Sandra McMillen and her husband, Tom, wrote the book on how to be an ordinary couple living an extraordinary, travel-filled and adventurous life.
Seriously. They did.
The lifelong northern Colorado couple and seven-year Windsor residents have made it a mission in life to travel backroads as opposed to city streets around the world. And now they’re working to make their budget-conscious and nontraditional trips abroad a reality for everyone, beginning first with their book — “Extraordinary Travels of an Ordinary Couple” — that chronicles their trips abroad and details how truly anyone can make them happen sooner rather than later.
“We make it a priority to save for travel. We always have,” Sandra, 51, said from the couple’s Highland Meadows home, which is lined with travel photos from around the world. “We only go if it’s affordable or we have ways to get there. We never spend a lot of money. We just don’t.”
Yet they still ensure every trip is loaded with memories.
The couple’s adventures started soon after they met while working at the Platte River Power Authority in Fort Collins. Tom, 55, still works there, overseeing a complex computer system, while Sandra manages a team that creates training programs for Verizon. Near the beginning of their now-29 years of marriage, big trips meant business adventures around the state.
Those turned to family endeavors to amusement parks around the country with their kids, but it wasn’t until a 1990 trip to Hawaii that they really experienced the meaning of true adventure and embracing the unknown.
After saving for months, Tom and Sandra embarked on a trip to O’ahu — now viewed as tame but relatively wild back then. Tom had set off for a daylong fishing adventure while Sandra and a friend opted to drive into Honolulu. But when the car they were driving slammed into another vehicle that suddenly stopped, things took a turn.
The locals near the crash scene, Sandra said, went inside and closed their doors and shut the blinds. The other driver sped away. Even people who witnessed the crash opted not to lend a hand or even investigate how badly injured the women were. They sat in their car for 40 minutes until a police officer saw them stranded and ushered them into his car for a trip to the hospital.
He warned them to grab all of their possessions and said the locals would strip the car within minutes of them leaving.
“We made it through and ended up having a lot of fun,” she said smiling, remembering the injuries to her face that left a unique souvenir in the photos that followed. “It all worked out.”
And that lesson of rolling with the punches is one they’ve taken across the world, all while often leaving the traditional tourist guidebooks behind, relying instead on their own vast amounts of research.
Sandra admits she gets involved — really involved — in the research that goes into a trip. To her, the planning is almost as valuable as the travel itself.
She’ll spend hours looking for smaller towns on maps, scouring the Internet for tips and searching for the perfect Tuscan farmhouse, hidden hillside village or secluded tropical beach. She’ll know the route and the big sites they need to see — palaces in Rome or museums in France — but the stories both her and Tom end up telling are about the missteps and the people.
“There’s always something,” he said. “We spend more time talking about those stories in the end.”
Sandra couldn’t agree more.
“That’s really where you get a picture of what the country is,” she said referring to finding a hidden village and mingling with locals. “The sights that you get to see are the real country’s sights, not the tourists sights.”
Sandra isn’t sure where exactly her drive for travel stems, though she has an idea. As a child, virtually every weekend was spent exploring areas around northern Colorado, often camping. She said she always knew she wanted to do things in life rather than wait until retirement like so many others often do. She remembered her mom saying there were things she wanted to do “some time” or “eventually.”
And then her mom died at age 44.
“We don’t really have that guarantee,” Sandra said. “If you really want to do something, you might want to ask yourself, ‘How do I make that happen now?’ Putting it off may not actually be the right way to do it.”
With the anticipated launch of the couple’s own travel agency — Ordinary Couple Travels — later this year and Tom’s own photography studio, they’re working to make adventure a reality for everyone. They acknowledge many people might not be able to get time off or the necessary funds for a European excursions.
But they can do something to add a little extraordinary to life.
“I just encourage people that travel can be anywhere,” Sandra said. “It doesn’t have to take place in an exotic location to be extraordinary. Just take the time to be aware of what’s around you. I think that’s the key.”