Professional tour guide David Blank has traveled all over the world on adventures — from guiding tourists in Panama (where he met his wife, Claudia) to backpacking throughout East and South Africa to travel over 20,000 miles throughout North America with his dog Max.
We talked to Blank about his love of adventure and why he decided to open Happy Tails Tours, a dog-friendly tour company.
THE CLYMB: How did you get into adventure and decide to become a guide? Did you grow up spending a lot of time outdoors or was this something you adopted as you got older?
DAVID BLANK: I grew up on a farm until I was 9, horseback riding, skiing and living outside as much as possible. I went to college in Boulder and hiked, skied, mountain biked, climbed and road tripped around the South West constantly, including almost every full moon. After graduation, when I was 22 I backpacked and hitchhiked through East and South Africa. Along the way, I met a Kiwi named Rob who was an overland guide. That’s when I learned people would actually pay me to do what I love – travel! So, in Zimbabwe, I asked around. The season was over but one company manager referred me to a similar company in the USA, Trek America, and eight months later I was leading my first tour and I had found my calling.
THE CLYMB: Please tell us about your adventure with Max around the US – it sounds amazing!
DAVID BLANK: One Friday afternoon at 4pm in May of 2000, I got a call from the Australian Cattle Dog Rescue Association that a beautiful 1.5‑year-old male was in a pound in Delaware, had been for three months, and would be euthanized Monday morning at 6am. Saturday at 9 a.m. I was sitting in a small room 12 x 12 feet. Max (then called Blue) was in the corner staring at me. I was sitting in a chair in the middle of a wall staring at him; ten minutes of this and then he walked over, peed on my foot and jumped up into my lap and licked my face.
Max changed my life. In fact, when I got him I had just been laid off from a corporate job and had received another offer. I came home from an interview and Max had destroyed my apartment. I was furious but a few minutes of deep breathing and Max entered my brain and I realized he was right. I didn’t want to be stuck inside anymore either. Three weeks later, I put Max on the back of my motorcycle in an airline crate and we spent a year traveling 20,000 miles throughout North America. Within weeks we were totally in tune and the trip was amazing.
We carried everything we needed on the bike, and when we weren’t couch surfing visiting friends, we were camping, which was about 70% of the time. We hiked and explored, met amazing people, saw beautiful things, rode through 110 degrees in South Dakota and snow storms in Colorado. We just took it one day at a time. We went as far south as Zihuateneo Mexico and spent two months camped on a beach in Baja eating fish and clams.
THE CLYMB: Before moving back to the US to open your own travel company here, you ran one in Panama for several years. Can you tell us more about that?
DB: Panama is a beautiful country, with amazing jungles, beautiful beaches, and seven wonderful indigenous tribes and, of course, the Panama Canal! Our company in Panama, Adventure Tours Panama (ATP) was really focused on giving people a perspective on the history and culture of Panama.
We especially loved sharing the amazing and welcoming indigenous cultures with visitors, which for most of them was their first and maybe only opportunity to see a culture still essentially independent from modern technology and pressures. Of course, we took our three dogs, Max, Dozer, and Margie on all of our tours, and people LOVED it.
THE CLYMB: What makes outdoor adventures with a dog so great?
DB: When people get a dog, it’s not only because dogs give unconditional love and the opportunity to love unconditionally, but also because we dream of having that constant companion that we intuitively know will transform our lives. Outdoor adventures with a dog are great because they solidify that bond quickly. In my life, there have been three things that really have the power to transform me: travel, nature, and animals. They are powerful beings and are often here as guides, partners, and friends. What Max needed, I needed. We were in some incredibly remote places and I was never worried. I always had a friend to keep me present, and that’s one of the hardest things for me. My mind is like a greyhound! Going all the time. But the dogs are present and they keep me present. Plus, even though I am an adventure guide and have been since 1993, I’m shy in some ways. So when I was lonely, I would park my bike in front of a restaurant or bar, or in one case a crash up derby, and minutes later I had a dozen friends talking to me and petting Max.
THE CLYMB: What made you open a dog-friendly adventure tour company? And can you tell us about some of the dog-friendly adventure options you offer?
DB: We created Happy Tails Canine Adventure Tours to give dogs the chance of fulfilling their mission and humans of fulfilling that dream of having a canine sidekick that they are totally bonded to by creating a world where dog and human can be together all the time, sharing amazing adventures.
One of my favorite tours we offer is the Howl at The Moon Full Moon Kayak And Sup Adventure! We take folks out during the full moon with their dog on the Catawba River, we don’t use lights and just go by the light of the moon. It’s fantastic.
We have some amazing one and two-week tours of the Southwest planned for spring of 2019! We’ll do the Grand, Zion, Bryce, Monument Valley, Moab, and Lake Powell. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge number of fantastic destinations out there that few people know about and even less visit and they are perfect places to explore with a dog or dog group!
THE CLYMB: Any particular challenges to taking your dog along on adventures?
DB: There are always places you can’t go, but the inconvenience is inconsequential for the most part, and I learned long ago that challenges and difficulties are a matter of perspective.
So what others see as challenges, I often see as opportunities. While setting up these adventures for Happy Tails, a tour operator in Utah said, “It’s a shame because you won’t be able to really spend time in the big National Parks – they are not very dog-friendly.” My response was that he had to change his thinking! “You mean we won’t have to spend a week with 100,000 of our closest friends at the Grand Canyon? Sounds great! We’ll do all the amazing things that the world has to offer that others don’t do. We’ll go off the beaten path. That’s where the real magic happens.”
THE CLYMB: If you had to choose one outdoor adventure you went on that was crazy and you’ll never forget, what would that be?
DB: Wow! How much time do you have? But of all the adventures, I would say that besides the amazing motorcycle trip with Max, South Africa was the most impressive experience I have ever had. After two months of traveling with my friend Celine, I hitched a ride to South Africa. I spent a month hitchhiking all over the entire country by myself and it was incredible. All I knew was what I had learned on campus in Boulder from Anti-Apartheid activists living in the quad in cardboard box “shanty towns” in protest. To me, it was a simple white vs. black, oppressor vs. underdog. But what I learned is that it was also white vs. white (English vs. Afrikans) and black vs. black vs. black (Zulu vs. Corsa vs. etc.). Suddenly my eyes were blown wide open.
The people, black and white, were incredibly nice to me. I was there for a month and never once paid for a place to sleep and maybe paid for five meals. People would pick me up hitchhiking and take me home. I still love to hitchhike. I consider it the ultimate freedom –you never know where you will go, who you will meet or what you will experience, and fortunately for me, it’s always been good, although frequently a bit strange!