It’s about 115 degrees and I’m sobbing in the car while a hairdryer, set on its hottest setting, blows heat directly into my face. At least, that’s what it feels like. The window of the car is open, but the air is so hot it feels like I’m standing too close to a bonfire. It’s suffocating, burning, life ending heat. And as the lights of Vegas come into view, my sobs only grow louder.
“We’re almost there,” David, my future husband, says through gritted teeth, sweat pouring down his face as he stomps on the gas, hurdling us towards our salvation.
“I know, but I can’t breathe,” I gasp. I feel like I might explode.
David swings up to our Vegas hotel entrance like he’s Ryan Gosling in Drive, picking up criminals after a heist, tires squeaking. I’m hyperventilating, overheated, and my face is so red that I look like a cartoon character who just ate a hot pepper, steam literally coming out of my ears. David gestures at the front door.
“Go in,” he says.
“But our bags,” I sob pathetically.
“I’ll GET THEM. JUST GO IN,” he yells. And I do. Because we are one step away from breaking up forever and never speaking again.
The minute the cool air of the lobby hits me, I feel instant relief. I grab a glass of cucumber water and swallow it in one desperate gulp. Then sink into a chair. Hotel check in can happen when I’m sure I’m not going to have a heat stroke. As my mind slowly begins to cool down, I begin to feel more like myself. I am not going to die on this trip. Not today at least.
Our air conditioning had blown about an hour and a half outside of the city. Later, we’d find out that the tubes had burned through (I don’t know what tubes. What am I, a mechanic?). It happened conveniently in the middle of the dessert, during summer. It was not pleasant.
It was 2011, and we were moving from Chicago to LA. The trip was not going well. We had already broken down once outside of Denver, and as we tried to pull a trailer of our stuff using a Hyundai Sonata (in hindsight- not the best move), we overheated twice while crossing the desert. Once, we had to just pull over on the side of the road. The other time, we made it to a road stop.
Here’s how I can explain this journey: The second time we overheated, at least we were at a road stop! That was exciting. There was air conditioning! And food. It felt lucky. So while we waited for the car to cool down, I sat down in a tall chair at a counter to eat a sandwich. And I kid you not, as I sat down, the entire chair collapsed under me and I plummeted four feet to the floor to land in a pile of broken chair parts. As concerned people rushed to help me up, I started giggling hysterically. It was that kind of trip. The kind that was either going to bond us together or end with some sort of dramatic break up monologue about forging our own paths, driving our own highways…that sort of thing.
Road trips are the ultimate test of any relationship. There’s nothing like a cross country drive to push you to your breaking point. Things are going to get hard, you’re going to be tired. And you’re going to look awful. You’re going to end up in a bad motel that doesn’t take animals with a yowling cat tripping off of anti-anxiety meds WHICH APPARENTLY IN RARE CASES HAVE THE OPPOSITE EFFECT and a partner who clearly came down with the flu in the few hours since you left your home.
And as you lay there, with a screaming cat and vomiting partner, you’ll think that the endless night will never end. But it does. And the next day, everyone is better, and you drive through a gorgeous landscape, holding hands, and stopping at incredible lookouts, unable to believe how beautiful a country it is. Because the thing is, if you and your partner can survive all the inevitable catastrophes on a road trip to get to the good parts, you may just make it.
As far as our trip to Los Angeles was concerned, we got there. We were tired and hot (for the rest of the trip from Vegas to Los Angeles we kept a cooler of ice, and I literally wiped both of us down continually with ice as David drove), but alive and….still together. And I think our ability to travel together is one of the things that keeps us together. Our best stories have taken place when everything looked like a total disaster, when the tent poles were missing when we were trying to set up camp after dark in Wyoming or when we suddenly became totally aware that we were not only lost, but no longer driving on an actual road. Or when we pulled into a town so late that there was nowhere to eat but a motel vending machine and so we created a feast of chips and bad candy on a towel (placed on a highly questionable flowered bed spread) and drank warm beers before passing out from exhaustion. Those are the moments that define your relationship, that bring you closer, that bond you. So I firmly believe that until you’ve driven through the country together, you should never walk down the aisle.
Here’s are a few crucial reasons:
You get to find out if they can actually hang and roll with things.
