Learn Spanish. Build connections, not walls.
Our friend Vicente just opened a Spanish school in Sucre, Bolivia, which got me thinking about Latin America.
Which also got me thinking, if you haven't already, I highly recommend learning Spanish, especially if you’re American.
Even just a little.
If you learn even enough to muddle through signs at museums, basic conversations, and the signs at bus stations, the door will be cracked open on a beautiful, interesting, previously inaccessible world populated by 500 million people. You'll be able to interact at a basic level and travel confidently in an entire, spectacular, continent (and a half) of people a few hours flight from the US. It'll change conversations with the 41 million Spanish speakers in the US from a daunting, awkward task to a learning and connecting experience, and will help you understand the culture of the country of 130 million people living right across the border from you that, admit it, you know almost nothing about. There are bilingual people all over the world. There's no reason you can't or shouldn't be one of them.
The more Americans that know Spanish, the better off the world will be. And personally, knowing a bit will totally make your life more rich and interesting. It's entirely worth it, and the initial time investment is not that significant. If you go and immerse yourself you can get to a level of basic functionality in three weeks - which will give you a fantastic base to learn more. I know, because we did. And if you go to the right place, you can manage the whole thing, from classes to transportation to food, on about $1000. I also know, because we did. (Volunteer somewhere, and you might be able to figure it out for even less!)
This post is designed to give you a big picture understanding of how to make it happen.
How to learn Spanish in Latin America
You can learn Spanish in community colleges or with local or online tutors from where ever you happen to be at the moment. That's good (DO IT IF YOU CAN!), but this is a post about learning in Latin America specifically. Because learning abroad is a genuinely life changing experience, and in many cases (I know it's hard to believe this), it can be even cheaper than hiring a tutor and learning at home in the US, even factoring in travel costs. It is definitely cheaper than learning in a university, so skip Spanish 101 and buy that ticket to Costa Rica.
There are some daunting aspects of learning abroad - I get it, I was stressed about the idea before we did it - but the things that I can absolutely assure you are that it is doable! It's affordable, safe, and manageable even on a week-long vacation, and definitely if you're someone with a bit of flexible time - between semesters, jobs, or contracts. Got three weeks of vacation time this year? Those 3 weeks could open up the world.
Here are the steps to take, and the order to take them.
1) Pick a country and town.
To tell you a little bit of our story, a few years back, in 2016, Angel (my wife) and I spent 4 months in Latin America on a self-organized trip, and we spent the first three weeks in San Pedro, a small town in Guatemala on Lake Atitlan, in structured classes (20 hours a week) and a homestay organized through Guatemaya Spanish School.
Our choice to go to Guatemala - and San Pedro specifically - was largely based on word of mouth recommendations. We had two friends who'd studied there on different occasions, and both of them felt like it was the right choice. They said it was a beautiful, friendly town, where quality of instruction was high and cost was as low as you'll find anywhere. And it was true. $200/week got us 20 hours of 1:1 instruction from university trained educators in an open air school with a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan, a homestay with a local family, and 3 meals a day. The three week cost, including flights (we caught a deal), was a little over $1000 total for both of us.
After Guatemala, we traveled for two months independently - El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina - and then ended our trip with another three weeks of instruction, in Sucre, Bolivia (which is where we met the aforementioned Vicente, who was my instructor). Budget was a major factor in our decision again. Courses there were $130/week for group instruction with 3 - 4 other people. We covered our own accommodation and food this time because we wanted the privacy after a lot of time in hostels and homestays. But beyond just budget, word of mouth and environment were also major factors in our decision making. We talked with friends who'd studied in South America, and Sucre was one of the top choices for culture and scenery. We'd visited Bolivia after Central America, and it was frankly one of the most stunning places we'd ever been. It wasn't hard to convince us to go back to study. We definitely didn't regret it.
Cost, word of mouth, and scenery are all important factors that influenced our decisions on where to go.
Another thing to consider is ease of access, depending on your time frame. Latin America is full of great places to visit that have Spanish language schools, but not all are easy to get to. If you want to study in Peru, you'll have no issue getting to Lima or Cuzco on an easy, frequent flight. But if you want to be near the Cordillera Blanca in Huaraz, you'll need to navigate 8 hour bus rides or infrequent flights. Similarly, if you want to study in Bolivia, lots of people fly into La Paz, but Sucre flights were expensive so we spent an overnight on a bus to get there. Central America obviously is easier to access from the US, but some locations require long bus connections. If I'd been staying in Guatemala for just a week, I likely would have studied in Antigua, which is easier to access than Atitlan as it's just outside of Guatemala City, where the main airport is located.
Factors like geography, climate, culture, and style of Spanish also are considerations. If you're looking for a big, metropolitan experience, and budget isn't your number one consideration, it might make sense to pay the premium to study in a place like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or Santiago. If you want to learn to surf while you learn Spanish, it might tip the scales in favor of a place like Costa Rica, Peru, or even Uruguay - which are pricier than some other options. Or if you want to climb mountains on your weekends off, it might make sense to sacrifice the time needed to get to Huaraz or La Paz. Spanish in Chile and Argentina are idiosyncratic, and may be harder to learn if you already have a little bit of a base because you'll have to change your listening patterns and accent (Chile is to Spanish as Scotland is to English, roughly speaking. It's the same language, but only sort of.)
Affordable, beautiful options that come highly recommended include Peru, Mexico (my personal all around favorite Latin American country), Columbia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.
Pricier countries are Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
This article is a decent review of some of the pros and cons of different countries. The site is ugly but it is pretty useful as a starting point (scroll to the bottom for the pros and cons list).
2) Pick a School
There are about a billion options, ranging from one person who takes on a couple students when they feel like it to big programs that cycle through dozens of students per week. Most towns of any size in Latin America will have someone who will teach you Spanish. But there are definitely some places where Spanish students congregate more than others.
My recommendation is to use Google to research the country you want to go to, then drill down to the city or area, and then drill down to the school to see if you can find a fit. Googling a “Latin American Spanish School” will be like trying to pick where you’ll have dinner by googling “restaurant North America”.
