Goodbye van life (for now), hello Airstream life!

My first experience towing our Airstream was down a serpentine 1.5 mile driveway, a steep descent through an overgrown orchard. At the exit gate, I somehow forgot I was lugging a 28’ tail behind me and almost hauled the trailer over a tall curb and through a giant bush. *gulp*

Chelsea immediately adopted a mantra: trailer trailer trailer, which she chanted anytime I was turning. Not to be dissuaded, my first gas station stop left the trailer hanging so far out that I partially blocked the entrance. I earned a few stink eyes from other drivers as they crept over a curb to get past me.

At least I was able to back the trailer into place in the pitch dark when we got home! Hey, one outta three ain’t bad…

Soooo yup, this whole Airstream thing is a giant disaster going to be a learning experience.

Chelsea riding in the back of the truck down the initial driveway orchard gauntlet.

Why an Airstream?

Like many people, we’ve experienced a rough few years. COVID headaches, some health drama for me and Chelsea, a business cycle that took down my company… It feels like a lot, at least relative to halcyon days of yore. We can’t shake the feeling that life is short and fragile and that we’ve gotta go live some of our dreams.

In short, after 6+ years in Bend, we feel VERY in need of some wandering (traipsing, if you will?). Time to seek space to clear our heads and get recentered.

While our senior kitty Oliver is still with us and my Italian citizenship still isn’t official (someday), we aren’t psyched on international travel. We considered renting Airbnbs around the U.S., but wow, expensive much? Also, we want our own space vs. transitioning to new lodging constantly. However, the idea of long-term van travel doesn’t feel appealing.

So after kicking it around for awhile, we bought a used 2017 Flying Cloud Airstream. If I say so myself, she’s a beaut! Cozy, light and bright inside, with all the amenities to make long-term travel comfy and sustainable.

I hope my head isn’t really this tall…

Our goals with the Airstream:

  • A comfortable escape pod for smoke season. Sadly, it’s the 5th season here in Bend—we’re currently mired in an apocalyptic haze as I write this. Also, we’re over winter and want to hit the road for that.
  • A way to stop in a place and stay longer, a week or two instead of night. I’m planning to outfit the Airstream for extended boondocking.
  • Not having to constantly pack stuff up anytime we need to head to the grocery store or go for a hike. Aka parking the trailer and having a separate 4×4 run-around vehicle that can go anywhere. (As a friend said, “I think I speak for all of your followers when I say I want to hear more about THAT TRUCK.”)
Searching for the perfect truck…
  • A desire for more space! The van has ~15 sf of floor area. It’s a small-but-effective space and I love traveling in it, but not for long periods of time. The trailer is under 200sf, another world in terms of space.
  • More comfortable seating. In the van, we always feel perched, not kicked back and comfy. For extended travel, we’ve realized we want a real lounge space.
  • I want to play lots of piano, my fav hobby these days (apologies to my mountain bike). Yup, I’m still fired up on learning the music of old dead white guys from centuries ago. Hey, it lights me up…I’m going with it! There’s a perfect space to set up a piano between the twin beds up front in the Airstream.
Holy square footage, batman!

In short, we aren’t the spunky early-30 somethings who set off in our van without any running water or lights. A decade later, we want something closer to a tiny house. Yup, getting soft. I’ll own that!

Also, van life has a kind of momentum to it where we are constantly on the go, driving to and fro seeking excitement. Two nights at Bryce Canyon, then charging off to Zion National Park for a night, then onward to Gooseberry Mesa… and so on. It’s GREAT for short trips, but akin to flitting about Europe and seeing a 17 cities and 12 countries in a whirlwind trip. Our goal with the Airstream is to set up the conditions to thrive with slower travel.

Modifying the A/C (whoa, we have A/C!) with an EasyStart.

What am I excited about? So much.

Waking up in nature. NOVELTY. Backing the trailer up to the ocean, a river, or the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and eating breakfast with that view. Exploring whatever area we’re in. Playing piano outside under big trees. Drawing anything and everything. Reading a ton. LESS HOUSE MAINTENANCE. Finally learning how to surf and returning to a consistent yoga practice. Parking near famous trails and experiencing them more than once. Camping with friends along the way.

For our first long trip, I’m planning to just relax, to see what it feels like to not check work email or worry about payroll or need a cell signal all the time. It’s been 17 years since I had that kind of space.

Honestly, this just feel like a big life curveball out of the blue. Trailer life?! Never, ever would I have seen this coming. It’s an experiment in a different style of living, mobility with more comfort. Many people love it, but is it for us? We’ll see!

I suspect it’ll be fantastic. At least once I learn how to pull a trailer without leaving a swath of destruction behind me.

Oh, did someone else want to get into this gas station? (Rental truck, btw.)


