Road Trip Diaries Part 2 of 2: Junkies?!
How much junk do we really need?
It is Sunday August 21 and I'm heading from Atlanta, GA to Kansas City, MO. My car’s alternator gave out Friday when I left Miami so I didn’t quite make it to Nashville Saturday. Instead I stopped in Atlanta behind schedule and so frazzled, I didn’t even think to contact my Atlanta peeps on arrival. Instead I passed right out in the sketchy Extended Stay Hotel Peachtree (read: don’t go there) after eating an absolutely necessary McDonalds meal (I know, judgement) and taking the requisite precautions for entrusting my life and property to said Extended Stay: removing most valuables from car, hiding the remainder of packed stuff under a blanket, frequently checking on car, barricading self in room… I kid about barricading the door. Mostly.
Two star hotels are generally doable for me. I'm a low budget traveler and have stayed at many a bunk-bed filled hostel, airBnB, tent campsite, and most recently in an RV.
However, this hotel’s terrible Yelp reviews (reviewed only too late as I lay terrified in my bed that night), combined with excessive parking lot signage about how the hotel is not responsible for loss to or theft of property, bags of trash left for 12+ hours in the hallway, filthy carpeting and water stained ceilings, and neighbors talking loudly about various illegal acts made me rethink my tolerant hotel policy. It also made me re-evaluate the value of my stuff. I had to choose what would be the most devastating to lose if stolen while at Peachtree and drag it all inside the hotel. The cats didn’t approve of the hotel either but it was non-refundable and once checked in after the sun was down and the creepers out, I didn’t feel up to the task of finding another nearby hotel, packing myself, my cats, and my stuff back up, and starting the process anew.
Bobo (fat cat) has taken to crawling right up in the bed under the covers and hiding between my feet or legs for the night and has to be dragged out in the morning and stuffed back into his carrier with his legs pinned under him so he can’t block himself against the entrance like a stubborn starfish. But the silver lining is that both of my cats have resigned themselves to their miserable fates, likely believing that we will be driving for ten hours every day for the rest of their lives. Despite being crotchety in their carriers as I wheel them to and from each hotel room and the car, once in the car they are pretty much quiet the entire drive now. They refuse to eat, drink, or go potty while in the car - now they mostly just sleep. Well, besides the occasional level 5 tantrum from Mr. Milo (skinny cat). Flipping upside down, howling, sticking his front legs out between the carrier door bars and clawing at anything he can get his paws on, including grabbing the blanket draped over their cages and pulling it between the bars inside his little prison cell until he has a good chunk of it, then nestling up on it.
My cats are the reason my road trip to Seattle hasn't been a “vacation." It was my mission from day 1 to hustle across the country as fast as possible, never mind sight-seeing and detours. I barely want to stop at gas stations to use the restroom let alone take a break at scenic viewpoints for photoshoots, with the sad warnings of Sarah McLaughlin and Humane Society radio ads about the grim fate of over-heated pets left in cars for too long or dehydrating slowly due to neglect ringing in my memory.
Well then. Exit Atlanta. Today as we drove over the progressively hillier roads, winding around waterways and through the pretty southern forests of Tennessee, I kept thinking about the load bearing down on my car. Sadly weight was not a factor I had planned for - there's always going to be something, though, isn't there? The Guy I’m talking to in Miami made a comment about my suspension giving out, or worse, and suggested that someone should come help me carry some of my stuff in a rental car. Avoid catastrophic car meltdown. I nervously looked up the specs for the weight a Scion TC can hold, aka the “gross weight.” It is 865 lbs. He snarfed and replied that I probably have 1,500 lbs of junk overloading my car. But doing some fuzzy mental math about the weight of my boxes brought me to a guesstimate of about 700 lbs, so I figured, let’s wait and see what happens once I get to Nashville.
The back of the car was dragging an awful lot over those winding roads, potholes, and up and down mountainous hills. After arriving in Nashville to hang for lunch and rest for a bit with two of my awesome friends, I measured with my hand and it looked like the back of the car had somehow managed to lower an entire inch closer to the ground since Friday evening when I left. Eyeballing it, it looked like I now had just 4 inches of clearance between road and bottom of car. And the back tires were only about an inch away from scraping the inside of the wheelwells.
Now, I sold most of my stuff to move to Seattle. I ran four or five different budgets and any way you look at it, it was cheaper to sell most of my stuff and take only what I could in my car than to pay for indefinite storage and/or for shipping from Miami to Seattle. Even renting a Uhaul and self-packing is more costly for a cross country move than dumping everything and re-purchasing the essentials at your destination. The process of sorting, inventorying, and choosing which of my stuff should stay or go was long and thought provoking. As I listed all of the unnecessary items (or junk that wouldn’t fit in my car) for sale on Craigslist and apps including Offer Up and Let Go, I realized just how much of my stuff I didn’t need, want, use, or care about. And how little it is worth to other people.
