Lessons from Close Travel

Four women on the road weigh in on traveling in close quarters with their significant others
February 13, 2016Words by Gale Straub

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
African proverb

“Your father and I could never do what you did.”

Coming home after spending months living in a Sprinter van with my boyfriend, my mother was not alone in voicing the opinion that her relationship would not last the kind of one-on-one time a road trip entails. Friends and family alike struggled to see themselves and their significant others sharing a small space and navigating the more unpleasant challenges of travel. They imagine the little annoyances that would add up, the stifling lack of room to breathe. We spend a lot of time carving out roles in our relationships. So what happens when we break them?

I think of “close travel” as discovering new places and creating a novel routine with a companion. It’s made up of shared experiences and surprising fights. I don’t think an extended road trip is the only example of close travel, but it serves as a compelling study. I reached out to a few women on the road to reflect on their experiences and draw on lessons learned. 

Madison Perrins of Vanajeros is touring the US with her boyfriend Aidan to document America’s National Parks for the centennial. They’re driving a Subaru and pitching tents to camp in the parks, creating content together and separately. Madison believes that close travel is beneficial for a relationship because it speeds things up. There’s no hiding, which is both challenging and rewarding.

Editors Note: Before Vanajeros started touring the US in a Subaru, they were driving through South America in their trusty van. Check out their dispatches from the road here, here, and here.

“Here is what traveling together does for you as a couple: it’s make or break. It may seem harsh, but travel exposes your weaknesses as a person almost immediately. When those shortcomings are revealed to your partner (and vice versa) you can’t just look away. It becomes clear whether you are willing to work as a team and step up your game when it comes to communicating.

"You're on a journey side by side, yeah. But you're on a journey for yourself, too.”

“Something that I’ve realized about myself is that I have a hard time speaking up if it means feelings are going to be hurt, often at the expense of my mental health. If your relationship does make it through the stressful circumstances that come with travel, you still have to fight to keep a separate identity. 

“It all sounds very hard because it is — but I never thought I’d see such a transformation in myself. It used to seem counterintuitive to me, but I know now that when I make myself happy first, our relationship is unclouded by resentment. And I’ve possibly never felt more fulfilled than when that happens.”

The one thing Madison wishes she’d addressed with Aidan before taking off:
“I wish we'd clarified with one another that when you try and lighten someone's load, you rob them of their chance to expand. You're on a journey side by side, yeah. But you're on a journey for yourself, too.”

Laura Hughes doesn’t travel full time. She and her boyfriend, Shane, have a Ford Transit van that they kitted out as their weekend adventure vehicle. For them, close travel is an escape and an opportunity to connect outside of everyday life. 

“Our van life is quiet, green, and slow. When we're on the road, we put down our phones and take advantage of doing all the activities we love outside. We spend time together and time apart. We watch the stars. It's a stark contrast to our life in the city where we are both employed full-time and have some sense of roots. Our life in the city is exciting and full of people we love; we are always balancing our time, our schedules, our commitments. It's louder, there's cheap Thai takeout, and we wake up to alarm clocks. The van has made us realize that even though we have an apartment, the home we have is with each other. 

“I'm not convinced that traveling in a van together is for everyone, but I do think that every couple has their sweet spot when it comes to adventuring."

“Traveling together in close quarters injects a kind of special intimacy into your relationship that is hard to replicate. Although the less glamorous moments of your relationship are harder to escape when you're literally side by side, that's part of the magic. You can't ignore what's taking place, so it becomes natural to quickly recognize, communicate, and move forward with acceptance. So when I'm cold, or he's hangry, we try to work as a team to resolve things — we look out for one another. When the conflict is something bigger, we try to find a way where both of our needs are met. When you're in a 19-foot van on the border between the middle of nowhere and being lost together, things get pretty honest. 

“I'm not convinced that traveling in a van together is for everyone, but I do think that every couple has their sweet spot when it comes to adventuring. Whether it's for a long weekend getaway in the mountains, a summer sailing trip over open waters, or an open-ended trip around North America, taking on the world together is something that everyone benefits from trying with their significant other.”

