In younger days, I traveled with a backpack. It was an army surplus backpack, its green canvas fabric soft and flexible, as though it had been washed many times, although I can’t remember ever washing it. It had fraying straps and an ink stain on one of the pockets.
I’m not sure where I got it – but, except for my sleeping bag, it held everything that I needed for a week or more stay, and I could sling it easily over one shoulder. It had several pockets that I assigned for specific carrying tasks – socks and underwear in one pouch; pen, small notebook, and wallet in another; pockets on the outside for my toothbrush and paste. I didn’t need much in those days – an extra pair of torn jeans, a couple of t-shirts, and a sweatshirt and windbreaker for the cool Maine nights. A towel. My journal. A book.
That backpack accompanied me every summer to the little island in the middle of Moosehead Lake, in northern Maine, where I vacationed for 25 years or more. In earlier days, I would drop off my toddler daughter at my mother’s in southern Maine, climb into the driver’s seat with the faithful backpack in the back seat, open the windows, turn up the country music on the radio, and head up the Maine Pike. My one or two weeks of freedom from motherhood and work each year. The sense of liberation was heady.
I could easily throw the backpack and sleeping bag into the bottom of the canoe when Elizabeth came to pick me up at the Highland dock on the shore of the 42-mile long lake. We paddled up to her island, about three miles north of Greenville, where life was sweet and crazy, filled with blue-berry picking, campfire-making, nude swimming, and Scrabble. We waited each day for 4:00 when the Kate, the steamboat that took tourists the length of the lake, went by in the distance, our signal that it was time to start drinking. Evening parties on nearby islands rounded out our days, and occasional, sometimes unexpected, visitors who knew Elizabeth or me found their way to the Island. We put them up in small tents near the little wooden shelter in which we slept, and listened at night to the cry of the loons and the wind blowing down the lake.
In later years, I brought my daughter, new lovers, and old friends, and, finally, my now-wife and her daughter, to the island. We rented the only other cabin on the island, at the other end of the L-shaped dot of land. My trusty backpack still made the journey, but now it was accompanied by cartons of food, jugs of water, other suitcases, and dog food for Murphy, who sat in the middle of the canoe, amongst the supplies.
When we sold our house at another lake in Maine a couple of years ago, I came across the backpack in the storage space which we reached by a pull-down ladder. It was like rediscovering an old friend. I pulled it to me, buried my face in it and inhaled memories of younger, freer days. The rugged, torn rucksack even then, after many years of being hidden away, emitted a fragrance that was intoxicating – a musky mixture of campfire smoke, insect repellent, and pine needles. I gingerly placed it in the Goodwill pile, hoping it might provide another young woman some unencumbered days.
These days, Rosemary and I travel by bus and train, since we have given up our car. Last week, as we packed for a week-long trip from Brooklyn to Boston and the Cape, I thought of my old army-green friend. Now, I packed a different backpack – a small black one, with wheels and a handle. Once again, I didn’t pack very many clothes; my little traveling laptop was in one of the pockets, and my medications and inhalants and bandages filled up a good one-third of the open compartment in the middle. I carried a small blue print Vera Bradley bag that had been my mother’s over my shoulder. It held my lunch, including water to take my pills, and was never far from me; I have to eat before taking certain of my drugs. The Red Cap porters at Penn Station are indispensable for getting us down the stairs to the track. We have it mostly figured out.
We settled in our seats in the Amtrak Quiet Car and looked out the window at the passing city. The income taxes not quite done, the boxes from our move that still needed sorting, and all the doctors and specialists whom we see too many times a week faded from mind as the train pulled out of the tunnel and passed Rosemary’s workplace in Long Island City. I looked at Rosemary on the seat beside me and smiled, then sighed with a sense of freedom and gratitude.