We studied at Guatemaya, a small school with just a few other students in Guatemala, and Me Gusta, a larger school with about 20 other students in Bolivia. Both were good experiences. We got to know our instructors really well in Guatemala, which was great, but we also came away with a few lifelong friends in Bolivia, so were happy with both decisions and would recommend either. The small school with 1:1 coaching meant we could ask whatever we wanted to know, but the large school offered specialized classes covering medical and other types of Spanish, so this was a perk of a larger environment.
For us the option to include a homestay was really valuable in Guatemala, because full immersion makes for a much deeper, if slightly exhausting, learning experience. By the end of our homestay, we were attempting (and failing) to explain group games in Spanish at a birthday party for the daughter in our host family, and that type of real world experience is hard to duplicate in a school environment.
But Airbnb is a way that you can replicate the experience all over, even if it isn't offered by your school. Some of our best personal connections in Latin America are with people who hosted us in Airbnb's, and it forces you, similarly to a homestay, to use Spanish practically. And costs are very frequently remarkably low. In Mexico we usually budget $20 - 30/night for two people, and in Bolivia it’s easy to find a nice room in someone’s house for $15 - 20/night.
To save yourself some research, you could just make it easy and go study with our friend Vicente in Sucre at El Camino, or our friend Javier on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala at Guatemaya. You have my word that they're both amazing options!
3) Pick a timeframe, but pay by the week.
3 weeks was a great amount of time for our purposes, starting mostly from scratch (Angel had never had classes, I took a bit of Spanish in college 15 year prior), to pick up enough to travel on. It gave us a base to learn more and travel functionally before sandwiching on another 3 weeks at the end of our trip. In that time frame we were confident in our ability to communicate our basic needs, and even speak one on one a little bit conversationally. I can figure out how to read the majority of signs and understand basic instructions. I still have no idea what people are saying if they’re speaking at a normal rate in long sentences, or conversing with each other in a conversation that I don't have context for.
Whatever your time frame though, pay week to week for classes. This is a standard approach so most schools will be happy to work with you on it, and it will give you the option to re-up if you like a place, or switch schools or locations if it isn't working for some reason. Booking ahead for your first week is a smart idea if you're making an international trip, but we showed up at the door in Sucre and everything worked out to start classes the next day.
4) Figure out how to get there.
A rule in Latin America is that finding transportation literally anywhere is possible, but if you want to get somewhere out of the way, you might be in for a bit of an adventure. Lots of places have easy direct flights, but flights to less popular destinations can be infrequent, so also quite expensive. Lots of places also require a bus or cab connection, and if you're really clever you might find yourself in the back of some guy's cousin's truck in order to get where you're going. Research what your trip will look like beforehand to save yourself some trouble and anxiety.
Transportation to most of the heavily visited areas in Latin America will be easy enough to figure out without knowing any Spanish. There's something of a Gringo Trail of backpackers from all over the world that form a steady stream through any place you're likely to end up on a first trip to Latin America. As such, even if there's no direct flight, if you want to go there, you can probably find an English speaking bus driver to book online that will get you there. You'll pay a premium over the local public transit cost, but you'll be able to communicate.
Once you've picked up some Spanish, you'll learn that you can just do what the locals do and save yourself a lot of money if you want. Book your transport on the ground using local transportation options. In most cases, this is relatively straightforward, and dramatically cheaper than options you'll find advertised online.
Rome 2 Rio is the best online resource to piece together the various types of transportation you might need to utilize. Other tips for Latin American travel are in this post. It's about Mexico but applies pretty much universally (although bus costs in Chile and Argentina are much higher than other parts of Latin America.)
5) Get resources and prepare
Anything you can do to give yourself a base in the language before you go will be valuable. Most classes are going to be customized to your skill level, so don’t pay someone to teach you the alphabet or basic grammar when you're just going to have to memorize it anyway. The basics are easy to learn for free. We used Duo Lingo, which is an amazing free app, and practicing with it for a couple of months beforehand was really valuable when we flew to Latin America. It teaches basic vocabulary and grammar. It would be hard to get fluent when you're being taught by a robot, but it does give you a framework to build on later.
SpanishDict is a strange name choice, but to me it's the best, easy to use free dictionary app.
6) Go Learn and immerse yourself!
After all of that, it's really just a matter of diving in!
If you have other questions I haven't answered - please comment or contact us and ask them! I'll answer you and update the post! It's easy to forget the questions you have before you do something, and I want this to be valuable to newbies!
If you like this post, you'll probably also like The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's our new book about living an adventurous life on the cheap and doing things like spending four months in Latin America when you don't have much of a budget to work with.
And if you like what we're doing here, consider joining the legion of Boldly Went supporters on Patreon!
Angel and I go way back with "Team UltraPedestrian" Ras and Kathy Vaughan.
We ran a DIY race out of their back yard years ago, but one of the first times we really hung out was in 2012, when Ras was attempting a "Double Wonderland", completing the 94 mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier twice in one push. We went on a long run with Kathy, and mostly just sat around wondering if he was okay during big lightning storms. At the time it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard of someone doing. (Now I'm aware of much worse.)
The thing we love about these two is that all of their outdoor projects are creative endeavors focused on inspiring other people to try new things. Ras threw down the Wonderland double because he loved the trail, and realized doing it twice in opposite directions was a different experience than just doing it once. He had an instinct that other people would want to follow him, and they did. Since then, several other friends have completed the double in one push, which is, to my mind, one of the most difficult trail challenges possible.
A year later, my first proper outdoor publication was an online interview with Ras for TrailRunner Magazine in 2013, after he complete a "Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim to Rim" - a sextuple crossing of the Grand Canyon. In that article, we referred to the attempt as an "Only Known Time" - a humorous play on the idea of a "Fastest Known Time," designed to show that no one else had been ridiculous enough to try it yet. The idea also contained the seeds of inspiration, because the reason to pursue an OKT, as we talked about it, isn't just so you can say you've done something no one else has. You do it because you think other people will be inspired to follow behind, either to emulate or to one up you. The term OKT now pops up from time to time in trail publications, and I just realized there's a guy making a film with the title. Coining the term is our crowning achievement together so far.
