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WHAT BOUNDARIES? LIVE YOUR DREAM!
by Lisa Chavis & Cheryl MacDonald
“He who would travel happily must travel light.”
– St. Exuprey
There are few chunky backpackers.
I made this astute observation while packing for our trip through Europe. Granted, the adventure magazines always show the most beautiful human specimens alongside this year’s top-of-the-line gear. I can’t say I blame them. If I were Kelty or Osprey and I’d spent lots of money developing the bag capable of holding it all, it would be a great disappointment to see it strapped to the back of someone who looked like me. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m morbidly obese or anything close – but I am carrying a few too many Big Macs around my middle. I don’t look anything at all like those svelte backpacker models with hard abs and calves chiseled from stone. Looking in the mirror it’s hard to tell what’s lumpier, the backpack or me.
But backpacking was a sport anyone could do, right? Toss a few things in a pack; pick it up, put the whole thing in the RV and you’re off for a great camping trip. Easy enough.
“What exactly goes in a backpack, anyway?” I asked, trying to read the upside down checklist from the camping magazine my friend Cheryl was reading. Cheryl is the planner for this journey. She draws up the lists and as my traveling companion her job is as important as ensuring we have a corkscrew onboard. You see, I have extreme list phobia.
“The usual stuff. Food – that freeze-dried kind. A flint. Some matches. A sleeping bag. Don’t worry. I’ll make a list.”
“Um. About this backpacking thing. I thought we’d be living in a little more civilized way.” My imagination ran more in the direction of seaside evening dining on the French Riviera or sipping fine wine from a balcony in Tuscany. Were we really planning on eating freeze-dried food? Eww. And what would we do with a flint? “I’m not so sure I’m okay with this.”
“We’re going to be on a budget traveling all over Europe and we have to be ready for anything. It will be better to have something we don’t need than to need something we don’t have.” This prophetic statement spelled H-E-A-V-Y in my mind, but I agreed.
We’d start with the backpack.
So began our sporting goods store visits, one after another, faithfully trying on, snapping clips, snugging buckles, hoisting to our shoulders for a quick romp around the aisles, dodging exercise machines and enduring the eye-watering new rubber smell of bicycle tires.
Once we had the list narrowed down to those with the best fit, were specifically for a woman’s torso, with a pocket for a water bladder (important to carry your water low on your back, the Gear Guide said), and were the right color (very important! I wanted red, Cheryl wanted blue), we were ready to complete our purchases.
Cheryl hit the Internet to find the best deals. Soon she had negotiated free shipping and next day delivery. I called from work to see if “the package” had arrived. I was so excited. On retrospect, I now wonder what on earth I was thinking.
It looked easy in the magazines. Never mind the closest I’d ever come to carrying a rucksack (the “real” travelers’ name for a backpack) for any distance was between classes during my college years, a long time ago. I lived on-campus, so the only things I carried were a notebook, a pen, and a super-sized pack of peanut M&Ms for energy.
In the sporting goods store, the pack I selected seemed fine. Three pounds felt a tad on the heavy side, but I was sure I could adapt. After all, I was going to “backpack across Europe”. It sounded completely cool and adventurous.
“Wow! You’re backpacking through Europe? Amazing!” Looks of pure envy came my way each time I used those words.
In the weeks before the trip, I started to begin every conversation with, “Yes, I’m backpacking across Europe for thirteen weeks.” Likely, some of those looks I perceived as envy were carefully concealed thoughts of: “Is she out of her mind? Is this a mid-life crisis? She’s not as young or fit as those kids in the backpacker magazines. How will she manage?”
Still, in my mind, I was trekking through the mountains of Austria – the Von Trappe family as my guide. My lederhosen fitting snug as a glove and the pack sitting weightless on my shoulders because I’d done the research and found the perfect fit.
The backpacks arrived! We reverently unpacked them, staring in awe at the pretty colors. Special cords and loops were there to hold all manner of things. I wasn’t sure what they were meant to hold (maybe an ice axe and M&M’s?), but I was positive it would be useful to have them, just in case.
“I can see us now,” I mused. “Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in the crystal clear dawn to the applause and accolades of two hundred of our closest friends. It will be a moment we’ll never forget.”
“Lisa, we’re going to Europe. Not Africa. There will be no cameras from National Geographic following us.” Cheryl explained.
I sighed. So my geography was a bit off – as it proved to be more than once on this European journey. A tiny taste of what was in store for us along the way.
