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San Diego's Backpack Burdens

What’s in the sack? That’s all they care about.
Is it a rock or a rolled-up giraffe?
Is it pickles or nickels or busted bicycles?
And if we guess it, will you give us half?
Do they ask where I’ve been, or how long I’ll be stayin’,
Where I’ll be goin’, or when I’ll be back,
Or “How do?” or “What’s new?” or “Hey, why are you blue?”
No, all they keep asking is “What’s in the sack?”
“What’s in the sack?” I’m blowin’ my stack
At the next one who asks me, “What’s in the sack?”
What?
Oh no. Not you, too!
From “What’s in the Sack?” by Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Harper & Row)

Yep, us too. Come on, open up. What’s in that backpack? Nothing tells us who you are quite like what you’re willing to haul around with you, and we do so want to know who you are, San Diego. Come on, just a peek…

The chief advantage of a backpack, of course, is that it frees the hands. This is essential when you are a parent of a baby or toddler. Babies need hands for attending and carrying. Toddlers need hands for restraint. Backpacks are the easiest way of handling the masses of stuff that children require for care, feeding, and entertainment. Mother of an 18-month-old, speaking as if this conversation is not on the schedule, “Diapers. Food, her drinks. Drinks, food, and diapers for her. And my wallet. Take my photo? You’re kidding. Well, the diapers are clean, so…Wipes are important. Food. Her magazine [Animals All Around].”

Another mom, her pack jutting out like a snail shell behind her, gestures to her two children. “This is the reason why I have a backpack. I wouldn’t survive without one. Diapers. Money. Extra clothes. That’s the whole backpack.”

The bright side is that when children get older, they can carry their own backpacks and often take a fierce pride in doing so. Carl is a shy, towheaded three-year-old who nonetheless shoots a look of secret delight when asked about his pack.

“What’s in there, Carl?”

“Clothes. I got this pants. Stickers,” he hoots, beaming. When he poses for a photo, he peers over his shoulder, smiling coyly.

Any account of backpacking types must include students. Vashon, an upbeat African American clad in primary colors, assumes a narrative distance as he goes through the essentials. “A Walkman. You can’t have a backpack without a Walkman. The tape is Marvin Gaye. You’ve got to have some old school, and you’ve got to have some new school. The new school would be Mary J. Blige. Then, if you’re a student, of course, you’ve got to have some books. And if you’re in college, one has an organizer. If you work, you have a uniform, very tight fit.” He also carries the obligatory condom, highlighters, White-Out, and name tags.

The first I see of student number two, Jennie, is a Bad Religion patch stitched onto her black backpack. When I catch up to her, I see that besides the heavy, straight, shoulder-length blonde hair and retro outfit, she wears tortoiseshell glasses, a dead giveaway. Artist. Her description of her pack’s contents builds to the revelation, “I’ve got a camera, I’ve got my brush, my psychology book, Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, all my writing. I want to be a writer. I’ve got all these poems and stuff.” It’s quite a collection.

“Do you carry all of them everywhere?”

“Pretty much, because at home, I don’t know, I don’t trust the people there; they always go through my stuff. I don’t want anyone else to read it until it’s ready. The Sound and the Fury is for my English class, but I’m a psychology major. I’d like to be a psychologist, a clinical psychologist, so that I’ll be able to afford publishing my own books. Because I’m not sure; I write really controversial stuff, and I don’t want to have to depend on the publisher’s taste. And also, then I could edit my own things, and I wouldn’t have to bend to an editor.”

Curious about what could be called “controversial” in today’s literary climate, I ask about her themes. “I write about everything I see. Pretty much everything. I’ll probably write about this incident, for instance. I write about a lot of things which I think people just totally ignore and aren’t even aware of, just even everyday things. I have a lot of stuff from when I was riding on the bus. There’s always good material there.”

Some of that good material may come in the form of Mike, an open-faced stalk of a man wrapped in black, beret to boots. “I ride the bus,” he states. “I have a lot of time to read.” His backpack is empty except for one book, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. “It’s a little bit difficult to get through on the bus, I’ve been finding, with all the conversations and stuff going on, especially late at night, coming back from the bars. A lot of people go downtown. You know.” (Downtown partygoer lament: “It’s hard to let go on the bus at the end of an evening with these Freud-reading people in black casting a pall over everything. I mean, geez.”)

“What do you think? Is Freud on to something?”

“Yeah, I think so, because of his theory of wish fulfillment. It seems to hold up pretty well. When you dream something, it’s because the unconscious is expressing a wish fulfillment, and even if a dream seems mundane, the most mundane elements of a dream generally are symbols or an aversion to the actual underlying subject of the dream. Every symbol is connected with other events in your life; it’s like a chain of similarities.”

Mike isn’t swallowing Freud whole. “I wonder about the theory, though, because it seems when you make a statement that ‘it’s always this,’ you run into trouble. And I wonder about his analysis sometimes, whether he could analyze a dream into meaning anything. But just from my own experiences, after reading, when I have a dream and I remember it, I think of it in terms of wish fulfillment, and generally, it makes sense.” Discontented with pop psychology’s summation and dismissal of Freud, a late-night bus rider seeks to understand his darkly symbolic dreams through a return to the original writings of the master. Jennie could have a field day. I’m stuck with backpacks.

