When I decided to embark on my six-month adventure, the idea was big enough that I didn’t stop and think about what type of luggage I would use.
There was the job of finding someone to take care of my house, my cat, and my mortgage. There was the job of sweet talking my awesome assistant in keeping the Center for Happiness running without me. There was the job of—well, there were many tasks to look at before I could even know for sure that this would happen, let alone what kind of suitcase I would take.
As the weeks passed, I found the perfect person to take over my home, my assistant gave me the green light, and it became time to think about how I would carry my stuff—six months worth of it.
I’d never done anything like this before. Having moved to the United States at the age of 17, I somehow bypassed the whole backpacking chapter.
At 53, I thought I would fix that.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a backpack would make the most sense. I didn’t want to schlepp around anything on wheels, and I liked the idea of being hands-free. Plus, it sounded way cool.
My daughter agreed to lend me the backpack I had bought her years ago, and I started throwing “things to take” in a corner of my room, right next to the soft gray bag.
I felt as though I was doing a pretty good job of being minimalist and yet—the pile grew.
Some days, I would take a few things from the pile and put them back in my closet. In those moments, I felt wise, hip, and enlightened—if there is such a combination.
The day before leaving, it was time to throw the pile into the bag, close the cute little hooks, put it on my shoulders and go catch that plane. Easy peasy. I went for it. Minutes later, I noticed that the bag was filled to the max, and the pile on the floor barely looked any smaller. Uh oh. Surely I was missing something. Surely there was a giant pocket I had overlooked?
But no. I had a problem.
Suddenly, I was not so sure I could do this. The voice of my inner critic decided to tell me the things it had held back all summer: who did I think I was, taking off for six months without much planning? Did I really think I could live out of a backpack for all this time? When was the last time I went on a respectable hike? Didn’t I see how silly, maybe even pathetic, this idea was?
Not my best moment.
I sat on the floor and took a breath. It was too late to turn this crazy spaceship around. Someone was moving into my house in 48 hours and I had a plane ticket and a backpack full of promises.
Back to the closet went scarves, my nice orange shirt, three books, and more things that surely I could do without.
Round two made a big dent in things, and only half the pile remained on the carpet. Round three was not so impressive.
Obviously I had to learn something. Something other people knew. I turned to YouTube, and by the end of round four, the backpack latched and there was nothing on the floor.
I could do this. Heck yeah I could! That’s when I thought I would try to wear the backpack for the first time. It was full, but not bulging. I was set. Proud of myself for being such a great packer, I hoisted the thing on my back—and fell backwards onto my bed. Think giant, middle-aged turtle.
Weight. I had not even considered weight. Minutes after I had slayed the volume dragon, I was now meeting its cousin: the weight dragon.
There is a distinction between how much space something or someone takes, and how much weight, especially in our minds and hearts.
Now the critic started again: who do you think you are, trying to put this thing on your back? What makes you think you can walk with this huge bag, let alone walk up hills and through subway stations? Are you nuts?
By this time, it felt like a dare. I had figured out what to take, now I would figure out how to take it, and that was that.
Round five took care of some weight. Once my mind was oriented to that goal, I saw it as a game and I was shaving half ounces at a time. By the time I put the bag back on, I could walk with it. It was not comfortable and I couldn’t see myself getting very far, but at least I could stay vertical.
The less stuff we have, the freer we are. Most things are not worth the space they take, and can greatly impair our mobility.
On my way out of town the next day, my partner wanted to make a short stop at REI for a small towel he wanted. That’s when a the light went on in my brain. REI. These guys know all about backpacks. This was perfect! We would stop there, and I could ask for a tutorial on backpack carrying on my way to the airport. Surely someone else had asked this before.
Lifting the pack onto my back, I made my way from the underground parking lot to the store, and up the beautiful wooden staircase. I tried to “become one with the backpack” by focusing on the top of my head and paying attention to my breath. It was a b*tch.
As I arrived at the backpack section, I noticed a large table with several backpacks spread out on it. Hallelujah—backpack 101 did exist! I felt that if there were someone on this planet who could make me be friends with this situation I was committed to, they’d be here.
Finally, it was my turn and I earnestly explained that I was on my way to Europe for six months, that I had never worn a big backpack, that I had a feeling there was something not quite right, and I hoped my situation was fixable.
He did not laugh at me, he just went to work.
Once we have found the right person to guide us through something, it is best to not compromise. We may have to wait a bit and be humble, but it will be fully worth it.
First, he had me loosen all the straps. I didn’t know where all the straps were, so he introduced them to me, then he had me stand in front of the mirror. Next, he asked me to bend forward at a 90 degree angle (god, please don’t let me tip forward on my face in the middle of this store!) and he showed me how to place the waist buckle exactly on my belly button, and to cinch the belt tightly. One more little jerking forward, and I buckled the chest strap. Following his guidance, I stood up and he demonstrated how to pull my side straps “as if I was skiing.”
Holy smokes. All of a sudden, the backpack felt as though someone else was carrying it, or at least giving me a whole lot of help. I looked in the mirror and no, it was just me. The shoulder straps were nicely rounded above my shoulders and I could barely feel anything weighing on my back.
A tiny tweak can make a huge difference in the way something feels.
I wanted to hug him, run down the stairs, and maybe skip a little. I did none of those things—but I did finally feel as though I could really do this.
There is almost always someone who has been where we are, (or close enough) before. Seeking these people out will save us time, heartache, and money. Possibly backache, too.
This was over a month ago, and since then, my backpack and I have become great friends. We have spent time together on planes, trains, buses, and automobiles. The only thing that has been a bit of an impairment has been the belly button buckle. Having a bit of extra padding in that area, cinching it tightly (and really, that’s the main trick) has caused me to instantly and uncomfortably develop two new sets of breasts: one above the belt, and one under. This three-roll business has been a great motivator to not eat every gelato I’ve run into. Pretty handy.
So here you go. If I can do it, you can too. Whatever “it” is.
Five more months to go, and I can’t wait to see what else there is to learn!
Author: Laura Lavigne
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Jen Schwartz
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman