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No Baggage

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No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering
Recently, the Divine Miss M had Amazon.com send me a couple of books. I hadn’t asked for the books or even heard of them until they showed up in my stack of mail. One was a novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I haven’t read yet. The other was nonfiction, a travel memoir called No Baggage.

In No Baggage, author Clara Bensen tells the story of the existential crisis she had in her early 20s when she concluded she might not be able to follow her bliss and live her dreams. Heck, she was barely able to complete applications to grad schools. She had a prolonged mental health meltdown and spent quite a long time wracked with anxiety and unable to eat much more than choked-down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

She slowly pieced her fragile psyche back together while living in Austin, TX, and decided she needed to start dating. She joined OkCupid, posted her own profile, and began looking at the profiles of men on the site with advanced degrees. She encountered the profile of an intriguing college professor and emailed him. They went on a date, immediately hit it off, and started having fabulous times together.

The first part of the book read a little much like a teen romance novel to me, and I was a bit turned off. I have to admit, I was more than a little jealous and a bit bitter. I haven’t met a decent, unmarried man to date in years, but this gal met an incredible man on her first try. (It probably helps to be young, thin, and live in a major metro area.) But I stuck with the book to get to the good part, where Bensen and her beau went on The Trip.

The fellow was already planning on taking The Trip when he met Bensen, then invited her to go along with him. While it was risky enough to go on a multi-country journey with someone she only knew a short time, the No Baggage of the title refers to no suitcase, no backpack, no tote bag.

Here’s what Benson took with her on the three week expedition: in a “small leather purse,” she somehow puts three pairs of underpants, a deodorant stick, a toothbrush, a retainer, a contact lens case, a pair of glasses, two tampons, an iPhone, an iPad Mini, a notebook, a pen, her passport, a tube of ChapStick, and “a stack of cowboy magnets to hand out as Texas souvenirs.” (There’s no mention of a credit card or traveler’s cheques or cash, so I don’t know how purchasing food and transportation tickets worked out. Maybe the money the guy carried was for both of them?)

Since I live in my van, I have fewer material possessions than most Americans, but I still have so much stuff! The part of me that makes do with less was intrigued by the minimalist approach to travel introduced by Bensen’s guy, but after all, it was only for 21 days, not a lifetime. I’m pretty sure I could make it on no baggage for three weeks, especially if I had a new love interest to keep me company. (I’d leave behind the iPad Mini–which I don’t even own–and the deodorant and the cowboy magnets, and take my water bottle with me.)

I like travel stories, and I enjoyed Bensen’s. I enjoyed her tale of spending the beginning of her time in Istanbul not knowing if she were in Europe or Asia. I liked hearing about the positive experiences with Couchsurfing.com, especially what happened in Turkey, when Bensen and her guy arrived unannounced at a dark train station, only to be met by a woman on a bicycle who said, “I recognize the hat from your Couchsurfing profile.” She was one of the many hosts they’d emailed, and she’d somehow known when and where to meet them, even though they hadn’t known when they might arrive.

The book was full of such stories of traveling serendipity. Some call it luck, and the Rainbow Family refers to it as “Rainbow magic.” Hikers of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails know about it too. Sometimes it’s as if the Universe is conspiring to get people where they need to go and make beautiful things happen.

In fact, this book is not just a love story or a travelogue or a treaty on minimalism. It’s also about coincidence and serendipity. It’s about What are the odds? and What are the chances? What are the odds that two people so well-suited to be together would meet on OkCupid and find a “weird, magical thing” happening between them? What are the chances a Couchsurfing host would appear exactly when and where she was desperately needed? Bensen’s guy “was in the preliminary stages of developing software to measure the experience of coincidence,” so they ended their three week journey with a visit to a “professor of Risk at Cambridge University…one of the premier researchers on the subject.” The book asks what causes the “connections between seemingly random intersections?”

The day before I finished reading No Baggage, I wrote a blog post partially about a road trip song by Dar Williams and partially about an idea of SARK’s about managing expectations. To illustrate my point, I told a story about a road trip I took in the late 1990s. In telling that story, I mentioned my friend who owned the car and did all the driving on that journey to a women’s gathering in an adjacent state. My friendship with the woman was intense during our time on the road, but mellowed out when we got back to the city. We still liked each other, but our everyday lives kept us busy, and we saw little of each other. When I moved away from the city the next year, I thought of her fondly when I thought of her, which wasn’t often. I could only remember part of her name, so there was no Googling her or looking her up on Facebook. And then suddenly there she was, driving through my blog post.

The next day I finished reading No Baggage on the afternoon of my day off, while lying in my bed with the back doors of the van open to the meadow. That was a good book, I decided after I’d read the last page. I liked it. I’m glad I read it.

Then I flipped the page and saw the heading Acknowledgements. I’m the kind of book geek who at least skims an author’s appreciations. I’m not sure why. I never see a name I recognize. Only this time I did. There among the four names thanked for their “generous feedback and critique” was the name of the woman I’d written about the day before, the woman with whom I’d shared a road trip and not communicated with for nearly twenty years. What are the chances of that?

I know in my heart of hearts that I’d not glanced at the last page of No Baggage and seen my friend’s name, not even for a split second. I know that Clara Bensen didn’t mention my friend in the book in any recognizable way, wrote nothing that would have made me think of her.  And yet, as I read a book about travel written by a mutual friend, I wrote of my own long-lost, seldom thought of friend and a time we traveled together. What are the odds of that happening?

I plan to write to  Clara  Bensen and tell her of this coincidence and our connection. Maybe she’ll tell me how to contact my old friend.