Back. Pack. A play in one act.

[Pannikin Coffee Shop, La Jolla. Matt has convinced Melanie, an aspiring playwright, to show him the contents of her backpack. Melanie is tall, neatly dressed and coiffed, and speaks with the tone and inflection of one who has studied speaking. Beth, her friend, sits with them. She is shorter than Melanie, perhaps a trifle more cosmopolitan. Both are grad students in theater at UCSD.]

What do you want me to do, open it up? Okay. Journal.

Beth: She’s a writer.

Mel: I’m a writer. Rough draft of my new play.

Matt: Advance comment?

Mel: No. [To Beth] It’s the kind of circus fairy-tale thing. [To Matt] It will be very good. Anybody can come see it next year, probably. Just kidding. [Resumes unpacking backpack] Notebook. Second draft of a current play and notes for revisions.

Beth: I’m a dramaturge.

Mel: [Overlapping Beth] She’s a dramaturge.

Matt [overlapping Mel]: What’s a dramaturge?

Mel: She’s the one who knows what she’s doing.

Beth: No, no, no.

Mel: I’m a playwright. She’s a dramaturge. Parking maps. I don’t have to show you my feminine-hygiene products, right?

Matt: No, you do not.

Mel: It crossed my mind that you’re just some kind of weirdo, wanting to count tampons, but…Sunglasses, wallet, orange.

Beth [correcting her]: Tangerine.

Mel: Tangerine. Granola bar.

Beth: She’s healthy.

Mel [without irony]: Aspirin. It’s different from ibuprofen. I take them for different kinds of pain. I get migraines. These help in the early stages. These would be for cramping. Matches, because I’ve sort of quit smoking. Wow, a really old dirty handkerchief. A little bottle of lotion. This is amazing. This is like the Shriner car. I can’t get it all back in. Checkbook, with checks in it. I’m impressed. Mirror. Wow, what a stash. Five lipsticks, a Chapstick, and a lip-liner.

Matt: Now, how many times do you use lipstick a day, and how many different colors will you vary?

Beth [cutting in]: I carry one, but I use it a lot.

Mel: You carry one?

Beth: Yeah.

Mel: Well, that’s interesting. Really?

Beth: Yeah.

Matt: Will you change throughout the day?

Mel: Oh, absolutely.

Beth: I definitely don’t. But that’s the way I am, though. I find something I like, and I just have to stay with it.

Mel: No. It’s like pens. I change pens throughout the day. You know, like, depending on what your mood is?

Matt: So it’s mood lipstick.

Mel: Sure, absolutely. Mood lipstick, kind of, yeah, depending on your mood. Pen collection. Which is very, I mean, you choose your highlighter color carefully. Fountain pen. Rolling ball, ball-point, and pencil. It’s sort of what you feel you want to go for with the pen on paper. That makes a big difference for me when I write.

Beth: See, I think you just haven’t found the one you like best.

Mel: I’m still looking. I don’t know, different paper, different pens, different times of day. Heavy-duty migraine medicine. Political fliers. Various things that aren’t your business. A card-catalog card that I apparently stole.

Beth [getting around to what a dramaturge is]: I guess I’m like a third eye, in the sense that I look at something… Dramaturges are sounding boards for the writer. They know them, and they know what they’re trying to say. And they can tell you if that’s coming across or not, or what is coming across.

Mel: It’s like counterpoint to your work. It’s a person who’s articulate and challenging who helps you articulate and challenge your work. Beth will ask me questions about my play, and then if I can’t answer it, that makes me wonder why I can’t answer it.

Beth: I think there are too many playwrights who say, “Well, it doesn’t have to mean anything in particular.”

Mel: ”It means what you want it to mean. That’s the theater of it.”

Beth: That’s bullshit.

[Curtain]

Please don’t ask what this play means. It doesn’t have to mean anything in particular. Actually, it means what you want it to mean. Next backpack, please.

Beth’s role as a dramaturge sounds a lot like the role the artists’ commune used to play: sounding board, critic possessed of intimate knowledge about the author, challenger and clarifier of ideas and artistic method. It’s been ages since I’ve heard of a good artist’s commune, so maybe we need them. In the meantime, there is always Zendik Farm.

Siah Zencik is tall; he has a long face, sharp eyes, and a fabulous head of hair. His backpack contains nothing but magazines and tapes. The magazine is the Zendik Tribe Zeen, which he says is “the largest underground newspaper in the country.” You may remember Zendik Farm. They had a 75-acre farm in the mountains of eastern San Diego County until they moved to a 300-acre farm in Texas five years ago. Siah and his friends still come west now and again to sell their wares and spread the Zendik message.

Siah expounds, “It’s sort of an artists’ commune. It started up in the ’60s in a place called Perris, California. It moved to Florida and became a five-person artists’ group in Key West, but then it moved back to California and got a piece of land again. What we can’t grow, we get from other organic farmers, and there’s a lot of things we buy from Radio Shack and Walmart. Electronic shit and stuff, because we are artists…and our main thing is to get the idea and the philosophy out. So we put a lot into our art forms. We travel around the country, getting out our magazine or our music. Artwork, poetry, philosophy, comics; no ads, no bullshit.” Sales from the magazine and music finance the operation, which consists of about 50 people actually living on the farm and 15,000 people involved nationwide.

