Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I am a terrible packer. Atrocious, really. Having done it so many times, you'd think I'd have it down to a science. I have packed up my apartments, friends' apartments, even entire houses. I've packed for weekends, weeks, and months-long journeys. I've packed for river trips and mountain trips, tropical temperatures and sub-Arctic zones, rainforests and deserts. I have more backpacks, duffels and suitcases than are even remotely necessary. And yet when the email hits my inbox informing me that I have 24 hours before my flight – the moment of truth – I still flounder, sitting helplessly atop a mountain of clothes.

Packing is better than unpacking, true. And to be sure, I've improved greatly since my first trip to Ireland back in college, when I brought something like four suitcases for a couple months of studying. But I'm still a hopeless overpacker. I'm envious of people like Jesse, who wore two pairs of board shorts and three shirts during our three-week trip to Central America and, for his efficiency, was rewarded with having to use his extra backpack space to carry my excess stuff. Despite having significantly less travel experience than me, he spent many hours patiently sitting and reading while I rearranged gear and dug out clothes and reluctantly demoted myself to a green-circle traveler (he is a black diamond).

My first problem is that I over-correct. If, on a previous trip, I was cold, I will stubbornly bring a fleece, a down jacket, a softshell and two hats even if the forecast doesn't call for temps below 50 degrees. If, on a previous trip, I brought more books than I actually read, I'll pack only two books and find myself forlorn and bookless in a middle-of-nowhere town with no bookstore or internet. It's a vicious cycle.

My second problem is that I was a girl scout, and the girl scout motto is not “be cute and sell cookies,” as some people believe, but rather “be prepared.” My mother was my girl scout leader and “be prepared” is also her personal motto, so it's been instilled in me from an early age that one does not dare venture into the woods without extra clothes, an enormous first aid kit and a flask full of gin and vermouth. Even if one is only going on a day hike.

If it were up to me, I would go about this transient life of mine permanently wearing a little harness (like the kind a monkey might wear) from which I'd tow a mini-U-Haul (like a rickshaw driver). In my U-Haul would be everything I could ever want. There would be my bicycle, kayak and snowboard all within easy reach, and all the accoutrements that go along with each sport: paddling gear, backpacking gear, snowboarding gear, climbing gear (I don't actually climb, but hey, why not?). Of course, I'd need a different helmet for each sport too, because Lord knows I don't want to look like a dweeb wearing a snowboarding helmet while riding my bike in 80-degree heat, and God forbid somebody design an all-in-one helmet.

I'd also bring my mask, snorkel and flippers in case I happened upon a nice reef; a tote full of kitchen stuff in case I decided to stay somewhere for a while (cast iron pans, a blender, a french press, spices, big wooden cutting boards); some high-heeled boots and nice clothes so when I visit cities I'll feel sophisticated instead of like a dirty hobo from the sticks; and of course my tote full of painstakingly collected costume pieces so I'll be ready whenever someone decides to throw an impromptu costume party. I'd also have my camera with enough lenses to capture every conceivable moment, my laptop and some external speakers, a reading lamp to plug in by my bed at night because I hate overhead lighting, some fluffy bath towels because really, what satisfaction is there in drying off with a pack towel?; and, finally, a box full of books. And a banjo. And a fiddle. And some tools and craft supplies... maybe a carboy for brewing, too? Some pictures to hang on the walls and some rugs to make the U-Haul feel homey?

Clearly, I am a nester. A restless nester, which is the worst kind. I want to travel and move, and I want to spread out and create a home. I want both of these things simultaneously. So when I try to whittle my imaginary U-Haul down to the TWO bags I am limiting myself to for my six months in New Zealand, I wind up completely overwhelmed. I pour myself a glass of wine, then two, then three, which is perhaps the point at which my packing strategy goes awry. It's how I've ended up packing the remote control on a camping trip and forgetting my paddle on a kayaking trip, and it's why I remain a green-circle traveler no matter how many stamps I rack up on my passport. 

 Packing-induced exhaustion (photo by Liza Mitchell)

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