  • Yes, this feels like a massive change from how we’ve traveled in the past. I’ll be in therapy for at least a year to grapple with the loss of my VanMan street cred.
  • No, this isn’t a mid-life crisis and no, I don’t plan on getting a paunch. (Har har, George.)
  • Yes, we bought a truck! And YES, I admit I’m excited to drive it. You can take the boy out of Idaho, but… After a ridiculous series of encounters with car salesman that reinforced everything negative I’ve ever heard, we found a rare used Ford F150 (in Idaho) with a heavy duty payload package that is going to kick ass and not feel like a monster truck. Well, kind of not a monster truck…
My dad picking up our for-sure-a-monster-truck in Idaho, where all such trucks live.
  • Yes, this will affect how we approach travel. We’re actually going to have to plan! No more turning up any fire road to search for a camping spot. A little upfront planning or scanning Google terrain should yield more epic boondocking spots perfect for longer stays. And yes, more campgrounds.
  • Yes, we still have plans for Italy and oh-so-much international travel. But my citizenship quest is still ongoing and all that’s down the road a bit. Europe will still be there, I suspect. (Go away, Putin.)
  • No, we are not selling our house. We love it, our neighborhood, and our neighbors. We’ll be back! However, we are planning to rent it. Interested in a fall/winter stay in a sweet modern house in Bend, Oregon with the feel of a botanical garden? Hit reply and send me an email!
  • Yes, our 19 YO super-senior cat Oliver is coming with us. In fact, he’s already started meowing at the front door to our house because he loves to visit the Airstream. It’s super cute how he sits by the trailer screen door and sniffs the breeze.
Oliver the security detail.
  • Nope, we are not selling the van. At least not yet… First I need to test out what long-term travel in a trailer is like. I’ve put too much work into the van to flippantly sell it. But I have envisioned what a pop-top camper on the truck would be like for shorter local trips, coupled with the Airstream for long jaunts. Ch-ch-ch-chaaanges!
  • The trailer is a 2017 Flying Cloud Airstream, the 27’ FBT (front bed twin). It’s in fabulous shape because the previous owner never used it and the one before that was afraid of towing. Gosh, why?
  • No, we have no idea how trailer stuff works. How does one use a stinky slinky? There will definitely be a learning curve! But I know van systems well from building and remodeling our van, not to mention DIYing solar on our house, so I’m optimistic it’ll work out. What could go wrong?

That’s a wrap. Much more to come on this latest jaunt, but right now I’ve gotta finish staining the front door trim. Getting our house ship-shape before launch!



Ready to awkwardly back up anywhere, anytime.

How to Bikepack on a Plant-Based Diet

This post is also featured here on

It struck me recently that I’ve bikepacked or bike toured for over a year of my life. Starting in 2014, I’ve pedaled across states, countries, and mountain ranges, over a thousand hours of exertion and 10,000 miles.

Along the way, I’ve burnt a few calories.

I fueled all 10,000 of those miles following a plant-based diet. And since I couldn’t find a comprehensive blog post talking about this, I decided to write this post!

My goal is to provide concrete, actionable information about trying a plant-based (or plant-leaning) diet for your next bike trip. I cover the following (click to skip ahead):

  1. My experience with plant-based bike travel
  2. Bikepacking vs. bike touring
  3. Trips I’ve done
  4. My mindset for plant-based travel
  5. General bike travel tips
  6. Food I carry while bikepacking
  7. What to eat in rural towns
  8. Food I carry while bike touring
  9. Tips to hit the road
  10. Photo gallery

First off, I want to say this: food is personal. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist and I’m DEFINITELY not here to tell you how to eat. But if you’re interested in leaning more plant-based on bike trips, you’re in the right place. 

Let’s jump into it.

Mason whipping up an amazing tempeh/cheese/avocado wrap during a thunderstorm break on the Colorado Trail.

My Experience with Plant-Based Bike Travel:

After almost a decade of pedaling on plant power, here is what I’ve discovered:

  1. Bikepacking on a plant-based diet is totally doable: I’ve found that plenty of calories, balanced nutrients, and a high energy level were the norm.
  2. There’s never been a better time to live and travel as a plant-based person. From rural restaurants to big city dining, I’ve found and enjoyed plant-based food options.
  3. In foreign countries, the grocery store and restaurant treasure hunt is an enjoyable part of the travel experience.
  4. If I’m kind and clear with my requests, people return the kindness and help get me what I need.
  5. Staying true to my values during a trip is empowering. I enjoy the opportunity to be an ambassador for plant-based eating.

What’s the Difference Between Bike Touring and Bikepacking?

For me, bike touring means paved roads and hence more amenities like grocery stores most days, along with restaurant and hotel options. Our trips biking across the U.S.. or Europe on small highways, back roads or car-free paths are a perfect example of touring.

Bikepacking is off-road on gravel roads or dirt trails. It’s typically more remote traveling with fewer resupply options and less carrying capacity on the bike, e.g. Bikepacking the Colorado Trail or Oregon Big Country. It might be multiple days without any resupply options.

I think both are fantastic ways to travel and I will continue to do both. That said, I’m skerrred of cars and Tiktokking Teens behind the wheel, so I avoid paved roads whenever possible.