Siah is well spoken, and any commune that has actually survived 30 years deserves some attention. I poke through the magazine. Highlights:

  • 60 million people are going to starve to death this year and our glorious culture gives us The New Price Is Right. That’s obscene.
  • The hell on earth of war, starvation, extinction, the emotional hell of relationships, and the ominous boredom, all are symptoms of the unworkable philosophy that the culture is built on.
  • This destructive robot routine consisted of — make bucks, exchange them for painkillers — weed, beer, whiskey, acid, trinkets — all in an attempt to grease the machine for another work week.
  • We do organic farming, music, video, dance, carpentry, animal care, photography, publishing, multimedia shows at colleges, home schooling, mechanics, and pottery. We work hard. We live well.
  • The human dilemma is the deep loneliness we all feel. Zendik understands the futility of conventional therapy, for it is an attempt to fit into an insane society. Therapy will not work separated from the rest of life.”

I dunno. It’s a familiar line, complete with “universal thrust for ever-expanding consciousness,” but they make it sound pretty good, even workable. But I can’t stop to think about it right now.

As Siah is a salesman for his culture, Jeremy is a salesman for his. Jeremy’s Salt Lake Rock Climbing Backpack is stocked with “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…about 15 calculators, and 24 kids’ CD players. Down here, I’ve also got a massager, a consignment sheet, and a business license. I work for a wholesale distributor.”

What else has this stuff-merchant carried? “Dude, I’ve carried some funky things, like monkeys, kids’ little monkeys, little ugly monkeys, all kinds of stuff.” Trinkets, anyone?

Jeremy is young and employed. So is Kelly, who staffs a coffee stand downtown. Her backpack — “My two magazines, Cosmo and Mademoiselle. A book — Aladdin’s Lamp, how to ask for what you want.

“Purse, goodies, gum, lip-liner — Max Factor’s ‘Spice.’ All my cards, my fake ID, free pizza certificate, scrunchie, Madonna tape, hairbrush, eight-ball key chain.” Most crucial item? “My organizer. I’m really unorganized. I need, like, three purses to carry my stuff.”

Kelly is not the only devotee of the backpack as purse. Bonnie in La Jolla has a backpack that looks like a pregnant teddy bear. In its belly is “basically, what you would find in a purse. So there’s a phone, a wallet, and makeup.”

Out to the beaches to talk to one of the perfect youths who cruise the boardwalk in oversize clothes, wraparound sunglasses, and a brand-new Chargers cap. “I got bud. But everybody’s got bud. And it’s nice to have a toothbrush in case you wake up someplace. And gear. You know, it gets cold here at night. When it gets warmer, you can peel it off and put it in.”

Moving inland just a bit, to where not everybody has bud. A veritable gaggle of backpacks on a pack of dyed-hair-retro-fitted-pierced-baggy-KIDS, who speak over each other, making one voice. “Cigarettes, matches, lighters, my diary, tampons, my little black book, my calculator…” Suddenly one voice stops the rest. “Who can outdo this?” asks one girl, who then produces a magnificent feather hat and a blond wig. She models them to universal delight. The collective voice resumes. “Pez dispenser. I still have this piece of a phone. Band-Aids, breath mints, eye drops.”

A question to the hat girl, “You didn’t bring the lotion, did you? The lotion that’s, like, shaped like a dildo?”

“Oh, I don’t have that. Oh, shit! Oh, wait. I might have the perfume.” She rummages. Anticipation builds. Finally, she comes up with a bottle that frightens me but pleases the pack. The kids move on, leaving me to reel to the other end of the spectrum.

Once there I run into another teenager, Andrew, a rounded fellow with a rounded voice and a polite manner. Andrew tells me that I’ll have to get his father’s authorization to look into his backpack. Dad assents. “Medicine. Bus pass. Billfold. Lunch.” He leans conspiratorially toward me. “The sandwich is peanut butter and banana. Apple.”

Dad interrupts. “Did you get my lunch in there too?”

“Mama did the lunch.”

“Okay, it’s in there then.”

“Banana.”

In the billfold is Andrew’s “No Blood” card. “I’m a Witness. The reason [I carry the card] is because of my belief.” The card says “No Blood” and has a picture of a blood bag covered by a red circle and slash.

Andrew’s dad explains, “No blood. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that when Jehovah said not to take blood — you know, he says in Acts not to eat blood, but that also means transfusions, too. Because if you put it in your body, whether you eat it or whether you take it through your transfusions, you’re still taking it in you.”

He is on the bus and away before I can come back with Romans 14:14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean.” Something about Old and New Covenants.

More mundane affairs. A terse, bearded man at a bus stop, “Just laundry.” A terser, more heavily bearded man out for a walk, “Camera, map, bottle of aspirin.” A woman on her way to the beach, “Just my bathing suit and towel.” A law student, “I carry about ten copies of the Reader in my backpack.” Ah, the dry wit of the natives.