(Side note - the "OKT" inspiration worked with Ras' Grand Canyon endeavor - Portland trail beast Christof Teuscher later completed a 168 mile 8x crossing, which he talks about on this episode of Humans of Ultrarunning!)
In the spirit of inspiration Ras and Kathy have also gone on to found the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge, an "adventure blogging" contest that challenges individuals to try out a series of wilderness routes of various difficulties and distances and report back on how it went. It's kind of an un-race, and prizes are given for a variety of speed- and non-speed related achievements. You should really check it out. It's a genuinely clever take on organized trail pursuits that's different from anything else out there that I'm aware of.
Oh yeah, the point is, check them out because they're touring right now!
All these stories are really just by way of introduction. I really wanted to write here and now because Ras and Kathy are headed out on a six week speaking tour today, April 4, 2019, around WA and OR where they'll be presenting about their most recent OKT - the completion of the "UP North Loop" - a roughly 2600 Mile overland trail loop through the inland Pacific Northwest, which connects the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Idaho Centennial, and Oregon Desert Trails into one massive loop route spanning mountain and desert in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho (with a few steps into Montana and Nevada).
We attended their first presentation in Tacoma, and it was really inspiring. If there's one thing I love, it's people coming up with amazing things to do because they want other people to realize it's possible. This felt like that. It was, in ways, a massively difficult route with a lot of route finding and heavy carries involved, and a short weather window between snowfall in the spring and winter of the Northwestern mountains. But it was also just the kind of thing anyone can pull off if they want to. They planned the route by looking at a map, saying "that looks amazing, and possible", and then doing it before they were even really sure if it would "go", since large parts of the Centennial trail are unfinished, the Oregon Desert is largely an overland route, and there were several connectors between the two that no one had actually hiked yet. Spoiler alert - they figured it out, but like all good adventures, it didn't go to plan.
If you like what we do here at Boldly Went, I highly recommend checking them out when they come to your town (The schedule is linked here, but I also cut and pasted it below.) They're totally entertaining storytellers, and the UP North Project is the type of thing that the world needs more of - a real adventure created whole cloth out of a bit of inspiration that came from staring at some hiking maps. You should hear about it firsthand.
I'm also excited that they're going to be traveling sales-people for The Dirtbag's Guide to Life on this tour - they bought a bunch of wholesale copies and will be selling them at events along with their own book, 98 Days of Wind. We'll be selling that one at our upcoming events as well, because dirtbag authors gotta stick together. All proceeds will go to making sure we all keep doing ridiculous stuff in the hopes that it'll inspire you to do the same.
These guys are old school dirtbags, so another way to support is to host them when they come through town. Like us, they tour the punk rock way, sleeping on couches, camping out, and paying their way by selling merch from the back of their overpacked beat up old car. We can hook you up, or they're on social media on Facebook or Instagram.
If you want to support Team UltraPedestrian, or buy their book, but can't make an event, go to their website, Ultrapedestrian.com. For more on the UP North Loop, there's a website for that too. Check 'em out! You'll be inspired!
UP North Loop Tour Dates
April 4 - Seven Hills Running Shop, Seattle, WA - 7:00 PM
Facebook Event Information
April 5 - Mountain Shop, Portland, OR - 7:00 PM
Website Event Information
Facebook Event Information
April 8 - Fleet Feet, Vancouver, WA - 6:00 PM
Facebook Event Information
April 9 - REI at WildCraft Cider Works, Eugene, OR - 7:00 PM
Website Event Information
Facebook Event Information
April 11 - Footzone, Bend, OR - 7:00 PM
Website Event Information
Facebook Event Information
April 15 - Tall Town Bikes, Lakeview, OR - 6:00 PM
Website Event Information
Facebook Event Information
April 22 - Fleet Feet, Tacoma, WA - 6:00 PM
Facebook Event Information
April 23 - Fleet Feet, Seattle, WA - 8:00 PM
more details to come
April 24, Mountain Supply, Bend, OR - 7:00 PM
Facebook Event Information
April 25, Fleet Feet, Portland, OR - 6:oo PM
Facebook Event Information
April 26, Obsidians Lodge, Eugene, OR - 7:30 PM
Website Event Information
Facebook Event Information
April 27, Peak Sports, Corvallis, OR - 3:00 PM
more details to come
April 29, Fleet Feet, Spokane, WA - 6:00 PM
Facebook Event Information
April 30- REI, Kennewick, WA - 7:15 PM
Website Event Information
May 1 - REI, Boise, ID - 7:00 PM
Website Event Information
May 2 - Fleet Feet, Meridian, ID 6:00 PM
Facebook Event Information
May 3 - BSU Trail Stewardship Club, Boise, ID
more details to come
May 6 - Mountain Shop, Portland, OR - 7:00 PM
Website Event Information
May 7 - Bend Library, OR - 6:00 PM
Website Event Information
May 9 - Christmas Valley Library, OR - 6:30 PM
more details to come
May 10 - Paisley Library, OR - 1:30 PM
more details to come
May 10 - Lakeview Library, OR - 6:30 PM
more details to come
Hey, did you know we wrote a book called "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds"?! Of course you did. I won't shut up about it. But really, have a look. People like it. I think you'll like it.
When you’re a big time blogger like myself, sometimes you craft a well thought out post and say exactly what you want, and sometimes you just need to download your emotions on the internet. This is the latter. I just need to tell you all about life these days!
March 2019 has been a consequential month in the life of Boldly Went. We went on our most extensive tour yet - with 9 events happening between Mammoth Springs, CA, and Calgary, Canada next week, book sales events at an American Long Distance Hiker Association (ALDHA) gathering, our first public storytelling workshop and the Mountain Venture Summit in Mammoth, and our official book launch in Seattle, which happened this Monday, March 18th at NW Peaks Brewery.
It’s not over yet, because tomorrow Angel is headed up to another ALDHA event in Bellingham while I’m at work, and next week we fly up to the Canadian Rockies for two more Boldly Went events - in Canmore on Wednesday, March 27 at Canmore Brewing (note if you click that link - the event location is incorrect on the Eventbrite site at time of posting! That will be updated asap! Canmore Brewing is the correct location) and in Calgary on Thursday, March 28 at the Village Brewery. That’s a lot, and it’s all on top of usual life stuff, a day or two of “real” work a week, and a spur of the moment move.
