by Maureen Magee
I stood just inside the camping equipment super-store, trying to get my bearings. It was lunch hour in Toronto and I had one goal in mind: buy a backpack.
This was the Second Step in My Plan to Travel the World Alone.
The First Step had been to quit my job, which was not straightforward at all; a month after giving notice, I was still guilt-ridden at the frivolity of interrupting my career path. After all, it had taken me ten years of floundering through the woods of employment and another five in university pursuits to even locate a trail. It did seem cavalier to toss it aside.
"You can't do that!” my co-workers advised. “You're middle-aged!”
The Third Step would be to sell the house. The profits would finance The Plan.
"You're nuts," said my father. "You'll never recoup.”
To add insult to injury, my ex-husband exploded into laughter.
"You? The princess who always insisted on five-star luxury? You're going to backpack?"
With my stomach somersaulting in panic, I badly needed a touchstone, something tangible and symbolic of The Plan. I wanted something to gaze upon, to press to my breast, inspiring me but also, assuaging the fear that I could be losing everything. Step Two needed to be simple and easily accomplished. I would buy my first backpack.
The immensity of the outdoor store astonished me: tents used to be pea green canvas and for the really wild at heart, orange. Now they shimmered with jewel-like tones; none were lined with cowboy or duck-printed flannelette.
Clothes were displayed in exotic hues, sure to scare wildlife away from the vicinity of the wearer. Or perhaps, I wondered, the sight of such unnatural combinations of blazing iridescence was the reason for the increased animal attacks on humans.
My hair was charmingly done up in a cascade of curls; my heels pitched high and my earrings dangled low. I was definitely out of my element.
Young people in uniform shorts and T-shirts sprang to and fro. They all had immensely sturdy calves.
“Backpacks?” my voice quavered.
"Aisle seven, just past the dried foods."
And sure enough, there they were. Hundreds of them, or so it seemed. Stacked on shelves, hanging on the wall, mounted on mannequins. A hefty one with a metal frame stood on the floor by itself. They had lids, pouches, pockets, buckles, zippers, snaps and loops—all in confusingly diverse arrangements.
I moved slowly around the big one on the floor. It seemed rather aggressive in its stance, and I prodded gently with my toe before kneeling down to examine it.
"Now THAT is the granddaddy of all backpacks," said a voice high above me.
Withdrawing my head from the pack's dark depths, I found myself eyeball to kneecap with a pair of hairy legs.
"Ah, well, it might be a bit much for me," I said, scrambling up as gracefully as my short skirt would allow.
When I finally reached my full height, my eyes were barely at throat level with the owner of the hairy knees, a woman of Amazonian proportions. Her crisp blue eyes gave me the once-over.
"What are you looking for?"
"Well, I don't exactly know..." I started.
"Camping?" she interrupted.
"Uh, no... at least, not too much. But maybe a bit..."
She crossed her arms over her chest. Biceps bulged out of her sleeves.
"So…?” She looked like she had never been uncertain of anything, ever.
"I need it," and paused dramatically, "for travelling..."
She interrupted again, snorting. "Oh, travelling—of course!"
My eyes narrowed. "Maybe you should try a luggage store," she suggested and abruptly headed off.
That did it.
“Maybe you should stuff a sock in your attitude and show me the packs," I blurted.
I'm not sure who was more surprised, her or me. She turned back.
"I am going to TRAVEL around the WORLD, for a YEAR, on a BUDGET," I emphasized. "I want one bag to carry everything. Start with that dark green one," I ordered.
And she did, making some embarrassingly legitimate points.
"Your heels will pierce any soft bag."
"I'm not taking heels," I snapped. Did she think I was a nincompoop?
"It won't protect your makeup. It will all melt."
Oh. I looked straight into her mascara-free eyes.
"I won't be wearing makeup." Oh my God, what had I just said? I hadn't left home with a bare face since reaching puberty. She raised an eyebrow.
"Your blow dryer and curling iron will get smashed."
"I won't need them." And then it just popped out. "I'm … I’m cutting my hair short." Which was an out and out lie and she knew it. But she was right; I couldn't travel the way I always had. I was going to have to streamline my existence. It seemed that making my life simpler was going to be more complicated than I thought.
She hefted up the green pack. "Are you hitching?"
She tossed the green bag back onto the shelf. "Not this one." Then she grabbed a grey model. "Buy this. It's convertible. You can haul out shoulder straps when you need to wear it on your back for short spells. Nicely padded handle."
Now that made sense. I hoisted the bag, unzipped the pockets and ripped apart the Velcro loops. They made a satisfying “I know what I'm doing” sound.
But, it looked so mundane, so utilitarian. It seemed the dullest item in the whole store.
"It comes in turquoise," she said.
"I'll take it."
As she pointed me in the direction of the cashier, she couldn't resist one last remark.
"So, you can get everything you need in that bag, huh? For the whole year?"
My smile weakened as I clutched my pretty bag. It seemed like something that I would take away for a weekend.
When I looked back at her, she was leaning forward into the wall, stretching her leg muscles.
"Could you?" I asked.
“Well, yeah,” she drawled, rolling her eyes.
I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown. Defiant, I replied. "Then, so can I."
Maureen Magee is a Canadian writer, who disguises herself as anything that will pay the bills. After an embarrassing length of time, she is pleased to announce that she has finally finished The Damn Book. (aka Jumping the Bull: Life, Love and Adventure in Ethiopia.) Maureen and the book are currently seeking representation. www.maureenmagee.com