We sold our car back to the dealership in March. Living in Southern California without owning a car has been much easier than we had anticipated. We’re leveling up our skills by setting out on a backpacking expedition without organizing transportation from the airport to the park. Yes, it’s those crazy Denhams doing the wing-it method again.
My husband and I are very efficient with our travel anxiety. That is to say, we worry about completely different things. My major area of worry is cleaning our place top to bottom before we leave. His is wanting to be at the airport three hours early. My second worry is what we’re going to eat, and his is figuring out how to find our destination on the map.
On this trip, we have a couple of extra complications. None of the campgrounds accept reservations, and we haven’t booked a way to cover the 45 miles from our hotel in Jackson Hole to our desired campsite in the Grand Tetons, Colter Bay. I think we’ll be fine because if the campsite is full, we can always just get a backcountry permit. He thinks we’ll be fine because we can just take a Lyft.
We’re both wrong.
We have no trouble getting a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. There’s one waiting outside. We inquire whether the shuttle service might take us to Colter Bay the next day, and take their business card just in case our ride-sharing plan doesn’t work out. Prescient.
When we check in, almost two hours late due to our plane being stuck on the tarmac, we find that we’re only about a mile from a natural foods store. We’re able to walk there and pick up the next day’s lunch and some tea and trail mix before they close for the night. We’ve brought oatmeal packets for breakfast and freeze-dried meals for lunches and dinners. If all else fails, we have enough calories for the week, but we’re hoping to supplement our meals with fresh produce from the campsite general store.
The next day I am exhausted and refuse to follow the plan of waking up at 6 AM to get to the campsite as early as possible. Whether this is a disastrous mistake or not would be hard to say.
For all my skill with travel logistics, I’m so useless, slow, and dopey in the morning that I’m surprised nobody has left me behind yet.
We dress quickly and haul our forty-pound hockey bags down the hotel stairs. No Lyfts answer our call. This makes sense, because a Lyft driver would be stuck with a 45-mile return trip and basically zero chance of picking up fresh passengers. We’re left with the shuttle service we used the previous night. They quote us $120, which is fine.
We could have rented an economy car for as low as $108 a week, assuming no surge pricing, but we would have had to pay insurance and gas as well. Since we got rid of our car, we also got rid of our car insurance. I once paid for supplemental insurance on a rental car, and it cost equally as much as the daily rate for the car. That’s when I actually carried my own car insurance. We don’t have roadside assistance anymore, either. We’re heading into bear country, probably on non-sanctioned terrain, so who knows what fine print we might be activating. We have basically no trust when it comes to businesses that make so much of their revenue off the dingers and add-ons and surcharges.
There are externalities to renting a car, just as there are to owning one:
Picking it up and dropping it off
Gassing it up before drop-off, which in this case would mean an extra 16-mile round trip, or paying a surcharge
Risk of collision. Greater than zero probability, non-trivial amount of hassle for out-of-state travelers
In comparison, there are side benefits to hiring a driver:
More experienced driver operates the vehicle
Knows where everything is in the area
Can offer advice and recommendations
Points out wildlife and scenic attractions
Shares local gossip and cultural context
In case of collision, driver does the paperwork
Ditto traffic citations
(I have a thing about jobs that allow the employee at least some agency, like having control over their schedule or not having a dress code).
We need to pick up some bear spray, and the driver obligingly swings by the outdoor store (which would not have been open if we had woken up on schedule, just saying…) It’s a breathtaking $40, but it costs $50 inside the park, and that’s still a lot cheaper than a new cranium or a skin graft.
When we arrive at the entrance to the National Park, there’s a $30 fee, which we pay. A short time later, we arrive at the Colter Bay campground, only to find a sign that says FULL. Uh-oh. There are two men in uniform blocking the road and waving people on. The shuttle driver is understandably nervous.
WELCOME TO THE PLACE OF UNCERTAINTY!
We ask the driver to wait while we go to the campsite office. Not only is Colter Bay full, but… every campground for forty miles is full. In other words, the entire National Park is full. Yay. We ask about backcountry permits, my hole card. It turns out that I have completely misunderstood how this works. My impression has been that if you are backpacking, and you have a permit, you can put your tent down anywhere that makes sense. The purpose of the permit is to limit the number of people inside the park at any one time, while also providing a record of your presence in case you fall into a crevasse or something.
Ignore everything I just said, because I am ignorant and my brain is full of… soggy bow tie pasta.
Evidently, in Grand Teton National Park, a backcountry permit allows a limited number of people to camp within the confines of a primitive campsite, many miles away from where we are currently standing. We could get the permit, we could go, but we’d have to hike ten miles in (and out), and we’d be on our own in grizzly territory. The other option is to drive 25 miles and camp in the nearby National Forest, where the rules are different.
My husband turns to me. “We’re screwed.”
This is totally, 100% my fault. I’m the one who did the “research” on this. At this point, I’m the one with more backpacking experience in multiple states (and countries). I’m the one who insisted on lounging around like a primadonna when we should have gotten up early like we planned. This is the moment in the Place of Uncertainty when I start the internal wail, “I WANT MY DAAA-AAAA-AAAAAD!” (A dad who would have exactly no sympathy for a problem created by my sleeping in and lack of punctuality).
We trudge back to the van, preparing to negotiate with our mostly-patient shuttle driver.
One of the three women from the information booth runs out after us. She wants to brainstorm with us a bit more. Once we put it out there that we are backpackers who arrived in a taxi, we have buy-in. We’re morons, but we’re sympathetic morons. At least we have novelty value.
