The Books and Backpacks Bit

So I was sorting through pics of a trip to Greece for last month’s post and came across this little still life:

(Homework for adventures to come!)

It’s Dad’s glasses and book sitting on the edge of an Athens hotel bathtub. He would sweetly retreat there in the mornings to read while Mum and I slumbered a bit longer in the cradle of democracy. Especially while traveling, Dad was ever ready to greet the day early (by my standards, anyway) so he always needed a good, lengthy read when I was along!

The photo didn’t make the cut for the Greek section of my post – but it reminds me of those days on the road before we could stay informed, connected and otherwise distracted via phones and tablets. Back then, we had to lug around a book or five –

And I still can’t quite imagine traveling any other way.

It was impressed upon me pretty early to consider books a travel necessity right up there with toothpaste:

(Our young family ready to hit the road!)

While I was probably still looking for my blankie here, big brother Jack looks ready with his reads. On family trips, Mum also used to dispense comic books at intervals in an attempt to keep the hoard in the back seat tame – and I remember annoying the boys by demanding equal time with each new comic even though I couldn’t quite read it yet.

In my college years, I had two amazing summer adventures traveling around Europe with just a backpack – which seemed terribly romantic until the first time I had to get the thing into overhead storage in a train compartment. Even so, I still carried around a fair amount of books for research and recreation – but I did a fair amount of ditching too.

Like I read about King Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King while touring Britain which I thought was pretty awesome! According to my journal though, I ended up giving my copy to a “Karl from Delft” who I met later in Munich. Um, yes I thought it was nice to share this classic tale with a fellow traveler. But lightening my load even that tiny bit? That was pretty awesome too!

As a student on a budget, one book I couldn’t do without was the latest edition of Let’s Go Europe – my bible for where to stay and what to see! Since these books were kinda big however, I wasn’t above irreverently tearing out and tossing away cities and even whole countries if they weren’t on our itinerary.  

But I still have every page of the copy of A Tale of Two Cities that I devoured on one of those trips – even though it became a source of conflict:

(Backpacking around Europe? It was the best of times – and that pretty much sums it up!)

Timing truly is everything. It happened that the death-carts at the end of the novel began to rumble through Paris just as my train was rumbling through a spectacular section of the Alps! I was so wrapped up in what would happen to Sydney Carton that it was actually a tough call to set the book aside and catch the breathtaking view. But given that I haven’t passed that way again and that Carton’s fate pretty much stayed the same, I look back on it now as a far, far better thing that I did.

I think my most treasured travel read memory though is of a book I didn’t even pick up at the time – a claim author William Goldman made as well.

The book that I didn’t read but that became an instant favorite was The Princess Bride.

During my teens, Dad used to take my buddies and me on pack trips in the Emigrant Wilderness near Yosemite National Park. Heading out into beautifully remote country where the only comforts were what we carried in could be quite the challenge. No shops. No restaurants. Still no wifi, I expect. Yup, hitting high altitudes with a full backpack was tough on the limbs and lungs – but it was also a grand adventure! Just us and unspoiled nature:

(Hyatt Lake.)

Well – us. Nature. And one embellishment left by those who came before us, once upon a time.

We discovered it at one end of a small jewel of crystal clear water set among vast and gleaming granite faces. Apart from the odd “duck” trail markers we encountered and followed on our way, this tree-cloaked spot contained the only evidence of human intrusion perhaps for miles around.

Taking advantage of the abundant stone, someone had constructed a sturdy fire pit and ringed it with makeshift chairs. Each “chair” consisted of a granite base with an upright stone slab for a back, secured in its spot by another stone behind. Wilderness purists probably wouldn’t approve of these unnatural additions to the otherwise pristine landscape – nor would Goldilocks since they weren’t especially luxurious. But for relaxing around a warm fire at the close of a rigorous day, our little band found them juuust right!

On one particular trip, we came across this site for the very first time and immediately claimed it as our own! Once we’d reveled in that indescribably liberating feeling of shedding our packs and boots for the day, we girls pitched our tents while Dad commenced to build a fire in the pit to heat water for a freeze-dried, traffic-cone-orange noodle dinner that stuck to our ribs, our Sierra cups, our utensils, and I believe our very souls. We then settled down in our (yes, our) concrete camp chairs as Dad expertly (and safely, of course!) coaxed the campfire to a cheery roar.