The tourists are even drier. Standard equipment is a camera, a travel guide, passports for foreigners, credit cards for all, extra clothes, and snacks.

The best tourists are a family from Orange County. Mom and both daughters have packs, and there is a carefully workedout system of carrying. After they’ve unpacked, I ask how they know which stuff goes where. “Oh, we know,” the older daughter assures me. “Are you kidding?” adds Mom. “We could do this in our sleep.” Some items are easier to place than others: business cards, wallet, birth control pills, and Tampax to Mom (“I’m not even embarrassed about my Tampax — you gotta carry those”), letter from a teacher to the elder daughter, and Puppy in My Pocket collector’s cards to the youngest. Sandwiches are distributed evenly, but Mom carries the chocolate.

Tourists aren’t the only transients in San Diego. Kevin lives on a ship. He is in the navy. I initially mistake him for an alternative-rock type, due largely to his German army-surplus pack, which he says he carries everywhere. The new-wavers loved them, and I didn’t know people in the military ever actually used them. My guess isn’t too far off, though. Kevin’s backpack holds tapes from Depeche Mode and Dead Can Dance. It also holds a journal. “I’m pretty much a daily writer, sometimes not, depending on how busy I am. I like to just be able to sit back and reflect. I can’t imagine anybody not doing that now that I’m doing it.

“This is a PC magazine. I try to keep in touch with what’s going on. Various books: Yeats, Poe, and this [The Grapes of Wrath] is turning out to be really good. In here I have pencils and stuff for drawing. My inspiration lately has been plants and things that grow. Whatever comes to me.”

I ran into another wandering artist in Balboa Park, a woolen old man with a fixed eye and the remains of an English accent. I never did get his name, and he didn’t want to open his pack, but he told me about it and about himself and about his sign.

“No, don’t photograph me. When I’m doing my paintings, out in the open, I don’t mind. But we all have our little reasons why, you see. It might be just because of the way I feel now, today. Because I’m an Aquarius, you see? And an Aquarius who travels all over the world and lives part of the year in one country and part of the year in another country, which is here, has moods the average person doesn’t have because they’re more sensitive. Now, I’m not saying they’re any better; I’m just saying they’re more sensitive. So, today, I don’t feel like it.” Okay. No photo.

About his pack, “I carry my art supplies in it, the essentials, so if I see something, I can sketch and draw. But there’s a second reason, too. I don’t want to leave them in my van. Because once I got broken into in San Diego, and they stole all my art supplies. That came to about $200, and they didn’t even know what they had. And other things, like my glasses and sunglasses. I carry food sometimes, because I’m on health foods. And if I’m painting somewhere, I don’t have to bother about restaurants. And water, for the watercolors.”

About his art, “I paint portraits, but I also paint everything. There’s an income for portraits, then I do one-man shows with seascapes and landscapes. And then for myself, I paint for my own inner self. I paint religious paintings and surrealism. This is an inner thing that you paint. Or I paint portraits of people and get the inner person, not just flatter them, you see, which is what you do if you want to make money. Flatter them. And if you want to get to the depth of things and maybe one day be recognized as different, you have to get the inner person.

“When I’m in England, I paint seascapes and landscapes, which is every summer. I’m what is known as a person who wants to be in many places. It might sound a wild kind of existence.”

Another traveler, David, limits himself to this side of the pond. “I’ve been across the country a couple of times. These are blankets. There’s two of them. One I got from the mission up in Oregon. Bedford, I think it was. The other one my grandma gave me. And they’re just about adequate for this time of year, you know. Here’s my sweatshirt and a rag. Here’s a sign I have in case I’m in a place where I don’t have any money. [‘No income. Your change will help. Thank You.’] Stand there. Some response, you know. It’s pretty good.

“And this is just a bag of clothes, socks and whatever. And I have a little bit of cereal here for snacks when I get hungry. Some gloves and a beanie. Surgical pants and a cup. And in the side, some sundries. Just some things I need, sewing kit, whatever. The usual stuff. It’s just your basic life, man. You know, I can get by like this.”

The life in Arden’s bag is a little less basic, probably because he lives “in the neighborhood; my other pack I have over at the house.” Arden is weathered, dressed in a blue satin jacket and a ball cap. The first thing he removes from his pack is a half-full (half-empty) bottle of Knob Creek bourbon, one of the single-barrel brands from the Kentucky Bourbon Circle. I doubt many backpacks carry such elite spirits. After that, it’s a curious mix of basic needs and day-at-the-park pleasantries. “Water bottle, newspaper, crossword puzzle book, legal papers, a knife, T-shirts, a novel, a radio and headphones, an umbrella. Then here, my glasses, extra pair of sunglasses, calcium pills, razor, painkiller.” I ask him if he’s got Hitler’s pinky ring. He replies that he’s never even carried dead animals. The quest goes on.

David and Arden are outfitted like professional time-killers. Sharon is another kind of professional, a pleasant psychotherapist who happens to carry a backpack. I ask her to show me what’s in there. “My appointment book, last year’s appointment book, my church’s parish directory, my receipt book, an address of my son’s former girlfriend in Tokyo, pair of shoes for work, my purse, a pencil, all my cold stuff. My diagnostic manual. Cosmetic stuff. I usually have my lunch in there. Sometimes I have an extra pair of socks, a tape a client wants me to hear.”

