Packing Up

ESSAY by Zak Breckenridge

AAA maps for every state I thought I might pass through - Pittsfield, Massachusetts

AAA maps – Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Keenan is in class, but I have to go. The itch is mounting in my chest. I check to make sure: my iPhone cable is locked inside his car. My own car is packed. I’ve already said goodbye to everybody. He’s not out of class for another two hours and it’s time to go. The plan, that I will go this morning, has become a mounting tension in my chest, a physical need. I go back to his room and root through his desk. He has the cable I need, but it’s frayed and discolored, the wires exposed above the plugs. I take it with me on my way out. As I pull away from the pastel trees and buildings of Hampshire College, I text him to say that I have his charger but he has mine. His reply: “That works.”


That small piece of problem-solving lives with me today. The iPhone cable from Keenan’s desk, still frayed and floppy, is coiled in my shirt pocket as I write this. It’s little more than a foot of entwined wires, but the cable is an important cog in the apparatus of my everyday life. As I drive, it conducts electricity from the car’s battery to my phone, and the phone feeds words and melodies through my stereo system. Sometimes I bring the cable into the house or apartment where I’m crashing, and I have to make sure that the wall adapter comes with me. Keeping track of the cable is a small but essential part of ordering my world. And while this cable is not special, it is specific; it carries its own quotidian origin story. It is part of the material scaffold on which my life is hung.


The woods at Hampshire College - Amherst, Massachusetts

Hampshire College woods – Amherst, Massachusetts

I began listening to objects last summer, only a few months before my visit to Hampshire. It’s mid-July: Keenan and I are sweating in my high-ceilinged Chicago apartment, locked in a losing battle against my possessions. He’s flown out to help me move myself, and whichever of my things are valuable enough to join me, back to my parents’ house in Essex, NY. Everything that fits in my blue Subaru Forester has to be packed up, and everything that doesn’t has to leave the apartment some other way. By the time Keenan got there, I had been selling furniture to my friends for a couple of weeks. My dresser and chairs and several lamps were gone; I would need his help getting the couches and desk out. Now, near the end of our stay in Chicago, the furniture is gone, and my blankets, books, binders, forks, pans, jackets, jeans, t-shirts, and toiletries have begun their migration to the car. We are giving away what we can; we don’t have time to ask for money anymore. Dana and Tiffany drop in to say goodbye and leave with bulging bags of canned chili, brown sugar, rice, and flour. We offload so much on them they complain about carrying it all home. I give Jack my printer even though he doesn’t want it. I tell him he can throw it away after the ink runs out. I am just trying to keep my things from becoming trash.


The heat is already breaking and the tide of the battle has not yet turned; we are still finding new things to move. The kitchen cabinets and desk drawers turn out to be full of objects so much a part of my day-to-day life I have forgotten about them. Vials of paprika, basil, cloves, cinnamon, curry powder, chili powder, garlic powder, cajun spice and cumin; boxes of individually packaged chamomile, tension tamer, echinacea, and lemon ginger; unfinished bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce, salad dressing, mustard, and ketchup; bags of frozen kale, corn, and green beans; unopened mail, essay drafts, wet wipes, paper towels, spare change, and ballpoint pens. Things so ordinary they’ve become invisible are now given shape and substance by the moving process. Each one reminds me how deeply I underestimated this task.


As we labor to dismantle my home into mobile units wrapped in cardboard and plastic, the space begins a transformation of its own. As containers fill and leave, the apartment ceases to be a place of habitation, the home Julynn and I had crafted together, and starts to become raw space: two bare cubes connected by a narrow passage. This alien and alienating emptiness has begun to assert itself around the remaining squat boxes and clinging wall hangings. The task of moving has become so huge that we consider stopping for the day and leaving the next morning, but without words we both feel the gnawing blankness lurking in those rooms and know we won’t spend another night there. We have cleared the place of markers of human life, and so have made ourselves unwelcome.