My husband and I met when we were both cast in a Shakespeare show that toured around Montana and Wyoming. Our first hang out was when we drove the 1,388 miles from Chicago to Bozeman. I know…. normal. That first night on the trip, we stayed in a tiny motel in Kennebec, South Dakota. There was exactly one place to eat and drink, and it was a tiny bar in front of the motel. The clientele was all locals and it was amazing, the perfect little dive in the middle of nowhere. We ordered beer and sandwiches. Then, one of the men in bar (of which there were about eight, and probably comprised the entire population of Kennebec), stumbled up to me, extremely drunk, and pointed.
“You,” he said slurring, “are a fucking beautiful bitch.”
Now, on the surface, that’s preeeeettty offensive. But you have to understand he said it very sincerely, sweetly even. “A fucking, beautiful bitch” he repeated. So I said, “Thank you very much.” And the rest of the night he’d shout from across the room, “You’re a beautiful bitch!” which basically just made us laugh. David says that’s when he knew I was cool (something I’m sure after all this time he would like to take back). And after the bar, he and I (David not my Kennebec admirer) stayed up way too late, sitting on the porch outside of our rooms. A road trip will tell you if the person you’re with can hang. For his part, I love how David can make friends in every weird little place we go, and have a conversation with anybody.
When you road trip with someone, you find out if they have the ability to stay in small towns and take in the local culture. Are they the kind of person who loves hitting up local restaurants, finding quirky spots for live music, and are dying to check out the cool dive that you passed on the way into town? Or do they just want to order Dominos, and sit in the hotel room until morning? Nothing wrong with either of those, if you both want the same thing. But knowing if your partner can roll with the punches, make friends with strangers, and find something fun about every situation will be shown really clearly on a long road trip, and it will translate to the rest of your life.
If your partner can become friends with someone by the pool in a few minutes, they’re probably also going to be able to make friends when you move somewhere for one of your jobs or at a miserable PTA meeting. Do they make every situation more fun or a little more terrible? It’s something you’ll find out on a ten hour drive.
You will see how they deal with crisis.
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We were on the way to a tiny hot springs on the Texas/Mexico border when we reached a fork in the road. Our GPS had stopped working sometime outside of Marfa. We had no cell reception, and we hadn’t seen another car in a while. This was not a situation where you want to choose the road less traveled. And you definitely don’t want to be on something that would turn out to not be a road at all, unless you fancied dying in the desert. So we picked a road, or what we thought was a road. But as the “road” became more and more narrow, it also got sandier and more rocky. We stopped.
“I think this is just an old river bed,” David said. There was no room to turn around, we’d have to back up for a very long time. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to get back to the last fork,” he said. That’s a moment when you consider all your options, and they seem fairly bleak. If the car is stuck, you’re going to have to walk (in our case through the heat with a dog AND a cat) with no guarantee you’ll find another motorist or person to help you. We did not have enough water for that scenario.
After some very tense moments on what had been an extremely tense three hour drive (that was less than 20 miles), we were able to get back to the fork and take the right direction. And we arrived in paradise, though we were told others had been less lucky. Another duo of travelers coming that night had broken down on their way, and walked until they found a passing car. I was eternally grateful for David’s clear head when it became clear something was wrong. And getting us back before we sunk deeper into an old riverbed.
Soaking in the hot springs that night was made so much sweeter by the ordeal we had just been through.
When you’re trying to find adventures off the beaten path, thing are going to wrong. Sometimes horribly, and knowing how your partner deals with that crisis, how you deal with it together, is critical in a relationship. I’m not saying in some of our road trip roadblocks we haven’t snapped at each other or panicked (mostly me, I’m great at panicking), but we’ve worked together to find a solution, and found the joy in overcoming whatever crisis is thrown in our path.
You find out if you’re compatible adventurers.
Not only have we driven cross country to move three times, but David and I love to road trip to various vacations. I think there’s nothing more fun than taking a new route to a destination, plotting the town you’re going to stay in, and finding cool lodging and excursions. There are so many surprises and places you’ll love that you’d never expect. Like just now, I turned to David and said, “Hey, what’s that town that we think is a city of dreams, and we want to live forever?” “Flagstaff,” he answered immediately. Flagstaff, Arizona. We stayed there on the way to the Grand Canyon, and became obsessed after exploring it. We both love to find a town’s downtown and explore. We like to try hikes in whatever area we’re in, and it’s a priority to build that time to wander into our driving schedule. If we’re passing a national park, we’re going to want to go in, even if we can only spare a couple of hours early in the morning.