Cheryl came up with a great idea. “Let’s fill the packs with towels for bulk and put in a ten pound weight. If we carry them around everywhere for the next few weeks, we’ll be ready when it comes time for the trip.” She’s so smart! I ran off to get my towels and my ten pounds.
Holy cow! This is heavy!, I thought to myself as I hoisted the pack.
“This feels great,” Cheryl chirped as she practically ran around the room with her loaded pack. “I think carrying these will be a breeze.”
I didn’t dare share my concerns to Cheryl. This was only ten pounds and a few towels. We estimated my pack would hold twenty-five pounds and Cheryl’s thirty-five. Maybe I’d got the wrong pack in the mail. This one, even empty, felt much heavier than it had in the store a week ago.
We planned to go on a “prep hike” with the packs. Fill them up with fun stuff – a bottle of wine and a bucket of fried chicken – head out to a popular park, hike out as far as we were able to walk and come back. This would get us ready for the road.
I used up every justification in my well-worn excuse book. “It’s too hot,” “the bugs are really bad today”, “it’s going to rain and we’ll get soaked”; until we ran out of time and our best laid plans to prepare for carrying the packs around Europe were just a memory.
It was getting close now. Just over a week to go. Most of the trip purchases had been bought and stowed. Lists checked and re-checked. Everything was a go and it was time for a dry run.
Having recently become homeless after selling all our worldly possessions, Cheryl and I were staying with friends who were kind enough to let us store our “trip stuff” in their garage. A beautiful Saturday morning held all the promise of the new adventure awaiting us.
We pulled out everything we’d need for the thirteen weeks, sorted and checked it off the list. Shoes…socks…underwear…shirts… Somewhere after shirts and way before pants, I ran out of room in my pack. I shoved, scrunched, and stomped on the sack in a vain attempt to get more inside. It wasn’t happening. All the secret pockets were stuffed until the zippers strained. And I was still looking at a big pile of stuff that absolutely had to go. I was close to panic. I’d pared down my belongings four times. No wiggle room remained for leaving anything out at this point.
The backpack was so deceptive. It looked huge – 3500 cubic inches, the tag read. “This thing should hold my entire wardrobe,” I muttered. Zippers, uncovering secret pouches, were now straining under willful socks and panties. This bag was the opposite of those tiny cars capable of holding hold one hundred clowns – this looked as though it could hold all my stuff and the neighbors with plenty of room to spare. In reality, however, it was full after only a few items. Shaking my head in despair, I went back to the Guide for help.
To remedy the space issue, the Guide recommended buying compression sacks and packable bags designed to squish down to nothing once the air is pushed out of them. These squishy bags were a great help on the trip early on. Put in a pile of clothes, seal it up, and roll until all the air is out. Presto – extra space. This wasn’t quite as wonderful as it sounds. As we used these every day, by the middle of the trip, the seals got leaky. Often times, my backpack would suddenly swell up like a giant Puffer fish, straining the zippers until I could get back in and re-seal everything.
Cheryl graciously offered to carry some of my things, as her pack was bigger. I’d purchased the “woman-torso” specific model to accommodate my lack of height. The smaller size, however, drastically cut down on my available space for stuffing stuff. But Cheryl’s pack was already full. She was carrying the laundry gear and we needed to be sure some room was left over, as it was sure to expand as our pile of dirty clothes grew.
My dilemma grew worse as back in the house I found even more items I deemed absolutely necessary for personal contentment on this trip. Cheryl suggested a small daypack in addition to the large rucksack. This was almost the answer. Only now the daypack loaded with a laptop computer (although a small one), two cameras and their assorted charging devices was almost as heavy as the one I was carrying on my back. I’d run out of appendages to tote things. Disappointment and panic were growing exponentially as the trip drew closer.
Desperate, I went to the Internet for a solution. What did others do who had to take more stuff than their collective packs would hold?
A large duffle was one answer. Put the large rucksack and the daypack together in one duffle, sling the whole thing over one shoulder and off you’d go. Sounded as though it was a good idea to me. Off I went to the sporting goods store (again) and came back with the biggest duffle Columbia produced. It was almost longer than I was tall. Surely this one would hold everything I needed to take, right? Right! It held it all and even had room to spare. I was ecstatic. It would all fit and I wouldn’t have to leave anything important behind. I proudly showed my new purchase to Cheryl; sure she’d be impressed by my ability to solve my problem with such efficiency.
Kindly, but with a slight touch of skepticism, she took a good look at it. “Can you lift it?”
