)

Backpacking in Desolation with my little sister Olivia

On the King’s Canyon High Basin Route with Fred and Julie

Shingling the Deer Crossing Camp lodge with Vince

Slacklining over a High Sierra lake—quite unsuccessfully—with Matt and Patrick

Waking up to a Sierra sunrise—not an uncommon sight this summer

On the Tahoe Rim Trail 55K Endurance Run

Deer Crossing Camp staff on a day off (my green cabin in the background)

Everyone who stayed a night in my house: equal parts old friends, Deer Crossing Camp people, and Couchsurfers

Part 5: On the Road

November – December

In the final months of the year I transitioned between Colorado, the east coast, and the San Francisco bay area, constantly on the move. Along the way I visited Dev Carey’s gap year program in rural western Colorado; spent quality time with my friend Bailey in southern Utah (just outside Zion National Park) who took me caving and canyoneering and caving, including an unplanned overnight in the Grand Canyon; gave presentations about self-directed learning in Boston, Philadelphia, and Sonoma County; visited old friends in NYC; visited family in Connecticut and Northern California: and subletted friends’ places in Oakland and the Mission District of San Francisco. I paid no rent during this time.

Dev’s gap year group of 17- to 22-year-olds, eating breakfast on a sunny Colorado morning

Bailey’s apartment (and dirt bike), nestled under Zion’s towering peaks

All of my personal possessions circa November 2016, in the 5×10′ storage unit

Patrick and Matt in NYC

At the end of 2016, I found myself excited for…

  • the small army of online interns I’d gathered to help develop and test my first online course, which I plan to finish in the spring in Argentina.
  • having reaffirmed my desire to keep traveling, exploring the world, and advocating for self-directed learning and educational freedom.
  • my plan to skip winter again by spending the next 4-6 months in sunny foreign countries.
  • remaining healthy and able-bodied, and looking forward to many more outdoor adventures to come.

The year in numbers:

This post highlights the victories, but I had plenty of struggles and failures too: see my 2015-2016 failure survey.

Read my previous Year in Review posts here: 2015201420132012, and 2011.

Thanks for following my journey! —Blake



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