Denver, CO — On a three-day, two-night roundtrip from Denver to North Dakota, my friend came up with the idea that we should write a book on how to travel as fast as possible. Tip #1: no showers. That’s as far as we got. Our trip was a late-hatched idea: I wanted to see North Dakota and that was my only parameter. All the other details like the airBNB, where to eat, and what to see would take care of themselves. BYO snacks, pillow and a change of clothes (but don’t expect to wear them). Take care of yourself, take care of each other.
By the time we reached North Dakota late on the second eve, we had our travel rhythm down to an art. Drive, drive, drive...cat-nap if we were in the passenger seat and on the straight-aways. Make use of every pitstop, share the sunflower seeds, pay for every other tank of gas. Pitch in to navigate if there’s a chance that a wrong turn could land us in Alberta.
We pulled into the ranch complete with a bonafide cowboy poetess host and an insulated tack room (plus kittens) as our lodge -- what could be more North Dakota than that? Brushing our teeth outside, the horse blocked us into the outhouse and we knew our fleet-footed trip was a success.
Breakfast the next morning was sausage, eggs, toast and cowboy coffee. Our host was enamored with my friend and I took advantage of her reciting poetry to take a shower. I remember thinking how nice it was to travel with someone who enjoyed conversation, with whom it was easy to work together on the balanced tag-team of you-do-this, I’ll-do-that. By the time I was clean, our host was several poems in and my friend had been invited to Medora’s next Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Eleven hours later, we were back in Denver.
Travel literature lauds exotic things to do and see, but the behind-the-scenes art is being able to share space with other people. A friend once read to me from a Conde’ Nast Traveler magazine: “Get this,” she said. “‘Your best friend is the one who doesn’t think twice when you ask her to meet you in Palawan next weekend.’” Or something like that. We decided to try it, maybe with somewhere closer first, like Cheyenne, WY.
There’s nothing like traveling halfway across the continent or even the world only to discover you have a limited capacity to share space with someone. We’ve all done it. Remember that family road-trip to Michigan when even a 12-passenger van wasn’t big enough?
Astronauts, when you think about it, are the ultimate travelers as well as space-sharers (no pun intended). Maybe it’s a stretch to exclaim, You could learn a lot from an astronaut! but there is one thing that stands out in particular:
In his book, Endurance: My Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Astronaut Scott Kelly, writes about spending 365 days orbiting the earth while at the same time learning how to successfully orbit around his colleagues, basically in a tin can with zero gravity. Scott writes that his success came from being absolutely reliant on his team for both sanity and survival. How many of us can say this about our team of closest friends, let alone our families?
In both science missions and adventure travel, there’s a subtle but vital thing that Kelly identifies as “expeditionary behavior”. It’s how you behave when there’s a mission to accomplish, a high-pressure situation to overcome AND you also have to live with each other in day-to-day life to accomplish your goal. As Kelly so perfectly states, expeditionary behavior is a “loose term for being able to take care of yourself, take care of others, help out when needed, stay out of the way when necessary.” It’s James Cameron hiring Dr. Joe McInnis who studies leadership in extreme situations to document and manage team dynamics on a boat in the middle of the ocean where everyone is working together to get someone to the bottom of the sea. Please, Leroy, don’t leave your wet lifejacket on the floor, and Leroy remembers next time for the good of the team, the good of the mission. In climbing and mountaineering, it’s breaking down your camp and being ready to rope up with your team at 3 a.m. to summit...on a glacier, in the dark. It’s being really really good at taking care of yourself and -- god-forbid -- if someone falls, having your shit together so you can take care of someone else too.
Kelly goes on to write that this expertise is “….a combination of soft skills that’s difficult to define, hard to teach and a significant challenge when they are lacking.” No kidding. Like how difficult sharing a three-day road trip to North Dakota could have been with the wrong person, or (dare I say) suddenly spending a significant amount of time in the same house with our families this time of year, tripping over each other physically as well as emotionally on this ultimate mission of holidays. Houston, we have a problem.
It’s strange but somehow we expect that family will know when to help and when to stay out of the way, when to take care of themselves and when to take care of us. But if we don’t give people those guidelines and their behavior rubs us the wrong way, we react -- and more annoyingly, one person often doesn’t react -- and then we risk aborting the mission.
We’ve all done our fair share of sharing space poorly on this planet. We’ve lived too long with our parents, tried to be roommates with a sibling who doesn’t wash out ziplocks at least once, blown up at a friend on what was supposed to be a dream trip, and maybe not handled a roommate’s boyfriend peeing all over our bathroom as well as we could have (who wouldn’t feel royally justified in being pissed?...again, no pun intended). But what if what we all crave when sharing space could have a name like “expeditionary behavior” to support Team Mission Holiday? Maybe it would be easier to remember how to behave...like an intention we set out for the day and mumble under our breath: I take care of myself, I help out when needed, I stay out of the way when necessary. And if the whole team was onboard, then maybe, when we’re half-awake and being reminded over and over where the creamer is by our morning-person relative, maybe, we could simply pull our robe a little tighter and take a deep breath to say, “Dude, I’m going to need a more little expeditionary behavior to get through this cup of coffee…appreciate you understanding.” Wouldn’t that make the experience of Team Mission Holiday just a little bit easier?
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For more information about training in “expeditionary behavior”, check out the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS and this particular blog post.
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