Exhausted as we were, I don’t think anyone wanted to call it a night and let go of the magical ambience we felt:  the pleasant crackle of the fire; the mingled aromas of trees and brush; and the heavenly twinkling of more stars than we ever saw in the sky back home! 

So backpacking buddy (and lifelong friend) Kelly offered to share with us the read she’d packed in – a purported “good parts” version of the Florinese tale, The Princess Bride

(Backpacking essentials.)

Ending each night with Kelly’s reading became an instant must! After a day of hiking, fishing (as always, not to be confused with “catching”) and exploring our temporary wilderness home, we’d enter that circle of granite thrones and prepare to be transported. 

There was no movie version yet, so we relied on Kelly’s skill and our own imaginations to bring Goldman’s characters to life. Every night, the dashing Westley, beautifully dim Buttercup, wily Vizzini and brooding Inigo all danced, dueled and in some cases (spoiler alert…) died within the firelight.

While Kelly led us brilliantly through the tale within a tale, I do think she enjoyed a little too much being able to choose where to close the book for the night. I remember doing some serious tossing and turning (no easy thing in a mummy bag) the night she left off with the chilling line: “But they broke him anyway”…

There are differences between the book and the movie (each of them a classic, in my opinion, though). For one, it’s the boy’s father who reads him the story. And the through line of the book is decidedly darker. Both versions tell us that life isn’t fair – but the book kind of relentlessly drives this home along with the tag that it’s just fairer than death. Not any kind of comfort – but not untrue.

Still, experiencing the book the way we did was pure joy! There we were – immersed in nature, warmed by fire and fellowship, and taking part in a ritual that might be as old as humankind itself – 

That of sharing a story.

Life may not be fair. But when you’re granted moments like these – just like with good books – you always want carry them with you!

Cheers !

16 comments

  1. Precious! 💕🌺

    1. Many thanks!

  2. Karen Zumsteg · · Reply

    Amy, thank you for sharing your TWOO WUV of two wonderful things – books and where we go with backpacks! : )

    1. Thank YOU, for coming along, Ms. Karen!

    2. Many years ago Australian friends turned up on our doorstep and one of the features of this reunion was them persuading me to go to Paris with them for a few days – in the depth of winter. There was much talk of the book they had bought ‘Paris on a dollar a day’ – or maybe it was ten dollars, but it was to lead us to easily find somewhere to stay. But when we arrived at Gare du Nord it turned out neither of them had the book – it had been left behind in their London hotel!

      1. Oh noooo!! Hope you managed alright. And I have to wonder if it wasn’t for the best, however – even though it was years ago, a guide for managing Paris on that budget MUST have included lessons in how to pickpocket. 😉 Thanks for reading and for sharing the memory!

  3. Debra · · Reply

    Great blog post as usual. How, pray tell, do you remember all those details? You mentioned your journal. Do you write daily or just travel diaries? I envy anyone who keeps a diary. I feel kind of stupid every time I try but I love reading other people’s diaries (the published kind not the type hidden in one’s underwear drawer, of course!). How many pages have you filled over the years? My friend’s father kept an art diary but that just adds another skill I’m lacking. I barely remember what happened yesterday, let alone on childhood trips.

    1. Thank you so much! I really wish I’d kept a daily diary as so many details seem to be slipping away from me these days… Some little moments stick out from my childhood – like I think one of my brother’s books there is of Edgar Allan Poe stories (I remember because he once goofed and called them “Edgar Allan Stow Pories”!). I kept daily journals here and there over the years but have been religious about it on trips – and I’m so glad! Often they’ll call up some experience that might never have crossed my mind otherwise. It can be a bit of a burden, but I think it’s great to keep a diary since all our lives are wonderfully ordinary and epic in their own ways. Thanks for reading!

      1. Debra · ·

        Maybe I’ll try journalling again. It’s quite sad to realise that so many memories are lost. Not necessarily irretrievably because sometimes the oddest thing triggers a flash of memories but the majority. I grew up with two siblings and we went on trips to Italy or France every summer, had a house on the coast of Eastern Frisia, did a lot of day trips in the summer to various castles or museums and I don’t remember much. Let alone our daily life. We were fairly free range, wild kids considering that we lived in the city. Now that I have a child myself I often wonder what she’ll remember etc… Well that’s life I guess.

      2. Those childhood summers sound wonderful! I’d like to think too that some misplaced memories can be found through the right image or smell or taste. And yes, you never know what kids will remember – but how fun it’ll be to find out! Thanks for reading!