But I also have to go because I remember the blankness I found there twelve months before, the twin brother of what we’ve uncovered. Folding the bed sheets into a box, it’s hard not to remember the bed Julynn and I made of blankets on the floor, in that exact spot, the first day that we got there. How the floor had been hard and the walls had been blank but we were together. The emptiness of that apartment had been potential, exciting—it told of the pictures we would hang and the bed we would buy, the friends we would make and the sex we would have. Now carrying out those last dishes, pillows, and blankets, transforming those rooms back to what they had been before we got there, it’s impossible not to think how the vectors of our lives had followed their contours, how the apartment had been not just a place but the setting of our intimate lives. Now, in that second July, Keenan asks me what I want to do with the bottle of Sriracha and I balk because I remember saying in the grocery store twelve months before, that if we got the big one we would only ever need to buy one. I hesitate with my answer, so Keenan decides that it’s trash and tosses it. And I am surprised at the care I feel for this bottle, now only half-empty, at how it holds testament to the optimism of our first months in Chicago, and at how badly I don’t want to see it wasted.
I cry during my few moments alone in the apartment. They are tears of a wordless heartbreak, embarrassed by its own reticence. The apartment completes its reversion to merely a parcel of space. It’s after six-thirty by the time the final things are dumped in the alley and the keys are left at the office and we climb into the car. It is only in this moment, as we glide down the Chicago Skyway, that I feel a slight euphoric pressure in my chest. I have packed up as best I can. At least I am going.


A bridge crosses the Rio Grande - Somewhere in New Mexico

A bridge crosses the Rio Grande – Somewhere in New Mexico

That was when I first saw my life transformed into objects to be sorted, stuffed, packed, shattered, and deep-sixed. Now, thousands of overland miles from Chicago or Essex or Amherst, I watch over only the objects that fit in the back of that blue Subaru Forester. The car is not stuffed to the ceiling like it was in July, but blanketed: a layer of things to be sifted through and grumbled at. Some of these objects are woven into the fabric of my everyday life—the worn phone charger from Keenan’s drawer, a day pack my brother was getting rid of, the boots that are cracking at the toe-crease, my phone, wallet, keys, and water bottle. Some objects dip into and out of my life. Depending on the week or the stretch of land I am covering, I may need a pair of sunglasses, or the beanie I bought in Chicago, or the hand-me-down peacoat from Brooklyn. There were a few weeks, when I went from Michigan to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Chicago, that I needed to use the ice scraper my uncle had given me, which did not coincide with the weeks across California, Arizona, and New Mexico when I had to make sure the ice pack was keeping my cooler cold. I need these items, but they frequently disappear into some pocket or bag only to resurface again when or after they are needed. In their flux and weight and contingency, these objects are the constants of my life. We collaborate, the objects and I, in the project of waking up somewhere else.


Other objects accompany me in spite of the fact that I have never used them. Thinking I would use my time on the road to brush up my German, I packed my German-language Tintin books (Tim und Struppi im Reiche des schwarzen Goldes and Tim und Struppi und der Arumbaya Fetisch), along with my old textbook (Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik). And, vagabond that I am (and in spite of the off season), I brought a tent, bug spray, and a Krazy Kreek chair. I have not yet used any of these things, but I packed them and keep them because they remain useful in potentia. In fact, I have not seen the spare tire or the tire jack since the beginning of my trip, but the car is not complete without them. The jumper cables that I got at the Ace Hardware in Great Barrington, MA lay idle for almost two months, but they saw use on a bitter cold morning in Northfield, MN and I was thankful for their patience. Many of these things are there in case: they sprawl on top of one another because of the contingencies, the whens and what ifs that haunt a solo trip around the country. I carry a rolled-up mattress, a few blankets, and a pillow, in case my host has no bedding or I sleep somewhere without a host. I carry a flashlight in case I am caught out in the dark. I carry a couple of blazers in case I am invited to a formal event.


The author stands in front of a crab shell - Somewhere along the California coast (Credit: Craig Rathgeber)

The author stands in front of a crab shell – Somewhere along the California coast (Credit: Craig Rathgeber)

Another class of things has no reason to leave the car. As I make haphazard stops across the country, sometimes I will pocket a stone or feather or brochure, a thoughtless and personal memento. Unsure of where they belong in my organizational scheme, I pack them carelessly and find them only when I am looking for something else—at the bottom of a tote or backpack’s side-pocket. These things, useless by nature, come along with me because they might become memorials to a time and place. I imagine stumbling upon a tourist guide to the North Woods of Wisconsin in my own future attic, transported back in time by the memory of the runny nose I had as I drove and how I had taken the pamphlet because I wanted to seem like I wasn’t only interested in the visitor center’s bathroom. I keep them in anticipation of the nostalgia I will feel for what is now my present, but in the meantime they live aimless, disorganized lives because they can only remind me of where I am.