The launch itself was such a great experience for me. It was really amazing to have a room full of people who’ve been such a support throughout this process, and we organized a lineup of presenters that were all huge inspirations for the book:
The event was so good, and was made even better by the fact that it was followed by a spike in sales for the book on Amazon - it sold 60+ in the three days following, owing largely to the fact, I’m sure, that Anish, social media influencer that she is, posted about it on Instagram on Tuesday. But also because lots of you have been reading, posting, and reviewing. We’re creeping up towards 300 total sales across platforms, and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are ticking along, and it’s been a great start for this project. I’m getting the feeling that people are finding it to be a fun, valuable read! Thank you so much for your support!
Ideally I would have been riding that wave of momentum and marketing the Amazon sales spike somehow (I guess - I don’t really know how to sell books on Amazon), but after the launch it’s been a week straight out of a bad sitcom. On Tuesday, what we thought would be a routine plumber call spiraled into the discovery of a water heater leak, which then led us to discover tons of hidden water damage in the walls and floor, which then led into an endless stream of contractor and insurance calls. Then, yesterday, I had a fender bender (my first real accident since high school!) to add even more calls to the insurance agency. Today I’m hiding in the woods where it’s safe. Next week they’re going to tear our cute little house apart. Then we have to figure out someone to put it back together.
Whatever though. Life right now feels like we’re hustling, but making progress. It’s been a month of hard work, but it’s been hard work that seems to be paying off in various ways. Tour was our most well-attended ever overall, we had our largest first-time event in Mammoth, our biggest Tacoma event ever, and both of our Seattle events sold out. The book’s been well received, and insurance is covering a fair bit of the house and car carnage (knock on wood…). So jeez, we’re going to keep pushing ahead.
We’ll see folks in Calgary and Canmore next week, and we have a Seattle storytelling workshop on the books for April 18th, and a Seattle Boldly Went on April 25th. And if you’re local to the PNW, stay tuned, because I also have an idea for a Tacoma book launch event that I’m excited about that I’m hoping to get set up in late April or early May. It will be a bit different than the Seattle one - still a lot more fun and interactive than a normal author reading, but a bit more Tacoma.
There are some other irons in the fire that you may hear about later as well, but I just needed to tell someone about all of this. It’s been an exhausting, fun, exciting month. Thank you all for being a part of it, and we’re really excited to see this thing growing and developing! Stay tuned!
If you’re in Calgary or Canmore, you can buy tickets to the events here. Please come and share the event around with your friends!
Top experts agree, New Zealand is frikkin' rad, but there’s no getting around the fact that it isn’t the cheapest place in the world to visit. It's a couple of small islands located a billion miles from anywhere, with a tourism economy and excellent education, healthcare and welfare systems funded, in part, by taxes waged on the masses of visitors that find their way there annually.
After about two and a half years of life and travel there, I would estimate that costs on the ground are generally similar to those in Canada and the pricier parts of the US, which is actually slightly less than most other island countries in the Pacific. But if you tack on the price of a flight to get there, a trip to New Zealand quickly starts to seem cost-prohibitive for budget travelers from the English-speaking world.
Personally, I feel the pain of that fact intensely. New Zealand is my favorite place for a whole bunch of reasons. Angel and I lived there during a formative time of life, in our early 20's, and fell in love with the people and the landscape. We visited again in our early 30's when we were in the best shape of our lives for outdoor pursuits, and saw hundreds of miles of stunning trail that we hadn't previously explored, whetting our appetites for more of the country's infinite beauty. And we visited again last year in our late 30's, and were overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia and desire to spend more time there. But like a beautiful night out at an expensive restaurant, it may be well worth the cost, but the cost is undeniable.
The last several years, we've made month-long trips to Mexico a winter routine, but this year we replaced that trip with a two month visit to New Zealand. I haven't broken down the cost comparison meticulously, but roughly speaking, on a per day basis, we spent twice as much per day in NZ as in MX, and the cost to fly there from the West Coast of the US was three times as high. In addition, in MX we definitely live more high on the hog - eating out most meals and staying in hotels and Airbnb's the vast majority of nights. In NZ we camped as much as we could (about half the nights we were there), and most frequently bought our food at groceries.
But I just love New Zealand so much, and it's totally worth the cost, so I want you to go there. So, since the trip, I've been putting together this brief guide to navigating finances on a visit to the country. I want you to have a sense of where costs lie, and where you might save money. New Zealand is a relatively expensive destination for a budget traveler, but if you plan correctly it doesn't have to be that expensive. You can totally figure it out.
(All costs listed are in $US and are approximations based on our most recent trip, in December 2018.)
Things that cost a lot, in the grand scheme of things
New Zealand is a long way from everywhere else, and is an island in a big ocean. There are some things that just will cost a lot of money there, inevitably. To give you a picture, here's my rough list of pricey things:
Places to save money
After all of that bad news, there is plenty of good, and there are ways to avoid breaking the bank on a trip to New Zealand. The country is a tourist economy, it's true, but for decades it's also been a top destination for backpackers and budget travelers, so there is well-developed infrastructure and cultural support for this kind of thing. Kiwis are awesome, frugal people themselves, and they have made it possible to travel like an awesome, frugal person when you're there.
So here's a list of the places where you can save money while traveling in the country.
New Zealand really is one of the world's great places, and that reputation has gotten around. While the infrastructure is in place now for luxury travel, and that does have the potential to blow your budget, it really doesn't have to. Budget travelers can absolutely figure it out. The culture and scenery are worth the cost of admission at virtually any price, but you can travel for long periods of time on $1500 - 2000 a month if you plan correctly. I hope you do!
If you're the type of person who believes that even if the best things in life (like New Zealand) aren't free, but can be figured out on a budget, you're going to love our new book, "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds." It's kind of like this article, but is aimed to help you figure out an entire life of adventure on the cheap. Check out the webpage, or if you prefer buy it on Amazon.
TLDR: The Patron Saint of Dirtbags wrote a book, and it's so frikkin' good!
