My journey is into the unknown. There is a starting point — I know the name of my destination. I do not know what will happen there, though I must prepare for it. Thus begins that ancient traveler’s ritual: packing. (One grey wool sweater goes in.) There is supposed to be scientific method behind the tradition. Centuries of advice and reams of blogrolls persuade me that there is a perfect wardrobe for every circumstance. (Sweater comes out, hiking boots go in.) They deceive me. Packing is an art as unreliable as that of ancient divination; a search for certainty based upon weather forecasts, geography, and political situations that has as much validity as seeking omens in thunder clouds. I stumble blindly forward making up correlations like a soothsayer, hoping at least one of them will stick. (Umbrella goes in, raincoat goes in.)
The packing process becomes futile as I fritter over details. (Umbrella comes out, sweater goes back in, wool socks go in.) What is essential? What is necessary? (Toothbrush, toilet paper, soap.) The questions take on metaphysical significance and become difficult to answer. Now it is not utilities I am stuffing into my luggage but also expectations, prejudices, and fears. (Toothbrush, soap, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots.) “Money,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” “is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” True, yet I need it to board the plane, cross borders, and pay for my shelter. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, soap, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots.) His command was to simplify, however, the more items I take out the more I begin to panic. My least favorite phrase, “What if,” attacks me. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, bandages, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots, bacitracin, antihistamine.) The clock ticks loudly and my semi-full bag asks, “Is this enough?”
It would be wise to provide for every emergency, I convince myself. Medicines, extra underclothes, overcoats, and multiple changes of clothing pile onto the floor. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, bandages, thread, needle, flashlight, compass, sweater, raincoat, winter coat, vest, hiking boots, wool socks, cotton socks, gloves, hat, umbrella, bacitracin, antihistamine, decongestant….) The hands of the clock grow louder and my suitcase resembles the aftermath of a hurricane center. I turn from the muddle and sit with my head on my knees. I desire to be calm and efficient, to take stock, to know I can do much with little. A list, that is what is needed. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, sweater, raincoat, socks, hiking boots, shirts, pants.) Writing down the indispensables is supposed to soothe me. Instead, I feel vulnerable and turn indecisive. Should I bring more sweaters? Have I got enough money? What if I get sick?
Paralyzed by confusion, I retreat into a search for what other globetrotters brought with them on their travels. Ernest Hemingway, whose adventurous life took him to Paris, Spain, and Kenya, jotted in one of his notebooks preparations for a fishing trip to Cabo Blanco, Peru. Rods, hooks, two harpoons, flannel trousers, three chamois vests, and a blue windbreaker make up part of his record. Joan Didion taped a list to the inside of her closet which she would consult before jetting off on one of her assignments. Among her vitals were bourbon, a typewriter, and a pullover. When Nellie Bly readied for her race around the world, she carried along cold cream, a small flask, a drinking cup, three veils, and a pair of slippers. My water bottle, journal, and sweater seem stale when compared to the romance of Hemingway’s, Didion’s, and Bly’s portmanteaus. It is not the things they lug which tempt me but the confidence with which they lug them. Their catalogs bespeak conviction about their weapons of choice for the treacherous road. In comparison, my vacillations express the discontent of a peevish child, unwilling to make a decision or abide by it. “Choose and be done with it!” I chide myself.
According to the Buddha’s legend, Siddhartha Gautama took only the clothes he wore in his search for enlightenment. To be so weightless feels both liberating and frightening to me. Where do I find the courage to let go of my consumerism, to abandon my sense of the world through what I own? Perhaps this is where the other half of packing plays out, the part where I inevitably lose my possessions or abandon them along the way. The torn shirt, the broken strap, the peeling shoe, they force me to reevaluate my belongings. I would like to believe that each time I discard a personal effect to travel’s vagaries I gain back one of those necessities of the soul Thoreau insisted we cultivate. I hope that with every tortured experience of putting into my baggage and taking out of it, I am learning to relinquish my fierce need to hold and to have. One of these expeditions I will finally renounce my possessiveness and, like Siddhartha, venture out with only the indispensables. (Hope, generosity, curiosity, raincoat, hiking boots.)
The Materials Economy is the life-cycle of “stuff.” Watch how the goods we buy and make affect us and our resources in “The Story of Stuff.”
What are your favorite tips for packing? What is essential for you to have on your travels?