It turns out that we’ve all been speaking at cross purposes. What we want is known as a “hiker-biker” spot, which is available to us because we don’t need to park a car. This is a totally different beast from the “backcountry permit” we were requesting. Somehow the part about “it’s just us and these backpacks” fell through the cracks. Jargon. The website also uses the term “walk-in,” which I assume means the same as “hiker-biker” rather than the occult meaning of a spirit taking over someone’s body. Which, hold that thought while I take notes, because that would make a rad horror film. “Walk-In of the Woods.”
We go back to the driver to keep him updated, and my husband trots off to talk to the campsite road block crew. I run after him, struggling to keep up in my new boots.
THE SIGN IS GONE.
Check-out time is 11 AM, and some of the campsites that were full when we arrived are now available.
We’ll never know now whether we would have had a simpler time by arriving an hour earlier or arriving half an hour later.
We merrily book our campsite for six days, planning to check out the morning after the eclipse. Campsites can be booked for 14 days. We can’t know for sure, but it’s highly likely that if we had waited even one more day, we wouldn’t have been able to get in. We pay $30 a day, which is pretty darn cheap for a vacation.
We send the driver home. He’s added an extra $20 for the side trip to the outdoor store and the half-hour wait at the campsite. We tip him an additional $20, for a total of $160. We confirm that we can call someone to drive back and pick us up on Tuesday.
The campsite at Colter Bay! We have wi-fi. We have electrical outlets. We have showers with no shower timers. We have laundry facilities. We have campfires. The general store has actual fresh cruciferous vegetables - and guacamole - and cashew ice cream. The only thing that qualifies this trip as “camping,” besides sleeping in a tent, is that a mosquito bites me on the butt the minute we walk into our campsite.
We have a magnificent time, a topic for another post. We see the eclipse in a cloud-free sky. We pack up to go home. We give the unused $40 bear spray to a lucky contestant who is checking in. We try to pay a couple of guys $100 to ride back to town with them, but one is going the wrong way and the other only has two seats. The shuttle driver shows up about two hours after we call. The trip back costs $150. Total: $310.
Would we have saved money by renting a car rather than paying a shuttle service? Probably. It depends on the insurance question and the gas mileage. Would there have been any rental cars available? Who knows? Would we have been able to get a campsite at Colter Bay if we had brought a car? No, definitely not. I’m going to claim that we broke even. Considering that the hotel and the plane tickets only cost us reward points, we’d rather splurge and not have to bother with the rental car hassle. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about no longer paying $600/month to own our own vehicle…
We were able to do this trip for a bunch of serendipitous reasons. I stumbled across an article about the eclipse about a year in advance, and since my husband happened to be sitting right there, I asked him what he thought about it. The date fell near our wedding anniversary, so we agreed that a trip to see the totality would be fun. It was too soon to book tickets, so I set a reminder to buy them in January. On New Year’s Day, we spent about an hour planning the trip. We were able to book plane tickets AND the bookend hotel dates using reward points. Get this. I got THE LAST available room at the Hampton Inn. That was how we determined the start date of our trip. We had no idea that Jackson Hole, Wyoming in general and the Grand Tetons in particular would be such a popular viewing location for the totality. It’s basically unfair that we were able to get in. That we paid for it with points is… well, that part is gloat-worthy.
So, we did it. We took a taxi to the wilderness and back again. We’ve been car-free for six months. We have no plans to buy a replacement vehicle at this time. It’s unlikely we’ll rent a car, either. Now that we’ve pulled off this caper, we’re broadening our expectations of what we can do and where we can go, leaving the driving to someone else.
The “wing-it method” is what we call taking off on a trip with no plans. We did this on our trip to Spain last year. Landed in Barcelona with no transportation, no lodging, no food, no propane for our camp stove, no reservations for anything, no recommendations, not even any friends, acquaintances, or internet contacts. There was a stressful ten minutes while we figured out how to take a bus to the nearest campsite, but other than that, we were able to navigate a foreign country with our novice command of the language for two weeks. We didn’t even get deported. This ability to tolerate being in the Place of Uncertainty for even brief periods is vital to enjoying travel when things keep going wrong. Like our vacation.
It started with the first leg of our flight. We boarded the plane, only to find out that there was a mechanical failure with the de-icing equipment on the wing. We sat out there on the tarmac for an hour while it was repaired. This was actually pretty great! I like it when they discover these issues on the ground, the nice hard ground, and fix them without making us all get out. The same thing happened once when my plane ran over a screw and got a flat tire. Our only plans for the rest of the night were to get groceries for our camping trip, and we were still able to do that before the store closed.
The next issue was getting a campsite. We went to the Grand Tetons to see the eclipse in its totality. They don’t take reservations unless there’s a group of at least six people, so we were winging it. I had done the research and I figured we could always get a backcountry permit if they were out of campsites. WELL! We got up there, every single campsite for FORTY MILES was full, and ‘backcountry’ does not mean what I thought it meant. I understood it to mean that you could just find a spot and throw down your tent, which may or may not be true in other countries or in National Forests, but emphatically is not true in a National Park in the US. Especially not in grizzly bear territory. We had a literal taxi waiting for us (topic for another post) while we tried to figure out what to do. It turned out there was a miscommunication of terminology and that we were eligible for a ‘hiker/biker’ spot because we didn’t bring a car. It also turned out that campsite checkout happens at 11 AM, and a few spots freed up while we were standing there trying not to hyperventilate. We got our spot and tipped the cabbie an extra $20 for waiting.
Then we walked up to our campsite, threw our packs down, and a mosquito bit me right on the caboose before I even had time to put on bug spray.
We spent a week camping, a last night in Jackson WY, and then flew home for one night, before turning right around and going to Las Vegas for our wedding anniversary. At some point we’ll have a personal relationship with all the Lyft drivers who are willing to go to the airport.