Freeze-dried pad thai during a bikepacking trip in the Chilcotins in Canada.

Quick Credibility Builder

Here’s a rundown of some of the bigger bike touring and bikepacking trips I’ve done on a plant-based diet. I bring these up to illustrate that big, physically-demanding trips are entirely possible powered entirely on plants.

  1. Toured 4,000 self-supported miles across the U.S. from Idaho to Portland, Maine with my wife Chelsea.
  2. Pedaled 2,500 self-supported miles through 13 countries in Europe with Chelsea, plus another 2 months through Spain and Portugal.
  3. Bikepacked across Oregon on the Oregon Timber Trail, the Oregon Outback, Oregon Big Country and Three Sisters, Three Rivers, plus the Odyssey of the VOG. I’ve also pedaled (and pushed) my bike through the remote Chilcotin Wilderness and the epic Colorado Trail.
  4. Raced 100 miles on a mountain bike a couple times (2017, 2019), a 9+ hour event. (Plant-based racers like Dylan Johnson absolutely crush.)
  5. Many hundreds of hours of mountain bike day rides.

You’ll note that my trips are limited to North America and Europe (for now!). However, plant-based friends have pedaled E. Europe and S. America, Nepal, and other regions around the world and done juuuust fine.

Dig this kind of post? Check out my 2x/month Traipsing About newsletter!

Chowing down while touring through Montana in 2014. OMG, I’m carrying so much stuff!

The Mindset

My shift to plant-based in 2013 simply required commitment and just owning it. Most people understood and supported me. Even if people didn’t understand why I was making the choice, if I was clear and kind with my requests, they helped me get what I wanted. 

I’ve discovered that eating plant-based is like any other boundary that we set to build our ideal life. If we have a preference and we’re crystal clear about it, then if somebody responds poorly, that’s great feedback to moooove along. 

EVERYone these days knows somebody with a standard American  diet. (I recall a server in a small-town diner in Nebraska who had a cousin who ate plant-based.) A keto brother, a gluten-free roommate, a vegetarian aunt…people will understand.

On the health side, I’ve always prioritized my personal health, but my blood work at 40 years old is better than it was in my 20s! I’m able to do all the cycling I did before (actually, now I do a lot more…). In fact, many badass professional athletes are plant-based, as documented in the movie The Game Changers.

Also, plant-based diets help people optimize body composition, oftentimes dramatically dropping fat. Bike travel is hard enough, so shaving a few pounds never hurts. It’s certainly cheaper to eat plants than it is to buy carbon wheels.

Given the positive results and empowering feeling that my choices are better for the planet, animals, and me, I can’t endorse a plant-based lifestyle enough.

Enough background. Let’s talk about what I eat on bike tours.

Mason and I digging into pizza in Frisco during the Colorado Trail.

Food for Bikepacking vs. Bike Touring

In my experience, bikepacking tends to involve steeper, more challenging terrain. Keeping bike (and human) weight to a minimum matters more when I’m lifting my bike over 200 downed trees. 

Loaded up with food and gear while road touring, I just downshift and go slower. On a trail, I curse downed trees and wish I’d done more pullups for trip prep.

Space is also more at a premium on a bikepacking setup. Without spacious panniers, options for storing food are limited. On a road bike tour, I’ve carried crazy amounts of grub: half a watermelon, cans of beans and jars of olives… Whatever! An extra 10 pounds of food barely slows me down. Spin up those hills!

But can I lift that bike over a tree or power through a steep move on a trail? Hellll no.

As such, I make different decisions.

General Tips for Bike Travel

Whether I’m bikepacking remote mountains or bike touring through places like Europe, some things I do hold true:

  • I usually carry a small stove (a Jetboil), but I also like to cold-soak my overnight oats so it’s ready first thing. I do the same with some freeze-dried meals so they’re ready when I’m hungry vs. woefully staring at the cold package and considering attacking my companions to commandeer their food.
  • For really remote trips (e.g. the Oregon Big Country), I mail food ahead! It’s easy: I simply find a post office in the area I’m passing through and send a package to myself marked general delivery. For $10-15 bucks in shipping, I can have exactly what I want. One caveat: check the hours for the post offices, because sometimes they are limited in small towns.
  • Gas stations/convenience stores exist in and contain tons of plant-based options. (Maybe not the most healthy, but whatever. Fritos, mmm.) Here’s a list of plant-based foods available in convenience stores—so many! Yup, Oreos make that list. And Nutter Butters, for which I’ll trade a spare arm during a hungry moment.
  • Bike travel makes me HUNGRY and sometimes it’s tough to carry enough calories to make up for full days of biking. To combat that, I backfill the calorie deficit by eating all the heavy, calorie-dense, yummy stuff while I’m at a restaurant or outside a grocery store, bakery, convenience store…anywhere. I also load up on nutrients via seaweed salads, salad bar items, oranges. And watermelons, obv.
  • I almost always order two portions at a restaurant, eat one there and one to go. For road tours, I’ll bring a watertight container that can take leftovers to get a few hours later.
  • When I’m grocery shopping, I divide my haul into two portions: The stuff to load onto my bike and the stuff I wolf down to refuel on the spot.