Sharon, the public wants to know, what’s the difference between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis?

“People who are psychoanalysts are generally medical doctors. They’re usually psychiatrists who decide to go into that format, that way of viewing a problem. We’re all therapists. Analysis is a very long-term thing, looking at really early childhood stuff, like when you were potty trained, and how long did you breast feed, and then all the significant others, and then it ties into maybe having problems with alcohol or cigarettes now. But it takes three to five years to grind through this. I was in analysis for three years, and you can’t, I mean, nobody pays for analysis for three years.

“Therapy should be more of where a person goes to a therapist, deals with some of the inner conflicts that are blocking them from resolving a problem or making a decision. Or maybe they have really poor decision-making skills, and then they learn a system of coping better.”

Thank you. Second, in response to the dictum “Anybody who goes in for psychoanalysis ought to have their head examined,” how do you know when you need treatment?

“Usually with my patients, it’s because they’ve suffered some sort of crisis in their life, and it’s usually some sort of loss. It’s usually a relationship loss or a pattern of relationship loss. And I work a lot with addictions. They got caught on a DUI, or they’re losing their job. I think there’s some amount of perceived loss.”

I wonder what Sharon would say about Lou, a seemingly normal, friendly businesswoman who compulsively drops pens into her pack. “Innumerable pens. It’s funny, you know, you keep dropping pens and pencils in because you think you don’t have any, and then you go to look, and, oh, my God! Hundreds of them.”

Another revelation, “Candy from a restaurant, Life Savers…oh, more snacks. Gosh, some of these are probably…oh, more snacks.”

Lou also carries “Post-Its, dental floss, a rubber band, headache pills, knitted pen case. I think my aunt made it. Old name tag, nail file, matches that I never use, one of those fake $3 bills, map, dark glasses, and, oh, I should remember these. These are tokens good for one free meal at the mission. You can get them at the San Diego Rescue Mission. And then, instead of giving money to people, because what they do is they go and they buy drugs or they buy alcohol, you can give them one of these. You know, you use them downtown. I think it’s a neat idea.”

With San Diego’s perfect climate, it is no surprise that a lot of older people end up here. I stop one such fellow as he strides purposefully along. He is round of face and chipper of spirit, and as he begins to speak, he leans back a bit, as if launching into a diatribe on kids today. It is not long in coming.

“I play tennis, I’m a senior citizen, and I walk seven miles a day over to Morley Field, from First Avenue. I think San Diego’s got everything, and I’m so happy that all the rest of the seniors don’t know about it. Back in Providence, I don’t know how they can stand it.”

Roll diatribe. “My rackets are 15 years old. All the kids today, they’ve got these great big stupid things that are 17 feet wide. This is only about half the size of what they use today. But I find it has no resistance. The doggone things they have today, they go all the way around to here — I mean, for heaven’s sake, what the heck do you need to hit the ball with? All you need is something about this size; and if you’re not blind in one eye, you’ll be able to hit the bloody ball.

“All the kids look at me, they say, ‘Boy, you are an old bugger.’ You know, ‘We’ve never even heard of those rackets.’ But as far as I’m concerned, I played my best tennis in my previous 20 years, so I’ll stick with them.”

Not all our retirees are imports. Lloyd, a classically dressed ex-teacher, is a 38-year veteran, including a stint at a local community college. His backpack is actually a side satchel. Lloyd has prostate cancer, and most of his bag’s contents are medical in nature. But there is also a copy of The Spectator, and it starts him on his take on the way of things.

“We have the best system of education in the world. People complain about our system of education, but we’ve got the best one around. It’s the television. And what are we teaching kids to be? Consumers. We’re training them to be consumers.

“I’m appalled at the lack of reading. I’ll take a stack of magazines [he names The Spectator, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Review of Books] and look through them for things that interest me. Then I’ll skim a lot of them and jot something down if I want to think about it later or relate it to something. We have no common culture.

“When I was a kid, people used to have to go to Sunday school. And I don’t think I particularly loved it, but I’m delighted at what I learned there. It used to be, you could refer to Abraham, you could refer to Israel, and you could relate it to something contemporary, and that would broaden everybody’s comprehension of what you were talking about. People can’t relate anything to anything anymore.

“‘It’s boring.’ I’ve heard that so many times. ‘It’s boring.’ Well, the people who are bored are generally boring people because there’s so much to know and learn in the world.”

Finally, there is the backpacker proper. David, the cross-country voyager, had called his pack’s contents “your basic life.” The backpacker has to take these words to heart. His house is on his back; he can literally live or die by what he has or does not have inside it. I asked Floyd Craig, who was preparing to lead a Sierra Club weekend outing to Indian Rock, to give me a picture of both pack and packer.

Craig is a classic of the type — well built, with large, dexterous hands and a soft, almost retiring manner of speaking. He has been camping since his youth in New Jersey. “I used to take my friends out. I used to tell them, ‘Just bring a canteen of Kool-Aid’ — that’s what we drank — ‘and a raw potato.’ I would teach them how to cook the potato in the ground. I was a kid, I used to do that. So it’s been with me.”

