In 2015, their marriage falling apart, Eli and Kelly Pyke knew they needed a change or at least an escape.
When they were younger, the couple's relationship had blossomed through their shared love of the outdoors. Eli was an up-and-coming professional kayaker, and Kelly was a backpacking guide in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
They wanted to find that passion again and do so with their then-2-year-old son Dakota. So they loaded up a motor home and left their house in Oregon to embark on a yearlong journey that would take them more than 10,000 miles and through numerous national parks in the United States and Canada.
"We didn't know what to do exactly, but we really wanted to get back to some of those things we really loved when we fell in love," Eli said. "Mountain climbing, getting out on the river and just exploring and traveling. We hadn't been doing much of that, being new parents. So we took the leap ... and just kind of headed out."
Eli, 36, a filmmaker and video producer, made a film called the "The Far Green Country" that captures the Pykes' journey.
The film is about the harsh realities of living on the road, marriage and parenting. But mostly, Eli says, it is about hope.
"The only thing we have to hold on to is the hope that it will work out in the end," Eli says, reflecting on his and Kelly's relationship. "It's about keeping up the hope and trying to figure out a way to make it work, and we did. It's a travel film, it's a documentary, but it's, even more, a really real and vulnerable snapshot of people and what life can be like."
He says they found their home in the national parks, including Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands in Utah; Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay in Canada; and Joshua Tree and Death Valley in California, among many more.
"It was a desperate attempt for us to get our hearts back and reconnect as a couple," Kelly said. "We were in a rough place, and we needed to make a change and start living united again."
Desperation, it seems, can be a catalyst for success.
Dakota completed numerous junior ranger programs, and the Pykes got in more hiking, jogging, and swimming in rivers and lakes than they had in years.
Along the way, Eli captured footage of many of their experiences, including time lapses and aerial shots.
He filmed self-interviews and testimonials to capture his emotions along the way.
During the trip, Eli was able to work on other films for a variety of nonprofits as part of his regular job.
They stayed four weeks in Joshua Tree, three weeks in Zion and three weeks in the Canadian Rockies, among many other popular outdoor destinations.
Eli swam in the glacial-blue water of the Kootenay River in Canada and climbed rocks with Dakota at Joshua Tree.
"It was the opportunity, at 3, to get him up on real rock, with a harness, rope and helmet, and feel what it's like to rock climb," Eli said. "We knew we were doing something right. He climbs with me. He trusts me and he's a good climber. I'm thankful for that relationship with my son that I was really able to develop with that year of living in the motorhome.
When we just unplugged, the majority of the day I got to spend with my son at a young age, and got to really connect with him."
The Pykes spent much of their time hiking, and what Eli called "adventuring with children."
"What does it look like to balance an adult man and woman's idea of adventure with a young child?" Eli asks, and then answers: "Hiking, rock climbing on some mellow rocks, exploring wildlife, and just getting him out in the outdoors."
Kelly says she and her husband were able to reconnect through their love of the mountains and hiking. Sure, having their young son along created some limits, but they found a way.
"Going in a motor home and living in the national parks, we could do the little adventures with our son, and it was just awesome," she says.
In the early 2000s, Eli was on his way to becoming a full-time pro kayaker.
He had multiple sponsors and was starting to place high in races, he recalls.
Shortly after meeting Kelly, he decided to travel with her on a two-month trip to Africa.
Not long after that, they got married, and Eli settled into family life and pursued filmmaking as his career, rather than kayaking.
"I still do kayak and I still do some Class V (extremely difficult rapids) stuff, but mostly I just go up the Metolius (River) and do some Class III (moderately difficult), and just enjoy bringing my family out on the water," he says.
The Pykes did not kayak much during their yearlong motor-home trip, but they were certainly active, both in the outdoors and in bonding as a family.
Isabel, the Pykes' now 2-year-old daughter, was conceived during the trip, according to Eli. Once Kelly was into her fourth month of pregnancy, the couple decided to end the trip and head home.
"The motorhome was not the most comfortable and safe place to be for that," Eli says with a laugh.
He is clear that their experience is not necessarily the right way for everybody to strengthen a marriage, but it worked for the Pykes.
They still attend marriage counseling, but now they are in a much better place as a couple and a family, he says.
"We in no way want to claim with our film that we have it figured out," Eli says. "We needed like a gap year, a diversion that could help us remember the things we did love about each other and enjoy doing together."
"Hopefully," Kelly says, "it inspires people to renew some hope in their own life."
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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