First things first: i'm going to be upfront with you. There's no way that this is an unbiased review. The author is a friend who has appeared in our podcast, and was one of the central players in our own book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. I helped with beta reading and a little amateur editing on a small section of the project, and the publishers sent me a free copy with a subtle request to help promote it. I don't have any financial stake in the book, but in most other ways I have every reason to have warm feelings towards it and want it to succeed.
Having said all of that, I'm not just saying this: Ahh! I just finished this book, and I loved it so much! I'm writing this review because I want you to know about it, and I think you'll love it too.
A little backstory
If you haven't heard of Thirst, or the author - Heather "Anish" Anderson - it's a personal memoir of her successful attempt to set the Fastest Known Time on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, completing the 2650 miles in 60 hours, 17 days, and 12 minutes. It was a massive achievement that breaks out to hiking an average of 44 miles per days for 60 days straight. She did it in classic thru-hiker style, meaning no one met her along the way to provide support, she dealt with her own logistics and resupply, and she didn't accept any aid that wasn't accessible to every other hiker out there. She beat the previous record by 4 days, and in a time when elite athletes are attempting and knocking down long trail FKTs every year, her self-supported record still stands. She holds multiple other thru-hiking speed records, and for a time held the self-supported FKT on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Among thru-hikers, she's spoken of reverently as potentially the greatest endurance athlete on the planet, male or female.
Thru-hiking literature is a genre unto itself - walking across a country is something you can't easily explain in a sentence or two, so it makes sense that a lot of people end up writing books about it. And because of who she is, Anish's book was destined to be a classic in that genre, regardless of content. But I really think it stands out as more than just a hiking story written by someone who's done impressive things. It's a genuinely excellent piece of writing that stands on its own as a unique contribution to the outdoor canon.
Anish the underdog.
Angel and I initially encountered Anish as a public figure in 2013 - first when she was co-directing the Chuckanut 50k in Bellingham, WA, and later when she was giving a presentation to a small group of people in Seattle's Seven Hills running store following her successful PCT FKT attempt. She makes it into our Dirtbag's Guide to Life in part because of that presentation, when she suggested that the best way to carve out time for a thru-hike is to just quit your job. For us, that message came at exactly the right time, and after thinking about it for a year, that's what we did when we hiked the PCT in 2015, and we've never really looked back.
The first time we hung out in person was after our PCT hike, when we were living in the Las Vegas area for a few months, and she crashed on our floor on the way through town on a peak bagging trip in the Southwest. While we were honestly honored to play host for her, she was incredibly courteous, and unpretentious to a fault. Since then, we've occasionally hung out socially, and I've always gotten the impression that other people are much more impressed by her than she is with herself.
The book is strong, in part, because that unpretentious character comes through clearly, and you can't help but feel excited about the quest she's describing. While she's since gained some level of notoriety in the outdoor world, her PCT hike was a real underdog story. She had grown up as a non-athlete, and a self-described bookworm, and even when she became a serious hiker and trail runner as an adult, she hadn't accomplished anything that would lead one to view her as a world-class athlete. Additionally, she was tackling the PCT attempt after several years away from serious thru-hiking, during a period when her life was essentially falling apart - she'd just gone through a divorce, and left a house and career when she decided to tackle the trail. To say that people doubted her ability is a little bit misleading because very few people even knew who she was, or what she was attempting, until midway through the hike, when people along the trail began mentioning her online as "the Ghost", and began to recognize that she was keeping a record pace on her progress north. Reading her account of the experience in hindsight, it comes off not as the crowning achievement of a notable athletic career, but as the superhero origin story of a remarkable adventurer. (Even if her superhero status is still only recognized in small circles of hikers and outdoor athletes...)
There's something particularly timely about this aspect of the story - an unpretentious woman, setting out without fanfare and accomplishing something that most people would have said was impossible - crushing a longstanding athletic record set by Scott Williamson, a man, and a thru-hiking legend who'd spent years chiseling away at the FKT. While others have now hiked the PCT faster with the aid of support crew, Anish's pure thru-hiker style speed record has still never been matched. She's since set records on the Appalachian Trail and Arizona Trail, and this year she became the first woman (and just 6th human) to hike the Triple Crown in a year - all 8000+ miles of the PCT, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. Approaching 6 years since she set the PCT record, it's hard to deny that the most world's most remarkable pure thru-hiker during that period has been a woman. That fact resonates beyond just the hiking community, and makes her stand out as one of the most important athletic figures of the 2000s - whether or not she's been widely recognized as such.
Anish the quintessential dirtbag.
Anish also made it into our Dirtbag's Guide to Life as the key example of a prototypical dirtbag,and the reasons come through clearly in the book. A dirtbag, at least in my definition, is someone who sacrifices normality in other aspects of life in order to prioritize the outdoors and adventure, and they're the most dedicated practitioners of outdoor culture.
Heather beautifully communicates the pull of wilderness throughout the work, in physical descriptions of the trail that are as evocative and appealing as any other book on the PCT that I'm aware of. Despite the fact that the book chronicles an experience that sounds absolutely physically unbearable, I came away energized to hike the trail again because she captures the trail's essence, and the book brought back lovely memories of the people, places and experiences that define a thru-hike.
But Anish also powerfully communicates the struggle involved for the true dirtbag who centers their existence on time in the wilderness. One of the book's core themes is her wrestling with the sacrifices she has to make in order to do what she's doing. Some of that relates to concrete, physical suffering - anecdotes about digging dead skin out of blister-holes with a pocketknife, and using sticks to separate her pack from open wounds on her back illustrate the fact that she spent two months pushing constantly against levels of pain that are genuinely mind-boggling. But the book also chronicles a series of sacrifices in her personal life, made in order to devote her life to the trail. She includes a particularly funny (and cringe-inducing) story about explaining her plans to her university adviser to forgo a career in order to become a vagabond, And that experience foreshadows a series of similar experiences, explaining herself to her family, leaving a marriage, jobs, and stability, in order to devote her life to the trail.
While some element of competitiveness comes through in Heather's push to set a speed record, the dominant message I took away from the book was about the inescapable emotional pull of the wilderness. She presents her PCT record hike as an athletic achievement, sure, but more personally important as a pilgrimage where she made peace with devoting her life to the wilderness, and the sacrifices that would require in other areas of her life.
