I’m parked at the backcountry trailhead at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The landscape is transportive; the white dunes bring to mind snow fields of New England, stunning beaches in the Hamptons, the Oregon coast. These white gypsum dunes came out of nowhere — southern New Mexico is all sage brush and sudden mountains. In short, it’s beautiful. And at this moment, I don’t want to be here. At all.

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Life on the road is grand vistas and dirty bathrooms. Its romance lies in the freedom to find home in far flung places. Photos of campfires, his & hers stockinged feet, starry skies, and the wide open road have become visual tropes that perpetuate the romance and shortchange what’s in between. Here’s the thing, though: for most, living on the road is not a vacation. Life goes on and life gets in the way — all the time.

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My boyfriend Jon and I spent the summer before we hit the road building out the van and living with Jon’s parents. The van looked like a dirty construction vehicle and I was nervous about fitting our lives inside. I began researching other couples: googling “roadtrip” and tracking #vanlife on Instagram. I reached out to the women to find out how they got alone time in such small quarters. I asked about the ups and downs. I wanted to know how they managed to make it work. To my surprise, the answers were overwhelmingly positive.  A few weeks into our travels, I learned why.

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Our van is 21 feet long, meaning most days Jon is no more than 10 feet away. He knows when I’m sleeping, hungry, bored or annoyed. He knows when I need to go and — worse — when I go to the bathroom. There’s literally nowhere to hide and it’s awful and wonderful. We went from separate apartments in the same city with 9-5 jobs and special date nights to sharing everything. Small spaces breed compromise. If Jon is frustrated with me, I know it. There’s no point in letting that frustration stew when there’s five hours of pavement ahead of us or a mountain to be climbed. If something comes up, we talk about it.

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Similarly, tight quarters foster closeness.  Most days, it’s just the two of us. Think about pressing the fast-forward button on your own relationship, except your backyard is perpetually changing and there’s no running water. I now know that Jon will stop at every historical landmark on a twisty drive in the forest. He’s a compulsive collector of patches and postcards. He’s better than I am at staying in touch with friends back home and he handwrites letters to his elderly relatives. Where I see landscape and abstractions, his photographs pull the humanity out of a scene and are best complemented with a story. Give him a stout and he’ll build you a campfire and tell you all about it. I appreciate these small discoveries, the result of long-term travel with the man I love.

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