We were physically in the jetway, lined up and ready to board, when the pilot came bustling out. He came back again about two minutes later. Then he came out again. OUR PLANE HAD BEEN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING and the flight was canceled. In 35 years as an air traveler, I have never had to do this, but we all turned our conga line around and walked back out of the gangplank. We wound up being delayed four hours. This is by no means uncommon, and it’s hardly our longest delay, but it sucks when the flight was only 45 minutes and it’s possible to drive a car to your destination faster than the next plane could arrive. I’m never sure, but: is that irony?
The hardest part for me of having a flight delay is that there are rarely food options in an airport terminal that are acceptable to me. LAX in particular is trapped in the 80s. You can get anything you want as long as it’s pizza or a burger, coffee or beer. Honestly it’s easier for me to find food in a mall food court. We were scheduled to land in Las Vegas at 5:30 PM, meaning we could have checked into our hotel and had dinner on our normal schedule. Instead we landed at 9:30 and wound up eating at 11. What would have been “dinner and a show” was swallowed up by a long evening in our home airport terminal. But hey! At least it’s Vegas, where dinner at 11 is not much of an ask.
That weekend, every single time I tried to book a show, it was already sold out. We did have some nice dinners, though.
Travel is a luxury. We have to remind ourselves of that, even when all the logistics are going wrong. Either it’s fun or it’s a story. When you’re traveling with someone you like, you have time to chill out and enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of time. Sometimes, when things go wrong, you even get $200 in future flight vouchers out of it. We wing it because it keeps things interesting, and also because so much of the time, winging it is the only option.
I drag the bathroom scale into the kitchen. No way am I going to fit if I try to stand on it where it normally waits, tucked in a corner. I tap it with my boot. I’m impatient to step on and see how high the number is today. I gasp with incredulity. One hundred and eighty-one pounds! I’ve never had a weigh-in this high in my entire life! I call out to my husband; I have to tell him right away. This is what it’s like to feel proud and excited about a high weigh-in.
I may have cheated a little. It’s possible that I have chosen to weigh myself at the end of the day, after a large dinner, fully dressed, and wearing my new mountaineering bots. Oh, and maybe my fully packed expedition backpack.
Once upon a time, I was obese and chronically ill. The idea that I might one day look forward to climbing a mountainside while carrying forty or fifty pounds of equipment would have been more than a cruel joke; it would have been inconceivable.
Now I’m actually a little disappointed to weigh less than I thought I would. I want to show off my Herculean strength with impressive numbers indicating how heavy a pack I can carry. Since I’m traveling with my husband instead of my various backpacking friends, he insists on carrying the tent, the mess kit, the stove, and the first aid kit. Just because he’s twice my size he thinks he should hog all the cool stuff.
Once upon a time, I used to carry a thirty-five pound backpack everywhere I went. It was me. It was myself I had to carry. Every step I took, every stair I climbed, every minute of the day, I had to do it under the strain of this extra weight.
In fact, due to my body composition, what I had was probably at least fifty pounds of fat, some of which made way for at least fifteen pounds of muscle.
I’m strong now and I love it. I can put on my pack, pick up my husband’s with one arm, and walk across camp with ninety pounds of gear. My knees don’t even hurt.
We’re getting older now, as is everyone, and we like it when we see other backpackers a generation older than us. They’re our role models. We realize anew on every trip that if we want to continue to do this into our eighties or better, we can’t quit. We can’t ever quit.
When I’m thirty-five or forty or fifty pounds overweight these days, it’s my luggage. It’s a giant black canvas duffel bag filled with a backpack, two-man tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, pillow, space blanket, four changes of clothes, two sets of thermal underwear, three jackets, solar charger, gloves, hat, scarf, towel, pocket knife, head lamp, lantern, stove, mess kit, water filter, trekking poles, and even a folding chair. In other words, cool stuff I chose carefully, stuff I wouldn’t want to leave behind. That’s the difference. I got fat by accident and I didn’t enjoy it. My metaphorical backpack is one I felt stuck with. My actual backpack I can take off or put on whenever I want.
I just got back from my fifth trip this summer, and the fourth flight this month. Even though I have various systems in place, I still feel really keyed up every time I pack for a trip. I can choose to interpret this keyed-up feeling as excitement, or as anxiety, and either way, the result will be that I'm physically restless and looking for things to do to keep me busy. Distance running is always a great way to dump that excess adrenalin. With time constraints, another way to do it is to make packing into a game.
What's the game? PACK... THAT... BAG!
How do you score?
Bring everything you need: 100 points
Fit everything you need in carry-on baggage only: 100 points
Fit all your carry-ons under the seat in front of you: 100 points
Get to your destination at the time your travel partners wanted to get there: 100 points
Add one point for every minute you were early.
Subtract 1000 points per travel companion for being the reason you missed your flight.
Subtract 100 points for each bag you need someone else to carry.
Subtract another 100 points for each bag you need someone else to lift into the overhead bin.
Subtract 100 points per bag for exceeding the airline's weight allowance.
Subtract one point for each item you brought that you did not use on the trip.
Add one point for every item you forgot that did not significantly affect your trip.
Subtract one point for every item you purchase or add during your trip.
Subtract 10 points for each item you tried to smuggle into someone else's bag.
Subtract 10 points for any item that leaked or got damaged due to your poor packing job.
Subtract 10 points for each item that you lose or leave behind.
Let's do a run-through, using a real trip that I really went on before I learned to pack like a minimalist. I was going to New Zealand for three weeks. I would be staying with a family in their home, where I would have access to a washer and dryer. I packed 18 changes of clothes and 7 pairs of shoes.