Some of these odd objects, however, serve more as company than future memorials. On a beach somewhere in southern Oregon, as the sun was staining the clouds over the Pacific gold then orange then pink and the children ran toward and away from the surf and the shore birds scudded across the glistening brown sand, I picked up a fully formed crab claw. It was beige edged with purple, divided into three articulable sections, and devoid of meat. I admired it for a while, then pocketed it. Now it hangs by a length of clumsily wrapped thread from the rearview mirror in my car, jostling and spinning through my long hours behind the wheel. It has become a sort of traveling companion. The purple and beige have faded to pink and white and the veils of tissue over the joints have blackened with decay. But as a part of that scene at the ocean, it feels obscurely alive. It seems to me a message from the material world, a cipher I would rather live with than crack. More reminder than memorial, it keeps me wondering about what I am doing, and where I am.


Sunset on the Pacific - Somewhere along the Oregon coast

Sunset on the Pacific – Somewhere along the Oregon coast

The crab claw, the iPhone cable, the boots around my feet: they are not just things. They are my intimates. I live with them as in the past I have lived with dishes, chairs, forks, knives, pictures, and surge suppressors. But each part of my world, drawn close, packed into an artificially small frame, stands starkly out. I have to know where the thread, the knife, and the water bottle are because no one else does. The labor of bringing them is wasted if I cannot find them later. They are the constants in a life otherwise dominated by flux, newness, bewilderment.


My things also allow me to build some modicum of a life in the homes of others. Early in the trip, unsure of what I would need, I would stumble through the door bogged down with swollen bags. By trial and error I have learned that I need the large pack of clothes, the Ziploc bag of toiletries, my computer, its power supply, my notebook, my headphones, a book or two, and sometimes an extra jacket. In these alien spaces, the bags gather in a corner, huddled together as if for warmth. The space for my body is usually a couch, though it has also been a closet or a spare room. We take up residence, my things and I, in the excess space that collects in the unthought corners of people’s homes. My private life among objects must mesh like gears with the lives of my hosts, my toothbrush on the sink next to theirs, our blankets working together to keep me warm.


Clementine naps - Buffalo, Wyoming

Clementine naps – Buffalo, Wyoming

And in this scene of unpacking and integrating a material life, I come into contact with the intimate life of someone else. In the act of packing and unpacking my things I unpack a person who, in turn, unpacks me. I have now developed brief, intense intimacies with a chain of people that lies in links from the Puget Sound to the Smoky Mountains, and from Lake Superior to the Rio Grande. In Buffalo, WY I stayed with a woman about whom I knew nothing before stepping through her front door. She was out but had left the apartment unlocked for me. I looked in her fridge (a couple of beers, condiments, some chicken breasts), at her records (Neil Young, Tom Petty, David Bowie), her bookshelf (travel guides to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, books about music theory and composition), her few wall hangings (a map of blues musicians from Louisiana by town, several Polaroids of friends laughing together, a map of Ecuador). In the following days her puppy, Clementine, shared the couch with me and from there I listened to her booking rooms at the guest ranch where she worked. We went out to a bar where you can smoke indoors and met her friends who worked at the local paper, and I heard first-hand ghost stories from the bartender and then back at her apartment we ranted drunkenly to one another about those friends, our families, our taste in music. I learned about her sister’s PhD; she learned about my Fulbright application. I liked her intensely and still think of her often. She opened up her home to me and, when it was time to leave, she paused Netflix and waved to me from her bed.


On the other side of the Rockies, in a lumber town south of Tacoma, WA, I stayed with an acquaintance from college, Corey, and her partner, Jazz, who was making a knife for her on his new lathe when I arrived. They lived a few miles off the state highway, down a driveway narrow enough I drove past it twice. The entrance to their two-room house was so cluttered with power tools I had to watch my step. They shared this humble home with a dog, a dozen quail, and a red-tailed hawk. Corey, who worked as a leatherworker and falconer at a rookery, was training the hawk to hunt. Once while I was there she brought the hawk in and fed it bits of beef heart with little pliers. She was trying to acclimate it to the hood, which fits over the bird’s eyes and, because sight is a hawk’s strongest sense, calms the beast for travel. I sat not four feet away as she told me that birds mate for life out of convenience, do not develop attachments, and live only to kill as it snatched the drips of meat and worked its talons against her glove. She also told me how lucky she was, to finally be doing what she had always wanted to do, at one of two falcon-breeding businesses in North America. Since childhood she had wanted to work with killer birds, and now she was. Here, yet again, I was not sure how welcome I would be, but within hours we were eating burgers and hand-cut fries and we were talking like intimates. I heard about their commune-hop down the Pacific Coast, and we swapped convictions and exhaustions, and the room was close and warm, full of drifters and dreamers as it was.