When you road trip with someone, you find out what your adventure values are. When you roll up to a town, and learn that there’s an ancient cave dwelling nearby but an hour off your route, do you both say screw it, let’s go, and get to the next town late? Or do you like to stick with the route exactly. Do both of you enjoy spontaneous suggestions from locales or are you sure your research before is sound? Your road trip style will translate to a lot of areas of your relationship. If one person loves to hike and say, the other loves checking out a region’s restaurants and bars, are you able to compromise and enjoy your time? Are are you both miserable when being forced to do the other’s idea of fun?
David and I are pretty different in terms of our road trip planning. I like to obsessively google activities along our route. What’s the best hike? The must-do activities, the favorite haunts? David would like to roll up to a town when he feels tired or inspired and wander. So we do a little of both. I overplan every second, and David appreciates how I find cool things that he would never have found on his own. But in turn, I know that we’re not going to do everything that I researched. If something else sounds better, we’ll abandon my research and go with the flow. And there have been so many times that I was glad we took a hike simply because we saw a trailhead while driving and thought, why not? Sometimes you end up on a hike that takes you to a swimming hole and waterfall with no people around precisely because it’s not in every guide book. And that’s pretty spectacular.
Compromise is never going to go away in a relationship. Whether it’s what hike you take, the apartment you choose, or the takeout you get, you’re going to have to do it. And a road trip shows you if you can tolerate each other’s style.
You get to see if your bad TV tastes line up.
There’s nothing better than motel tv. “Why are there only six channels and four of them are playing Law and Order SVU?” you may have asked yourself on occasion (DELIGHTEDLY BECAUSE SVU IS ALWAYS AMAZING TELEVISION). That’s the magic of motel TV. It’s strange and often terrible, and it’s incredible.
Maybe this one is only important to me, but I have to know that my need to watch hours upon hours of HGTV only when I’m in a hotel room will line up with my partner. Motel TV is like an airplane movie (back in the days when there was only one to choose from and it was always the movie Monster in Law starring Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda): You have to embrace that it’s terrible and truly enjoy the experience. In a relationship, you want to know that you can have fun with whatever is thrown at you.
You will be forced to talk….like a lot.
Long car rides are….well….long. It’s easy to like each other in a relationship when you’re going out to restaurants and movies and parties. In general, we have so many distractions in our lives. Sometimes, when my husband and I are laying in bed, we’re watching TV, both on a computer or ipad, and simultaneously texting. It’s kind of ridiculous. A road trip strips so much of that away. It’s just the two of you in a small space for hours. You’ll lose cell reception, and there’s going to be nothing else to pass the time except talking. Which will make you realize pretty fast whether or not you actually like each other. Are you talking about your lives, making one another laugh, playing trivia games, and rocking out to music? Or are you desperately checking your phone for service, hoping it will come back so you can go on Facebook until the drive is over and you get to the next location?
Here’s the thing, if the in-between moments of your trip are miserable, the ‘boring parts’ where you’re driving through the plains states and all you have is the other person for entertainment, just remember that there are lot of those ‘in between’ moments in a relationship. Not just on road trips. In life. Between great meals and awesome vacations, you’re mostly metaphorically driving to the next location. You’re with a person who you can either laugh with, talk with, enjoy all those moments that are the journey, or you can realize that you’re just waiting for the next distraction.
You’ll build memories that you will talk about forever.
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It’s the crazy times that you broke down or stumbled on something insane like a motel room soaked in blood that covered the bathroom sink and walls (deer blood…we think) that you’ll talk about forever. Road trips give you inside jokes that still make you giggle years later, and stories that rose out of the ridiculous of shared exhaustion. You build a shared vocabulary about your lives and adventures. And you learn things about your partner, stories that can only be told late on a starry night while driving across the country, or around a fire sipping whisky after a long day. That’s why until you’ve road tripped with someone, I recommend you hold off on marrying them. It’s the road trips that give you the true measure of a person. And it’s a really good way to fall deeper into (or completely out) of love.