Bikepacking on a Plant-Based Diet: Food for the Trail

Below is a list of my go-to bikepacking food. I aim for as little processed food as possible, though that falls apart if I’m starving and find Sour Patch Kids in a gas station. 

Regarding freeze-dried meals, some people make their own, but I’ve never wanted to spend the time. If you watch for year-end sales, you can get meals quite cheap. Plus, hey, you’re sleeping on the ground, so if finances allow, treat yourself!

In general, focus on calorie-dense foods. You’re not trying to lose weight on tour, you’re trying to fuel your engine. Stuff as many calories in your face as possible. (e.g. burritos.)

A giant meal in Leadville during the Colorado Trail.


  • Oatmeal. For shorter trips, I premix a bag with nuts, dried fruit, ground chia, and other additions. For longer trips, I simply buy oatmeal packets along the way and mix with calorie-dense additions like trail mix or peanut butter.


  • Tortillas – PBJ trail burritos or make a freeze-dried meal into a wrap.
  • Sigdal crackers – a nice break from tortillas. 
  • A (plastic) jar of peanut butter and jam that I pre-mix for trail burritos or for adding to oatmeal. PBJs are clean-burning FUEL.
  • Energy bars: Picky Bars are my favorite. Pro Bars are a calorie-dense option as well, with PB Chocolate my fav.
  • Trail mix to eat/add to oatmeal and trail burritos—available in every grocery or convenience store.
  • Pickles (carried sans juice in a plastic bag). Zero calories, heavy, and yet a divine gift from the gods at the top of a mountain pass when I’m craving salt.
  • Olives (transferred to a plastic baggie). All part of my attempt to not only eat sweet treats. Great for adding to freeze-dried meals or eaten alone like a crazed animal.
  • Dried fruit (pineapple, mango, dates, raisins) or gobbling fresh fruit if I’m restocking at a store. Raisins with salt provide the same boost as Sports Jelly Beans and are au natural. 
  • Lupini beans – salty, flavorful, with some moisture. A favorite.
  • Bada Bean Bada Boom – crunchy and delicious beans.
  • Primal Jerky.
  • Fig newtons. Mmmm, figgies. Just typing that makes me want to go buy some. 
  • Some kind of salt/electrolyte tablet and powder. LMNT is like an IV drip to your piehole. It can overcome any electrolyte deficit.
  • Coconut water is a delicious treat.


  • Freeze-dried meals. There are a ton of options. Backpacker’s Pantry pad thai is an affordable, excellent option, along with Kathmandu curry and other plant-based options. One for dinner and another that I’d make in the morning and eat by noon each day…or 10 am, heh. If you’re traveling through cities, most outdoor stores will have these.
  • Dried soy curls pre-mixed with a custom fajita mix for delicious tacos. Pro tip: bring hot sauce, always.
  • Pro tip: Use the tortillas as a wrap for freeze-dried meals. Extra calories!
  • Restaurants! Nothing like a 1,500 calorie mega-burrito from a Mexican restaurant or a Subway sandwich to offset hours of biking. A fav move is to grab a burrito to go and keep pedaling, then eat it down the road.
Loading up a giant burrito during the Oregon Outback. I skipped the beer.

A few tips for bikepacking: 

I usually carry a small stove (a Jetboil), I also like to cold-soak my overnight oats so it’s ready first thing. I do the same with some freeze-dried meals so they’re ready when I’m hungry vs. woefully staring at the cold package and considering attacking my companions to commandeer their food.

For really remote trips (e.g. the Oregon Big Country), mail food ahead! Simply find a post office in an area you’re passing through and send a package to yourself marked general delivery with your name on it. For $10-15 bucks in shipping, you can have exactly what you want. One caveat: check the hours for the post offices, because sometimes they are limited in small towns.

Gas stations/convenience stores exist in and contain tons of plant-based options. (Maybe not the most healthy, but whatever. Fritos, mmm.) Traipsing About reader, badass cyclist and fitness coach Lauren Costantini put together a list of foods for clients who were racing the Great Divide from Canada to Mexico. Yup, Oreos make that list! And Nutter Butters, for which I’ll trade a spare arm during a hungry moment on the trail.

Never roll up on the Monarch Crest general store while hungry…junk food overload!

What to eat in Rural Towns

Nobody likes staring at a menu in a small-town diner and thinking, “Ruh roh, I’m going to starve.” Fear not! There are plenty of calories to be had. You just need to ask for what you want!

For example, during my Oregon Timber Trail journey, my friends and I pedaled like hell into Chemult to beat the 9 pm closing of Lori’s Diner. We were famished after a huge, challenging day of carrying bikes over downed trees. (See above section on traveling light…)

Magically, Lori’s had veggie burgers available! Did I eat two of them and wish I’d ordered three? Yep!