I started with two suitcases. The handle snapped off of one, so I repacked almost all of the contents into one bag. In the airport parking lot, the handle snapped off the other bag! When I checked it, it was overweight, and it got slapped with a huge sticker. It evidently popped open at some point, because when I retrieved it from the luggage carousel, half my bra was hanging out... Score so far: -120 points for overweight bag and two damaged suitcases.
During the trip, I bought souvenirs: a gift for my mom, a gift for my roommate, two dozen postcards, and several items for myself, including books. I kept every plane ticket, brochure, receipt, plastic shopping bag, and even food packaging as memorabilia. The postcards would not count, since I didn't technically bring them home, but I'm guessing I had at least -50 points from all that.
I gained so much weight during the three weeks that I couldn't button my pants on the trip home. How many points is that??
Now, I'll compare these decidedly amateurish results with my most recent trip.
Fit everything in carry-on baggage, under the seat in front of me: 200 points
Brought everything I needed: 100 points
Got to airport when hubby wanted to be there: 100 points
Brought items I didn’t wear: -6 points
Total: 394 points
In comparison, my hubby forgot he had a wrench in his carryon bag, earning a free bonus secondary search from TSA, which is its own punishment and thus has no negative point value. He also bought six items, so we have a matching -6 points for extra stuff.
Total: 194 points
He’s doing better, though; the first time we went on vacation together, he brought an entire duffel bag full of shoes. Men and their shoes, I tell ya.
Overpacking stems from 1. Lack of systems 2. Anxiety 3. Inexperience and 4. Indecision. Systems that are well designed can defeat anxiety, inexperience, and indecision. Build the system around these pain points. If you trust your car to run when you fill the gas tank, if you trust your refrigerator to keep your food fresh, if you trust your grocery store to stock food, you can also learn to trust that you put the right things in your suitcase. Try to have a sense of humor about this.
The worst-case scenario if you under-pack is that you will arrive at a social event wearing inappropriate clothing. Either you're underdressed, overdressed, stained, torn, smelly, or mismatched in some way. Self-consciousness makes this scenario humiliating and awkward for all concerned. A sense of humor and adventure can make the identical scenario hilarious and endearing. For instance, I once arrived at a party wearing an animal nose and white gloves, like a cartoon character, only to find out after I walked in the door that everyone else had changed their minds about this theme. Cry or laugh? Be a cautionary tale or walk with your head held high like the legend that you are? All the best characters have animal noses.
What do you really need to pack in a suitcase? Clothing, toiletries, medication and/or medical devices, a snack, enough entertainment for the duration of travel, small bills and coins, and chargers for all your devices. How complicated is that? Not very.
How many days is the trip? One outfit per day, plus extra socks and underwear just in case. If you're traveling for more than four days, just go to the laundromat or use the hotel laundry facilities.
How many hours of travel will there be? Divide reading, viewing, and listening material by number of hours. Double it if you need a security blanket. Personally, I can read about 50 pages an hour, 30 for dense technical material and up to 100 for YA or pot-boiler suspense fiction. Thus, a 4-hour flight with an hour of gate time is just barely enough time for me to read through a typical 250-page book. I used to bring a book per day plus two for a buffer, and it took about 15 years to finally admit to myself that this was unnecessary.
Stop worrying so much about the STUFF you plan to bring, and start focusing more on the EXPERIENCES you are going to have. Who are you going to be with? Where are you going? What are you going to see? What will you learn? What is different (and better) than your neighborhood? What will you do? You can play with your clothes and accessories and books and suitcases and handbags at home. You can worry about whatever you want back at home. For this brief window of time, you're GOING SOMEWHERE! Make the most of it. Keep reminding yourself of why you're on this trip. Do it often enough, and you may even be able to make it ten minutes without thinking about your physical belongings. That's what I call winning the game.
“Yeah, but we have kids.” So many parents believe that their children limit what they can do that I’m always super-excited to be able to share examples of other parents whose kids are thriving while they do whatever it is. Tsh Oxenreider gives us an epic vision of alternative parenting in which kids can be At Home in the World.
The Oxenreiders decided to take off and travel the world for nine months, an entire school year. At the time, their kids were 9, 6, and 4. One of them is on the autism spectrum. If you can think of a more compelling case for the contention that “if they can do it, anyone can,” I’d love to hear about it! While this poetic travelogue includes plenty of gory details about the kids complaining, leaving their stuff behind on like every possible mode of transportation, and inconveniently barfing, overall it seems nearly as manageable as any local road trip. Kids adjust. That was the point of the trip: to teach the kids about the world. The earlier they could learn to travel and adapt to changing circumstances, the more interesting their lives would be.
How did they do it? They SOLD THEIR HOUSE and put their stuff in a storage locker. During this round-the-world trip, the Oxenreiders were technically homeless, which was sort of the point. They had to try to find internet in some pretty obscure places in order to run their business affairs. They home-schooled the kids, who had to try to do their homework anywhere and everywhere. They stayed on a strict budget, often staying with internet friends. They walked a lot and ate as frugally as they could manage. There is enough budget detail here to make it plausible that families of limited means could still pull off a feat like this. The technical details are present, yet not the main focus of the story.
A memorable detail for me was the story of the Westbrook Effect. A family demonstrates intense hospitality to the Oxenreiders, picking them up from the airport and rolling out the red carpet for them in every way they can. The Oxenreiders are overwhelmed, protesting that they shouldn’t go to so much trouble. They explain that they are paying forward hospitality they themselves received, and that after experiencing the Westbrook Effect, they determined to do it themselves whenever they had guests. This is an idea that deserves to be spread, and it’s a fine argument in itself for reading At Home in the World.