The best way to capture that “away” feeling at home:
“Be a little less comfortable at home and bring the outdoors in — turn off your cell phone, cook dinner over a single burner, and put up a tent in your living room.”

Megan McDuffie of Fresh Off the Grid is experiencing very close travel in a Ford hatchback (#sedanlife). She and her boyfriend Michael have devoted a year to kicking around the country and cooking up the most delicious camp meals. While she recognizes that they’ve become a better team since traveling, Megan doesn’t think travel should be over-romanticized.

“Taking this trip together has given us one of the greatest gifts we could have received: time together."

“I absolutely think that close travel can be good for a relationship. We have dated for three years and lived together for much of that time, so when we began our road trip we had a pretty solid relationship and understanding of each other. We’ve still grown tremendously as a couple in the past six months. We are more in tune with each other — we’ve started doing those obnoxious couple things like finishing each other’s sentences, thinking the same thing at the same time, and styling our hair the same way — we are better communicators, and we are better friends as a result of the time we’ve spent traveling together. 

“Taking this trip together has given us one of the greatest gifts we could have received: time together. We worked day jobs we would only get to see each other a few hours of the beginning and end of the day, and much of that was spent trying to distract ourselves from the inevitability of going to work the next day. 

“That all being said, I think that the emphasis needs to be on the word 'can.' I think that traveling with your significant other can be romanticized greatly when you’re daydreaming about it from your cubicle or scrolling through Instagram, but I’d like to share some of the reality, having lived 'the dream' for a few months. 

“It’s hard. Travel pushes you — and by extension, your relationship — past its comfort zone. And that can, at times, be painful. If communication, conflict resolution, and forgiveness aren’t things that are already that are already strong in your relationship, I can see where close travel might not be good for your relationship. Tension can, and will, completely fill the small space you are in if you allow it. Addressing issues head on, but with some grace, is, in my mind, the only way to maintain a healthy environment for your relationship when traveling. Not that it’s healthy in any relationship regardless of your situation, but holding grudges, passive aggressive communication, and minimizing or ignoring conflicts are are sure way to ruin your trip and harm your relationship while traveling together.

“What it really come down to is growth. Traveling gives you the tremendous opportunity to cultivate new experiences, memories, life lessons at an accelerated pace. Getting to go through that with your partner is a powerful, bonding experience. I would say that few people I’ve met have remained unchanged by travel — and I think that extends to relationships as well. It always was and always will be about the journey.” 

How Megan carves out time for herself on the road:
“I recharge by enjoying the quiet moments: listening to music, reading, or just absorbing the sounds in the outdoor spaces we occupy.”

Emily Harteau of Our Open Road isn’t just traveling with her husband, Adam, she’s sharing their VW Westfalia with their daughters as well. Aged five years and 18 months, respectively, Colette and Sierra have seen more of the world than most grown adults. Like Megan, Emily values the time close travel allows to nurture her family. 

“Close travel cuts to the heart of the matter, removes normal paths from view, and deletes those familiar shelters to hide in. Exposing both parties to both the wonders and challenges of life on the road, there is a camaraderie built upon that common road traveled. Living in new territory requires a relationship to be flexible and always changing, if you are a person who is not open to change, this will likely be a challenging experience.” 

“Raising our children on the road, we are given the gift of time to invest in them in a completely different manner than previously possible. Pursuing creative passions is a complex challenge living in a tiny van, but we find that raising children is one of the most rewarding creative pursuits we have ever undertaken.” 

Emily’s one piece of advice for parents who are intimidated to travel with children: 
“Even small amounts of time sharing new experiences through travel will give an exponential reward in new fodder for your children's' minds.  Set your schedules on the back burner and let your family become immersed in the experience, not on a checklist. Trading expectation for experience is a greatly rewarding practice.” [H]

Gale Straub loves landscape photography and believes you don't need to travel the country to see something new every single day. She's the founder of She-Explores, a site for inquisitive women in the outdoors, on the road, and besides.

Images ©: 1, 6; Erin Sullivan. 2, 3; courtesy of Madison Perrins. 4, 5; @meganoutwest. 7; courtesy of Megan McDuffie. 8, 9; courtesy of Emily Harteau.

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