I have begun to discover the unexpected struggles of being a “backpacker” and I’ve also learned what being a backpacker while traveling means. To be a backpacker in the traveling sense one does not have to go backpacking, rather one simply requires a huge backpack that is full into the brain, has things hanging off the side and most often then not, rain or shine, has a pack cover on the outside. These are the “backpackers” that fill the streets of the cities and load on and off the buses with me, sharing their unplanned journeys with me as we wait for and on buses. They tell me they’re backpacking through New Zealand and at first I ask what trails, I now realize their trail is a series of bus routes connecting cities and towns. I have always assumed and related the term backpacker with having a pack full of outdoorsy things such as a tent, minimal clothing, sleeping bag, food and so on but to my surprise those large backpacking packs made by Gregory and Osprey can be filled with other things like street clothes, bags of cosmetics and toiletries, a pillow, and the outside straps can be used to hold baguettes. All new to me. I have been convinced that these backpacks only allow efficient backcountry clothing and gear, and everything’s else could only fit in a suitcase. The term backpacker widened to label a new arrangement of humans. While my perspective of the term “backpacker” has been openeded, I’d like to specify that these people should be called urban backpackers. Still, we share the backpacker term even though they hop from hostel to hostel via bus and car and stay in the cities most often and don’t have the endless and plainfully itchy sand fly bites swelling their ankles, we still share the term backpacker. Travelers,explorers, adventurers, unplanned-activties-seeking people.
It’s nice though to have them around, dispite their misrepresenting name. Their gigantic packs that tower over their heads, their cargo pants that are ready to be unzipped to let a much needed and emergent breeze onto their calves, and their bags of food; all their amenities disguise me and my mildly sized orange pack. As I came back into town from yet another adventure into the bush I felt the eyes of locals drift away from me and to the two German men walking next to me. Their packs weren’t as bright as mine but they were twice the size. The judgmental and curious eyes of the locals didn’t even notice me. I walked with the two Germans and answered their questions about why my legs were so cut up and where I had been and together we followed the green and white signs to the I-Site. The glorious all-answering center of everything New Zealand, the information center called I-Site. A building in the middle of town, stocked with pamphlets and humans behind desks to answer every travelers questions and it’s home to free wifi. After each turn towards the I-Site I saw more and more gigantic packs all tunneling into the same place. The universal meeting point, where long distance buses leave and arrive, adventures in the city are planned and where you are one of the many backpacks. When we all unite at our universal meeting point, transitioning into the next steps of our adventures, taking buses, booking trips and tours, in the midst of the chaos being surrounded by urban backpackers help this traveling thing feel less lonely.
Now once outside of this information center is a country of locals, locals that are often tired of seeing backpacks. My bright orange, bulbous beauty that is strapped around my waist and sinking into my shoulders is undiguisable. I cannot run away from the judgements that come from me wearing this pack, no sneaking in as one of the locals. Walking around with this 50lb pack has proven to be a challenge, socially and physically. It turns a simple walk to the grocery store into a tramp itself. My bag is very orange, my clothes bright, my hair short and my eyes often wide and confused; I continuously look lost. The locals see my pack and me trace back and forth one or two blocks in search for the right bus stop, a wrong turn does not go unnoticed. Each time I leave the backpackers haven I am asked if I know where I’m going, the locals point me into the right direction. When I go into the Diary (convenient store) for my inevitable and much longed for chocolate bar I knock down something each time and I’m lucky if it’s only one thing, it was a shelf one time. I tried to help clean but was petrified the tumor attached to my back would knock over more and I couldn’t take it off because it’s always so uncontrolled, I’d be bound to knock another shelf over. The woman cleaned up everything for me and when I tried to help she put up her hand to stop me, knowing it’d do more damage. This pack has made going to the store a work out and adventure.
Almost everyone I encounter comments on my pack. Baffled by how small it is, they ask me again how long I’m staying, they ask to lift it and look at me to remind me it’s heavy. I love it. They notice the little things. These strangers compliment me on what matters most to me, my pack. I work so hard each morning to pack up that thing. To have someone notice is like to having a slight haircut and someone saying something about it. To have someone appreciate how little I have makes all the smells that seep from my pack worth it, all the old and damp clothing I wear worth it. The comment on the color gives my heart a moment of relief. If I get lost in the bush the rescuers just have to ask if anyone has seen the girl with the orange pack. I’ve grown to love this amendment of me. To have all I need for a few months on my back is a gratifying feeling. Each morning I have a quick battle to get it on and then I do a jump to let it set into place on my bruised collarbones and hips. Familiar pains that I’ve grown to love. When my hips and collarbones hurt from the weight of my pack I am reminded I have done something, and I look back at the other times in my life when they have hurt from days of bearing my whole life on my back and can only remember good times. Knowing that I have no more then I need and no less. Perfection is on my back, and thank goodness some people notice it.
On this trip I am not like the other people at the I-Site with packs on their backs. When they see me in the hostel they look amazed, assume I’m in New Zealand for only a week or so, all due to my relatively small pack. I tell them that I just go hike all around the surrounding areas and they look back at me with the same amount of confusion as when we started. I’m not one of them I can’t sleep in a hostel every night, exploring cities. Once I leave the city though this people are left in the hostels and I’m back in the backcountry. I definitely fell at home in the bush and among those people, but even there most everyone has a campervan to spend cold nights in while I go off to a nook to set up my tent. They do more hikes then me because I spent half my day walking to get to this hike. I’m truly in a unique space. If I’m around people I’m still alone in my adventure and that’s perfect.
When I stepped off my first bus with my big orange pack I wasn’t sure if I was cut it for this. I stood at my first I-Site and felt the heaviness of my pack and I didn’t see a hostels to retreat to because I wanted to stay out camping, but I didn’t see any of those near by either. Stuck in between the two definitions of backpacker. A flurry of self doubt rose on me, wondering if I could travel without my bike, without a comfort zone to swim in. I got off the bus and ran through all the errands I had to do, just three within a few blocks of each other but I felt my feet sink hard into the soles of my sneakers and felt the eyes of the people in the small town. I would have to run everyday errands with a bright orange, heavy pack. I did it but then I walked on the road that people really walk in, they only drive on. I felt like a animal at a zoo. I wasn’t sure if I could keep doing it. Turns out I can. That this hybrid of traveling I’m doing is perfect for me. I am traveling, truly just traveling sometimes and that is completely new to me. This traveling with no activity driven agenda is new and surprisingly exciting, everyday it reminds me to simply go with the flow and try not to plan. I’m jumping out of my normal ways and into cities and hostels, joining the urban backpackers for fleeting moments. But at the end of day I think about when and where I’ll get to escape to nature again. I think I’m cut out for this after all, even with a big orange tumor on my back.