Magic, the Mundane, and Manual Labor

It’s no secret that the past fourteen months of travel have been magical. And we’ve written about that. Yoga under a desert moon, whales breaching the surface on long runs along lava cliffs, canoeing as the lone person on Silver Lake, delicious food, breath-taking hikes, immeasurable hospitality…the list of magic could continue. For this, and so much more, we are infinitely grateful. So, hear us clearly. Nothing about this blog is a complaint. Our Year of Travel Discernment stems from both a tremendous amount of privilege and copious amounts of hard work; we’ve written about the privilege part several times.

Since many people espouse critiques of social media and blogs by attesting that users portray their lives as utopian and unrealistic, never posting the photos of the Pinterest fails or bad days, we find it important to dispel any kind of belief that this year has been counted by days sipping Pina Coladas on the beach while Riah fans us with palm fronds. Unfortunately, we have yet to train him to do this. In sincerity, though these social media critiques are valid and sometimes true, they also overlook the point of taking photos. Who frames a picture of their family sulking on a rainy hike, or everyone landing on a jumping photo rather than in mid-air? I assume that everyone knows—particularly everyone who has ever had a toddler—that every good photo has at least seven bad ones that weren’t frame (or post) worthy. Our sharing of our adventure is similar.

After that slight digression, allow me to talk a bit about the mundane that has accompanied the magic. You know all those things that adults typically have to do—laundry, bills, mail, printing annoying paperwork, cleaning the toilet, taxes, wiping up spills? We’ve still done all those things. Even amidst the magic. The breaching whale doesn’t pay my bills for me. The stunning views after a steep hike won’t wash my clothes. What makes the mundane, daily tasks of adulthood more challenging is being on the road. This was a choice we made and we don’t regret it. We knew parts would be hard. But we didn’t envision spending so much money on laundromats that we could have otherwise purchased a washing machine. Now, there would be no place to put said washing machine in our 180 sq/ft camper, and since we typically didn’t have power or water, the washing machine would render itself useless. But you get the idea. The simple task of printing and signing a writing contract became comically difficult on numerous occasions when I had to drive 45 minutes into town to find cell service or wifi, then track down a random place that would let me print, and send it back. In our non-traveling lives in a home, or working in an office, this mundane task would have taken about 3 minutes. On the road, it took 3 days. Banking, laundry, bathing, cleaning, grocery shopping, shipping, and receiving mail are all things we did regularly in our “normal” non-traveling life, but all of these mundane tasks took on higher degrees of difficulty on the road. There were times this tempered the magic. But it was still completely worth it.

Then there was the manual labor and the not-so-glamorous side of full-time travel…with a toddler. I’ll start by saying that parenting continues to be the most difficult thing I have ever done. Violence, poverty, addiction, divorce, mental illness, a Ph.D., marathons, death, loss, eating disorders, cracked ribs, sexual abuse. These are all things that have been challenging parts of my life in various ways, but none have challenged me as much as parenting. I love my kiddo. Riah is curious and silly, adventurous and active, filled with wonder and laughter; I am grateful to be one of his moms. But it’s also really hard. Parenting a toddler on the road is particularly difficult. First, you’re living in 180 sq/ft and your “home” changes regularly. When it rains nonstop for 2 weeks or mosquitoes eat all your flesh, you have to be particularly creative not to go bonkers. Potty training has been immensely challenging. We have no community traveling alongside of us, so date nights, time alone, or help watching our kiddo is very rare. We are together 24/7. We knew this before we left. And we chose to do this anyway. And we’d do it again in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Or any less smelly, especially when you don’t have running water and you and your wife exercise and hike every day and your toddler pees on everything. 180 sq/ft can get stinky pretty fast, even if you’re a “clean freak.”

Nine of the fourteen months of travel encompassed some version of a work-exchange. As campground hosts, we had free electric hook-ups for four months, but no running water. We got this sweet deal in a magically beautiful location with an almost private lake for the small price of cleaning pit toilets, picking up trash, and shoveling out fire pits. The pit toilets were, by far, the most glamorous part of our travels. I recall someone saying, “Doesn’t it feel beneath you to clean out these toilets? I mean, you both have Ph.D.s! What was your degree for?” No matter my degree, the toilets need to be cleaned and that was the deal we made. So, that’s what we did. There is absolutely nothing about that that is beneath me.

