My partner Phillip and I recently went on a “social distancing” vacation. We rented a “hippie” camper van with a kitchen and rooftop tent (no toilet) that was last used before the COVID-19 pandemic and drove up to the eastern Sierras in California. We were hoping to enjoy the great outdoors while helping to flatten the coronavirus curve.
Heading up like a couple of hippies without a concrete plan, we found ourselves a little stressed in the beginning. We experienced an unexpected heat wave in Alabama Hills, so we stayed for only one blistering night and got the hell out of Dodge. On our way to Bishop, our next stop, we were lucky to find a first-come-first-serve campground with a river after calling other campgrounds that wouldn’t take campers without toilets (for COVID-19 safety reasons; you do the math).
Bishop wasn’t as hot as Alabama Hills, and this was our chance to “live in a van down by the river” like Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character in Saturday Night Live. However, another camper there told us the residential bugs were relentless at night. We tried fishing in the fast-current river and at a nearby wash, but we quickly left because the fiery ball in the sky spared no one.
This was only day two of our vacation, and we were already upset at the results. It was a perfect case of “Instagram vs Reality.” Phillip, the trip “planner” this round, envisioned spontaneity landing us in great places, but we got scorchers and parasitic insects instead.
“Maybe you should let me do the planning next time,” I told Phillip impatiently. We worried we would have to cut the trip short like a power outage due to not finding a place to stay with decent weather.
As luck would have it, though, Mammoth Lakes saved our asses. COVID-19 left their RV park relatively empty, and the staff were cool with people using the bathroom if they absolutely needed it (while wearing masks). Also, the weather was in the 70s Fahrenheit.
The tension between Phillip and me dissipated like airborne germs eventually do after a sneeze. We were happy to have another opportunity to fish, set up our slackline, do a little mountain biking, and continue our Harry Potter marathon on his laptop in the evenings.
While vacation stress and conflict are normal in any relationship, and while this wasn’t the most exhilarating excursion on which we’d ever embarked, I noticed our squabbles were next to none during the rest of the trip. Sure, the improved conditions helped, but I also realized something.
“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be with on this trip than you,” I told Phillip while we were eating takeout in a parking lot. The wind blew hard that day.
Even five and a half years into our relationship, I couldn’t think of a time when I had told him anything like that before. Maybe I thought it was too obvious to be said after all we’d been through together: our stormy fights, our “ugly crying” episodes when life seemed unbearable like a hot summer day, times when we thought we didn’t understand each other, and new phases of our lives that made us question our long-term commitment to each other. Our marathon of romance was an odyssey of self-discovery, not a misleading romantic comedy, and we’ve been victorious so far through the rubble and ruins.
Or maybe my revelation could be explained by a phenomenon called “mental subtraction,” or the act of imagining life had a positive event never occurred.
“Internet respondents and university staff members who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner were more satisfied with their relationship than were those who wrote about how they did meet their partner,” a study’s abstract on the idea reads.
My appreciation of our new circumstances reminded me not to take them for granted. Time isn’t promised in this one life we get, and we could be instantly robbed of the people, places, and opportunities we treasure most (especially in a pandemic). Our new conditions also reminded me that had I never met Phillip in a hot tub at a mutual friend’s party on a Sunday night in November 2014, my life would be very different now, like an alternate timeline in a science fiction narrative. I found my best friend and complement that night, and I well up in tears just thinking about it.
Finally, had we not persevered on this trip, I might not have come to this realization, or it might have taken me longer to arrive there in my mental hippie van.
This wasn’t the world’s most profound story, but it reminds us to step on the brake and be a mama bear guarding what’s important to us.
Sort of like we almost pulled the plug on our vacation early, COVID-19 prompted an economic power outage, changing the world in which we lived. Many began to slow down and explore what had been missing from their lives. Without the everyday busyness of life, many long-term couples started getting to know each other for the first time. Our social distancing vacation opened my eyes to what I already had, and without it, my life would be a different adventure.
This article was originally featured at YourTango.