I recently spent several days in the town of Khorog on Tajikistan’s Afghan border, and something struck me as odd. At the hostel where I stayed there were only couples. Sitting in the garden of the Pamir Lodge one morning, I looked to my left and my right. There was the French couple I had met earlier in Kyrgyzstan; the friendly Montreal duo returning from Southeast Asia; the pretentious American pair on a round-the-world trip. That day, even the bicyclists (of which there are many in the Pamirs) were hitched up. I went to the Pamirs to travel someplace exciting and unique—which it is—but it also felt like I had somehow ended up at a couples retreat.
If you spend a year backpacking you will find that traveling couples are everywhere. They are cooking nice dinners at hostels in Cairo and Cuzco, arguing over money in Rajasthan and Rome, and taking turns carrying that awkward third backpack in Yangon and Singapore (please stop the front-pack). Without a doubt, couples are likely to turn up in certain locations more than others, but increasingly I meet them in the furthest places, taking lengthy and adventurous trips that I—a solo traveler—have only dreamed of.
Could it be that today the most intrepid travelers today are couples? Alongside the modern myth of the individual who quits his or her job to explore destinations unknown, the adventure traveler has a new profile: it is the couple who plans and does all this together. To combine a few clichés, they are the power couples of digital nomadism. Balancing your relationship and work is child’s play; balancing your relationship and quitting-work, that is their challenge. Even more, it is often these couples who undertake long trips and trail blaze new and exciting places. Like the Wheelers of Lonely Planet fame, could it be that couples are leading the charge in travel culture, stealing the reigns from the “traditional” solo traveler, and writing a new narrative about what the typical modern nomad looks like.
If individuals are more inclined today than in previous generations to quit their jobs and travel, then the same is probably true of couples too. Couple-travelers enjoy some distinct advantages like cost-sharing and immediate emotional support. But once upon a time traditional wisdom told us that being a couple should make it harder to travel. After all, relationships lead to babies, babies lead to houses, and houses lead to jobs and pets and early-bird specials and other things that keep us at home on Sunday. But this is not stopping us anymore. Remember when you were advised to “date a girl [or guy] who travels.” Well, apparently you did. And then y’all started going everywhere.
The uptick in adventurous couple-travelers is interesting in part because it is so contrary to our long-established romantic notions of The Traveler. The myth of the solo explorer has persisted throughout history from ancients like Heroditus and Strabo to the fictional and semi-fictional Sinbad and Marco Polo. From maritime explorers like Zheng He and Capain James Cook to visionaries like Charles Darwin and Robert Peary. And from international badasses like Gertrude Bell and Sir Richard Burton to goof-offs like Jack Karouac, Michael Palin and Anthony Bourdain. The type is portrayed as intrepid, adventuresome, and at home everywhere and nowhere. Most of all, they are independent.
But did they really do it all on their own? Lewis and Clark (and don’t forget Sacagawea) come to mind as a famous exploratory team. And in general the name Tenzing Norgay is rightly invoked alongside that of Edmond Hillary in reference to the first Mount Everest ascent. Surely we have come a long way from the “Great Man” narrative of history and begun to recognize that most major feats—take the lusty collaboration between Pierre and Marie Curie, for example—have been the product of teamwork. Great minds have always worked together. Could the same be true of the great explorers, and might they have been shagging too? Sir Richard Burton certainly enjoyed a few dalliances on his journeys; did his partners join him in the bed and on the road too, or is that a novelty of our time?
It would be absurd to suggest that traveling couples have not existed in the past—obviously they have. Couples have been hitting the road before and since the Wheelers’ 1972 journey. More than a few relationships were forged on the hippy trail in the sixties and seventies, and I still meet older couples who have traveled together for decades. In the 1990’s, my friend’s parents left their jobs to take her and her brother traveling for a year—twice. But what is interesting is that the narrative around what adventure travelers looks like may finally be changing.
Today couples are using the internet to forge a new narrative that often castes couples as the central characters in the most adventurous travel plotlines. Some of the most popular travel blogs are the product of couples—Uncornered Market, The Planet D, and recent entrants like my friends at The Funnelogy Channel come to mind. They’re taking their work, and sometimes their kids, and they’re taking to the road on trips every bit as adventurous as the solo traveler. And that may be just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the most intrepid backpackers I know are—um—doing it with their partners privately. My friend Jenn just crossed South America from Patagonia to Panama with her husband. In Tajikistan I traveled with an English couple on an 18-monther and just back from a trek in Afghanistan. In Bishkek I met a remarkable Dutch couple who have traveled for seven years without staying in one place for more than three weeks. No blogs.
But what about the rest of us? The solo traveler has been know to–er—couple once or twice while on the road, but she and he are not a species that “mates for life.” The number of individual travelers (likewise small groups and non-couple pairs) has grown in recent years, and we still do adventurous things like walk across Afghanistan and boldly advance the art of the travel-selfie. I for instance remain a steadfastly solo traveler (admittedly perhaps in part due to a deficit in relationship skills). It would be wrong to argue that the individual traveler is actually less intrepid or that we have somehow lost our edge, but we have definitely lost the patent on the adventure traveler image.
This is the reality that set in as I sipped my coffee in Khorog and chatted with one couple about their plans to set off bicycling up Tajikistan’s rugged Bartang Valley. The conversation first got me thinking about how I might push the envelope on my next trip. And then I thought about whether living the adventurer’s dream might no longer mean quitting a job and hitting road. Ironically, it could mean settling down with Mr. or Ms. Right, possibly even having a kid or two, and then hitting the road.