Oxenreider writes beautifully. Her glory is in the fine, quotidian details of what makes each city unique. There is a stillness in the flurry. Reading her accounts of the homes where her family roosts so briefly makes it feel impossible not to travel, not to throw caution to the winds and book the tickets tomorrow. At Home in the World is a meditation on how to balance a sense of home with an unquenchable wanderlust. As such, it has much to offer both homebodies and inveterate wanderers.
Coming home from a vacation should count as part of the vacation. End on a high note. Coming home late, exhausted, and knowing you have to get up early to go back to work is bad enough. Add the suitcases full of dirty laundry. THEN add the disaster area that was created while you tried to pack. No thank you! Planning in advance prolongs the excitement and anticipation of the trip. Planning meals around using things up can be part of this fun, and it can also help to defray the cost of the trip.
There are two main ways to use up food in advance of a trip. One, just eat the stuff. Two, cook it and put it in the freezer. (You can also ask some friends or roommates if they want it, but chances are that they’ll just wind up throwing it away).
We decide which way to use stuff based on how well it freezes. Once I tried putting a bag of carrots directly into the freezer, and let’s just say that didn’t work out very well! Right before a trip is no time to be experimenting on novel food preservation methods. Let’s just do things that we already know how to do.
Eat it now: Salad greens, leftovers, fresh fruit, anything you can juice
Freeze it: Anything that could go in a soup, pot pie, or stir-fry. Any bread or baked goods.
It took me forever to learn to do this, but I now plan meals over a 3-5 day time period. I buy frozen entrees for more like 1-2 weeks at a time, and canned foods for a few days, but the fresh produce circulates over a much briefer period. There are three reasons for that. Our fridge is small, I have to carry all our groceries over my shoulder while walking half a mile, and, most importantly… there’s no need for me to buy more. They call it a “store” because it “stores” things.
My previous method of shopping involved buying stuff out of curiosity when I didn’t actually know how to cook it, buying stuff I did know how to cook without having a meal plan, buying stuff on sale, and generally feeling like there was a “right amount” of food to buy. The result was more or less chaos. A kitchen full of every possible spice, herb, condiment, shape of pasta, and random item like umeboshi plums or canned chestnuts… but nothing that would actually represent A DINNER. As it turns out, the vast majority of stuff we buy for flavor has few to no calories. That sense of safety and security that comes from stockpiling food is a false sense of security. In crisis conditions, it won’t fuel us for very long. Thus, if we’re saving extra food at the behest of anxiety, we should be making sure that it represents whole meals in the least perishable format possible.
That’s a lesson for a different day.
What we’re focusing on right now is the OPPOSITE of crisis conditions. We’re focusing on being AWAY from home, on NOT having a stockpile of supplies. What we want is to avoid coming home to a bunch of moldy, spoiled food, all of which represents\ both a waste of money and a cleanup hassle.
Once I came home from a trip and I was talking on the phone with the man who is now my husband. Clearly I was not thinking about how long I had been away. (I think it was Thanksgiving weekend). I grabbed a container of soy milk out of the fridge and started to take a swig. Instantly my honey was subjected to a stream of swearing and gagging. The soy milk had gone bad. Approximately a single molecule of it touched my tongue, and I learned that the major function of the taste buds is to protect us against being poisoned. This is some limbic-system, deep survival stuff right here. I was scrubbing my tongue with a toothbrush and gargling with mouthwash. Then I poured out the offending container and everything in it came out in chunks. And that is the story of how I started meal planning before trips away from home.
The steps involved are simple.
Don’t go to the grocery store if you can avoid it. Definitely do not go until after you have taken inventory of the perishables in the fridge.
Try to use up all the perishables. That means “things that go bad.”
If your fridge is empty the day before you leave, great. Just get tacos that night or something.
A lot of typical American households have enough food in the kitchen to last for at least a month. Many frugalites and debt-payoff champions have proven this hypothesis by eating only the food supplies they have on hand until they run out. This can be harder to do when you realize that your stockpile includes three jars of mustard and five separate salad dressings. Also, how does someone wind up with two jars of capers?
One thing I like to do is to make a pot of soup and put it in freezer containers for the night we come home. The soup simmers while we pack our suitcases. Then we don’t have to stress out about what we’re going to eat when we get home, either. We can put off grocery shopping until the next day. We can also splurge on grocery delivery, which we used to do when our grocery store was more than half a mile away.
Travel anxiety is hard. I have found that it really eases my mind to take out the trash before I leave for a trip, and then do a final perimeter check. I can lock the door behind me, carrying the image of my clean and tidy apartment, with clear visuals in my mind that show I haven’t forgotten anything, and we won’t be coming home to a mess. Nothing but fun times ahead!
Ready for a fiesta of gender stereotypes? We’re packing for a trip, and I asked my husband if he would be willing to be my test subject. I’m setting a timer so I can find out how long it takes him to pack. I want to know the secret of how to pack like a man. I’m going to pack my own bag right alongside him. Here we are in the time dimension. Ready? Three, two, one, and GO!
Okay, no, wait. He’s saying something really interesting!