And I don't think it's a spoiler to say that she concludes the book with a summary of her emotional experience on trail, as an experience where she finally came to terms with who she was.
My despair was interlaced with wild grandeur and strength - rebirth carved along a mountain path. My life was now woven from the experience, a cloth created from beauty as well as struggle.
I loved this book, and I would entirely recommend it. It's an incredible adventure story that stands on its own, but it's also a lovely memoir of an emotional experience of wilderness that gets right to the heart of the appeal of thru-hiking and a life outdoors more generally.
If you want to buy it, Heather is selling autographed copies here.
And the Mountaineers are selling non-autographed copies here.
Our own book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life, in which Anish figures largely, is also now live and on sale at this link.
I'm really excited to tell you that our new book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life, is officially on sale! Pre-orders have shipped, and you can buy ELECTRONIC versions directly in our online store, and PRINT and KINDLE versions through Amazon! And if you're in the Seattle area, get one of 50 tickets to our launch party on Monday, March 18th, which will include a free electronic version and a very special limited edition copy that we're hand-making out of stuff we find laying around the house!
Say hello to our new baby, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life!
Ahh! It's here! Our first publication at Boldly Went is live and beaming out to e-Readers around the world!
Despite spending a year and a half with my head buried in this project, I clearly can't stop writing about it, because to celebrate, I want to give you a thorough behind-the-scenes introduction, talk about how it fits into the big picture of what we're up to here at Boldly Went, and let you know how you can help if you want to see this thing blow up!
From the blurb, here's a short summary of what the book is:
While a life of adventure has traditionally been reserved for the rich and the sponsored, to the dirtbag, it's a birthright for the masses. Partly a celebration of an underappreciated subculture of hiker trash, ski bums, and vagabonds, and partly a "how to" guide for adventure on the cheap, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life is the first solid attempt to define an outdoor movement that has taken root in backpacker hostels, long trails, and climbing crags around the world.
While the book focuses on those lovable, cheap, smelly, hardcore adventure junkies we refer to as dirtbags, I’ve done my best to make it as fun, interesting, and useful as possible for anyone who thinks of themselves as a part of the outdoor community. It's divided into chapters focused on five of the biggest challenges that confront people trying to build a life centered on adventure, and the topics are relevant for anyone who's likely to have found their way to this blog - how to save money on travel, how to balance a career and a passion for outdoor pursuits, how to live responsibly in a complicated world, how to navigate relationship challenges when your interests drift towards the extreme, and how to find meaning in life by immersing yourself more deeply in the things that you love.
To get there, I do my best to distill the concrete wisdom that Angel and I have learned through our own experiences, and through our interactions with other people who center their lives on outdoor pursuits. The book gets right down to the specifics of articles to read and organizations to get in contact with directly, the PDF edition is densely hyperlinked, and all versions include a long appendix with further resources to check out. I've done my best to include as much practical advice as possible, because I want to be able to confidently say that the things readers will learn will easily offset the cost of purchase. We really do want everything we do to be helpful to you all. That’s not just me being altruistic - it's the only way I personally can feel good about pouring so much into this. A major theme of the book is that people shouldn't waste time amassing useless "stuff" that doesn't improve their lives in any meaningful way, so I've done everything I can to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem!
While there have been other good, practical guides to budget and adventure travel, as far as I know, there’s nothing quite like The Dirtbag's Guide out there. To my knowledge, it’s the first book-length attempt to comprehensively define the dirtbag counter culture, and to talk about why it's significant in the bigger picture. The book gets into big philosophical questions about how to be a decent person in a screwed up world, and beyond just a guide to saving money when you're hiking, the book is something of a dirtbag Tao - an outdoor "rule of life".
But let's be honest: you can't take yourself completely seriously on a project about dirtbags, that's primarily focused on organizing your entire life around playing outside more often, so even when it veers into serious issues, the whole thing's all in good fun.
The book in the bigger picture of Boldly Went
The book stands on its own, and I think dirtbags outside of our existing community will love it. But I think that those of you who are connected to the bigger Boldly Went project will have the richest experience. There's a lot of personal backstory from Angel and I that we haven't talked about in other venues, but more importantly the vast majority of examples, ideas, and references came from people we've met through Boldly Went. You'll almost definitely recognize some names you know! You might even be in it! (Don't worry, you all are awesome, and I only included positive examples!)
Rob "Danger Muffin" Zimmerman, who helped me shape the content and clean up an infinite number of typos, told perhaps my favorite PCT story ever in the podcast, and has been the key player in helping us get established in Truckee, CA. Megan Myers, who designed the logo, was one of our earliest Bend, OR supporters and also designed our business logo. Patreon supporters read early editions and offered advice on the text and first attempt at a cover, and the book really is an outgrowth of this community!
We also see the book as having the same overarching goals as Boldly Went. Everything we do is focused on building up the outdoor community, making outdoor adventure more accessible, connecting like-minded people who wouldn’t meet otherwise, and promoting important personal values that we also think are important in the outdoor community - environmentalism, simplicity, humanism, and a visceral connection with nature.
How can you be involved and support this project?
I genuinely appreciate that you're interested enough in this project to read this far into the post! So thank you! If you want to help us make it a success, there are a couple of important ways you can do so!
Where to purchase a copy, and why
You can currently purchase electronic versions of this book in three different formats: PDF, ePub, and Kindle, and if you're in the Seattle area you can sign up for a super limited edition handmade print copy!
Where to leave a review, and why
If you do read, it's hugely helpful if you leave a review online - even if it's nothing comprehensive or stellar.
Where we'll be online
Other, maybe less-obvious, things you can do
Now, onward to trying to figure out how to get this thing to the masses! Thank you so much for helping make this writing dream a reality, and supporting this next big step in our crazy little Boldly Went project!
Hi Adventure Buddies! Angel here, producer and host of the Boldly Went podcast. Listening to a podcast is like listening to the radio, but you have complete control over what program you listen to. Pretty awesome, right?