Jazz, after treating us to a series of YouTube videos about lathes and smelting, told me about how he had gotten his truck by paying two hundred bucks for the right to tow it out of a field back home in Humboldt County, about how he had built a new ignition system, rattling off parts and repairs faster than I could track, saying the whole time how simple it all was. It was the first consumer model that Ford had put a diesel engine in, and he was, as far as I could tell, the only person on earth who knew how to keep this particular one running. He also told me that he had no patience for hikes under twelve miles, that he’s just heating up after five. I learned that someone who hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail (which he had only done parts of) goes up, on average, one full shoe size, on account of the muscle he builds in his feet. Neither of them smoked pot, but they kept a half-gallon Mason jar of it in their freezer, in case any of their few visitors wanted some. They insisted I take some buds for the road.


A salt drawing left by the tide - Somewhere along the California coast

A salt drawing left by the tide – Somewhere along the California coast

In that house I felt a warmth that was not mine. They kindled an affection in me that was not for either one in particular, but for the home they had made and the life they had stumbled on together. In the two days I spent with them, I learned to discern the outline of their romance, the obscure forces that had brought and kept them together. And, sharing their couch with the dog, listening to the stove throb against the soft cold of January in Washington, I felt secure, enamored not so much with them as the vital ecology they had found.


Over and over I am tucked into the lives of others. I learn their rhythms and cycles. I listen when they are fed up with their bosses. I go along to the spot around the corner with the wicked huevos and the thin drip coffee. I lay on the floor and listen to snores for hours. I hear about the train system in Seattle, the super-commuters of DC. The brutal loss at the football game, the short-notice visit from mom, the spilled candle wax all over the kitchen, the roommate who keeps the thermostat too high: I am there for all of it. For a time. I am temporary witness to the aspirations and memories, the habits and commutes, of someone with a bit of space to spare. And then I pack up, and I keep going.


Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico - Grand Isle, Louisiana

Sunset on the Gulf of Mexico – Grand Isle, Louisiana

Of course packing up does not always go smoothly. The pillow I brought from home stayed in Great Barrington. A new lighter disappeared into the snow in Marquette. I left so many things in Philadelphia (two jackets, my good headphones, and my new towel) that I had my host mail it to my uncle’s address in Michigan. I left my backup pair of sunglasses in Rosemead, CA. I left a blanket in Chicago. I left my gym shorts in Amherst. I left my scarf in Cleveland. Every time it is an accident. Every time I swear and hit the steering wheel and accept it. I cannot track it all. No matter how little, it is too much. In spite of the fact that I always make a plan with my host about when I will go, I really leave because I have to. It starts as an agitation in my stomach which then works its way up to my diaphragm and ultimately on to my heart. Once the itch takes root in my chest, it is time to go. I am always frantic, anxious, excited as I pack up. A small, patient euphoria takes me over as I pull away from a curb and head toward the highway. My things are obscured by the haze of leaving, and my memory falters.


Packing and unpacking: for me they are a history of small failures. Something is always forgotten, left behind, or never brought along. I am never fully prepared. I get access to the part of a person that is more domestic than social—at least more expressive if not more real. I see how the everyday chafes them, the strain of being themselves. I do not know what they see when they look at me, but briefly we are at each other’s mercy. Briefly we are, I sometimes like to think, in love. And then I pack up, move on to another bit of space in this flat and craggy country. I want to bring this intimacy along, to pack it and treasure it, but I worry, in the doldrum afternoon hours of a day on the road, that something has slipped my mind.

The author looks for the Rio Grande - Somewhere in New Mexico

Zak Breckenridge’s (MAPH ’14) work has recently appeared in Post-Road Magazine and Partisan Magazine. He lives in Chicago and edits the music blog Floodplain Press. You can view more pictures from his travels on his Instagram page.

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