2021 in Review

Welcome to my eleventh Year in Review, in which I share photos, stories, and reflections for (1) your entertainment and (2) the very practical purpose of remembering just what the hell happened over the past 12 months. Enjoy!

The new year dawned in snowy Connecticut, where I was visiting family for the holidays. But just a week later, I found myself in Brazil.

Hiking outside Itaipava, Brazil

“I should visit Brazil some day,” I’d told myself for many years.

Well, here I was—and it was not the right time of year. Too hot, too humid. Why, Blake, why?

Where I really wanted to be was Patagonia: that desolate tip of South America shared by Chile and Argentina. As I wrote in my 2020 in Review, I was feeling ready for a sabbatical and curious to find a Winter Summer Camp location. Patagonia seemed perfect for both, but alas, I was overconfident about pandemic travel restrictions. Argentina remained closed and Chile had just tightened their policies. But my heart was set on South America, Brazil was open, and surfing the winter Covid wave in America didn’t appeal—so Brazil it was!

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro

In Brazil I wrote a lot, met up with friends, and visited Rio and São Paulo. Seeing the smiles of strangers on the beach (where nobody wore masks) and getting a bunch of sunshine + Vitamin D in my life were excellent mental health boosters.

Meeting Alex Bretas, my Brazilian counterpart in the world of self-directed education

I returned to Connecticut with a strong desire to head out west (and without Covid-19 😅). So I bought a lightly used Subaru Forester and road-tripped from the northeast to the southwest, visiting friends and family en route.

A 2018 Forester with 40k miles: the newest car I’ve ever owned.
Family in Asheville, North Carolina
Visiting Elana in Crested Butte, Colorado

In Arizona I joined my friends Dev, Marian, and Milla of the High Desert Center as they ran a gap year program centered around the Arizona Trail. Hiking, hanging, dancing, and camping with this crew was a blast. (Nor was this my first time joining this group as a pandemic refugee—last year I hunkered down with them after Covid cancelled my cross-country bike trip.)

Living out of a 15-passenger van, sleeping in the dirt—yes, please! (At least for a little while.)
My companions on a quick overnight stealth-camping trip.
The entire crew in the town of Patagonia, Arizona. (I guess I made it to Patagonia after all!)

Next, I struck out on my own to explore some fascinating corners of the desert southwest—including some mind-boggling canyons in the Escalante region—as well as the entire drainage of the Colorado River.

The mountains and deserts of the Western US have always called to me, and the Colorado River is a dominant feature of that landscape. Back in college I stumbled upon an incredible book about western water issues and found the subject so utterly fascinating, that had I not fallen in love with alternative education, I may have dedicated myself to it.

I spent a full month exploring the Colorado River: a gratifying exploration and an excellent way to give myself a genuine break from the world of education (which was the main intention behind my sabbatical, which I now felt to be complete). At the end I published a long article sharing what I learned.

Camping along the Colorado, just below the Hoover Dam
Following the behemoth All-American Canal through the desert
Camping out on a mesa near Zion National Park
Coyote Gulch: the best damn gulch ever. Hard to get there + completely worth it.
So. Much. Good. Mexican. Food. Everywhere.

The desert adventures ended in California in April, where a couple house/dog-sitting gigs awaited me in South Lake Tahoe, my seasonal summer homebase. My Tahoe friends helped me figure out where to secure a Covid vaccination, which came as a great relief to my traveling self.

The Sierra Nevada in mid-April. For the record, this is very little snow.
Austin is a good dog, if a bit spoiled.
Zeke and Lassen are good dogs, if a bit addicted to treats.

Finding a summer rental in Tahoe proved more difficult than usual, thanks to remote workers from the Bay Area who had moved to the mountains over the past year. I ultimately secured a sweet 1-bedroom sublet for 3 months, but it didn’t start until July—which gave me the perfect excuse to continue road-tripping and adventuring for May and June!

During this time I backpacked in Domelands (in the southern Sierra Nevada), visited my hometown of Bakersfield, saw my youngest siblings in San Luis Obispo, and drove up to Oregon to visit more friends. I also announced my next Unschool Adventures teen trip—a 6-week trip to Mexico in Jan/Feb 2022—which filled quickly.

A few of Domelands’ many domes.
Taking Bakersfield by storm with my mom and our friend Bette Lou
Completing the “Tri-Tip Challenge” in San Luis Obispo with Olivia and Ben
David, cooking up sausages on a high-efficiency wood-burning stove at Aprovecho, the global epicenter of clean stove technology
Blake and Matt, doing what they do best

Back in California in June, I tackled one of my long-held outdoor dreams: hiking the entire Tahoe Rim Trail, a 170-mile loop around Lake Tahoe. Thanks to the low-snow year and the lengthy summer-solstice days, I managed to complete the trail in 8 days—check out the trip report.

In July I moved into my 1-bedroom sublet: a much-needed respite from six months of travel, and a great place to pour effort into a new writing project. I also did a lot of trail running and hosted a bunch of friends, despite the wildfire smoke pouring into the Tahoe basin from neighboring fires in California and Oregon.