Of course I could lift it. I hadn’t tried to lift it yet, but I was sure I could. If I was able to carry each of the packs individually, together they shouldn’t be a problem.
Uh-huh. My God, it was heavy. And incredibly unwieldy. One pack shifted in one direction, while the other wrapped around my legs as I staggered a few steps toward the door. But I was determined. “I’ll be able to do it,” I said with a confidence borne of desperation.
“Well, you can always give it a try in Seattle and if it works, take the duffle to Europe. But you don’t look comfortable.”
I shot her a glaring look, my face already beet red from trying to hoist the lumbering duffle onto my shoulder and stagger to the door, the bag a mere two inches from the floor.
We’d planned a vacation in Seattle with a friend well before the idea for the European adventure took hold, now this would be an opportunity to test out the solution to my packing woes.
“I’ve got it. I’ll be fine. Just quit looking at me,” I muttered. As soon as I was safely outside the door, I dropped the sack and wondered what I had been thinking. This wasn’t much fun at all.
As I’m sure you’ve figured out, Seattle was a bust as far as my luggage situation was concerned. By the time I got the giant albatross to the baggage check-in in Tampa, I was sweating profusely and swearing I’d never pack anything more than would fit a carry-on bag, no matter how long I would be staying. When I pulled it off of the baggage claim carrousel in Seattle, I hated it. My shoulder had pulled out of its socket with an audible pop and I could barely drag the awful thing across the airport floor.
My traveling companions had mercy on me and suggested we open the duffle, take everything out and share the load among us all. As much as I wanted to be rid of the thing, my pride wouldn’t let me share the load. It was my stuff. My responsibility. But I did agree to open the duffle, pop the big rucksack on my back and hand-carry my daypack. It worked. By the time we were back in Tampa, I’d ditched the duffle. It is now a black, lumpy thing in my friend’s garage, awaiting its next victim.
Now with only five days left until we were officially “on the road” for thirteen weeks, I was out of options. I cut down on my underwear allotment to three pairs, shoes to two pairs, and decided I didn’t really need to read any books. Surely I’d find some place in Europe with a book I could beg or borrow. Tearfully, I put my good camera (too big) in storage and bemoaned the imagery I was already sure I’d be missing.
It was a total stroke of luck. A trick of fate? Divine guidance? The Universe at work? Whatever. I had everything I could possibly fit tightly stuffed in my pack with just two days to go until the wheels of our plane left the ground. I was trying not to think about what I’d be leaving behind. This trip was all about teaching me to let go of material things and this was my biggest test so far.
I was meeting some friends for a goodbye dinner at the mall and happened to walk by the brand new, just opened, still-smells-like-fresh-paint – Dick’s Sporting Goods. I looked around the cavernous room with an awe I’ve only previously experienced in Notre Dame Cathedral. It was as if the enormous tent set up in the middle of the store was put there just as a beacon for me. Drawing me closer. Deep into the camping department. Closer. Until I saw it. It was what I had been destined to find. A super-sized, larger-than-life, gynormous RED backpack. Red, my favorite color. It was a sign.
I picked it up and peered inside, my voice echoing through the deep spaces. Huge spaces. So much room. Now I could bring everything I wanted and I’d still have room to spare. And did I mention, it was red?
The bag wasn’t specially fitted for a woman’s torso. It was meant for someone six foot two inches tall with a lot of crap to carry. I didn’t care. I’d manage to carry it. Somehow.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing” – Helen Keller
There were a thousand reasons why they shouldn’t sell all their possessions and travel the world, but for co-authors Cheryl MacDonald and Lisa Chavis, those eight words were enough to convince them they should. Eighteen months traveling and volunteering around the world gives these two the insight, humor, and particular aptitude to inspire readers to undertake their own journey of discovery.
Lisa Chavis’s publishing credits include Ask Your Pharmacist – A Leading Pharmacist Answers Your Most Frequently Asked Questions (St. Martin’s Press) and The Family Pharmacist (Perigee). Lisa Chavis has media experience as a featured guest on CNN’s Weekend House Call, as well as SMT and National Radio Tour live guest experience. She has been quoted as an expert in Parade magazine, Fitness, and Ladies Home Journal.
Cheryl MacDonald has spoken in motivational clinics and executive development programs for Women Unlimited and Medco Health Services. At the age of forty, she completed her SCUBA Rescue Diver and Dive Master certifications. She is currently writing for the travel industry.