2019 in Review

Welcome to my annual year-in-review post, in which I answer the question: “Where exactly have you been the past 12 months, Blake?”

Jan-Apr: New Zealand

Late in 2018 I made my way to New Zealand with the intention of doing a month-long hike on the Te Araroa. I loved the trail (pics) but ended up pushing myself too hard and aggravated an old lower back injury. This prompted me to hitchhike across the South Island and fast-forward to the second part of my plan: nestling down in the beautiful town of Wanaka for the summer in New Zealand.

On the Te Araroa above Lake Tekapo
Hitchhiking on Christmas 2018

Upon arrival I rented a furnished room in nearby Albert Town in a spacious house that I shared with three friendly, laid-back housemates in their late twenties (a Kiwi, a Brit, and an Aussie) who worked at the local ski / mountain-biking resort.

My house in Albert Town
The view from Mt. Roy, overlooking Lake Wanaka. #NZ #ugly

While hiking on the Te Araroa, inspiration had struck: I was ready to write another book. The idea for a new book had been growing inside me for a while, and over the next three months in Wanaka, it blossomed from hand-scribbled notes into a full-fledged first draft. A lovely little coworking space gave me a quiet place to focus and write each morning.

In Wanaka I took the opportunity to learn acroyoga, a.k.a. “acro,” a.k.a. partner acrobatics, something that long piqued my curiosity. Through the Wanaka Acroyoga Facebook page I met Elena, a talented Spaniard who trained me in the basics, and found the weekly group acro classes that introduced me to Cecile (France), Stan (Czech Republic), and other temporary-locals like myself who became fast friends. Through twice-weekly informal “acro jams” in the parks, I met even more cool people. This wonderful little acro community laid the foundation for my social life in Wanaka.

An acro jam on the Wanaka lakeside
Cecile (base) and Elena (flyer)

Through the Wanaka Tango Facebook group—FYI, Facebook groups are awesome tools for meeting people abroad—I discovered Sousa, a tango aficionado who hosted weekly milongas at her house down the street from me in Albert Town. I became a regular in this tiny little tango community. Sousa and I even got filmed for the local news and performed at a retirement home!

Later we danced with some of the onlookers. (And yes, I make funny faces when I tango.)

My time in Wanaka offered a lovely island of repetition in the roiling seas of my life. The daily cycle looked more or less like this:

  • Wake early, do a brief workout video, cook eggs & bacon
  • Bike 20 minutes around a local mountain to the coworking center in the middle of Wanaka
  • Brew a french press, work on the book for 3-6 hours
  • Take lunch on the sunny lakefront (burrito truck or dinner leftovers)
  • Mellow afternoon time: meditate at my favorite little hidden park, swim in the lake, swim at the pool (if raining), read on the lakefront, and/or join an acro jam
  • Buy groceries, bike them back to the house, cook dinner, banter with housemates, package leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch
  • Read, watch a show, or dance tango (on Wednesdays)
  • Asleep by 10pm

With all that physical activity, my lower back still gave me grief, but with the help of a chiropractor and Elena (a trained massage therapist) I eventually recovered and enjoyed a little more time in the New Zealand backcountry.

A curious Kea outside my tent during a quick overnight trip on the north end of Lake Wanaka.

Come mid-April, I had written 80,000 words, become a somewhat-proficient acroyogi, and made many new friends and warm memories. Wanaka was good to me—and my time was up. (New Zealand had generously granted me a 5-month visitor visa—all I had to do was ask!) I migrated to the North Island, started a 10-day silent meditation retreat, found it frustrating, left half-way, and meandered around the coast north of Auckland in a blissed-out state before catching my flight back to the states.

May-Sep: USA

My whirlwind life began anew: I keynoted a homeschooling conference in Los Angeles, jetted over to Brooklyn to serve as a guest facilitator at Dida Academy, popped back to the bay area to attend my little sister’s high school graduation, drove out to Utah to join a wild rafting/dancing trip on the Green River in Utah, flew to Michigan to visit the Clonlara School, couchsurfed with a cool astrophysics grad student in Salt Lake City, and then drove to Seattle to hang out with good friends. All in 7 weeks!

Breakfast with long-time friends in South Lake Tahoe
Alternator failure in the Nevada desert.
Enjoying that river life.
Yes, you really can throw a dance party on a river. Well done, Justin Riley.
Catan in Seattle.

