On the Road Again: What 5 Packable Items Can Make a Year Long International Trip Feel Like Home

Motivation for this story came from the podcast "Things" on Radiolab

One week from today I’ll officially be unemployed. No paycheck. No consistent pillow to fall on. No security. Just my savings. How terrifying is that?

With that looming, I’m also I’m in the midst of looking for a sublet for my apartment lease that doesn't end until July 31st just so I don't blow $3,000 before even starting my trip. It’s been difficult trying to get some of these last minute "real life" things figured out. Things like health insurance, cell phone setup, and even attempting to think about where I'm going to call home for the next year. This last one, really, is just trying to come to grips with the fact that I’ll, for all technical purposes, be homeless for a year...to an extent. I won’t have the same roof over my head day-after-day, I won't have my comfy couch and TV to come home to each night, and I won’t have the consistency that I've become so immune to for so long.

Is that a terrifying feeling for most people? Absolutely. Hell, I'm terrified about it and this is what I've signed up. I get it. Leaving behind everything you trust in, all of your luxuries that make life simple, everything that makes your home, home. All of it left behind, for a year. That is a gut wrenching thing to think about. But under the surface, after stripping all of it away, does it really terrify me? Does it scare me the same way a snake or losing someone I love scares me? No way. This type of scary is excitement.

In my eyes the opportunity to take an adventure like this only makes my real home a little bit bigger. I’m extending the walls of my home to borders around the world. But even with those walls extended, there are still always certain aspects of a place where you live that cause a place to be considered “home”. Whether it’s the people who make it up, the pictures that hang on the wall, the memories you have within it's walls, or the layout of the furniture in the living room. A place can be considered a home for a number of reasons.

Home to me isn't made up exclusively by any of those things, and it hasn't for a while. When you're young it's the fact that your family lives there and it was where you grew up. Now, it's a combination of a lot of things from both the past, and present. Sure, the people still play a part and the memories from a place make it more satisfying, but for me it’s the items in my home that make it what it is. The items that fill the place where I live give it that "homey" feeling.

As I embark on this year, I’m hoping the people I meet along the way will help to make everywhere feel a little bit like home. They'll help me make new memories in a foreign and unfamiliar place, but even with them making each place feel special, it still won’t be the real thing. There are certain items that help me identify a place as a home, but for a year of traveling, a lot of those items can’t come along. Things like my TV, my speakers, or my bed. Those must stay. But there are some small, packable things that can fill help fill that void.

As I move into my final few days of work, it’s time for me to start figuring out what those manageable items are. I need to find the things that make me feel as if I’m just transporting my home with me. What I've identified as items that will come with me are funny enought not the gadgets or devices that make things easier. Rather, they are small little things that bring along fond memories of my past. Things that are really just reminders of another place I once called (and probably always will call) home. As long as I've got those, my home moves along with me in my backpack.

For the next year, my backpack will become the container of my home, the material that holds in the items that, as long as I have them with me, make a place seem familiar. So what are those treasured things, those precious items that I can’t leave behind, because if I do, I'll really be "homeless"?

Here are five items I’m including in my backpack to ensure my home never leaves my side.

My University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine Water Bottle


A water bottle you say? You’re wasting one of your five items on a water bottle? To be honest, I thought it a little weird myself. Let me tell you the story behind this particular water bottle. It’s not just a bottle, which I know sounds strange, because in all reality, it is just a bottle. This particular water bottle, though, is a memory stored in reshaped plastic. A memento from a much simpler time. This particular water bottle belonged to my late sister, Anna, before she died from an undiagnosed blood clot when she was 23. Carrying it is simply a way for me to carry her with me every day. After five years, not a single day has gone by that I haven’t thought about her, and that water bottle, a silly Pitt Dental School Nalgene, somehow does it for me. Other people carry pictures. My parents and friends wear bracelets like I used to, but the bottle is her to me, and I go with it.

Having this with me as I travel around the world is special because it’s my chance to travel with my sister. We never got to do that, and now we can. Even though she’s not physically present with me, I somehow connect with her through this water bottle. It just sits in the mesh lining of the container on my backpack, going to work with me every day in Wisconsin, heading to the gym or sitting on the pool deck at Northwestern, getting sandy on the beach in Aruba, and now across the world. As long as it’s with me, she’s along for the exact same ride I am.

A Red Swiss army knife I got from my Dad when I was 10

Now this seems a little more practical as I could use it for a number of different reasons. Nail clippers, tweezers, scissors, screw driver, etc., all included in this one little gadget. Let's hope TSA doesn't confiscate it the second I get on a plane. It’s got most things I could use for any type of survival reason. But I’m not taking it because it can do those things (though it will come in handy for them as well). This particular Swiss army knife was a gift from my Dad when I was ten years old, and it was the first really “manly” gift I got from him. My family isn’t big into hunting or anything, so guns or fishing rods weren’t really a common gift growing up. As a kid I got train sets and Legos and Hot Wheels racing tracks, just like every kid. This gift was really the first non-toy, adult-ish gift I ever got, and I’ll never forget that. For the longest time I thought that my Dad's Swiss army knives were so cool, and this was the first time I ever truly owned one myself.

It seems kind of silly that that would be the one thing I identify as a maturing point in my life, but for some reason it is. It reminds me of spending time with him more regularly and just enjoying being young. It’s a fun time in life, being young, and I’m hoping the knife brings back some of those fond memories I have with him (and also provides me with support in case of an actual emergency along the way).

