Everything but the Kitchen Sink

knygnešys n. (Lithuanian) Lit. “book carrier”; These book carriers saved the Lithuanian language by transporting illegal books printed out of Prussia during the time in which the Russian Czar restricted press liberties in Lithuania.

If there is one single constant theme in every single one of my posts, it’s my pack.  Good old Nellie, the companion that had stood by me through very trail and tribulation, had stayed by my side through every sad goodbye, and has put up with me through all the cursing, jostling, stowing beneath buses, you name it.  Nellie has been there.  Okay, before you accuse of being crazy, yes I am aware that Nellie is an inanimate object, but when inanimate objects are really the only constants in your life, you can’t help but get attached to them.  I have a sudden empathetic appreciation of Tom Hanks now.  Hopefully she won’t get stolen from the bottom of some bus between now and the end of my travels with me helplessly looking through he bus window yelling, “Nellie!”  Bad joke.  But because she has become such a presence on this journey, I feel the need to say a little bit about what exactly it is that I have carried these thousands of miles across Europe.

To any traveler, packing a matter of utmost importance and for a long time, I sucked at it.  As a kid, I would bring three duffle bags just to go stay at my grandparents’ house for the weekend (and of course come back with double that amount).  Thankfully, I got better over the years.  Going to college across the country and suddenly having to pay real adult monthly rental fees for a storage unit can break a person of that pretty quick.  It helps that I’ve recently become a bit obsessed with the prospect of living a minimalist, non-materialist existence.  For the most part, I avoid buying more stuff because I simply don’t need it.

As a backpacker (and one who wants to do long distance lightweight hiking), this minimalist existence becomes even more important.  Yet our packs are never as light as we would like them to be.  It’s a paradox, a catch 22.  You lighten your pack, you leave out something you’ll surely want., and even then, it could always be lighter.  You start counting ounces instead of pounds because every little bit helps.  Finishing a bottle of shampoo or using up some food you have stashed away in your pack feels like a huge accomplishment because it means you won’t have to carry it any more.  But still, getting a backpack under a certain weight is like trying to keep your email inbox empty.  You can try for all you’re worth and somehow it will accumulate things and stay heavy.  No matter how heavy the pack ends up being, you learn the easiest and most efficient way to hoist it on your back.  For me, it’s to set the pack up on a slightly elevated surface, crouch down and put my arms through the holes, then merely stand up, taking the pack with me.  Trust me, that’s a lot less awkward than when I began.  And don’t even get me started on the struggle it was to help my mom get her pack on every time.

So, the details.  Nellie is a rusty orange North Face MG45, meaning she holds 45 litres, which is actually smaller than most backpackers carry.  I, however, manage to give new meaning to the phrase, “10 pounds of shit in a 5 five pound bag”.  On her silver sides, are strapped my solo three-season backpacking tent (which I have yet to have the opportunity to actually use) and my lime green Marmot 850° down sleeping bag.  Aside from my laptop, that is probably the single most expensive thing I carry.  On the front straps, hangs my bright purple ukulele case and the matching instrument inside.  I top off the brilliant color combination with my bright blue rain jacket lopped through the straps as an easy place to carry it.  Finally, hooked from an orange carabineer on the front straps is a broken water bottle from my mom that loses more and more of the lid each time I drop it.  Soon, it will have no lid left at all.  Inside the pack, you’ll find the following:

  • Collection of tickets and maps from all the places I have been
  • Stack of scraps of paper, some blank for me to jot notes down on, and some filled with random writings and scribblings
  • Birthday card from my friend Chris
  • Working draft of an academic paper I am trying to publish on the dialectic of the father figure in pan’s Labyrinth-  I keep telling myself I’m going to work on it and yet the paper remained stuffed into the inside most inaccessible pocket in my pack.
  • Paperwork proving I was an Oxford student- I originally needed this as proof of my reason to be in England so I could get a Visa and I needed it last time I traveled so I could get back in the country after.  I guess I brought it out of habit.  That or I hadn’t really accepted the fact that I would not be going back to Oxford when I packed my stuff.
  • Smiley face button
  • Tent footprint- It’s basically just a small tarp you put beneath your tent to keep rocks and branches from tearing holes in it.
  • Bosnian leather wallet- Filled with coins of many currencies, some US money waiting for me to go back home, credit cards, IDs, insurance cards, my passport, spare memory cards for my camera, and a host of random receipts for when I actually delude myself into thinking I’ll be financially responsible and reconcile my purchases.
  • Pillowcase- You just never know with hostels.
  • Heavy duty climbing carabineer- Not actually sure why I have that.
  • 2 pairs of cargo shorts
  • 1 pair of spandex shorts
  • 1 pair of running shorts- Wishing I had more of these though.
  • 1 pair of denim shorts
  • I pair of jeans
  • 2 pairs of black capri leggings
  • 1 leather belt- Literally only useful for the jeans but necessary nonetheless.
  • 2 dresses- 1 a nice floral dress on the chance I need to dress up and 1 a plain black jersey knit dress
  • 1 romper
  • 1 long sleeve pajama shirt
  • 1 Oxford boat club t-shirt
  • 1 semi-dressy sea glass blue tank top
  • 4 camis- 3 of them black and 1 navy blue one just to mix things up
  • 4 loose fit tank tops
  • 3 plain t-shirts
  • 1 pair of (once black) Toms shoes
  • 2 cardigans
  • 2 light button up shirts
  • 3 jumpers- 1 of which being my St. Anne’s hoodie.
  • 1 Tupperware dish
  • 1 canister of hot chili powder- The secret to all my sophisticated backpacking recipes (ie- how to make shitty cheap food taste just a little bit less shitty)
  • 1 swimming suit
  • 1 black bandana
  • Assorted rocks from all the cities I have visited, with the appropriate name of their origin written on them.
  • Bag filled with undergarments- Assorted black socks, assorted black underwear, black nylons, a regular black bra, and a black sports bra (black is a fail safe option for undergarments when traveling).
  • Bag of dried lavender from Croatia- To make my clothes smell nice.  That’s a proper substitute for not being able to do laundry very often, right>
  • Large gallon Ziploc bag filled with toiletries- Including make-up (for no reason since I literally haven’t worn any since I left England), spare contacts and solution, earplugs, Benadryl anti-itch stick, laundry detergent tablets, throat lozenges, Neosporin, band aids, and athletic tape (my definition of a first aid kit), fine toothed comb, scissors, lighter, cold cream (for that makeup I never wear), a bottle of assorted pills (Advil, iron supplements, and allergy mediation), floss, toothbrush, toothpaste, my retainer (because I’m a god girl who still wears her retainer at night), allergy eye drops, q-tips, nail clippers, tweezers, razor, shampoo, spoon, chapstick, deodorant, and a small tin of perfume oil (for when the deodorant isn’t enough).
  • Hairbrush
  • Glasses and their case
  • Sunglasses- I started with two pair because I usually either lose or break one and sure enough, now I’m down to one.
  • Smaller Ziploc bag filled with pads and tampons- Sorry guys but that’s a fact of life.
  • 4 pens/markers- This number keeps steadily dwindling.
  • 1 hair clip- For I’m too lazy to even use a pony.
  • 1 pad of sticky notes
  • ½ of a towel- You really don’t need the full towel and they take up so much space in a pack.
  • 1 canvas bag for dirty laundry- Though mostly just socks and underwear because let’s be honest, my whole pack becomes a bag for dirty laundry more often than not.
  • 1 Crown Royal bag of electronic accessories- This includes my cell phone (which I haven’t turned on since January when I left the States and its charger, a timer remote for my camera and AAA batteries to run it, an iPod/iPad charger, a memory card reader for my iPad, a USB drive, a European charge converter (I used to have 2 of these but I recently left one at a hostel on accident), and my camera charger with an extra battery.
  • Tobacco pipe and some seriously old tobacco that I’ve had since my 18th birthday since I only smoke it on rare occasion
  • Laptop charger- Which is actually really big and bulky.
  • Mini mace sprayer- My mom got me this before I went to school in Philly.  I’ve never had to use it, but I guess you can’t be too careful. It would probably do me more good though if I took it in my bag with me during the days rather than leaving it sitting buried in my pack.
  • 2 bags of green tea- I steal these from hostels whenever I find them because usually the tea provided is gross low quality black tea.
  • Lanyard
  • Small huckleberry mint tin that works perfectly as a jewelry holder- Inside is a variety of silver rings and earrings (though I rarely ever take out my double studs) and a pearl necklace my mother got me (since I wear my grandpa’s ashes at all times, I really only brought the pearls backpacking so that I have them when I get back to Philly).
  • 1 pair of flip flops
  • 1 pair of Velcro sport sandals
  • 1 pair of well-worn Karimore hiking boots- These are never actually in my pack.  They’re either on my feet or under the bed of my hostel.

With all that, I don’t have enough room for my electronic possessions (Macbook laptop, iPad, iPod, kindle, and Canon Rebel T3i DSLR camera) and since I usually prefer to keep those with me anyway, they live in a vintage canvas army medic shoulder bag that is now ripping apart at the seams.  Sometimes, this single thing is what tips my load from bearable to miserable when walking to and from hostels and bus stations.  The pack alone wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have another heavy thing digging into the muscle tissue of only one shoulder, hitting me in the leg with every step.

So when you list it all out, it looks like an awful lot to carry on your back, and sometimes it really seems like that.  Sometimes I find myself thinking, “I don’t need all this shit!  It’s all so heavy.  I can do without this fairly important thing, right?”  But sure enough, there is also always something you are missing, something you wish you had.  As much as you can put in your pack, you’ll never get everything just right.  Packing isn’t a science.  It’s an art and art is subjective.  My list of necessary backpacking items is different from some someone else’s.  And also like art, you can never perfectly recreate or reproduce it.  Every single time I pack, it ends up different.  I usually try to load my pack based on what I think I’ll be wearing and using at my next destination, that way I don’t have to dig down to the bottom, but sure enough, I’ll change my mind and end up uprooting everything anyway.  And because of those differences, sometimes I end up with a gaping hole of space at the top of my pack that instantly sets me into “what did I forget” paranoia mode and other times, it’s a battle to get the pack to hook shut. 

But that’s the secret to packing… There is no secret.  Packing is hard and packing sucks no matter what.  You’ll always have something unnecessary and be lacking something else.  The trick is just minimizing that and accepting it for what it is.  And as much as you hate your pack every time you have to lift it, you also grow to love it for always having your back…literally.