The next morning, we were back for breakfast. Everything on the menu contained animal products, but I deployed my secret weapon: asking for what I wanted.

“Hey, can the cook throw together something for me? Just take hashbrowns and load any vegetables you’ve got into it. Maybe some veggie burger too?” 

The result? A mouth-watering, satisfying breakfast! Even better, when the cook came out and asked how it was, I got to tell him so. He responded that he’d enjoyed cooking something different.

This illustrates an important point: you aren’t necessarily inconveniencing someone by asking for what you want. With potatoes, rice, pasta, beans, vegetables and a random veggie burger (or not), a delicious meal is possible. These staples exist everywhere.

Ask and you shall receive. Be friendly, but not apologetic. You’re a paying customer. Plus, you showed up on a bike, so you’re obviously crazy already.

(Side note: You’ll notice I didn’t worry about the grill being used for cooking meat. For me, this lifestyle isn’t about perfection, but about best efforts. Perfectionism—in ANYTHING—is simply a recipe for giving up and doing nothing.)

Stuffing my face outside a grocery store in Germany.

Food for Bike Touring

Bike touring meals can of course include the exact same stuff as bikepacking. However, it’s easier to live a fancier—and healthier—life when you’re touring on the roads. More frequent, higher-end restaurants are a great example.

In Europe, it’s even easier. Restaurants and grocery stores feature tons of plant-based options and we’ve found even the smallest little B&Bs and restaurants offer something plant-based. The Bios (the name for organic shops) offer fantastic options as well. Organic produce is also less expensive in Europe.

Outside of big cities or when I’m camping, I opt to make my own meals with food from grocery stores. Big salads (I’m talking LOADED with calories), simple burritos or wraps, pasta. It’s not home-cooked deliciousness, but after biking all day, it doesn’t matter— food just tastes better.

Half of a huge dinner salad in Portugal. I basically added a ton of the stuff on the list below!

Here are a few staples I grab in grocery stores or restaurants while road touring. Refrigeration isn’t necessary since it’s down the hatch quickly!

  • Olives
  • Beans
  • Tofu or tempeh: get the marinated stuff for max flavor
  • Nuts (with beans, tofu/tempeh, and seeds, we easily get enough protein on tour)
  • Plant-based meats, cheeses, yogurts and milks.
  • Granola or oatmeal
  • Salad dressing
  • Hummus
  • Any and all vegetables
  • Avocados and guacamole
  • All the fruit: apples, cherries, GRAPES (the best). While we typically don’t carry watermelon, we’ve eaten dozens of them while sitting outside grocery stores. In Europe and the U.S., we load up on fruit at farmer’s markets.
  • Pizzas sans cheese. (“We’ve never had anyone order that,” said one lady with a smile at Casey’s convenience store in Illinois. Pizzas for $10 that we ate like Velociraptors.)
  • Carbs! Bread, tortillas, plant-based pastries if we could find them…fuel those miles.
  • Canned chili, baked beans or lentil soup (Amy’s is a go-to brand of mine)
  • So. Many. Options. Enjoy that bike touring luxury!
Our favorite plant-based blogger, Isa Chandra, happened to open a new restaurant in Omaha the day we biked through. We ate SO much amazing food that day.

Putting Rubber to the Road

Time to hit the road! All that’s left to do is buy a bunch of grub and load your bike up. Before you do, here are a few additional tips to dial in a positive mindset:

  1. Add, don’t subtract. Rather than thinking about things you can’t eat, simply substitute plant options. e.g. get that veggie burger at a restaurant, buy plant-based lunch meat or chili.
  2. It’s not all or nothing. A substantial and meaningful diet shift is best accomplished slowly, piece by piece. You might be surprised how easy it is to eat 75% plant-based with little dislocation to your eating habits. Experiment with plant-based options.
  3. Treat it as a treasure hunt. Enjoying the challenge of seeking out plant-based options is like not buying shitty tomatoes out of season at the grocery store: it’s a bigger reward when you find that special, tasty item. (Coconut Bliss ice cream in a small grocery store in the Midwest comes immediately to mind!)
  4. Feel good knowing you’re helping your health, the environment, and animals. It’s an easy way to have less impact, one bite at a time.

You’re ready to roll! Pick a route, pack your bags, order that grub, and get out there.

For further reading, check out a few of my related bike touring or bikepacking posts:

Lastly, here are a bunch more photos of delicious plant-based food that has fueled me along the way. Just flipping through my trips and seeing this stuff got me excited (and hungry) for the next adventure!

Dig this post? Check out my 2x/month Traipsing About newsletter for trip reports, other bikepacking tips, and other ways to level up your life.

Photo Gallery

playing outdoor chess in Christchurch

Playing life like chess

How approaching life with a chess mindset helps focus us on achievable goals

Playing chess in Christchurch, NZ as a youngster back in 2005.

After enjoying chess in my youth, this winter I returned to playing online with friends. The nuances of the game and geometric beauty of the positions fire my brain up.

Whoa, I sound like a chess nerd. YES.

One chess concept is called “working backwards to forwards.” Basically, you picture the achievable checkmate type based on the pieces you have (e.g. a knight and a rook). Then you work backward to the moves needed to achieve the goal. Different pieces, different type of checkmate.

What if we applied this to our lives? We all have unique constraints (e.g. work, family, pets, skills, finances, desire for particular activities). How often do we look at our available “pieces” and think, “My achievable goals are ____.”

Personal example: both Chelsea and I are hankering for long-term travel. We also have an 18 YO cat who requires frequent care, including subcutaneous fluids every other day. He’s going to live another 10 years at this rate, so we need to readjust.

Just like I can’t checkmate an opponent with only my king and a knight, I can’t currently can’t travel with Chelsea. If I beat my head against the idea of long-term travel given my pieces on the board, frustration descends. Checkmate…on me.

Instead, I reframed things. We’ve traveled a ton and we’ll do it again. I can still bikepack with friends or take solo van trips, which I always enjoy. When I’m home, my piano beckons from the living room and Bend is a fabulous place to live and recreate.

Knowing the constraints helps me eliminate “ohhh, I wish I could do ____” and narrow it down to “this is what I can accomplish now.” I’m finding that it’s quite useful.

And when I get back to Christchurch for an outdoor chess rematch, I’m gonna be ready.

Boosting Your Foreign Language Learning with Anki

Bike touring near Seville and wishing I spoke better Spanish.

This tutorial on optimizing foreign language learning is for you if:

  1. You’re serious about learning a foreign language.
  2. You want an effective, efficient method with constant forward progress, not repeatedly forgetting what you learned.
  3. You don’t want to spend money on expensive courses and their magic promises.

Update 2023: check out my “2 years with Anki” blog post to see the power of Anki!

My Foreign Language Journey

I’ve “studied” Spanish for years: high school classes, traveling in Spain and Central America, plus a language immersion in Mexico pushing me to the point where I dreamt in Spanish.

The result from all of that effort? I forgot most of it. My Spanish is roughly A2 level, beyond “Yo hablo Espanol,” but basically survival level. *sigh* 

The problem? I lacked a system for learning. My scattershot approach generated results that were full of holes, with no plan for long-term retention. I’d learn something before or during a trip, then forget it.

Best part of Spanish immersion lessons: cooking tasty Mexican meals!

There is a better way

Then I discovered I can become an Italian citizen, which fired me up to learn the language. I finally got serious, researched and compiled a systematic approach, and stuck to it. 

One year into my pursuit of learning Italian, I’m fluent at a B2 level (independent, spontaneous conversation) and well on my way to C1 (fluent Italian with more complexity).

Better yet, I’m confident I can continue this forever, retaining what I’ve learned while adding other languages. 

In the past year, I’ve learned over 5,500 Italian vocab words and sentences, about 2 million times my Spanish results. As my teacher Luigi said recently (in Italian, obviously), “At this point, you’re prepared to talk about anything!” 

He administers fluency tests for the Italian government, so you can bet I felt good. I’m writing this post because I want you to experience the same satisfaction!

If you just want to say a few words of broken Spanish next Cancun trip or simply order a pizza in Rome, stop reading. 

If you’re serious about learning a language effectively and efficiently, journey onward!


  1. Set up a spaced repetition program like Anki as the foundation and use it consistently. Jump to how to set it up Anki.
  2. For fluent conversation, your goal should be to actively recall words (conversation) vs. passively recall them (listening or reading). 
  3. Develop a way to generate new vocab (language lessons on iTalki, Duolingo, grammar books, reading, podcasts, video, etc)
  4. Create memorable, simple sentences from that vocab and create flashcards in Anki. Jump to how to create effective flashcards.
  5. Do a total daily review of 10-30 minutes.
  6. Remember more words and speak a language better than you ever thought possible!

Into Anki and language learning and want to learn more? Check out my free 2x/month newsletter for life hacks and my journey with languages.

A Simple Language Learning System

To speak a language, you need words! If you don’t know enough vocabulary, you’ll stare blankly at a local as you try to say “I’d like to buy some pink swim shorts to match my flamingo pool floatie.” NOBODY wants to be in that blank-mind state.

Gone like the memory of seeing an alien…

And conversation requires a ton of words! Here’s the generally accepted rule for language proficiency, vocab-wise:

  • A1 – Survival I: communication at a basic level (500 vocab words)
  • A2 – Survival II: novice in simple contexts. (1,000 vocab words)
  • B1 – Conversational I: low intermediate level. (2,000 vocab words)
  • B2 – Conversational II: independent, spontaneous. (4,000 vocab words)
  • C1 – Fluency I: fluent in a complex manner. (8,000 vocab words)
  • C2 – Fluency II: same abilities as a native speaker. (16,000 vocab words)

But how do I put words in my brain?

