Mark and Brooke Stephens have enjoyed exploring the great outdoors together since meeting in college. Rock climbing, hiking, backpacking … you name it, they did it.
And then Chloe came along.
But that didn’t stop Mark and Brooke. Now the adventurous duo has become the traveling trio, though hitting the road these days is a little slower and more thought out with an eye on the wallet. Here’s what they have to say about their new travel lifestyle, including their tips on family travel and hitting the road with kids. Make sure you check out their travel blog, Adventure Parents, as well.
Tell us a little bit about your family’s travel style:
Since becoming a family of three, we stick to road trips – a funky collective of similar minded travelers refers to our type of travel as overlanding; vehicle-dependent, ecologically sound, back road travel. It’s a great system for us. Primarily, we’re self-contained with a mid-size Nissan four-wheel-drive pickup that we’ve set up similar to an RV; a comfortable bed, organized storage, and even running water for showering. We live fairly close to Mexico and manage a couple trips a year to a few beach villages that aren’t on the tourist radar. Having a vehicle that’s rugged, reliable and (oddly) home-like opens of new places on the map where other modes don’t go – like buses, trains, and taxis – and where there are no hotels.
In general, we use this as a way to open our daughter’s life, and our own, to culture, history, and the natural world that we wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. But we still travel to common destinations like the National Parks at times. What makes our style unique is how we seek out back roads and unusual routes to destinations, and we do it with a little furry-headed blue-eyed girl singing to Barney music in the backseat. It’s quite the combination.
How does having a child change the way you travel?
In general, far less dirt-bagging. You know, like riding a Mexican chicken truck in the middle of night and sleeping in bus stations are things of the past. The journey along the road becomes the destination, as sometimes we might only cover 20 miles in one day. For instance, Brooke has family 1,400 miles from our home. Rather than booking a flight, we’ll take more time and embark on a zig-zagging road adventure and spend a few days, say, cruising around the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Having a child along for the ride dictates that we do everything we can to make every moment enjoyable and relaxed. There was a time in our lives when we’d take a shoestring flight to Peru that had a number of stops or layovers because it only cost a couple hundred bucks, but you’re asking for trouble doing that with a toddler. I guess you could say our threshold for pain has . . . evolved.
Before we had Chloe, our daughter, Brooke and I traveled quite a bit and decided that exploring the world, near and far, is how we’d take on the responsibility of teaching our kids about life. Consider these statistics from National Geographic: 48% of Americans between 18 and 24 years old can’t find Mississippi on a U.S. map. 60% can’t locate Iraq on a world map, and that’s been one of the most talked about countries in mainstream news for the last eight years; it’s nuts that so many don’t have any idea where it is. Having a child changed the way we travel because we happen to believe travel is fun, educational, and well-rounding. We needed to make travel more comfortable while seeing the non-developed or under-commercialized parts of the country, or other countries. With our set-up, we could drive from our home through Central America and all the way to Tierra del Fuego and live out of the truck pretty comfortably. Chloe could learn Spanish by osmosis, or embrace history by visiting real 16th-century missions from Cortés’ colonization.
The biggest difference to me is the slower pace. Packing, planning, and the actual driving and roadside stops all take longer with a young child along. It’s hard to be as spontaneous about where we will sleep or what we’ll do once we arrive, since the comfort of Chloe is always on our minds.
But, despite the change in pacing and comfort, it wasn’t a question of whether we would keep traveling or not once we had our daughter. To us, as Mark said, it is part of her education. I think it’s important to get to instill a healthy sense of wonder in Chloe so that not only will she want to travel the world, but she’ll also develop respect for culture, art, and music. These things are rapidly deteriorating in education today.
According to your website, your family generally does a lot of self-contained and back country travel. What have been the challenges and opportunities of traveling like this with a small child?
I definitely remember having high hopes in the summer of 2007 when we drove to Yellowstone National Park; I’d been romancing this idea of blue skies during the day and long bike rides in the evenings looking for moose. I have a friend who lives in Lander, Wyoming and he warned me, “Dude, you know it can still snow up here in July, right?” That’s exactly what happened when we arrived, a nasty snow flurry. Naturally we abandoned the plan when we got there and stayed with some friends in Montana. The weather plays a big role. Chloe never complains about the cold (or the summertime Arizona heat at home), but who wants to camp in a blizzard?
In a rural town in Mexico, we got a little special treatment when Chloe was eight weeks old. We stopped at a roadside market to stock up on food for the weekend, and there were a number of ladies shopping there as well. While the more reserved ladies would smile big and then lean over to sneak a kiss onto Chloe’s feet, the other women stopped Brooke and held out their arms. Kind of like, “You’re not going anywhere until I hold that baby and sing her a song right here next to the onions and bread.” I’ll admit that it was startling – so un-American, you know? – but mostly sweet because it showed us, once again, how hospitable and kind the Mexican culture is. We didn’t read about it that hospitality in a book, but experienced it for ourselves.
You’ve noted that your family likes to check out unusual, not-well-known destinations. Can you give a few examples of these destinations? Do you seek them out or do you happen upon them?
When we’re home, I enjoy sitting down with my piles of maps and just looking for things to go see and routes to take. One time we were passing through Sonora, Mexico and saw a sign that read, “Desemboque.” I asked Brooke to look at the map to see where it was.
“It’s on the coast actually,” she told me. “Let’s go to the beach.”
What we found was a small village that hadn’t seen massive tourist development like Puerto Peñasco, a nearby town on the coast. We set up camp on the beach, walking distance from the town, and enjoyed a clean beach and fresh seafood for the weekend. Good trips like that remind us to seek out the small dots on the map, although it doesn’t always pan out the way we expect.
We’ve also explored much of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, which virtually nobody goes to because it’s nothing but dirt roads among volcanic rock and cactus, and it’s on the way to nowhere. The writings of Charles Bowden and the photos of Jack Dykinga introduced me to this place.
But you’d be surprised at the number of quiet, beautiful places you can find by just looking at a map and following a dirt road.
What other adventures do you have planned for the near future?
Well, I really want to plan a trip to New Zealand. Maybe rent a four-wheel drive truck or camper and do some exploring, hiking, and kayaking. Everything I read about it sounds incredible. But that’s not officially in the books with a date or anything. Mark and I want to do some more trips with Chloe in Baja, including riding the ferry across the Sea of Cortés. Chloe would like that, and there are beautiful beaches all over the peninsula.
Also, Mark and I honeymooned in Yosemite National Park seven years ago this May, and I think it’s time to go back to explore some new terrain there. Arizona is such a great launching point for our trips, especially if we head South or West. We just have to pick a spot on the map, find the time and save the money, and hit the road.
What advice do you have for other parents who would like to travel on a budget beyond the confines of mainstream attractions?
I think it’s important to know that camping doesn’t have to mean sleeping in a boyscout tent and eating beans from a can. Some people might think we’re soft or “not really camping” because of our set-up, but we go more often and stay out of hotels more than most of those naysayers. I’m lucky that Mark has designed such a comfortable, reliable truck set-up for our family vacation ride, but there are a hundred other ways you can make your camping more comfortable for your entire family. As you go on more trips, you will find out what works best for you.
The hardest part is getting out the door of your home. But that’s also true for going to the grocery store. Anyway, of all our road trips the lasting bit of advice that I have to tell myself is: more time at fewer places, rather than less time at more places. Abandon the “how much can I see in the least amount of time” ideology and embrace “let’s just have some fun wherever we are.”
All photos are courtesy of Mark and Brooke Stephens of Adventure Parents.