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The granola bar: undoubtedly a gift from the gods for the man or woman on the go–a quick fix for most snacking needs. Compact and oaty with a variety of fruits, nuts and even chocolate. Crunchy or chewy, syrupy-sweet or with just a hint of salt, the granola bar is versatile in both flavor and usage, not to mention handheld delivery. My only beef with the bar is the price. The English cherish their own variety, the flapjack, which unfortunately falls more into the category of dessert than anything else. The American-style alternative boasts a hefty asking price for an insufficient yield of ‘healthy’ snacking goodness. Being the cheap bastard that I am, I started making my own: peanut butter and honey heated to a viscous goo, mixed with muesli, and cut into individually wrapped rectangles.
I store the bars in the communal fridge to cool. I’ll be back for them so soon I have little fear that anyone will pilfer my precious stash. It is 2:06 AM. My plane tickets are paid and printed. My global train pass just arrived in the mail. Passport in order? Check. In under four hours, my alarm will jolt me awake (and again five minutes after I smash the snooze button). The time is 2:06, I haven’t even packed my bags, and here I am making granola bars. Did I say bags? Make that backpack, or as the Brits say, rucksack. At least I have a mental checklist:
– one broken-in pair of converse
– three shirts
– one pair of jeans, one skirt
– under garments and socks to last a week, (or less if prepared to do some on the fly sink laundering
– two dresses
– one treasured, thrift-shop-bought Hanes sweatshirt, pink, embellished with thug raccoons
– rain jacket
– small hand towel, for rare and much appreciated encounters with soap and water
– multi-country electric socket adapter
That last item will be my most treasured. What else can a weary traveller do on a six hour train ride other than catch some zees? I meticulously fold and stack each item in my trusty, plaid, North Face day-tripper. This is no bells-and-whistles backpack, no straps to nowhere with at least four superfluous, heavy-duty buckles. The only straps on this old baby are the ones over my shoulders.
When you carry your world with you, keeping weight at a minimum takes all precedence. Whatever you choose to take literally hangs on your back like a less naggy Yoda. Rain, sun, leisurely walks or full-out sprints, that poundage will be there, crunching the disks in your spine and straining your glutes. If backpacking teaches you anything, it briefly eliminates the material mindset; you are a human hermit, so ditch the heavy hair products and the french press. Reading material is out of the question, too, unless in ebook form. Every pound counts, even a few hundred pages.
As predicted, I get up after the second alarm vibrates next to my ear. I emerge from my one-woman cot fully dressed. The British sun, already on the rise, softens the static, grey cloud cover. After fetching my late night granola creation, I don my jacket, lace up my trainers, and reaching both arms behind, slide on my pack with a single forward roll of the shoulders. Over the next three weeks, I’ll sleep wherever I can catch a wink, buses and trains, hostels and the sofas of generous strangers, anywhere. But I’ll get back to that. I have a plane to catch.
My travel partner, Jay, waits at our predetermined rendezvous. She is fully equipped with the latest gear and decked out in her 90’s chic denim outfit. We set out towards the nearest underground station where we’ll catch the dark and twisting Northern Line to our bus stop. London has more airports than the state of Rhode Island but unfortunately for travelers, all but one are located over 20 miles from the city center. As a result, we have an hour-long shuttle before reaching the northernmost aviation hub, Luton.
Jay and I successfully navigate to Old Street and ascend into London’s characteristic steady rain. We have fifteen minutes to kill before our scheduled pick-up and beeline to the nearest Food Cooperative. On a day of travelling, the stock up may very well be the most important of all preparations. I may have a dozen homemade granola bars, but by no means will they get me through an entire day. As much as I relish the peanut butter and honey combo, too much of the stuff reminds me of a particularly bizarre nightmare. I pick up a banana, some dried apricots, mixed nuts and a pre-made ‘mexican style’ wrap. I’ve been on my feet barely ten minutes and can already feel the strain from my backpack. I thought I’d traveled light but I’m still unacquainted with its extra bulbous nature and nearly knock over grocery displays and a small child before returning to the barely covered bus stop.
On arrival at London Luton, we validate our tickets and duck into the security line. A glance at my watch fills me with unease like the possibility of eating gone-off leftovers but the casually inching queue and lack of a timetable briefly assuage my fears. The security agents dispose of most of Jay’s liquids but soon enough, we are off. I shove my left sleeve up again and stare at the ticker. How long did it take to toss shampoo and cosmetics? A screen finally appears in the distance and I scan for SXB. Ryanair to SXB, Gate: 47, Status: closing.
“Jay, I hope you’re ready to run!” I holler over my shoulder, already hustling in the direction of the gate. I weave through duty free shoppers, child-corralling mothers and the overnight rolling bags of travelling businessmen, all the while clutching at the fronts of my pack’s straps. Gate 47 is one of the furthest from security but it will be sunny in London two weeks straight before I miss the flight.
<<This is the final boarding call to Strasbourg. We ask that you please make your way to the boarding gate immediately.>>
The Brits may be a notoriously no-nonsense bunch but they sure are polite about it. Even after five months living in the heart of the etiquette-empire, I am still as crude an American as ever. I kick up my heels and leave any accumulated politeness trailing in my wake along with a startled and stumbling elderly couple. I risk another look at my wrist. The plane should be departing within minutes.
I traipse up a flight of stairs two and three per stride and as I mount the top, I spy Gate 47, triumphant as Rocky Balboa. At the end of the lengthy corridor, two gate agents stir, no larger than the granola bars tucked into my backpack. This is it. This is what every run I’ve ever been on has led up to, not in preparation for the zombie apocalypse as I’d previously assumed. This stretch of sterile airport. This one-hour-and-25-minute flight that begins my college-kid rite of passage. I free my hands from the backpack loops and bolt. The unrestrained pack undulates like a parachute behind me. I ignore the drag.
30 feet to go. 20. 15 strides. 10! I don’t slow my pace until my proffered ticket and passport meet the gate agent’s hand. The prim woman regards me with a stern look, her red lipsticked mouth pinched into a frown. “Wright, Allison. I was just taking you off the manifesto. You are very fortunate.”
“One. More.” I muster between pants. “There’s one more.” I bend double as the other worker commands the distant Jay, “Hurry! You can rest on the plane!” I can eat on the plane, I think to myself, recalling my yet untouched spoils from earlier that day.
The flight attendant congratulates Jay and me before ushering us to our seats and retracting the port door behind us. We shove our brimming backpacks into the overhead bins and settle into our seats as the plane begins to coast onto the saturated tarmac. Jay releases a beaming grin from across the aisle. We made it! Our backpacking adventure has begun. Like an infectious spore, her toothy, shining-eyed visage spreads to mine as we lift off.
As soon as the 10,000 foot ascent ends, I lower my tray table with a clang and dump out the contents of my grocery bag. I have made the first mistake of backpacking. Jay refers to it as ‘Banana Republic,’ (along with a much larger, global issue). The wounded peel leaves a trail of once succulent flesh on the interior of the plastic bag. So much for breakfast. I skip ahead to the next of my provisions. Protected in a sturdy cardboard box, the fake burrito hits the spot. I forget my distaste for the English take on Mexican and greedily absorb the caloric binge. Spinach, black beans, roasted peppers, rice, sour cream and mayonnaise, all bound up in a tomato flavored tortilla. Leave it to the Brits to squeeze mayo into everything; next they’ll be slipping it into my tea. But the threat of an English offense looms far off.
“Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin. We will be landing in Strasbourg shortly.”