Late in June, two big things happened: I gave a keynote address for the AERO Conference on the the alternative education movement, and I got back together with my girlfriend from Germany, Sarah, with whom I spent a magical month exploring the mountains of Oregon and California. We flew back east to join a weekend retreat I organized for “young professionals in self-directed education,” and then Sarah returned to Germany. Back in California, I spent five days backpacking in the High Sierras with my good friend Julie.

Delivering my AERO keynote: excited, nervous, and proud.
The Young Professionals in Self-Directed Education… and Ken 😉
Julie and Blake slay the Sierras yet again—T’nac stop won’t stop!

I worked my 13th season of Not Back to School Camp at a jam-packed Oregon session, where I led a 5-day introduction to acroyoga. After camp I zipped up to Portland to do a live speaking event that I organized with my long-time intellectual hero, William Deresiewicz, on “The Power and Peril of Self-Education.” (I published the conversation on my podcast.)

The welcome circle at NBTSC Oregon.
NBTSC staff being… themselves. I love these people.
Speaking with William Deresiewicz (and guest facilitator Dev Carey) at The Wayfinding Institute in Portland, Oregon.

At Not Back to School Camp I gave away many of the personal possessions that had been cluttering my 5×10′ storage unit for years—Unschool Adventures t-shirts, my snowboard, and unused camping gear—Mariekondoing my life in order to move to Germany. I even sold my Subaru! Not before sneaking in one more week in South Lake Tahoe, and one more quick trip to the mountains, of course.

Waking on top of Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness. Photo by Morgan.
All my personal possessions—minus some books and boxes of legal documents—circa September 2019

Sep-Dec: Europe & Nepal

On September 18th—my 37th birthday—I boarded a one-way flight to Europe. First stop: the French Alps for a quick mountain adventure (pics) with my friend Fred.

Blake and Fred: moving fast in the mountains since 2015

Next stop: Berlin, where Sarah and I shared a sublet apartment for two weeks and I continued editing my book manuscript. Berlin has dancing, acroyoga, alternative education scene, great food—everything I love except mountains! But I couldn’t complain about our next destination: a month in Nepal, split between cities and an incredible teahouse trek in the Annapurna region.

Tilicho Lake, 16,000′ elevation, just off the Annapurna Circuit. I am inexorably drawn to lakes surrounded by mountains.
Yak herding: my backup career.
Kathmandu has its own kind of charm

After Nepal, the plan was to settle down in Germany for a good long while. But as the Scottish poet Robert Burns once put it:

The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

That’s all I’ll say on that subject, which is still a tender one.

Dec: Back in the US of A

After visiting friends in Denmark and Barcelona, I flew back to the states to spend time with my good friends Matt and Patrick in Seattle.

Here in Seattle I finished revising my book manuscript, marking the end of a half-year editing odyssey. Having begun the manuscript essentially a year ago, this felt like a nice way to close out 2019. (I anticipate a final release in Spring or Summer 2020).

That brings us to the present moment. On one hand, I’m feeling discombobulated by my upset plans to move to Germany. On the other hand, it’s invigorating to own virtually nothing, have some financial runway, and suddenly have a blank canvas in life. I don’t feel like jumping ship to the southern hemisphere again, nor do I feel like just choosing a place and just moving there. My lower back feels healthy, which is making me seriously consider another big outdoor adventure (which I will undertake with more care than the Te Araroa).

Curious to see where I end up in 2020? That makes two of us. I guess we’ll both just have to wait for 2020 in Review!

Fun Facts for 2019

What I’m most proud of: Writing a whole damn book, keynoting the AERO conference, doing the speaking event with William Deresiewicz, continuing to publish a new podcast episode each month, and trying really hard to make an international relationship work.

How I made my money: I earned a good chunk from the Unschool Adventures New Zealand 2019 trip, which was also the first international U.A. trip that happened without me on it. I earned a little from recruiting participants for the High Desert Center, speaker fees, guest facilitating at Dida Academy, working at NBTSC, Amazon book royalties, and my generous supporters on Patreon. Oh, and I sold my car for about $5000, but I spent almost the same amount in repairs this year. (That’s what I get for keeping a car after 200,000 miles!)

How I spent my money: Nothing unusual this year: rent, food, and flights. I did manage to give 10% of my income to Effective Altruism, which felt awesome 💪

What’s next with Unschool Adventures: Round-the-World 2021—check it out!

Until next year!


Published December 28th, 2019.

[Previous Year-in-Review posts: 2018, 201720162015201420132012, 2011]



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