Minimally Prepared

Packing for a weeklong reporting trip (Not pictured: the boots and fleece I was wearing)

We were somewhere over Canada, the frozen dark of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia tens of thousands of feet beneath us. The hour was late and the cabin was dim, passengers settled in for the remaining six hours or so. I hacked away at my laptop, listening to a recording of a press briefing.

I didn’t feel the plane turn around, but I felt when the altitude dropped. The motion was quick and deliberate, though not precipitous. Then the PA crackled on. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have to return to Dulles,” said the flight attendant. In a voice too shrill to be reassuring, he added: “This is not an emergency and there’s no need to panic. We just have to go back.”

It was hard to know just what to do then. Instinctively, I closed my laptop. If these were my final moments, I would not be writing about trade policy.

And so the cabin stirred back to life: groans, guesses, wondering what the hell we would all do next. A seatmate across the aisle faced a much larger logistical challenge than my own (I was heading back to Brussels to cover yet another round of US-EU trade talks). He was leading a team of specialists to Sierra Leone to help combat the ebola crisis, and a load of scientific equipment was on another plane, soon to be sitting on the tarmac in Belgium. He had to figure out how to prevent the stuff from being unusable.

We arrived back in Washington a good two hours later and waited as it approached midnight to be loaded onto another plane. It turned out that our abrupt return was spurred by the outer windshield of the cockpit becoming cracked — the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to get worse as you passed over Greenland, I imagine. The only solace I took in the whole affair was that I had made the decision before the trip to pack only one bag, which was on my shoulders. In its 27 liters I had packed my laptop, (sparingly few) dress clothes and everything else I needed for the week. If I decided to take another flight, I could walk away from the gate right there and not worry about my shirts, pants and toothbrush going onward to Belgium without me.

***

“They say the first rule of traveling is packing only what you can carry for a half mile at a dead run.” This is the opening line of Stephanie Elizondo Greist’s Around the Bloc, a travelogue of time spent in Moscow, Beijing and Havana. I remember reading it in 2004 shortly before I moved to South Korea for the first time, smiling at the idea. I thought it reflected a kind of joyful minimalism: everything you need, nothing you don’t. Like Greist, however, I too failed miserably to adhere to that rule. I walked out of arrivals at Incheon International that summer with a load I could barely carry, let alone run with.

I pared down my trip load in the intervening years to two carry-on only bags, even for longer work trips. I took a kind of pride in it, delusionally equating myself with the rucksacking traveler of yesteryear. But I am not a good minimalist, it turns out. My bags were always too heavy, and yet I still often managed to feel like I had left something behind. I sweated in the airport carrying the various notebooks and novels I had shoved in my bag — knowing full well I would ultimately spend my flight zoning out to some B movie — and shivered in poor weather when I realized I had no raincoat.

A couple weeks before my trip to Belgium, I read a post over at The Art of Manliness by David Danzeiser about how he packed for a round-the-world trip. Into a 26 liter pack, he got everything he needed for a six-month trip across a range of climates. I was kind of awed by it. My wife J and I backpacked around China and Southeast Asia together. It was warm weather only, and each of our packs was over 65 liters.

***

When we finally had taken off — the second time — I struck up a conversation with the guy across the aisle. Mike was former EMT who had trained to become a counterterrorism expert in the wake of 9-11, and now was being sent by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to help control the Ebola outbreak — for a second time. He approached it the same way he would have an anthrax attack, a tornado, or an earthquake: control the crisis. I could see how he thought on the fly as he talked through the various options of how to make sure his team and their equipment all got onward to Freetown via Brussels. He could fly to a neighboring country and drive, he said. The condition of the roads, however, was a question.

When I asked him whether it was scary going into the heart of a deadly outbreak, he explained to me his philosophy toward dealing with dangers, known and unknown. “It’s all about being prepared,” he said. Then he turned the questions to me: Did I carry a flashlight when I traveled? How about a whistle? (No and no, and the latter had never occurred to me.) With a whistle, he said, “I can command attention — I can get the attention of this whole airplane.”

I tried to reconcile his idea of preparedness with my ideal of traveling light: everything you need, nothing you don’t. I realized I had been focusing too much on the latter part of that notion, and not enough on the former.

When I was young, my parents worked to dispel any notion I might hold that bad things only happen to other people. They kept an earthquake emergency kit in a vintage icebox in our house, and blankets and provisions in our car. Their mindset stuck with me, but I have always been remiss in preparedness. I never graduated from Weblos to Boy Scouts, and despite my fondness of being outdoors, J and my first camping adventure almost went campfire-less — if it hadn’t been for a friendly guy across the way who brought a hatchet and was willing to chop our wood into kindling-sized pieces.

Partly prompted by my conversation with Mike, when I came back to the States I started scrolling through the website Everyday Carry. It’s a site that has long had a strong following but that I only began dipping into recently. Originally a blog, it now allows users to dump out what they carry and show the world. It may seem odd that the contents of a stranger’s pockets can be so fascinating, but I somehow got hooked, curious to see what it is people feel is necessary for their day.

In an October 2011 interview with Post Desk, site founder Bernard Capulong explained the philosophy behind EDC. “The theme of the blog and the ideas that it tries to promote include preparedness, self-reliance, and efficiency,” Capulong said then. “To be prepared is to have whatever tools you might need every day at your disposal in order to be self-reliant and to be efficient. It can save a lot of time and hassle each day if you’re equipped for what comes your way.”

***

By the time I made it to Brussels, I was exhausted. I made a beeline past the luggage carousels and all the men holding signs with names printed on them, out into the cold and rainy afternoon. The bus into town was sitting there about to leave — the next one wouldn’t come for another half hour. I tightened my backpack’s shoulder straps and ran across the parking lot to catch it. It was nearly full, and I was thankful to be able to squeeze on easily.

For most of the week, I was happy I had pared down. My things felt ready at hand; picking my wardrobe was easy (whichever outfit I didn’t wear the day before). My only regret was when I got sauce on the only tie I had packed. I wiped it off but an obvious smudge remained, glaring back at me in the mirror. I thought about how little space in my bag an extra tie would have taken. Something to carry next time.