  4. Mike Bonomo · · Reply

    Your blog is wonderfully evocative as usual Amy.

    Reading your stories and seeing these pictures is like getting the special edition DVD of a favorite series. It’s great to learn more about people who were living in the same times and experiencing many things that don’t have the same significance to later generations.

    I will never forget my first backpacking trip into the Trinity Alps with Zac Salem and his family. How his step mother had everything covered from epi-pen for bee allergies to rain covers in the unlikely (but actual) event of rain overnight. Naturally, she was a school teacher! And despite us boys grumbling about how uncool it was to hear a bedtime story, we were entranced as we listened to Judy read Steinbeck’s The Pearl every night beneath the stars. No doubt, it was not as dramatic as Kelly’s narration (I still remember her acting out Trelane’s final lines from “The Squire of Gothos”) but she had the only book and working flashlight on the mountain, so we were thankful for what we had.

    One more memory you triggered mentioning Let’s Go and backbacks in luggage racks that might amuse you. February 1986 found Paul and I in Naples, halfway through our around the world trip and about 75% through our budget. Subtracting airfare and Eurail passes, we ended up averaging $26 per day room and board. Not each. Combined! There were definitely no stars on our accomodations. Let’s Go and Lonely Planet were our holy scriptures. Anyway, after accidentally entering through the exit at Pompeii (nobody there to pay) we were ravenously hungry but our budget wouldn’t stretch beyond a simple plate of spaghetti, soda and a youth hostel room with a dozen smelly snoring strangers.
    When I floated the idea of using our hostel money for better food and beer and sleeping on the overnight train to Florence (our Eurail Youth pass was already paid for and thus a free room) Paul jumped at the idea and immediately ordered a meal fit for a Neapolitan king.
    This was my 3rd trip to Europe and my 2nd time in the winter so I expected the 2nd class trains to be more lively than first class, but certainly not crowded. Unknown to us, however, there was a big storm recently and the Alps got a fresh coat of powder and everyone was headed for Cortina and other ski resorts. Paul and I passed through car after car full of hundreds of noisy, smelly, and soon to be snoring strangers. In all fairness, we were pretty ripe ourselves so we blended in perfectly. As we contemplated the thought of a sleepless night, we became acutely aware that there was not a single place to sit on this train. With the compartments full the halls were standing room only except for the lucky dozen that sat on those hinged cushions that fold against the walls in the passageways. That’s when I got my next crazy idea. The thought of standing all night was too much for one young italian and he climbed up and stretched out above us in the luggage rack. I noticed there was room close to him for our backpacks, but I doubted the rack could hold our combined weight so I put my pack up and Paul followed suit. Then I thought if the rack couldn’t hold my weight, what could? The floor. Which floor space? The space under the fold down cushions! I knew as soon as I did this there would be a dozen copycats fighting for every spot so I whispered to Paul to prepare a sweater for a pillow and duck on three. Down we went and of course everyone copied us and all the empty space was gone in seconds. If fell asleep in minutes.

    I was awakened by a violent lurch as the train stopped at a station. This was followed by the sound of aluminum sliding against aluminum followed by a quarter second of silence. Then a heavy plop like a saddle falling off a horse. A muffled cry for help sent my hands searching for my glasses. I looked up to see Paul’s huge backpack on the floor with two chubby arms and legs sticking out from under it.
    I squeezed out from under my sleeping spot and pulled it off the poor lady. Now what was she doing on a train full of young people headed for the snow? Other than the surprise wake up, she was Ok. We maintained our composure long enough not to laugh in the passageway. Of course, a standing passenger immediately took my sleeping spot. It was about 4:30 AM. Paul got up and we laughed in the cold passage between the cars for the next hour until we got to Florence and the familiar cheap pensione where Jack photographed me washing my underwear in a bidet. To quote Joseph Conrad: “Ah, youth!”

    1. Ha! What a story – and what fantastic detail! And I similarly ended up underneath a pack – but it was my own when I fell over backwards trying to stow it… Really Mike, you should be sharing more of these tales! Thanks so much for sharing them here – and glad if I helped even a little to call them to mind!

  5. This is a great story of family. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much!

  6. I love your stories. I, too, remember carrying several guidebooks while traveling. LOL Now I carry a book for pleasure reading only. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Yup – times have changed, haven’t they? Thanks for reading!

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