My backpack was slowly boring a hole into my coccyx.
I was nineteen and had borrowed a 50 litre green Osprey from my uncle to prepare for my Eurotrip. I stitched a Canadian patch across the crest for everyone to see, as seemed necessary at the time. I purchased a compass and some maps and an industrial-sized container of sun-screen. I looked upon my rental pack, considered its dimensions, and decided that its depth and girth were challenges issued to me by the universe. Could I fill it to the brim and manage to cart it around most of western Europe with me?
In hindsight I probably didn’t need all of the button-down shirts, nor the full bottle of shampoo, nor the half-dozen books, nor the array of sweaters, nor the comically large number of socks. The bottle of Windex was probably a little overzealous. The full Dutch-Mandarin dictionary may have been ancillary. Several dozen packets of clean, type B positive blood in vacuum sealed were probably unnecessary preparation for a trip that was very unlikely to include grievous bodily wounds nor encounters with eastern European vampires.
I was young and had never travelled alone before. Previously accompanied by parents, there was always an advisor looming over my suitcase, scrutinizing my choices and declaring when I had packed enough. I would stand before my trunk, stuffing shirts and underwear and socks and books and toothbrushes and then packets of saltines and X-Men action figures and 1980s commemorative mugs featuring Peanuts characters until an adult would tell me to stop. Someone would seal my bag with a travel lock, remove the key from sight, and cart my possessions around for me.
Suddenly burdened with responsibility, I panicked and overprepared. I figured it was better to cause massive spinal damage than to wear a shirt more than once. Surely, all of the Parisians would note my attire, the Totoro t-shirt that had been worn two days in a row, and they would snicker derisively and throw day-old croissants at my shame. Other travellers would be just as judgmental, and would find my lack of a Swiss Army Knife or an annotated copy of Othello to be laughable.
Not only did I overburden myself, I also filled my sack with crap I didn’t need and neglected dozens of items I rued for their absence. With little travel experience, I had developed only murky conceptions of what long-term hoofing around foreign countries might entail, and what they might do to my gradually dilapidating human form. When my shoes suddenly became water-logged, swampy cesspools from which disturbing, vomitous scents regularly emanated, I had nothing in my bag that could help me. When I started to grow desperately thirsty under the broiling Italian sun in August, I had no way to acquire or treat water and had to simply shut my eyes and pray that I didn’t contract whatever militant parasitic lifeforms dwelled within the public fountains in Rome. I had prepared for an imaginary trip, one that was maybe occurring in a parallel universe or perhaps on Ganymede, while the one before me was constantly surprising and terrifying.
People saw my backpack and assumed I was on a years-long sojourn around the entire globe. That within my pack lied gas-stoves and dry shampoo, a washboard for my clothes and a ukulele to beg for tips on the street corners of Dublin.
With years and experience I began to grow more accustomed to the ins and outs of sky-trudging, of storming through temples and forests and city streets. I began to grow aware of exactly how my body tended to fall to pieces: how my feet would characteristically fester with blisters, how my backpacks would chafe my lower back, and how the sweat sting of melty sunscreen would singe my eyes. I started to learn what I needed, what I wanted, and what I could probably do without.
As I left for Asia, I thought myself stalwart and clever and far more mature than the boy that had set out to Europe. My pack was lighter and small and more aerodynamic, though still adorned with a different Canadian patch. I had ditched numerous unnecessary accoutrements, had made peace with the fact that I would be wearing grungy clothes at least some of the time, and had still found room to stow five paperbacks and a board-game within my things. I was prepared, but not overzealously so.
And still on the road I met people away for far longer surviving with far less. Worldly vagabonds thriving with two sets of underpants and a stick of deodorant; seasoned journeymen and –women who carried delicate, laughably small messenger bags filled with the entirety of their gear. Others we met seemingly survived with a passport and a winning smile.
Yes these people stank to high heaven, yes their very presence raking the inside of my nostrils. Sure, unknown lifeforms lived in their hair and within their intestines. Sure, their first trip to the dentist upon returning to their homelands would almost certainly end with weeping and the business end of a set of pliers. But they survived. They roamed. They explored.
As I pack now, I try to imagine meeting myself on the road of whatever country I live in. The Me who lives out of a backpack and the Me who lives in a cushy apartment with consistently warm water, access to a razor, and array of vitamin supplements and medication for my various ailments. I imagine shaking hands with this other man, who is bearded and sweaty and drooping. Is he gasping for air? Do I wipe my hand on my pants after we greet each other, a greasy stain the remainder of our pleasantries?
I think so long as my criteria for success is survival plus one, I will drift towards an appropriate minimalism. So long as I am okay with being dirty, but not okay with wallowing in filth. So long as I am okay with re-wearing clothing, but not okay with holding my nose every time I get dressed. So long as I am okay with only carrying four books, instead of seven. I will glide towards a light backpack, towards a skip in my step, towards new roads and new sunsets.