He’s come a long way since then, moving to San Diego, joining the Sierra Club, and moving up through the ranks so that he is now qualified to lead outings. “Since I’ve been a Sierra Club member, I’ve found out that not only do I need to enjoy [backpacking], but other people need to enjoy it too. It’s just to let other people know and to help them be aware of the things we have. It’s visual things, and it’s also to get away from the atmosphere of the city. My favorite thing is to let other people enjoy it. I really like taking people out and giving them that sensibility.”

He begins taking me through his Kelty pack, which covers his entire back and then some. Nearly 60 pounds when fully loaded, it has sustained Craig for up to four days. But “water was available. That’s the key. You have to make sure water is available. Of course, you could always dig a hole and put a plastic bag in it, and pray for rain.” Water, since it doesn’t come in dehydrated form, is heavy; but although Craig carries a water filter, he always brings four quarts with him on a trip. One quart in each of the side pockets and two in the bottom of the center pocket, wrapped in a plastic bag.

People have three basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing. Craig starts with shelter, unpacking ground cloth, two-man tent, tent fly, foam pad, air mattress, and goose-down sleeping bag. Also in the bag for the sleeping bag are extra pants, extra socks, and an extra shirt.

“When you’re hiking, you sweat, and once you stop, you can get a chill.” In the top pocket, he keeps a sun hat and a winter hat; his rain gear is in the center.

Food has to be prepared, so he carries a mini-stove, white gas, three pots, and a little salt and pepper and oil. The food itself is dried pasta and vegetables for mealtimes, trail mix and power bars for hiking. There is soap for cleaning pots, soap for tooth-brushing and washing, and a trowel and plastic bags for waste disposal.

We wind up with camping equipment and luxuries. Map, compass, camera, binoculars, side knife, first-aid kit, and an extra rope. “What would I use it for? There’s a story behind that. As a kid, I used to just pull things with it, but sometimes…There was a guy over in National City who was just about ready to jump off the bridge, and I talked him out of it. And I had my belt. And I took my belt off, and I wrapped it around his wrist. And as I pulled, it got tighter. And I talked him out of it. So I said to myself, ‘Well, if I had something a little longer, maybe I could do something else with it.’ So because that happened, I started carrying ropes.”

The last item Craig shows me is an old army survival manual. “I always read it every time I go out. It shows you where to get water, and it shows you desert things; this guy [in an illustration] is getting water from the desert, and there again it shows you how to use the watch to find out where you are. This is an old-time book.”

Packers and students, artists and drifters, kids and retired teachers.

That, San Diego, is what’s in the sack. ■
Matthew Lickona

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What’s in the sack? That’s all they care about.
Is it a rock or a rolled-up giraffe?
Is it pickles or nickels or busted bicycles?
And if we guess it, will you give us half?
Do they ask where I’ve been, or how long I’ll be stayin’,
Where I’ll be goin’, or when I’ll be back,
Or “How do?” or “What’s new?” or “Hey, why are you blue?”
No, all they keep asking is “What’s in the sack?”
“What’s in the sack?” I’m blowin’ my stack
At the next one who asks me, “What’s in the sack?”
What?
Oh no. Not you, too!
From “What’s in the Sack?” by Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Harper & Row)

Yep, us too. Come on, open up. What’s in that backpack? Nothing tells us who you are quite like what you’re willing to haul around with you, and we do so want to know who you are, San Diego. Come on, just a peek…

The chief advantage of a backpack, of course, is that it frees the hands. This is essential when you are a parent of a baby or toddler. Babies need hands for attending and carrying. Toddlers need hands for restraint. Backpacks are the easiest way of handling the masses of stuff that children require for care, feeding, and entertainment. Mother of an 18-month-old, speaking as if this conversation is not on the schedule, “Diapers. Food, her drinks. Drinks, food, and diapers for her. And my wallet. Take my photo? You’re kidding. Well, the diapers are clean, so…Wipes are important. Food. Her magazine [Animals All Around].”

Another mom, her pack jutting out like a snail shell behind her, gestures to her two children. “This is the reason why I have a backpack. I wouldn’t survive without one. Diapers. Money. Extra clothes. That’s the whole backpack.”

The bright side is that when children get older, they can carry their own backpacks and often take a fierce pride in doing so. Carl is a shy, towheaded three-year-old who nonetheless shoots a look of secret delight when asked about his pack.

“What’s in there, Carl?”

“Clothes. I got this pants. Stickers,” he hoots, beaming. When he poses for a photo, he peers over his shoulder, smiling coyly.

Any account of backpacking types must include students. Vashon, an upbeat African American clad in primary colors, assumes a narrative distance as he goes through the essentials. “A Walkman. You can’t have a backpack without a Walkman. The tape is Marvin Gaye. You’ve got to have some old school, and you’ve got to have some new school. The new school would be Mary J. Blige. Then, if you’re a student, of course, you’ve got to have some books. And if you’re in college, one has an organizer. If you work, you have a uniform, very tight fit.” He also carries the obligatory condom, highlighters, White-Out, and name tags.

