My third suitcase came around the baggage carousel, the largest of my set. I could tell it was mine because of the four multicolored zip ties I secured to the handle. I braced myself, grabbed it as it was going by, and heaved it onto the floor. Watching the carousel for all of my suitcases and placing them in a collection was like reuniting a long-lost family, right there in the Brisbane International Airport.
This was the fifth airport I had traversed in the last 24 hours with my three overstuffed rolling suitcases, a shoulder bag, fully loaded backpacking pack and a pillow tucked under my arm. Here I was, one solitary young woman in the international terminal loaded down with her whole world; who just crossed an ocean to start an adventure in a foreign place, filled with unfamiliar faces, for the most extended amount of time I’d ever been away from home.
I scanned the crowd for the other travelers I would spend the next six months with. Some of them were on my flight. I looked for anyone with a massive amount of luggage like me. A few people gathered all wearing hiking backpacks, and one girl had a similar number of suitcases on a metal trolley as I did, but I had the most luggage by far of anyone. Suddenly, I felt very aware of all of the things that had crossed the world with me loaded in the belly of a 747. I felt embarrassed to have gone overboard and packed too much.
I lugged my suitcases up the stairs to the second floor of the flamingo pink bunkhouse, where I politely begged pardon as I lumbered over to a vacant bunk. I unpacked my clothes into the empty chest of drawers, smashing 30 pairs of underwear into a submissive corner to make room for all the shirts and jeans. I unrolled my sleeping bag over the mattress, puffed my pillow and placed my photo album on the nightstand. I set about recreating my Oregon home in Australia, and the anxiety dissipated as my things surrounded me with familiarity. I didn’t realize how much faith I put in my possessions to fend off homesickness until it all came crashing down.
Months later, our group was gearing up to spend several weeks road-tripping up the Queensland coast, but we were supposed to completely clear out our bunks before leaving. A new mission group was coming to the base who would need the use of the space while we were gone. I packed the essentials in my backpack and left everything else locked in a storage locker. A pang of anxiety perked in me as I considered where I would sleep when we returned, but I was reassured it would be sorted out.
We slept on the ground in tents, explored the Great Barrier Reef, and drove dusty red dirt roads crammed in a bus with 25 people in the Australian bush. The trip was liberating, filled with joy and new friendships as I let my guard down. I finally felt like I belonged with this new group of people. Somewhere between the beach and the bush, I realized that the fewer items I possessed, the less time I spent worrying about them. I had everything I needed on my back. I spent precious little time worrying about feeling at home and instead focused on cultivating friendships and living each day right up to the hilt. I made memories I’ve carried with me the rest of my life.
While on the road, I felt like I was over my homesickness, but even the most thirsty wayfarer needs a home base, to regroup, catch a breath and rest. It is in rest where all the lessons taught by adventure are given the space to percolate and embed themselves in the heart.
In the waning hours of the trip, I longed to wash the road dust out of my hair and fall asleep in a real bed that was all mine, next to new friends.
We pulled into the driveway and parked between two gum trees. I was mapping it all out in my head—unpack my bag, shower and take a nap—but our leader said there were some problems with sleeping arrangements at the base. We wouldn’t have a place to crash just yet but would be able to rest in someone else’s bed for a few hours.
I crawled up to the top bunk and laid on top of some girl’s red sleeping bag. The smell of her shampoo wafted up from the pillow, her tchotchkes and reminders of faraway friends and family were scattered all around. This was her home away from home. All I wanted was a bunk with my own sleeping bag on it and reminders of home around me, but there wasn’t any room for that. All I had was the stuff on my back and items still in the storage locker, which was unavailable to me. The sense of home I struggled to create for months was gone.
I broke down. My head pounded and angry tears streamed down my face as I talked to my group leader.
I can’t do this.
I just need a place to crash that isn’t temporary, where I can be without thinking I am inconveniencing the other girl who sleeps here.
I just need to sleep.
I was a hysterical mess. Somehow I knew something had to change because I wasn’t going home for several more months. I knew this feeling of homesickness would eat me alive if I didn’t change the narrative.
I thought when I left Oregon, went someplace I’d never been, to do things I’d never done with people I’d never met, that the more stuff from home I had around me, the less homesick I would be. I thought it would insulate me from the pain of having no one who knew my history, my quirks, my personality; from having to start from scratch. Because no one had shared memories with me, I thought my possessions could stand in.
The idea of home and not having one flooded my mind, but I realized I wasn’t pining after Oregon, but of finding home within myself for the first time. The more time I spent sitting among the things I brought with me from home, fretting over where I should store them while I answered the call of adventure, the less I actually could be present and available to experience all that a once in a lifetime experience on the other side of the world could offer. I realized that every superfluous insulating item would have to go, especially the things that I tried to hide behind.
I donated the majority of the clothes I brought from home. I gave my iPod to a man from the Netherlands. With my suitcases nearly empty and heart full, I took a deep breath, lighter and free. Home is more than a place and things; it is the heart of a person. Nothing can replace the need for connection and belonging.
It has been 15 years since my walkabout Down Under. One of the lessons that great adventure taught me is to put as little emphasis on things as possible, to have what I need and not a lot more. My time living out of a backpack was my first foray into Minimalism before it was a buzzword. It is a guiding principle in my family today, to never let things come between the relationships we have with one another. In our home, we believe people mean more than things. I hope to teach my children that home is a place to cherish; to hold with open hands and hearts as a place of connection instead of a fortress of isolation and complacency. To grab onto connection, I let go of things that get in the way. Through this experience, I have learned the value of home, the comfort of familiarity and the reality that even when I’m away from home, the most important things I carry cannot be crammed in a suitcase, but are the treasures held in my heart which are never things to leave behind.
Featured image by Hill Smiley Photography
Jennifer Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.