While we’re on the subject of toilets, I’ll continue to some of the other latrinous parts of our adventure. While living in our pop-up camper for five months, all of our urine flushed into a very small holding tank. Unlike our current camper that can be drained into a luxurious “dump station,” the pop-up holding tank had to be taken out manually. It was like a little suitcase filled with piss. And it was my job to empty it. Several times a week I’d muscle it out of the side of the pop-up and roll it toward one of the pit toilets to empty it. As I wheeled away, Elizabeth always sang, “My baby takes the morning train.” She would do this and laugh hysterically. I’m still not quite sure why, though I imagine that I looked—and smelled—rather absurd wheeling a plastic suitcase full of piss down a bumpy trail toward a pit toilet. Once the pit toilet had a snake it in. I was pretty scared.

I’ll stop with the bathroom realities after this final example of “keeping it real” on the road. You couldn’t really poop in the pop-up camper because then I’d be responsible for wheeling that shit away in the plastic suitcase and a sister has to draw the line somewhere. So, we usually used the aforementioned pit toilets. But there were times when it was night and there were bears outside, or it was pouring rain, or you were just a little scared of the snake you saw earlier, so you had to get creative. And I don’t just mean pooping in the woods because, let’s be honest, that’s not any better when it’s raining or dark or bears are in the woods. So, you have to rig a plastic bag so that it hoovers just over the toilet. You have to poop in the bag. Then you have to tie up the poop bag, as though you might while walking your dog, and drop it just outside the door so that you could carry it to the trash the next morning. While camping later in grizzly country, we learned that human poop attracts bears. Sexy. Scary.

When doing yard work in exchange for housing for three months, someone lamented that our gifts and talents were going to waste as we pulled an infinite number of ferns out the dirt, as though we should offer a lecture or book-singing in exchange for housing when yard work is truly what needed to be done.

Because we did this adventure on the super-cheap, we refused to pay to camp most of the time when we weren’t doing work exchange for five months. So, we’d go about two weeks of “dry camping” before paying for a few nights at a fancy campground that had electricity and water. “Dry camping” is the phrase used to describe camping without power or water, often on Bureau of Land Management areas, Walmart or Casino parking lots. Our camper has a battery that keeps it charged for a few days, but none of the outlets are wired to run on the battery, so we couldn’t charge any of our cell phones or computers. I cannot tell you the number of hours I spent looking for outlets to charge my phone or battery block; I could tell you, but that would be more embarrassing than pooping in a bag. And our water holding-tank was usually enough to provide us about 5 days of washing, cooking, and drinking water. Then we had to manually refill with jugs of water and a funnel we cut out of a diet coke bottle. Or we had to get creative. Once I washed my hair in the bathroom of Ben and Jerry’s in Burlington, VT. We made deals with the owners of a B&B so that we could use their outdoor shower. We took countless Campsuds baths in the lake. We lugged around heavy water containers and filled them up anytime we found a place with potable water. And we stank a lot, too.

During our times dry camping in not-so-beautiful places like Walmart or Casino parking lots, we still wanted to exercise, so you could find us unrolling our yoga mat in the Walmart parking lot or endlessly running loops around the outside of a casino with Riah in the jogging stroller. There were stunning runs with inspiring views, to be sure, but there were also plenty of times we dodged pot holes at a truck stop while sprinting past cat-calling truckers.

Amidst the magic, the mundane, and the manual labor, there were the annual difficulties and losses of life. Family or friends struggled with addiction and we felt helpless so far away, so we wept. Beloved friends got married and we couldn’t afford to fly across the country to attend because we’d already spent the equivalent of 3 months of living expenses flying from Hawaii for another wedding. There was sickness and loss and adulting and parenting. And an endless amount of beauty and magic.

If a set of queer parents with an active toddler asked if they should take a year to do something similar, we’d tell them “yes.” But we’d also say that the beauty and magic is coupled with a lot of challenges that are often minimized by people who think you can do this because your life is perfect or you must be rich. We are neither. But we are pretty damn lucky. If our fortune and wonder may smell slightly of a plastic suitcase filled with piss, that’s fine with me.


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