“If it took me half an hour to decide what to take on a trip, it would be crazy! I mean, seriously, I could pack all the clothes in my closet in my big international bag and just check it, and I would have all my clothes. I don’t know if it would necessarily fill all that bag up. What filled it up on the trip to Hamburg was that I was taking my big heavy coat.” - My hubby, spontaneously writing half of this post for me
He’s onto something there. As an aerospace engineer, he’s expected to dress professionally, but not exactly in a fashion-forward, on fleek kind of a way. He used to buy his pants in a stack at Costco, until he figured out that he can get them on Amazon Prime. Likewise, if his shirt collars start to fray, he wanders into the nearest men’s clothing store and comes out with a few replacements. The main considerations are 1. Size and 2. Whether he already has a polo shirt in that color. He maintains a specific number of pants and shirts: 6 pairs of work pants, 3 weekend pants, 5 short-sleeve work shirts, 3 long-sleeve work shirts, and what he describes as a “glut of t-shirts” at 8 total. His “thing” is having a lot of empty space between hangers. Now can you start to see why packing a suitcase is not difficult for him?
I start the timer. He gets out his suitcase, which is stored inside that big international bag he mentioned. He makes neat stacks of his shirts, pants, socks, and undergarments. He puts them in the suitcase. He goes into the bathroom and comes back with his shower kit. “Okay, done.” I pause the timer. 7:33.
SEVEN MINUTES AND THIRTY-THREE SECONDS!
I ask him, “So you’re probably not even going to give that bag another thought until we leave, right?” He nods, and then says, “Well, I’ll probably look in it again the night before and make sure I have everything.”
Okay, halt. That’s the exact opposite of what I do! My method of “making sure I have everything” is to do a complete perimeter check of our apartment, opening and shutting every single cabinet and drawer and looking to see what’s there. Of course I also do that because when we’re going to be away for a while, I want to make sure there aren’t any loose ends or open loops around the place. I’m far more concerned about the state of our home than I am about what’s in my bag. The logic behind that is that I can always get anything I need on a trip, but I can’t do anything about our apartment remotely. (Not yet, anyway). I want to walk in the door on our homecoming and know that all I have to do is unpack.
I start the timer again. While my pet engineer has been packing his suitcase, I have been wandering in and out of the closet, pulling things out, counting, and wandering back in to hang things up. In the time it has taken him to pack his suitcase, I have chosen everything I’m going to wear… but it’s strewn on the bed. Our packing methods are different. Also he was sort of dominating the suitcase-packing station, also known as “our bed.”
I load up my suitcase, zip it up, wander out to the living room to retrieve my sandals, load up the shoe section, get my shower kit, and zip up. Stop the timer. 10:33.
This is the difference between us: I spent 50% more time packing because I was in the Place of Indecision, fussing over what to wear.
Why’s that? Why does it take me longer to decide?
I’m like, the weather forecast predicts temperatures ranging between 50 and 85. He’s like, *SHRUG*
I can’t stand having my bra straps show. Him: Not Applicable
I have more than one color range in my wardrobe. He doesn’t, and that’s by design.
My main secret to packing light is that I plan everything around bringing as few pairs of shoes as possible. I want to spend the majority of my time in sneakers, or at the very least, I want to bring a pair so I can sneak off to run (or at least walk fast). Whatever dressier shoes I’m bringing, I want to keep it to one pair, so it’s either going to be black, brown, or metallic. That tends to minimize wardrobe choices. I have a strong suspicion that many of my sisters in luggage try to bring as many shoe options as possible, so they don’t have to decide.
The irony here is that if you refuse to make decisions at the packing stage, you’re then forced to make them every time you get dressed. On a lot of trips, that’s going to mean one set of decisions in the morning, another in the evening, and possibly a third set in the afternoon. Personally, if I want to play dress-up, I can do it at home without having to lug a huge heavy suitcase everywhere. When I’m traveling, it’s all about the DESTINATION and the EVENTS, not what I’m wearing.
I care about whether I’ll be cold. I care about whether my straps show. I do NOT care what other people think about my outfit. Anyone who is going to judge me by my clothes is going to find a lot more not to like! It’s a highly efficient way of weeding out potential non-friends. Although honestly, I think most people are oblivious to what others are wearing; we’re just trying to look right for our next selfie.
I can actually pack my suitcase in five minutes. I took a video of myself packing the last time I went on a trip. That time, it took me about forty minutes to decide what to wear and get everything ready before I started. I was dressing up more, and there were finicky tasks like picking out earrings. That was a four-day trip, while this is an eight-day trip. I’m thinking that five minutes of decisions and five minutes of packing is pretty good!
Why am I relatively fast at packing? Like my engineer husband, I start with a system. I only buy things that fit me and that fit into my plan. My fitness regimen keeps me in one clothing size, the same as it’s been for the last three years. At least 80% of my wardrobe consists of business casual clothes that I wear almost every day; they’re appropriate for most occasions. I limit myself to six main colors, and any variables in those colors are going to be expendable garments like tank tops, workout gear, or sleep clothes. I don’t keep a single thing that I feel “iffy” about. NO THREES! On a scale of one to five, I’m only going to wear fours and fives. Why would I wear anything other than comfortable, flattering clothes that fit and are easy to wash? I’m not going to play defense lawyer for garments that don’t do anything for me.
I’m still putting way more thought into it than the man in my life puts into what he wears. We’ve talked out the option of my simply getting the same haircut he has, and mimicking his wardrobe, but we both rejected that plan. I’m still 50% higher maintenance, by mutual agreement. Still, ten minutes to pack a suitcase is pretty good… she looks around and whispers… “for a girl.”
This is for all the people who get worked into a tizzy when it's time to pack.
That used to be me. I get so starry-eyed about traveling anywhere, including a run to the town dump, that my first impulse is to start running around and trying to get ready. In my mind, my packing list includes every single item I own, subtracting only the things that won't fit, like my bed and my stove. Stuff I have hanging around that I never use suddenly seems to be a prime candidate for cramming into my suitcase.