My wood-paneled reading+writing nook.
Lake Tahoe, looking a bit like Mordor due to wildfire smoke.
Taking a Tahoe boat tour with Bianca, the same friend who hosted me in Brazil in January.
As seen on a 2-day/1-night epic solo mission in Desolation Wilderness.
Running on the Tahoe Rim Trail

In July I popped down to Los Angeles to lead a 4-day teen workshop called Self-Directed Learning 101, based on the online microschool I ran last year, which further inspired me to publish an audio workshop and blog post that share my favorite tools for self-motivation.

A snapshot from Self-Directed Learning 101, hosted by Urban Homeschoolers.

In August the wildfires worsened, and the Caldor Fire came perilously close to South Lake Tahoe, prompting a mandatory evacuation just as I was returning from a quick trip to Connecticut. I was unable to return to Tahoe, leaving me with only my car and a carry-on bag.

When life hands you lemon, make lemonade.
When life hands you a wildfire… go to Burning Man. 😎🔥

Riding on the playa with my friend Jana
A panoramic view from the belly of the beast

I’d never been to Burning Man before, and while it was fun to taste this iconic event (alongside some good friends), this was a much smaller “rogue burn,” i.e., unofficial version of the real event, which was cancelled a second time due to the pandemic. Oh well—I’ll be back some day!

After returning to South Lake Tahoe (which didn’t burn down) I spent the rest of September enjoying the crisp weather with local friends and popping over to Utah to visit my old pal Bailey for a birthday adventure.

The view from the front deck.
Utah adventures with Bailey and Gus
Morgan and Aly: my oldest (and original) Tahoe friends

At the end of September I sold the Subaru to a friend, packed all my things into a storage unit, moved out of my sublet, and hopped on a flight to Germany.

I take a strange satisfaction with packing all my possessions into a 5×5′ storage unit.

Germany, you say! Why are you going back to Germany yet again, Blake? Does it have anything to do with a certain German woman?

No, not this time. But I did have a bike in Freiburg, as well as some friends I made there last year… which made Freiburg the perfect jumping-off point for a 6-week bike tour across Europe. WHICH WAS AWESOME. (pictures / route)

Starting the trip with my friend Steffi, who kindly stored my bicycle in her basement over the winter.
Steffi departed after 4 days as I pressed on, staying with amazing Couchsurfing hosts like Kibrom (left) in Geneva
I met a few unschooling families along the way, too, including this fun French family that put me up for a night! (Fun fact: their kids joyfully eat oysters.)
In Montpellier, France, the sisters of a friend joined me for a day of cycling (and lots of pastries)
Dinner with friends (old and new) near Girona, Spain
Cycling between Barcelona and Valencia
Fred, my long-time adventure partner, joined me for the ride out of Valencia
At the Alhambra in Granada (Spain) with Tahoe friends who happened to be living there.
Frazzled and happy upon arrival in Porto.

This was my third long bike trip, and I adored it. I stayed with friends and acquaintances, Couchsurfing and Warmshowers hosts (some of whom I interviewed), and families from the alternative education world. I got to spend time in amazing cities (Geneva, Montpellier, Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Seville, Lisbon, Porto), see lots of countryside, and enjoy stunningly good weather. I biked hard, ate well, and felt strong.

In Porto I left my bike with friends and continued traveling around Europe via train & plane to see friends. Stops included: Berlin, Aarhus (Denmark), Auschwitz (Poland), Krakow, Munich, Zurich, Konstanz (Germany), Leuven (Belgium), Utrecht (Netherlands), Edinburgh, and London.

Fie and Liam @ Thanksgiving in Denmark
Ania, a friend from Deer Crossing Camp, lives with her lovely dog and fiancee in Auschwitz (yes, that Auschwitz). Also pictured: delicious Polish food.
Dancing with Weronika at the Christmas Fusion Party in Krakow, an event that inspired me to write this
Giving Tim a twirl at his dance class in Leuven, Belgium

After Christmas in London, I fly back to Connecticut, ending the year in the same place it began… but not for long! I’ve got a group of teens to take to Mexico on January 6th—and after that, I have a plane ticket to Patagonia 😎🏔  The adventure continues.

Other highlights from this year (which didn’t fit neatly into the narrative):

  • 💸 The U.S. government decided to give $14k to Unschool Adventures (as pandemic relief): quite helpful after two full years of not running trips
  • 📕 Grace Llewellyn published the third edition of The Teenage Liberation Handbookand I was its editor! (full story)
  • 🇵🇹 Inspired by my time in Europe, I crafted a new Unschool Adventures teen trip: Eurotrip 2022.
  • 🇩🇪 I put the first-ever Free Range Exchange into motion, helping some U.S. teenagers to visit Berlin next year
  • 🗣 I continued publishing my email newsletter and new episodes of Off-Trail Learning every month
  • 💙 2021 turned out to be the year of “cathartic conversations with ex-girlfriends,” for which I’m grateful
  • 🚲 I purchased a second touring bike off eBay, which is currently living with a friend in Oregon—which means I now have one bike for the Americas, one for Europe, and no car to speak of! Let’s see how long I can make this work 🙂

Thanks for following along!

(Previous Year-in-Reviews: 2020, 2019, 20182017201620152014201320122011.)



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