Two Things We All Have in Our Luggage

I must admit that I have, more often than not, been the "I need to bring several options" type of packer. If the airline gave me two free checked bags, I took two. But when Marcus and I were preparing to go sailing in Greece we knew personal space on the yacht would be tight. So, like a pair of backpackers, we whittled down our "must haves" to toiletries, swimsuits, shorts, white linen shirts, shoes, cameras, and a conservative outfit for plane travel and cathedral visits. We combined our final selections into one small, black, duffle bag. Initially, I found traveling like this terrifying but, the truth is, I never missed a thing. We both felt so light and free on that trip, like the whole world had just opened up for us.

Of course, about a week in, the World Trade Center blew up and return flights were canceled indefinitely. (This happened on the day we visited the island of Patmos and the "Cave of the Apocalypse" … but that's a whole other story.) After making phone calls to our loved ones, we managed to find a laundry on one of the islands, which enabled us to get through the two additional weeks without looking overly scruffy. When fights reopened, Lufthansa was kind enough to fly us via Frankfurt back to Denver, where we were promptly detained by a red-faced security officer – hand on his gun, veins popping from his temples – who couldn't fathom that innocent travelers would be entering the country with so few personal possessions. Where were our other bags, he kept asking, over and over again until I was in tears and Marcus, abandoning his attempts to explain, just went limp. In the end, he released us with a stern warning to never "do that" again. 

Since that day, I have come to the conclusion that luggage consists of one of two things and often both: our fears and our addictions. In his book, Vagabonding, Rolf Potts notes that, "Unfortunately, life at home can't prepare you for how little you need on the road." It's funny to think that by going out into the world – where all manner of things could happen to us – we are actually in need of less. But it's true. That's because the best protection we humans have against all that badness ... is actually our wits. Bringing along our fears and addictions only serves to slow us down and cloud our ability to access the rational part of our brains that has thus far ensured our success as a species.

When it comes to fears, we carry them on the airplane with us in the form of scarves and surgical masks to ward off the infected output of coughing passengers seated directly behind us. We also carry on precious cargo—things we don't trust the baggage handlers to, well, handle. Moreover, good scouts that we are, we load up on preparations for the scenarios that scare us most -- from indigestion and bug bites to total loss of identity.

The truth is, planes do get delayed, indigestion happens, and our bags do get lost. A lot. Not as often domestically as internationally but often enough to merit concern. According to the U. S. Department of Transportation, domestic airlines have "mishandled" nearly 1.1 million bags so far this year, an average of 3.86 bags per 1000 passengers. Envoy Air and ExpressJet were the worst (about double the overall average), Virgin America was the best (less than 1 per 1000).

When it comes to addictions, food and beverages are at the top of the list. Modern processed food diets require constant input, as is evidenced by the people cramming oozing sandwiches and limp fries into their mouths in our airport gate seating areas. Worse, are the folks who bless us with the smell of their food by carrying bags full of deep fried ew with them onto the plane. The airline meals and snacks are understandably so mass produced and irradiated that they hardly resemble food by the time they make it to our tray tables. I have to admit, I usually bring along almonds or cashews to get me through the meal I'm missing. 

Other addictions that muck up our carry-on luggage basically come down to boredom. We need to be entertained. Constantly. And while the flight crew does their darndest to spruce up their "in the case of a water emergency …" routine, it's just not enough. So we bring music and movies, books, knitting projects, work folders, neck pillows and stuffed animals, anything that will distract us from the reality of our situation. Oliver Burkeman wrote a great article on this subject that drills down to a possible source of our need for distraction (not being able to "be with ourselves") and maybe an answer to the madness as well (learning to). It's worth a try at some point. In the meantime, all we can do is be realistic about how much distraction we need. 

There's no doubt, we'd all be better off – more comfortable and perhaps more ready to exercise our wits – if we learned to leave more at home. I think the way to do this might be to pack with our fears and addictions in mind. Instead of "What will I need on this trip?" we should ask ourselves "What can I live without?"... "Which of my fears are real and which can I muster the strength to get over, if only for the duration of this trip?"

Do me a favor, though. When paring down your distractions, don't over do it so much that you end up needing to talk a lot on the flight. I do like a quiet plane. Thanks.