Dumb things I have packed on multiple trips even though I never, ever used them: plus-size Super Scrabble board; buckwheat travel pillow that I finally realized I hate; eye mask that always winds up turning into a headband; luggage theft siren; hardcover travel journal I never wrote in; entire cookbooks; money belt; phrase books; luggage locks. There's something so bewitching about travel doodads and travel gadgets. It's almost as bad as the kitchen widgets aisle.
The more experienced a traveler I become, the more I realize that you really just need yourself, enough ID to get through customs, enough clothing to not die of exposure or violate local sumptuary laws, and enough money or credit to get yourself from here to there, and possibly to get out of trouble. I think it's possible to go anywhere with just the clothes on your back, your phone, your passport, and a credit card (hopefully one with travel rewards). In a few years, you won't even need the passport OR the credit card; you'll just walk through various doorways, and you won't even need to blink or wave your hand.
Ah, but we live in the now-future, not the then-future. In the now, we still need a certain amount of STUFF. We still WANT a certain amount of ADDITIONAL stuff, for comfort and for emotional security and to quiet the demands of the anxiety-gnomes that live in our bellies.
I'm going on a trip, arriving past bedtime Friday night and getting home at dinnertime Monday evening. That's three nights, two event days, and two travel days. In the world of logic, this implies pajamas, toiletries, and three changes of clothes. Even a tiny child can count to three outfits. They may not match, but even a child can put together three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, and three sets of tops and bottoms. Why is this so much harder for adults?
It's hard because when we feel anxiety, we pay attention to it. We listen to the anxiety-gnomes. We let the anxiety-gnomes start making the rules. Every single weird idea that pops into our heads, fed to us by these mischievous creatures, suddenly seems brilliant. The later at night or the closer to departure time, the more compelling these anxious thoughts will be.
The visceral cord is pulled at midnight. "HEY! You know what would be the best idea? Find 18 more things to put into that suitcase that you already had to sit on to zip shut!"
The sooner I start packing, the more stuff suddenly acquires a magical, numinous glow, practically demanding that I bring it with me. I won't just cram it into my suitcase; I'll cradle it in front of me, like a capybara I've dressed in a cunning little outfit. Look at all my extra shirts! Look at all my extra jewelry! Look at all my extra shoes! I have packed multiple backup redundancies, but they are the best ones!
WHAT IF I get invited to a totally unexpected social occasion at the last minute?
WHAT IF I change my mind and want to wear something I didn't bring?
WHAT IF the weather is completely different from the forecast?
All right, what if? What happens to you when these things pop up at home? You HANDLE IT. You DEAL WITH IT. You GET THROUGH IT SOMEHOW. Or, nobody even notices and it's totally not a problem and you can't believe you went through such a big fuss.
The reason I can pack lightly with little to no packing anxiety is that it's the confluence of multiple systems, created carefully by me for this precise reason. I live lightly with few possessions because I desire to remain mobile. I want to be flexible enough that I can do those last-minute social occasions. I want to have enough grit to deal with emotional challenges. I want to be decisive enough that minor kerfuffles don't distract me.
Big stuff: critical, urgent, emergency. These things tend to involve first responders. My job in these situations is to avoid being the cause of the emergency, help if I can, and stay the heck out of the way if I can't. Nothing of this caliber has ever happened to me or any of my companions on a trip.
Medium stuff: My brother constantly seems to sprain his ankle when we go on vacation, and then he stubbornly limps around on it. This is concerning but not trip-canceling.
Minor stuff: I once got billed over $400 for a casual meal for three, and it took 20 minutes to straighten out. Annoying, but not even worth Facebooking.
Beneath notice: Minor stains and clothing repairs; being put on hold; having to change rooms; long waits in restaurants; loud neighbors; socks don't match; run out of shampoo; etc. etc. etc.
Back to the systems. I have a capsule wardrobe. This means that I only own clothing that fits today, that I like wearing, that I wear often enough that I know exactly how functional it is. Almost all of it is washer- and dryer-safe. Everything I own has to go with at least three other things in my wardrobe. I basically wear six colors (black, gray, navy, white, red, and purple). I can fit an entire seasonal wardrobe in my larger suitcase. Packing clothes is easy for me because I'm just bringing stuff I wear at home.
Also, I don't really care what other people think about what I'm wearing. If you don't like how I look, I'm sure you'll get over it eventually.
Other systems that I have in place undoubtedly include a few I don't recognize as systems. I plan my wardrobe before I go to the store. I have a chore rotation, so my laundry is always caught up and my apartment is clean, one room per weekday. I have a grocery system, so there's always something in the kitchen that I can eat on my trip. I have a cash flow system, so almost all of my travel is paid for by reward points, and I can afford to pay for the occasional travel snafu. I have a fitness and nutrition system, which is why I've remained in the same clothing size for the past three years, and I don't have to maintain a buffer of larger and smaller clothing sizes. I have a sleeping system, so I can handle occasionally waking up at 4 AM to make a cheaper flight. I have a system for getting ready, so I know I need 40 minutes. For all the anxiety that we feel when it's time to pack, there are equal portions to feel for scheduling, money, meals, getting the house ready, and generally feeling like we can handle a greater load on our mental bandwidth.
Anxiety is cumulative. Every system we put into place creates a thread of reliability, something that can ease a fevered brain when it's time to sleep. Organizing our thoughts also organizes our emotions. Knowing what we want helps us to make firm decisions, and those decisions help us to focus on experiences and logistics rather than equipment. We can call those nervous feelings by name, bringing them forth from the shadows, and get down to the business of simply packing one outfit per day. We can remember that we're traveling for a purpose, and keep our attention on that purpose and nothing more.