It's kind of sad, but the process has also been really cathartic. It forced me to place a personal value on everything I own - even sentimental objects like trinkets given to me by deceased family members and old journals and scrapbooks. It’s not just about what you need, but what holds personal meaning for you: does it feel important enough to keep it. For example, some of the junk given to me by my Florida Grammie (recently deceased) went right into the garbage, yet for whatever reason I am so sentimentally attached to a large easel and wooden art box full of paints and pastels that I have BARELY EVEN USED, that I desperately considered lashing them to the roof of my Scion, or stacking and sitting on them while I drove, in order to keep them. Even though I rarely make the time for drawing and painting anymore (I tend to focus on project-based crafts), all things art are very important to me. Being artistic and creative is a part of how I view myself, and a part of the person I want to be. So I couldn’t bear to part with them. The easel ended up wedged precariously behind the headrest of my seat and the paint box sat in the cats’ litter box in on the passenger seat floor.
Something about getting rid of all or most of your stuff and living off the bare minimum, even if just for a little while, seems appealing to many millenials. Perhaps it is in part a backlash against the reputation for being a self-entitled and spoiled, narcissistic selfie taking generation that social critics have been skewering us for. Who doesn't have at least one friend that advocates practices such as "no technology weekends," spring cleanings, “unplugging” periodically for a set amount of time, or retreats with yoga, meditation, or spiritual recharging as the focus? Despite that many of us are essentially hoarding, one-upping, middle-class junk collectors, the grass is after all always greener, and so some of us engage in periodic "cleanses" of all kinds to declutter our lives and souls.
In "Deep Work" Cal Newport argues that to be more productive, knowledge workers should quit social media and devote several hours at the beginning of each work day to uninterrupted, deeply concentrated intellectual work. In exploring ways to eliminate distraction Newport talks about how Carl Jung built himself a stone house out in the woods to perform concentrated work, resulting in a major successful publication: The Psychology of the Unconscious. Newport also refers to a modern writer who performed something like a simulated move in order to declutter his home and thus his life. To summarize, the author packed all of the belongings in his 3-bedroom condo into boxes as though he were moving and then lived out of those boxes for a month. At the end of the month, he got rid of all of the stuff that was unopened or unused.
While living out of boxes is a more utilitarian way of determining the value of your stuff based solely on your need to use it, several of my girlfriends rave about another method of determining value advocated by Marie Kondo in her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo presents an emotional way of identifying value based on whether your stuff "sparks joy." Go through your belongings one by one and assess how each item makes you feel. If it doesn't make you happy, or you don’t love it? Get rid of it.
At the end of the day I kind of followed both methods. I chose to bring everything that I found useful and too expensive to replace, or sentimental enough to spark a fear of loss, and that I could squeeze into my car with me. There were things that I wanted to bring that wouldn’t fit (i.e. my black and white Brother printer, my 3 inch queen bed foam topper, my bike), so I had to prioritize based on not just usefulness and monetary value but also a feeling of irreplaceability. The items left behind are replaceable.
While repeatedly planning what to pack during several “practice packs,” I thought of George Carlin's standup skit on "stuff.” He talked about how we often buy or choose stuff in order to fill a certain space, like a new house – with the implication ultimately being that necessity is relative. You go to Honolulu for vacation and you bring everything you can squeeze into a couple suitcases. Then a friend invites you to his house in Mauii for a couple nights and you have to decide what stuff you really need to bring to Mauii. But the first night there, your friend says "hey I think tonight we'll go stay at my friend's house on the other side of the island," at which point you've got to whittle it down to the stuff you know you're REALLY gonna need.
This, then, implies that the answer to the question "how much junk do we really need?" is completely subjective. We can essentially adapt our needs to fit the size of whatever container we have - which may at times depend quite literally on how much we can carry. We may think we need more or less stuff because we have chosen to buy a 5-bedroom house vs. renting a studio apartment, but the amount of space we claim is a choice, as are the things we choose to fill it with. Like the Buddha, we could also choose to abandon everything we own and live off of the kindness of strangers on our path to enlightenment. So, our need for junk may not be a "need" at all, but a choice.
I can tell you that looking at the sagging rear end of my car I decided in Nashville to choose my peace of mind over the continued fear of my car’s tires popping off or suspension collapsing in the middle of the highway going 70mph in traffic. I drove to a UPS store in a nice hotel downtown this afternoon and spent an hour digging through the bins in my car for the heaviest items – journals, scrapbooks, tools – and packing them into a 100 lb box which I shipped to my new address in Seattle. The box won’t arrive for awhile, but it isn’t needed immediately. It cost a lot to ship but it was worth the peace of mind that I relieved my car of 100 lbs.
Had I had more time to sort through things perhaps I could have whittled the junk pile down more, donated more items to Goodwill. But there was no way I was going to willy-nilly discard items that I had so carefully selected to keep after 4 months of planning this trip simply because I was in a schedule time crunch travelling cross-country with cats. And anyways, the bemused look on the charming hotel valet guys’ faces when I declined their repeated offers of help and continued digging through random personal items – a Venetian mask, colorful galoshes, pillows, a child size kitty backpack, boxes of art supplies, clear bags full of wrenches, hammers, and nails, etc. - that I scattered on the ground around the back of my car as I packed the box, was priceless.
Sun setting as I drive to Kansas City, Missouri