On the Road

A Backpack Stained With Blood, Sweat and Tears

A traveler’s best friend?

When I first hit the road in 2007 my mum bought me a backpack. It was an unassuming little bag: utterly generic in appearance, with no special features to set it apart from any other. It was cheap and over the years it has begun to fall apart, and nowadays one would be forgiven for thinking it is perhaps closer to ten years old.

The shoulder straps don’t quite sit right, and even when adjusted become uneven in an hour. One strap is so worn the frayed fabric looks like a tarantula crawling over my back. Nonetheless, my little beat-up backpack has clung to my back through adventures in thirteen different countries.

A couple of years ago I bought a new backpack. This one cost $200 and could hold more than a week’s worth of clothes. It was designed to distribute weight efficiently, and to allow airflow to one’s back. It was waterproof, lightweight and probably bulletproof. It’s hard to imagine a bag doing more without doubling as a jetpack.

However, I’ll be ditching the $200 bag this week. It was a great bag, but things just didn’t work out between us. I wish it all the best in its future endeavours.

Travellers all seem to have something they carry with them. I had a friend who wore a bandana everywhere he went. It looked stupid and he never washed it, but he had good luck on his journeys, so he kept it. Another friend had a silver half-dollar with Kennedy’s face on it. I gave it to her as a gift and she still carries it to this day, claiming it’s not a lucky charm as much as a habit.

I’ve had a World War II trenchcoat I carried to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and along the Great Wall, a pair of sunglasses I stole from a poundstore and took to eight different countries, and a pair of flip-flops that have only barely allowed me to escape numerous muggers, hobos and cops around the world. These items meant a lot to me, and I developed an odd, protective relationship with each of them.

Nothing, though, compares to my backpack. It has been through so damn much with me that it feels like a part of my body when I wear it. Despite its tears and stains and the creaking sound it makes after only three and a half years, I love it too much to leave it.

It has been sliced open by US customs three times, and intimately searched in more than five countries. It lay silently by my feet as my flight from Japan plummeted and the pilot told us we might die. I clung tightly to it when my bus crashed on the edge of a cliff in the Philippines, and screamed into it in frustration when my train broke down in the middle of Pennsylvania. It has served as a pillow in airports, train stations, bus stations and on park benches the world over.

I’ve relied upon its protection as a barrier between the tarmac and my spine on at least two occasions. I have wrestled it from the hands of would-be thieves in the darkest corners of the worst cities. It fell into a river in California when I thought I saw a bear, and has been dropped in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans without complaint. I clutched it during those last rocky months in South Korea, always ready to grab it and run. I have woken so many times with no memory, having lost every penny and possession I owned, except my bag and that which it kept safe.

On Friday I will fly around the world and once again start a new life. My mum recently asked me:

“Can I buy you a new backpack?”

“No,” I said. “I couldn’t imagine leaving this one behind.”

She looked at it and justifiably asked, “Why?”

The fabric tells stories I can’t remember. The pockets offer gifts and memories from a past that too frequently escapes me. It is the one possession I own that literally contains my blood, sweat and tears.

David Wills

David Wills is the editor of Beatdom magazine, literary journal devoted to the Beat Generation.