If you're a long time listener, you already know how to listen to podcasts. Before you go, we need your help! I hope you'll help us demystify the world of podcasting for the 2 out of every 3 people who don't currently know how to listen to podcasts. You can do that by telling them about this show, but better yet, share this article with anyone who you think would like step by step instructions about how to start listening. And at the very end of this article, I've listed some of my favorite podcasts, and I'd love to hear your recommendations too!
Can you believe 2 out of 3 people are missing out on all this amazing content? For someone like me, this can be easy to forget because I spend so much of my time in podcast production, but I see the real-life evidence because people ask me all the time how they can listen. This is a great question, buddies, and I'm here to help.
It seems like there are a million ways to listen to a podcast, and I'm regularly learning new ways to listen myself, so no judgement here if you find this world to be full of nebulous sound waves that you aren't sure how to access. In this article I won't be covering all 1 million ways to find and listen to new podcasts, but this handy-dandy guide will get you started then you can help others along in their podcast discovery journey too by sharing this article with them!
Note to readers: You'll notice I reference the Boldly Went podcast in the examples given throughout this article. If you are trying to listen to any other podcast, just substitute the name of that podcast and that should get you where you need to go. Ready to ignite your adventure?
Welcome to the Boldly Went Podcast
The Boldly Went podcast is released every Monday morning (Pacific Standard Time). We do that on purpose because we know that you adventure buddies might be having an adventure hangover come Monday, and we want to do what we can to help launch you into your work week.
How do I find the Boldly Went podcast and start listening?
1. Through the Boldly Went Website
Many podcasts have a corresponding website where you can stream episodes for free. So the easiest and fastest way to find a podcast that you've heard of is to Google it.
At Boldly Went we have multiple ways you can listen through our website.
Here's the first way you can listen through our website.
Follow these steps (numbers corresponding to image below):
Here's the second way you can listen through the Boldly Went website.
Follow these steps and see picture below with corresonding numbers:
2. Use a Podcatcher
If you just said to yourself, 'What the --- is a podcatcher?,' join the club. I never hear this word in use, so don't worry too much about it. A podcatcher is commonly a podcasting app. What I want you to know is that using a podcatcher, after the initial set up, is the easiest way for you to follow podcasts you love so that you never miss an episode. A podcatcher tracks your listens and lets you pick up right where you left off. New episodes can be automatically downloaded and ready for you the next time you want to listen. Following a podcast in a podcatcher is way easier than listening through a browser.
In that picture just above, you'll see I added some blue stars. They're right next to Radio Public, Apple Podcasts, and Google Play. Those are podcatchers. You'll see links to some other podcatchers just below the web player including Stitcher and TuneIn.
Boldly Went is on a bunch of other podcatchers too, as many as we know exist, but it gets to be a bit much to list those out all over the website so that's why you'll hear me say, "or Search Boldly Went on your favorite podcasting app and subscribe."
To get started with a podcatcher, it's pretty simple:
What podcatcher / podcast app should I use?
Choosing a podcast app comes down to personal preference. (Don't you just hate when people say that? I'm usually like, 'Just tell me which one to get so I can get started.' I totally understand, so here are my suggestions...)
I recommend listening with Radio Public
Personally, I've started listening to all podcasts using the Radio Public app, because I like knowing that my listens are helping to financially support the shows I follow.
RadioPublic makes it easy to find and subscribe to podcasts and is available for iOS and Android. I only learned about this app over the summer of 2018. I wish I'd known about it sooner, because RadioPublic actually pays creators a tiny amount for every listen through the app. The Radio Public app is totally free to download and use so consider trying it out!
To start listening to Boldly Went using RadioPublic follow these steps:
If RadioPublic isn't really your thing, and/or you want to learn how to listen in other ways, here are my other suggestions.
Our episodes stand alone so you can start listening anywhere you want. Here are some suggestions for first downloads:
Other Podcasts to Follow
Some podcasts I enjoy listening to include:
I could go on, but please, I want to hear what you like! I'm all ears! (haha!) Leave your comments and suggestions below.
Angel here. I'm pretty excited to be putting final touches on our 2019 Winter Spring Show Tour line up RIGHT NOW! I was just tapping out an email to our show hosts in towns all over the place, and realized that I had a lot of feelings that I wanted to share with them, but with you too. So rather than burdening our hosts with all of these feelings in a lengthy email, I thought it would be better to jot out those thoughts here. Then I can do the next most annoying thing to sending a really long touchy-feely email and provide them with a link to this blog post in the shorter email I send to them instead....that most of them will probably never click. Let's face it, they're small business owners too, busy beyond belief, and clicking another link in an email is probably not at the top of their "Should Have Gotten Done Yesterday But I Didn't So Now It's On Today's List." That's precisely why I didn't end up sending all of these thoughts in that email. What do you think? Good or bad decision?
I started writing this email because I wanted to share with them how important I view their roles as show hosts. Not only because they are giving us the opportunity to hear, record, and distribute stories by local adventurers from their communities that leave us flat out awe-struck, but because of the additional, non-tangible benefits they are providing to our communities, and by extension, the world.
When our hosts bring us to their towns, they are doing so much more than giving us the opportunity to listen to some cool stories. The true magic of what show hosts bring to their town when hosting Boldly Went is the creation of an inclusive space that provides equal access to adventurers of all kinds so that we can share intriguing, inspiring and impactful adventure stories together. They are giving voice and value to the stories that aren't traditionally heard. They are providing space for us to go, and to be open, and to be exposed to those stories that maybe we would never encounter otherwise.
This is why we love creating Boldly Went, because we are essentially directing the focus away from our differences and towards our audience's common connection point, outdoor adventure. When we see a person who is sharing a story that we previously perceived as different from us, connecting to the same world we do, we are suddenly opened up to see them as friends. When we do that, a tiny pathway in our brain might be prepared to learn things about the world that we didn't know or understand before and, most importantly, that we didn't even know we didn't know or understand before.
This has been hugely encouraging for me lately. Maybe because I live in a country that is increasingly divisive... (Hi Canada! I see you up there on our show tour schedule! I know these aren't your problems. I hope maybe you can see me and understand me as I write this? The government down here is shut down. I can't visit my National Parks. Public toilets on National Forest Land are untended. Park rangers, their families, and thousands of federal workers are soon to be forced to miss their paychecks because their livelihood has suddenly been pulled out from beneath them by this shut down. For...what...a border wall?)