The first I see of student number two, Jennie, is a Bad Religion patch stitched onto her black backpack. When I catch up to her, I see that besides the heavy, straight, shoulder-length blonde hair and retro outfit, she wears tortoiseshell glasses, a dead giveaway. Artist. Her description of her pack’s contents builds to the revelation, “I’ve got a camera, I’ve got my brush, my psychology book, Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, all my writing. I want to be a writer. I’ve got all these poems and stuff.” It’s quite a collection.

“Do you carry all of them everywhere?”

“Pretty much, because at home, I don’t know, I don’t trust the people there; they always go through my stuff. I don’t want anyone else to read it until it’s ready. The Sound and the Fury is for my English class, but I’m a psychology major. I’d like to be a psychologist, a clinical psychologist, so that I’ll be able to afford publishing my own books. Because I’m not sure; I write really controversial stuff, and I don’t want to have to depend on the publisher’s taste. And also, then I could edit my own things, and I wouldn’t have to bend to an editor.”

Curious about what could be called “controversial” in today’s literary climate, I ask about her themes. “I write about everything I see. Pretty much everything. I’ll probably write about this incident, for instance. I write about a lot of things which I think people just totally ignore and aren’t even aware of, just even everyday things. I have a lot of stuff from when I was riding on the bus. There’s always good material there.”

Some of that good material may come in the form of Mike, an open-faced stalk of a man wrapped in black, beret to boots. “I ride the bus,” he states. “I have a lot of time to read.” His backpack is empty except for one book, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. “It’s a little bit difficult to get through on the bus, I’ve been finding, with all the conversations and stuff going on, especially late at night, coming back from the bars. A lot of people go downtown. You know.” (Downtown partygoer lament: “It’s hard to let go on the bus at the end of an evening with these Freud-reading people in black casting a pall over everything. I mean, geez.”)

“What do you think? Is Freud on to something?”

“Yeah, I think so, because of his theory of wish fulfillment. It seems to hold up pretty well. When you dream something, it’s because the unconscious is expressing a wish fulfillment, and even if a dream seems mundane, the most mundane elements of a dream generally are symbols or an aversion to the actual underlying subject of the dream. Every symbol is connected with other events in your life; it’s like a chain of similarities.”

Mike isn’t swallowing Freud whole. “I wonder about the theory, though, because it seems when you make a statement that ‘it’s always this,’ you run into trouble. And I wonder about his analysis sometimes, whether he could analyze a dream into meaning anything. But just from my own experiences, after reading, when I have a dream and I remember it, I think of it in terms of wish fulfillment, and generally, it makes sense.” Discontented with pop psychology’s summation and dismissal of Freud, a late-night bus rider seeks to understand his darkly symbolic dreams through a return to the original writings of the master. Jennie could have a field day. I’m stuck with backpacks.

Back. Pack. A play in one act.

[Pannikin Coffee Shop, La Jolla. Matt has convinced Melanie, an aspiring playwright, to show him the contents of her backpack. Melanie is tall, neatly dressed and coiffed, and speaks with the tone and inflection of one who has studied speaking. Beth, her friend, sits with them. She is shorter than Melanie, perhaps a trifle more cosmopolitan. Both are grad students in theater at UCSD.]

What do you want me to do, open it up? Okay. Journal.

Beth: She’s a writer.

Mel: I’m a writer. Rough draft of my new play.

Matt: Advance comment?

Mel: No. [To Beth] It’s the kind of circus fairy-tale thing. [To Matt] It will be very good. Anybody can come see it next year, probably. Just kidding. [Resumes unpacking backpack] Notebook. Second draft of a current play and notes for revisions.

Beth: I’m a dramaturge.

Mel: [Overlapping Beth] She’s a dramaturge.

Matt [overlapping Mel]: What’s a dramaturge?

Mel: She’s the one who knows what she’s doing.

Beth: No, no, no.

Mel: I’m a playwright. She’s a dramaturge. Parking maps. I don’t have to show you my feminine-hygiene products, right?

Matt: No, you do not.

Mel: It crossed my mind that you’re just some kind of weirdo, wanting to count tampons, but…Sunglasses, wallet, orange.

Beth [correcting her]: Tangerine.

Mel: Tangerine. Granola bar.

Beth: She’s healthy.

Mel [without irony]: Aspirin. It’s different from ibuprofen. I take them for different kinds of pain. I get migraines. These help in the early stages. These would be for cramping. Matches, because I’ve sort of quit smoking. Wow, a really old dirty handkerchief. A little bottle of lotion. This is amazing. This is like the Shriner car. I can’t get it all back in. Checkbook, with checks in it. I’m impressed. Mirror. Wow, what a stash. Five lipsticks, a Chapstick, and a lip-liner.

Matt: Now, how many times do you use lipstick a day, and how many different colors will you vary?

Beth [cutting in]: I carry one, but I use it a lot.

Mel: You carry one?

Beth: Yeah.

Mel: Well, that’s interesting. Really?

Beth: Yeah.

Matt: Will you change throughout the day?

Mel: Oh, absolutely.

Beth: I definitely don’t. But that’s the way I am, though. I find something I like, and I just have to stay with it.

