“I’ve got twenty-four trips left,” Dale says, explaining that at his age, 68, “you have to start planning them out.” His wife, Janeann, runs a museum and loves her job; retirement doesn’t appeal to her. Dale laments, “What do you do when you have the money and time to go anywhere in the world, but no one to go with?”
My partner, Amy, and I met Dale and Janeann on our first night at the Triple Creek Ranch—26,000 acres of luxury wilderness in Montana’s northwest corner—when they asked us to share their table. Dale’s statement, made over a pricey bottle of wine and pheasant quesadillas, stuck with me for the rest of our trip—a reminder of why Amy and I were there in the first place. After a season of watching the separations and infidelities of couples around us, we knew we needed to make time for our marriage. Had we miscalculated the factors that cement two people together for a lifetime? I considered having kids and working toward common goals signs of a strong relationship. Was I wrong?
Heading into our thirteenth year together, Amy and I found ourselves existing in survival mode—getting through 24 hours of parenting and work to rest up and do it again. Conversations served to exchange information instead of building our connection. In our attempts to remain adventurous, we’d go hiking, fishing, snowboarding, or camping with other couples with similarly aged children, or we’d take turns for solo trail runs or rounds of golf. These respites offered relief, but not much in the way of romance. They weren’t helping us as a couple. For us, the only remedy to keep our relationship fresh was to experience new things together—and to do it without any kids.
So, recently we left our son with his doting aunt and drove 900 miles from our home to Triple Creek, in Darby, Montana. Through Wyoming by way of Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, we took our time—15 hours with bald eagles, moose, bison, elk, deer, and thermal hot springs along the way. It felt right—the slowing down and navigating—the return to something familiar.
The changing leaves, snow, and skeleton pines from a decade-old fire provided backdrop for our conversations. We opened up about our shared love of mountains and a forest-fire disaster still simmering just ten miles from our home. We wondered aloud about the time it takes to heal deep scars, how something so wounded might ever recover, and how such damage could have been prevented in the first place?
We arrived at the ranch and signed up for a cattle drive (my idea) and a fly-fishing float trip (her idea). Neither of us expected to enjoy the other’s activity de jour. But after day one, Amy admitted to loving the order and hard work of moving 300 grass-fed cattle through the free range. She also said she’d forgotten how easily I moved on a horse and the joy I’d gotten from it—the confidence that I showed in my body.
The next day, down the West Fork River with our fly-guide and his dog, Boomer and River, I settled into the idea that I wouldn’t be catching any fish. I was content watching elk along the bank, while Amy told Boomer about learning to cast from her dad. How he could single out a leaf on the water and land the fly right on it. Before the day’s end, we caught seven fish between us, and I remembered that fishing is as much a part of Amy as her memories of her father.
On the fifteen-hour drive home, we talked about everything from Adam and Eve and our views on Original Sin to what we’d do if we could have any job in the world (Amy: restoring paintings, me: writing television dramas). To have a real discussion, it turned out, we just needed enough time and road—with nothing more than an armrest between us—to remember who we were before we’d gotten caught up in parenting and a daily to-do list. I could envy Dale and Janeann, who had millions to spend. But at dinner and with his wife right beside him, Dale still longed for a true traveling partner in life. He had 24 trips to take, and he didn’t intend to go on them alone.
Kids and common dreams can be indicators of a strong marriage, perhaps. Yet it’s all too easy to put long-standing relationships on cruise control when life’s busy details demand attention. Without time together exploring new things and making new memories, couples can get lost in ruts and swallowed up with boredom. Going into 2011, I’m resolving to take care of my relationship, to make time for it and fuel it. For us, this means committing to expeditions and adventures. We’re looking into a house swap vacation in New Zealand and we’re talking about starting a travel-related business together. We made the decision to go on a journey together over a decade ago. But now we’ve decided to stop drifting along as passengers; we’ll decide where we want to go and we’ll work together to get there.