Luckily, remembering words isn’t complex. You can do this.

At the core of efficient vocabulary acquisition is spaced repetition learning. This is simply a way to store all the words and info you’re trying to learn plus a way to shove it into your long-term memory storage.

I won’t go too far into the weeds, but think about it like this…

Say you learn some vocab. With zero reviews, you’ll forget 50% of what you learned in just a few days. 

This is why cramming for a test works, but only for short-term memory! A week later, all that effort is for naught. 

Use it or lose it!

The problem is that our brains are efficient at forgetting things we don’t need. It saves calories, just like when we roamed the savanna millennia ago. To remember something, we need to see it again and again in different contexts.

Spaced repetition accomplishes that. Here’s an interactive comic explaining why.

TL;DR: Think of it as smart, computerized flashcards. Rather than flipping through an endless pile of cards, they’re optimized for retention.

Get a card right? You won’t see it for awhile. Miss it? Back to the front of the line. It’s the age-old flashcard method, but with an algorithm that delivers them on a schedule to push words deeeep into long-term memory.

By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free Traipsing About newsletter to level up your life around outdoor adventures, creativity, and travel.

Anki is the best program for spaced repetition learning.

Anki (Japanese for memorization) is an open-source project available for computers or phones. Free on computer and Android, a $25 one-time fee for the iPhone app. (Think of it as a donation.)

There’s no monthly fee, no BS. Sorry, no dinging sounds when you get an answer right. Just effective utility that WORKS.

Further proof: in 2010, Roger Craig used Anki to obtain the then-all-time record for single-day winnings on the quiz show Jeopardy!, memorizing a vast number of facts. Med school students use it, advanced language learners use it…and so can you.

Anki is the place where I put anything that I want to remember. Language vocab and sentences, musical terms and blues riffs, countries of the world, presidents of the U.S., anything. 

For 20-30 minutes a day for the past year, I committed to reviewing my Anki cards. When I’m home, the reviews consist of new cards plus reviews. While traveling, I only do reviews, reducing time to about 10 minutes a session.

Because Anki shows you a word or sentence just as you begin to forget it, the whole process is enjoyable! You’re in the flow zone between too easy or too hard.

Example of an Anki card.

At home, I usually lie on the floor and stretch, but it’s great for any moment when you’re killing time. I’ve flipped through cards at the barber, waiting for a friend to show up for a run, and in a tent on the Colorado Trail. The results?

I reviewed 100,010 cards (!) last year. WHOA. The power of consistency at work. Total cards memorized: 8,800. No wonder I feel far more proficient with Italian in a year than I did with years of sporadic Spanish. 

(More soon on how to create cards.)

Hard to believe I did 100,191 reviews. It felt so easy!
So. Many. Words.

Other Components of the Language System

Anki is the brain of the system, but it needs food. 

How you find new vocab is up to you. Here are some that I use, with more later on creating sentences from these:

Active vs. passive recall: Creating sentences you’ll actually remember

I started out simply memorizing vocab words, but noticed using them in conversation felt tough sometimes. I dug deeper and bought a course from the Universe of Memory, created by a Polish guy who speaks 10 languages and has seemingly read every study available on memory.

My biggest realization: active vs. passive recall.

Think of active words as those you can use in conversation at any time. Passive words are those you recognize, but only if you hear or read them. i.e. you can’t quickly access them for conversation. (We also have these in our native language: think how many words you can recognize while reading, but never use in daily life.

Universe of Memory course takeaways: 

  • Simply reviewing individual words often isn’t enough . You need to create your own sentences using the target vocab word. Mix your native and target language in the question to jolt your brain into active recall.
Mix vocab into a sentence like this.
  • Memorize natural phrases you might use in a conversation.
Use natural phrases people actually say.
  • Your sentences shouldn’t be longer than 5-7 words. Ideally, they should be 2-4 words long.
  • Use only words you know.
  • For additional cards, make sure the context differs from other cards (e.g. I sit on the chair, the chair is brown, please push in your chair).
  • Create a new sentence (out loud or as a new flashcard) whenever you fail to recall a given word.
  • Know how to pronounce a given word (use the free language Anki add-on).
  • Speed and execution over details: don’t obsess over perfect cards.

In general, your cards should be set up so that you can learn 500-700/hour, aka a couple seconds per card during your review. Keep them simple!

Pro tip: when I can’t think of a sentence using my target vocab word, I plug it into Reverso’s context engine and modify one of the available sentences.


For conjugation cards, simply do something like this (e.g. for verb pensare, to think in Italian):

Set up your conjugation cards like this

There’s of course more, but those basic items will get you most of the way there.

And with that, it’s time to…

Launch your language learning

Here’s to learning AND remembering foreign languages. Arrivederci to blank moments during conversation, adios to forgetting everything a month after a trip, HOLA to language competency!

Enjoy the journey.