I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
Airline incidents are the trend du jour. Now that almost everyone has a cell phone camera, all of this stuff is going to be documented and posted online almost instantaneously. Just as soon as it's started, the backlash will begin. Disputes will be disputed. These incidents are part of our larger cultural conversation (debate? battle?) over the boundaries around customer service and appropriate public behavior. This latest debacle over a birthday cake in the overhead bin is simply one example.
The story as it stood at time of writing was that a family brought a birthday cake on board their flight. Then they had an altercation with the flight crew, details under argument. The entire planeload of passengers was forced to disembark and reboard, and the family with the cake was rebooked on a different flight.
Right here is where I step in. I started flying alone when I was seven years old, and I've lost count of how many times I've flown in the 35 years since. Many of those flights have involved a box or zip-lock bag full of Voodoo Donuts. Have you ever tried to bring a frosted or glazed pastry onto a plane? Do you know what happens? The frosting melts all over the darn place. I don't know whether it's the heat, the humidity, the pressure, the oxygen mix, the altitude, or what. Now, when we're talking donuts, I don't particularly care how cosmetic they are when I land. They're going into my freezer, where I will eat them in little half-teaspoon smears if I have to. I haven't had much luck with sandwiches or other foods I've packed for myself, either. Airplane cabins are not great places for the culinary arts.
A birthday cake, though? I mean... they're so... fragile. Special occasion and all. I'm having trouble even imagining how an intact cake made it to the airport in the first place, much less down the gangplank, much less into an overhead bin. File under: ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN. I don't recall a cake-smashing scene in the movie Airplane, but if they do a remake, there should be. It writes itself. Plane hits turbulence, luggage starts smashing into the locks of the overhead bins, suitcases fly out, cake lands on someone. Someone stands up to get their medication out of their carry-on, accidentally shoves their entire hand into the cake instead. Flight attendant tired of someone's attitude grabs cake and smears it all over them.
Now I totally want to see this movie: Cakes on a Plane. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as the cake.
Let's dive a little deeper. What happened? I watched the video provided by the family of the disputed cake. Telegenic as they are, I have questions. Anyone who has worked in customer service would have questions.
Supposedly there wasn't an issue with bringing a cake on the flight; the passengers put it in a bin reserved for safety equipment. The problems began when anything other than "Yes, sir or madam, I will certainly remove this cake and put it under my seat immediately, my mistake, so sorry for the inconvenience" came out of anyone's mouth. It's completely, totally implausible that rapid compliance would lead to the expensive and extreme choice by the flight crew to summon police and reboard the entire flight. How does this make any sense? What employee would arbitrarily bring that amount of paperwork on themselves? Why would other crew members back them up, rather than trying to mediate? Something just doesn't add up.
Flying is cheap and easy now, despite the trauma of TSA screening. Nobody has died on an American-certified flight since 2009, with the exception of a pilot who died during landing back in March. Did you catch that? Flying is so routine now that a plane landed safely even when one of the pilots became deathly ill during the landing. Flying has started to feel a lot like riding a bus - a bus with waiters. As a result, we tend to forget that flight attendants are highly trained safety professionals. A flight attendant bringing you a drink is roughly equivalent to Steven Seagal as the chef in Under Siege.
We have to listen to them.
We have to listen to flight attendants, not just because it's the law, but because it's their job to maintain the safety of every person on the flight, including themselves. They have training that we don't. Their training includes what is safe to stow where, and what kind of racket distracts the pilots, and other technical reasons why certain behaviors and activities are a bad idea in flight. We're supposed to put our tray tables up so we don't get impaled, and also so access isn't blocked if the plane has to be evacuated. We're supposed to stow all our extra junk so it doesn't go airborne during an emergency. Imagine 150 books, laptops, and briefcases flying through the air and then smacking everyone in the face at high speed. This stuff is serious. Flying is so safe today because the aviation industry has recorded, analyzed, and learned from previous disasters and fatalities.
They have their reasons.
The other reason we have to listen to flight attendants is that they have the power. When any kind of significant altercation or fight happens, the flight is likely to be delayed or canceled. That means that any disruptive passenger, right or wrong, now holds the power to ruin the travel arrangements of every single other passenger. YOU want to stow your cake in a choice spot, which may seem perfectly reasonable, until the result is that ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE PEOPLE on the plane with you now have to rearrange their whole life. It better be worth it, is all I'm saying.
What kind of situation merits the disruption of 185 fellow passengers? I'm going to go with: true emergencies. Nothing less. I'm never going to blame someone for having a major health crisis on a flight, unless of course they knew full well that they suffered a health condition likely to go into crisis mode while airborne. As an example, I was on a flight once that was delayed because a passenger had a condition that resulted in uncontrollable bursts of screaming. So, so not kidding. She was in the middle of the plane, while I was sitting near the front, and I was able to overhear the conversation of the flight crew (as well as the occasional shrieks from the passenger). There is no way this would not have been distracting to the pilots. One of the flight attendants said she was unwilling to enter a situation in which the flight would have to be diverted and grounded at an alternate airport, like a previous flight she had crewed. They agreed together that the screaming woman would have to disembark before takeoff. The woman apologetically cooperated, and the rest of us went on our merry way, half an hour behind schedule. I wish her well.
If someone with an 'uncontrollable screaming' problem can be that cooperative, why can't the rest of us?
Not everyone should travel via airplane. This excludes the category of medevac, obviously. Flying is stressful in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, pastry-ly. Not everyone is up to it. Not every situation is appropriate for a flight. A German flight attendant once made me put away the nice red cabbage I was eating because it was "stinky." (Blush) Just because an airline employee embarrasses us, annoys us, hurts our feelings, or disappoints our expectations does not mean we are in the right. We should probably try to think of air travel as more like space travel than like ordering drinks at Starbucks.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.