He was almost certainly homeless, dressed in a tattered and stained yellow long-sleeved shirt and what I think were bicycle pants, with the left leg shorter than the right. He carried a scuffed and dirty red athletic bag and a plastic bag from a grocery store, the latter holding at least two bottles of water.
He was heading over to visit a friend, he said, at the River Crest Apartments, a residence for chronic inebriates just down Lincoln Avenue from our place, and he stopped by our garage sale on the way. He looked to be in his forties, and he spoke with the same vagueness, the same lack of focus, that we’ve heard from the folks who live at River Crest since the place opened about six years ago.
He talked about a wife and oddities in their lives, but it was hard to tell as he spoke whether those were things that had happened in the last few years or long ago. Later on, the Texas Gal and I guessed it was the latter.
As he wandered around our small offering of things for sale, he noticed a magnifying glass on a stand with a flexible neck, like a gooseneck lamp. It was priced at five bucks, and he picked it up, and then his gaze fell on an orange backpack. “Oh,” he said, “that looks like a good one.”
It was a good backpack, bought in November 1973 in a sporting goods store in Fredericia, Denmark. When I’d headed to Denmark that September, I’d brought with me a light rucksack, thinking that it would suffice when I headed out hitchhiking or riding trains across Western Europe. One four-day trip to the West German harbor city of Kiel told me it wasn’t big enough or rugged enough, and I told my parents so in a letter.
They responded by sending me $35 – the equivalent of about $190 today – to get a backpack in time for my planned early December travels to Brussels and Amsterdam, and sometime in late November, I went to the store recommended by my Danish host family and bought myself an orange nylon backpack with a silver aluminum frame. That’s what our ragged customer saw offered for sale last week.
It was only a little difficult to put the backpack into the garage sale. I hadn’t used it since 1975, when I took a bus trip from St. Cloud to Kingston, Ontario, to visit a young lady I’d met during my European travels. We didn’t match well on this side of the Atlantic, and I never heard from her again. Nor had I used the backpack. Protected by an old pillowcase, it had sat on a shelf in my parents’ basement until Mom sold the house on Kilian Boulevard in 2004. Since then, it had sat in a closet in our apartment and then on a shelf in our basement. About a week before the sale, the Texas Gal asked what I wanted to do with it. I acknowledged with a sigh that my backpacking days were long gone, and we priced it at five bucks.
As we sat at our small table watching our visitor examine the backpack, the Texas Gal asked me, “Do you want to just give it to him?”
I shook my head. I was willing to sell the backpack, but to just give it away? “No,” I said.
After all, it had been my companion for much of what I’ve called the greatest formative experience of my life. On my December travels, I had carried it and it had carried me as I hitchhiked to Hamburg and Hanover in West Germany and then rode buses and trains to Brussels and Amsterdam and back to Fredericia. In March and April, I traveled more than 11,000 miles on a rail pass, and the backpack rode my shoulders from train stations to hostels and cheap hotels all over Western Europe, as far south as Rome and as far north as Narvik, keeping safe all the things I needed as I traveled.
Our ragged visitor moved on to look at other stuff we had for sale, but I was looking back. By the time one of my trips – the longest one, in March and early April 1974 – had ended, the backpack carried not only my clothing and sundries but four pieces of contraband: a liter mug pilfered from the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, a smaller beer glass lifted from a restaurant in Nuremburg, and two delicate painted tea glasses liberated from an Arabic restaurant in Paris. The mug and the beer glass were late additions to the backpack’s contents, but I still marvel that the two tea glasses – they now sit atop a bookshelf in our dining room – survived more than a month of travel, protected by nothing more than a sweater or other soft garments.
As I looked back, our visitor returned to the backpack. “That sure is a nice one,” he said.
I think I sighed. And I said to the Texas Gal, “Go ahead. Give it to him.”
She did. I had to show him how to work the flap and its ties, and then we loaded his bags into it and helped him slip it on his shoulders. He picked up his new magnifying glass and headed for River Crest. I watched him as he went, the vivid orange of his new backpack easily visible until he went into the building about a half a block away.
“He needed it,” the Texas Gal said.
“I know,” I managed to say. “And it’s gone on a new adventure.”
Here’s the best track I could find among the nineteen tracks in the RealPlayer that had the word “adventure” in their titles. It’s “Adventures On The Way” by the English group Prelude, and it’s from the group’s 1974 album, After The Gold Rush.