Time to take action! Here’s how to get started:

  1. Download the Anki app ($25 one-time for iPhone, free for Android). I prefer to use it on my computer unless I’m not at home.
  2. Find shared Anki decks
  3. Watch an Anki tutorial for setting things up (YouTube).
  4. Download the best Anki add-ons. If nothing else, definitely get the free language add-on. It has audio translations you can add to cards to get the pronunciation right.
  5. Develop a way to generate new vocab (language lessons on iTalki, Duolingo, reading, grammar books, podcasts, video).
  6. Start studying and spend 10-30 minutes spread throughout the day reviewing your cards.

Reference Resources

  1. These excellent notes from the book Fluent Forever from my friend Jono, who speaks somewhere around five languages, including Chinese (!).
  2. Here’s an interactive comic explaining why spaced repetition works (same link as main post).
  3. To get really serious about language learning, check out the Vocabulary Labs course on Universe of Memory.
You better believe I’m going to remember more produce vocab next time I’m in Mexico!

A First Date in Prague

Meeting in Prague

Today is special. Ten years ago to the day, Chelsea and I met for the first time.

In Prague.

At the time, I was studying abroad in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Ok, mostly having fun.) Chelsea had just moved to Portland. Through an introduction from her brother, my college roommate, she and I wound up chatting online, then Skyping.

An offhand comment from me about traveling in Europe resulted in her booking a plane ticket to fly across the Atlantic for a first date. It was my bushy fro that wooed her.

I know, I know - I'm a serious charmer.

I know, I know – I’m a serious charmer.

We united in a square in Prague and kicked off a month journey through red-roofed Czech villages and Croatian islands with spectacular views and free house wine. Just in case we didn’t hit it off, Chelsea brought shirts emblazoned with FUN, the theme of the trip. She also brought fake buck teeth and temporary tattoos with sayings like Girl Love to embarrass me.

Turns out that we liked each other.

Two months later, she was back in Portland. Meanwhile, I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia with my brother. (A story for another day.) Then Chelsea soldiered through a long trip to meet me in Beijing to kick off our second date – 2.5 months exploring the far reaches of SE Asia from China to Thailand.

Top of a holy mountain somewhere in SW China.

Top of a mountain somewhere in SW China.

Let’s just say traveling together 24 hours per day is a quick way to get to know someone. We decided life together would be fun, so I got on a flight to Portland and moved in with her.

Since then, the saying about time flapping its wings has proven true. We’ve worked hard on businesses, dug into a community of friends in Portland, and built a life together. There were small trips, all woven into a busy work, social, and city life. The end of 2013 was major life shift when we headed out on a “four month” van trip that continues to evolve and has transformed how we aspire to live.

Alright, you caught me - this one is from a day exploring Vietnam by scooter. Everyone needs a pink umbrella while scootering...

Wait, that’s not our van! Exploring Vietnam by scooter in 2006. Pink umbrellas for rain protection are mandatory.

We get along well, even in a small space like a van or pedaling thousands of miles together, but we’re not perfect. There are fights, misunderstandings, and moments when she tells me to go for a run or force-feeds me to send my Hangry Alter-Ego (NARG) into retreat. (Check out my Happy Wife Happy Life post for tips on keeping it together on the road.)

Still, I figure we must be doing something right. When I think about it, there’s one thing that’s the bedrock of our successful partnership:

We never stop learning, or more importantly, being open to what the other person is learning.

It’s as simple as that. There are books about the five love languages, techniques on non-violent communication, and plenty of expensive therapists available. For us, continuing to learn, exploring the world, and growing keeps life interesting and aligns us on a path together.

Hanging with our favorite lambs at Farm Sanctuary.

Hanging with our favorite lambs at Farm Sanctuary.

To celebrate our ten year anniversary of meeting with a fitting gift, I dug deep into our photo collection. First, I picked over 1,000 photos of the two of us, starting April 5, 2006. Shots of us laughing, hiking, hanging with friends, doing handstands, wearing hats sideways, riding bikes, and all the fun of 3,650 days as a couple.

Then I made a photo mosaic with Mosaically using those photos to create a big print to surprise Chelsea. The shot I chose is a goofy one from our wedding day wearing those original FUN shirts. When you look at it from afar, it’s a portrait of the two of us. Upon closer inspection, it’s a 1,000 tiny moments we’ve spent together.

One of my favorite shots, now built from 10 years of fun moments.

One of my favorite shots, now built from 10 years of fun moments. (Here’s the original.)

After all, what is a relationship but a compilation of the moments shared with someone you care about? When I look at this print, I think of not just the times Chelsea made me smile, laugh, or feel special. I also dream of the expanding landscape of our lives, how many more adventures we will have, and how much we’ll learn and explore together. We’re just getting started.

Chelsea, thanks for being my life partner. Here’s to filling the next mosaic with many more photos of us sporting temporary tattoos or doing handstands. I love you.

I finally found a place to use a dorky wedding photo! It's amazing what those photographers can talk you into...

Yesssss – I finally found a place to use a dorky wedding photo! It’s amazing what those photographers can talk you into.