What happened

On September 1st of this year, Maggie and I set out in my Subaru Forester (chosen over her Impreza because of the Forester’s huge sun roof) on a month-long trip across the country.

We had a cooler, some clothes, some camping gear, and some just-in-case items for the car. We’d been packing our bags for a few weeks, putting things in as we thought about them, and then finally emptying the bags the night before, scrutinizing every item and asking “do I really need or want this?” before either re-adding it to the bags or setting it aside. After everything was in the car, we stepped back to admire. Our stuff took up the entire back with the seats down and was level with the rear window. We had the whole rearview mirror. Excellent. Maybe too much, but excellent.

During that month, we woke up to sunrises that make you want to run naked and forget civilization. We met people so kind that you forget why you were ever suspicious of anyone ever. We stayed in a haunted hotel in Colorado and caught the perfect weather and the perfect week of golden quaking aspens or the perfect window between full campsites and cold weather in parks and other places. We ate and we drank and we laughed out loud in the wilderness and in the cities and remembered that we were born free, looking down to remember that easily forgettable truth that there are no shackles on our wrists and that it’s the lies of your shoulds that hold you in place. We spent an entire month, together 24/7, and didn’t get tired of each other ever and only briefly bickered when we were exhausted or I was having a nic fit brought on by another noble but failed attempt to quit smoking cigarettes. We had no expectations and no firm plans, but just followed our feet where they wanted to go and kept on saying “I’m just happy to be here”. It was better than it even should have been.

But this post isn’t about that.

A month later, Maggie flew back home from Vegas to go back to work. I continued on, planning to be back before Thanksgiving.

All told, I ended up being on the road for eleven weeks. I stayed with friends here and there and had access to kitchens, beds, central heat, and refrigerators at points along the way. These things were nice, but nicer still was having a safe place to rest my head and a good person to share a meal with.

Sometimes solitude was preferable. When you go out to hike in the desert alone, you learn pretty quickly to get your pack down to essentials. Water (more than you think you need), your keys, sunglasses, a hat, a knife, some food, an emergency blanket, a whistle, a basic first aid kit, a map, a compass, a long sleeve shirt, a book if you’re feeling bourgeoisie, and another bottle of water. At first, you feel insecure. Then, you feel liberated. It’s too hot to carry any more. By weight, I’ll use over three-quarters of what’s in this pack and the rest is there to increase the margins of survival if shit goes utterly haywire. That stuff you left behind in your car- you know, the reason you brought your keys with you?- you don’t need it right now. You might need some of it later for other settings (cold weather clothes, a tent, etc) and some of it might be difficult to replace, but you don’t need it right now and carrying it would be insanity. So you don’t bring it with you. An hour, a day, or two days later, you get back to your portable storage unit, reload on water and food, top off the gas tank, and carry on lighter than you’d arrived.

The day we left Boston, I had four pair of underwear, four pair of socks, four t-shirts. four long-sleeve shirts, a pair of cargo shorts, a bathing suit, khaki BDU pants, a hoodie, a baseball cap, a thicker winter jacket, a pair of black canvas All Stars, a pair of beat up Merrell Chameleons, a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, and a pair of too-big-for-me jeans that I eventually ditched. Along the way, I picked up two more pair of wool hiking socks in Colorado, a Stetson hat in Utah, a pair of skinny jeans in Minneapolis, and a pair of bootcut Levi 527s and some sweet cowboy boots in South Dakota. That was it for clothes.

I fear my list-making bored you, but I’m risking it because I was surprised at how easy it was to live with that little. I didn’t have much variety, but I didn’t care. I remembered that even at home I wear the same few things 90% of the time anyway. Variety was a luxury that would have cost too much, and variety simply wasn’t worth carrying around. It was the same with food: I found that I put a high priority on the few things I really craved and, with some exception, kept just enough to get me through the next few days.

It was an iterative process, but I was living minimally.

Sure, I bought some things I didn’t need and carted some stuff around that I’d realized I wasn’t going to use (do I even want three knives?)… but it got me thinking. Somewhere in West Texas, I realized something had happened to me on this trip. Actually, some things had happened, but I refer to something very particular here.

I realized that I wasn’t my stuff.

It’s not like I didn’t already know that. I’m a smart guy whose identity was built around being smart. But there is a difference between cognating that difference and actually experiencing it, between knowing it and living it.

I really only needed a few things to be happy. No part of me would die if I didn’t have the rest. And if I did abandon the rest when I got back home… Would I be reborn?

At the very least, I knew that I was carrying too much in my life. Some of it I might need later for other circumstances and some of it might be difficult to replace later if I changed my mind, but since I had never really asked the questions I didn’t know the answers. It was something I’d have to figure out case-by-case once I got back to Boston. All I knew was that I was tired from carrying things I didn’t need, and that to continue carrying them… well, it would be insanity.

5 Comments on “What happened”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice, Joe. Yet another way for me to enjoy your journey. Long may you run…..

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well written, and well-related after my own extended travels. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Charlie says:

    “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

    I found this in my literal wondering thought it appropriate to your trip. Everyone’s trip really.

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