Seriously, a border wall. Every time I think about a border wall, I remember the time I stood next to it when I started my northbound journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. It looked ridiculous; a giant ugly eyesore that blocked me from seeing the sweeping landscape as it was meant to be seen. It stopped poor animals from following their normal foraging and migration patterns. I realized then that a border wall is as much a conservation issue as any other.
I remember trying to take pictures so that the wall wouldn't ruin my memories of that day when I started such a monumental journey. And I see that border wall, that taupe colored metal monstrosity with barbed wire all over the top of it so even a tired and innocent bird would not be able take rest on it, seared into my memory as I stood with Tim, my mother and father-in-law who drove us to the southern terminus. I resent that border wall as being part of a memory that, unknowingly at the time, would be the 2nd to last time I would ever see my father-in-law walk unassisted. He died of brain cancer just a couple months later.
So yeah, I don't have a strong affection for the border wall for that reason but also for another reason. This reason has to do with how that border wall made me see at least a glimpse of what it means to be a person of color hiking in the outdoors. I remember hiking and leapfrogging along with another thru-hiker who also happened to be brown. I didn't think much about it until we ran into some police on the trail. Sometimes the trail crosses roads, and this was one of those instances, the police had barricaded the road and the trail because they were looking for people who had crossed the border illegally. I was hiking. Tim was hiking. All thru-hikers were hiking. That's what they do. We walked right by, as most everyone did. But guess who didn't walk right by? If you guessed the brown thru-hiker, you are right. He was the only one of us who was stopped for questioning. His story to me is one that made me understand the world a little more that day.
What we're creating here at Boldly Went isn't just a fun story time. I mean, it is that. It definitely is that! But it is also actively and intentionally creating spaces where we can hear all stories. This is a story that I don't usually think about, but with the border wall dilemma, I remember it. These are stories that would not be considered important enough to share with an audience. I mean, what would the draw be? But these kinds of stories are important and they are the heart of Boldly Went.
When our show hosts partner with Boldly Went and bring us to their towns so that we can work with them to create a way for people to tell their meaningful outdoor adventure stories, no matter if they are professional athletes or weekend warriors, what they're really creating is an opportunity to share important stories in the context of outdoor adventure which allows us to gain deeper understanding of who we share this big world with and how we can be better stewards of it.
That's what Boldly Went is trying to accomplish, and we think our hosts share these values and we couldn't be happier to have them on board for the 2019 Winter Spring Tour.
Don't see a show in your town and want to? Consider hosting one. It's fun! We work with you to make it easy. And your community will love you for it!
One of the most touching stories to come out of the Moab 240 this year was about the two runners who tied for 2nd place: Serbian professional runner Jovica Spajic (who we interviewed in our podcast about the event), and the winner of the 2018 Bigfoot 200, Wes Ritner (who wrote a previous post about that win for this blog).
It's not too much of a spoiler to say that the two ran the vast majority of the race together. In a race this long, that meant two top competitors running together in virtual lockstep for more than 2 days straight!
Wes was kind enough to share his personal account of the remarkable experience with us here.
Unless otherwise credited, all photos courtesy of Scott Rokis. He's one of the best outdoor and race photographers around, and we'd encourage you to check out his work.
It was the afternoon before the race, and I’d just finished the check-in process. I’d retrieved my drop bags from my car, and was carrying them to the designated area. That’s when I saw Jovica. He was up a small slope from me, standing where all 150 of the runners would soon gather to hear the pre-race briefing.
Jovica and I were too far apart for me to say anything. I could have shouted, but it seemed like that would have been obnoxious since we didn’t know each other very well. Instead, I waved. He waved back. His face was unmoved. Stoic.
I wasn’t sure how to read his lack of an expression. We’d been the first and second place competitors for the first 140 miles of last year’s Tahoe 200 race, so I thought that maybe he viewed me as an opponent rather than as a friend. I wanted to respect his feelings even if I didn’t understand them, so I decided I should just give him his space.
I finished the short walk to the drop bag area without another glance up.
I didn’t see Jovica again until we found ourselves standing side by side near the starting line the next morning in the gradually increasing light of the rising sun. Still trying to respect his space, I remained silent. We stood there for several long moments before he broke the ice by saying hi. We exchanged well-wishes for the coming race, then the horn blew and the race began.
If you’re the type of person who daydreams about:
it might be worth thinking about New Caledonia.
I’m not sure if you can do those things there, but it seems like you probably could.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small group of islands and islets in Melanesia - forming a roughly equilateral triangle with Australia and New Zealand, where it is the Northeasterrnmost point. It’s not that far from Vanuatu, if that helps.
If you aren’t already there, it’s almost definitely a long way from where you are. We booked an AirBnB on a woman’s catamaran in the main harbor in the capitol, and she told us that a lot of people arrive by boat and fly home, ditching their vessels because it’s too much trouble to get them back to Europe or the United States or wherever they’ve drifted in from.
It's pretty sleepy, but it still does a healthy tourist trade with English speakers and people from mainland China and Japan. The main group of foreigners, though, are French. The proper official name is Nouvelle Caledonie, because since 1853 the French have put themselves in charge of things. Along with a lot of blue water, the islands have one of the richest nickel deposits in the world, and the white people there taking it are primarily francophones.
Originally though, it was a Melanesian paradise - Kanak, specifically. People have been there for 3000 years, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. They still make up 40 percent of the population, and their culture is alive and quite visible all over the islands. As is the case everywhere I’ve ever been in the Pacific, they seem to exist in a uneasy detente with their colonizers. Just before we arrived in November 2018, there was a national referendum on whether or not to remain a French colony. Kanak flags were flying everywhere, and only 56% voted to stay.
I didn't know any of that before we arrived, and our own trip to the country happened mostly on a whim. We were looking for flights between the South and North Island of New Zealand, where we were traveling from our home in the US, and noticed a cheap flight to a place called “Noumea”. We Googled it, found out it was the capital of a country we’d never thought much about, and decided “what the hey”.
We were only there for a week, and I’m by no means an expert, or even a novice, but we did dig around enough to function something like scouts for others out there who might be interested in paying a visit.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.