The "Notes to My Son Before You Go" book from my Mom for my 23rd birthday

When I turned 23 it was sort of a surreal experience for me as I was now turning the age that Anna was when she passed. I had put a weird check mark by this day for three years at that point, and turning 23 was finally the moment in time the X designated. I don’t really know what I thought would happen on that day (and nothing momentous did), but it seemed like a strange stepping stone in life.

At that time I was about 3 months into my first job after college, and my Mom got me this book for my birthday. It’s a short book with small notes from a Mother to her son hoping to leave some of her profound thoughts to him surrounding life before letting him depart on his “solo flight” through the world.

I’m taking this with me for a couple reasons. The first is that I've gotten the sense that my Mom will be missing me terribly over the next year, and even though it’s unbearable to her that I’ll be gone for twelve months, she knows it’s what is best for me. I believe she wholeheartedly believes each word of this book she got me, and even if she seems sad that I’m leaving, she deep down knows it’s the best thing for me to do. If she didn't believe every word in it, she wouldn't have gotten the book for me in the first place. One note that stands out to me in the book says:

“Be aware of what is going on in the world. Try to fit it into the big picture of what you already know. Make it a goal to learn more when you have time.”

The book serves as a reminder that she believes I’m doing the right thing right now. It’s a big risk taking an entire year off to travel. And like I said before, all of those usual comforts will now be gone. But with the book in hand, I’ll be reminded that with risks comes joy. And with joy comes life.

One final note from the book reads:

“Travel the world as much as you can.”

I guess I'll finally get to accomplish that one. Thanks, Mom.

My Northwestern flag

Northwestern means a lot to me, and it has completely shaped who I have become as a person. The University as a whole instilled in me a deep knowledge of so many topics that many schools can’t provide, and for that, I’m forever grateful. While I was at school, though, I also spent the majority of my time focusing and competing in a sport which I love, swimming. Though I was only at practice for 20 hours a week, I was thinking about it nearly twice that much. It filled my mind day in and day out. Through swimming, I not only achieved success in sport, but I also achieved success in the connections I made from it.

Swimming did more than consume my time. It consumed me with the people who are now my best friends. My brothers and sisters that I either never had, or no longer do. Almost every one of my friends from before moving to Wisconsin became connected to me through swimming, and that is what the flag represents in my backpack.

It brings a constant reminder of the people back home reading about my trip or  joining me along the way for a little fun. The flag doesn't just represent Northwestern, but rather swimming as a whole. Swimming wholeheartedly shaped the person I am today. Without it, I’d be nowhere. The flag, like the N tattoo on my back, reminds me of that, and I wouldn’t be caught without it while I’m traveling abroad.

For many years, it hanged over the pool deck at Northwestern, and as a gift from the coaches upon graduating, I got this flag. Today it hangs in my office at work, and soon, it’ll hang from the cliffs of the Grand Canyon, the treetops of a Thai rainforest, or off the side of a scuba diving boat in the South China Sea.

My Arrowhead from the Luce Road Elementary playground

My last item, a picture that will not be included as it's something that not a single person in the world knows I even have, carries no significant meaning with it like some of the others do. For some reason, I've kept it around in a small, wooden box my grandma gave me when I was little. Other items in that box include a couple of old Chinese Yuan, a Edinburgh Tattoo festival ticket from 1999, and an old bracelet I got when I was young. The box holds a hodgepodge of things that mean absolutely nothing, but for some reason, I won't throw them out. There sentimental, I guess.

The arrowhead in particular, though, means something to me that the other things don't. I can't even pinpoint where or when or by whom I received those other items from. But the arrowhead? I remember that like it's yesterday.

I was in first grade at Luce Road Elementary, and at the backside of the playground was a strange, spider shaped jungle gym contraption. It had a center abdomen piece which all the monkey-bar legs branched from. Beyond the spider was a vast field, and at the far back of it, a large hill that we would sled down in the winter time and roll down in the summer. It was, in a 6-year old's eyes, a mountain.

One day, sometime in the middle of the fall before the snow came or the ground froze, I was sitting on the edge of where the field began, just next to the spider. Some other kids were playing on the legs, and I was just digging a hole and filling it with pebbles from the playground near the wooden barrier that kept the small rocks from overflowing into the grassy field. As I dug, my hand stumbled along a jagged, sharp, pointed rock in the shape of an arrowhead buried in the dirt. I wedged it out and looked really closely at it.

At that point in the year, we were starting to learn about Pilgrims and Native Americans in preparation for Thanksgiving, and as I looked at the rock, I quickly identified it as an arrowhead, buried centuries ago by an ancient tribe of central Michigan.

Looking back, I'm sure that wasn't the case. I look at it today and it's just an oddly shaped rock, but as a kid, I was convinced it was a real. Not wanting anyone to take it, I pocketed it and took it home to my grandma's wooden box. Every once in a while I'd take it out and look at it, but I never told anyone about that arrowhead I found. I guess it was a strange memento from a time I was exploring my surroundings and came across something unique.

The rock in the shape of an arrowhead still sort of represents that. A random and seemingly unimportant moment in my life where I found something that I thought was so cool that I couldn't share it with anyone else. Sometimes the most important things in your life are ones you, and only you, should know about. It keeps them special. Makes them yours. Even though you all know about my rock now, it'll remain special to me as I keep it in my backpack around the world. It reminds me to keep exploring, and that eventually, even when I'm not looking, I'll stumble across something I won't want to let go of.

With that, those are my five items. Little things, seemingly unimportant to everyone else in the world, that as long as I have them with me, provide a sense of home for me.

What are your five items?