Minimalist Travel With Joan Didion

I love to travel. Everything about travel makes me happy, even airports (TSA not so much) aren’t so bad because they all hold the job of presenting the first look at their town. While it is rarely a glorious presentation, rather the rough around the edges in fact, as if to say, “This is a little of us, but it’s the airport so we’re kinda the dogs who’ve been kicked away, but loyal to you when you arrive because that’s all we know how to do.” Austin, Texas has musicians playing in the airport. JFK just never seems to ends and is a poster cacophony to the joys of The Empire State. Charlotte, North Carolina has her high back chairs inviting you to sit a bit through a layover. Portland, Oregon still keeps a bit of old carpet, but all the new is reaching out to welcome you.

Then there is the actual travel of travel. I love getting a seat toward the back of the plane- but not over the wing- so I can watch the ground crew prep our metal bird for the stretch across the sky. I’ve always loved it, but after spending time as ground crew in the Navy, it brings a whole new joy and connection. I know the feel of the metal under gloves as panels are opened and closed. The fuel nozzle being locked into place. The static through headphones during the simple exchange between ground crew and pilot to check the flaps, slats, rudder and other essentials. Then the greatest part happens. The place is pushed away from the terminal and begins to taxi. Soon, it will be taking off, there is the thundering rolls of wheels speeding against tarmac until enough air pressure builds that the split second explodes and the plane slips its surly bonds of gravity. That is pure joy.

In planning for a trip, there’s a great deal of not planning that makes travel so necessary for my well being. A place is chosen or assigned and I explore it a little bit online, but ultimately I like to go in not knowing a whole lot of the present day. I’ll research history and perhaps some regional politics, but I seek the visceral surprise of the real place presented to fresh senses. I need to explore and uncover without a filter of google search or expectations. I want to find out where conversations will take me and how people will answer questions about how to see their city. What will jump out and what will fade away?

The one thing I used to hate about travel: packing. I am a minimalist, so packing should have been easy, but it was always stressful. I wanted to take as little as possible, yet be prepared for any opportunity that might cross my path. Then, a few years ago I discovered Joan Didion’s essays- yes, I was late to the game. In the volume White Album she wrote about how she traveled- more precisely how she packed- during her busiest years as a journalist in the 70s. Amongst the pages of this amazing tribute to the culture and societal upheaval of those changing times, she included her packing list. If you haven’t read it, I implore you to go and find this book- enjoy it. Savor it. See these United States of those years through her eyes. So much is different, yet so much remains the same. But in between all those important stories, consider taking a cue from her packing list. Her additional commentary is fantastic, but here’s the basic list:

To Pack and Wear:

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes

Bag with:

toothbrush and paste
Basis soap
face cream
baby oil

To Carry:

mohair throw
2 legal pads
house key

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