Mel: No. It’s like pens. I change pens throughout the day. You know, like, depending on what your mood is?

Matt: So it’s mood lipstick.

Mel: Sure, absolutely. Mood lipstick, kind of, yeah, depending on your mood. Pen collection. Which is very, I mean, you choose your highlighter color carefully. Fountain pen. Rolling ball, ball-point, and pencil. It’s sort of what you feel you want to go for with the pen on paper. That makes a big difference for me when I write.

Beth: See, I think you just haven’t found the one you like best.

Mel: I’m still looking. I don’t know, different paper, different pens, different times of day. Heavy-duty migraine medicine. Political fliers. Various things that aren’t your business. A card-catalog card that I apparently stole.

Beth [getting around to what a dramaturge is]: I guess I’m like a third eye, in the sense that I look at something… Dramaturges are sounding boards for the writer. They know them, and they know what they’re trying to say. And they can tell you if that’s coming across or not, or what is coming across.

Mel: It’s like counterpoint to your work. It’s a person who’s articulate and challenging who helps you articulate and challenge your work. Beth will ask me questions about my play, and then if I can’t answer it, that makes me wonder why I can’t answer it.

Beth: I think there are too many playwrights who say, “Well, it doesn’t have to mean anything in particular.”

Mel: ”It means what you want it to mean. That’s the theater of it.”

Beth: That’s bullshit.

[Curtain]

Please don’t ask what this play means. It doesn’t have to mean anything in particular. Actually, it means what you want it to mean. Next backpack, please.

Beth’s role as a dramaturge sounds a lot like the role the artists’ commune used to play: sounding board, critic possessed of intimate knowledge about the author, challenger and clarifier of ideas and artistic method. It’s been ages since I’ve heard of a good artist’s commune, so maybe we need them. In the meantime, there is always Zendik Farm.

Siah Zencik is tall; he has a long face, sharp eyes, and a fabulous head of hair. His backpack contains nothing but magazines and tapes. The magazine is the Zendik Tribe Zeen, which he says is “the largest underground newspaper in the country.” You may remember Zendik Farm. They had a 75-acre farm in the mountains of eastern San Diego County until they moved to a 300-acre farm in Texas five years ago. Siah and his friends still come west now and again to sell their wares and spread the Zendik message.

Siah expounds, “It’s sort of an artists’ commune. It started up in the ’60s in a place called Perris, California. It moved to Florida and became a five-person artists’ group in Key West, but then it moved back to California and got a piece of land again. What we can’t grow, we get from other organic farmers, and there’s a lot of things we buy from Radio Shack and Walmart. Electronic shit and stuff, because we are artists…and our main thing is to get the idea and the philosophy out. So we put a lot into our art forms. We travel around the country, getting out our magazine or our music. Artwork, poetry, philosophy, comics; no ads, no bullshit.” Sales from the magazine and music finance the operation, which consists of about 50 people actually living on the farm and 15,000 people involved nationwide.

Siah is well spoken, and any commune that has actually survived 30 years deserves some attention. I poke through the magazine. Highlights:

  • 60 million people are going to starve to death this year and our glorious culture gives us The New Price Is Right. That’s obscene.
  • The hell on earth of war, starvation, extinction, the emotional hell of relationships, and the ominous boredom, all are symptoms of the unworkable philosophy that the culture is built on.
  • This destructive robot routine consisted of — make bucks, exchange them for painkillers — weed, beer, whiskey, acid, trinkets — all in an attempt to grease the machine for another work week.
  • We do organic farming, music, video, dance, carpentry, animal care, photography, publishing, multimedia shows at colleges, home schooling, mechanics, and pottery. We work hard. We live well.
  • The human dilemma is the deep loneliness we all feel. Zendik understands the futility of conventional therapy, for it is an attempt to fit into an insane society. Therapy will not work separated from the rest of life.”

I dunno. It’s a familiar line, complete with “universal thrust for ever-expanding consciousness,” but they make it sound pretty good, even workable. But I can’t stop to think about it right now.

As Siah is a salesman for his culture, Jeremy is a salesman for his. Jeremy’s Salt Lake Rock Climbing Backpack is stocked with “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…about 15 calculators, and 24 kids’ CD players. Down here, I’ve also got a massager, a consignment sheet, and a business license. I work for a wholesale distributor.”

What else has this stuff-merchant carried? “Dude, I’ve carried some funky things, like monkeys, kids’ little monkeys, little ugly monkeys, all kinds of stuff.” Trinkets, anyone?

Jeremy is young and employed. So is Kelly, who staffs a coffee stand downtown. Her backpack — “My two magazines, Cosmo and Mademoiselle. A book — Aladdin’s Lamp, how to ask for what you want.

“Purse, goodies, gum, lip-liner — Max Factor’s ‘Spice.’ All my cards, my fake ID, free pizza certificate, scrunchie, Madonna tape, hairbrush, eight-ball key chain.” Most crucial item? “My organizer. I’m really unorganized. I need, like, three purses to carry my stuff.”

Kelly is not the only devotee of the backpack as purse. Bonnie in La Jolla has a backpack that looks like a pregnant teddy bear. In its belly is “basically, what you would find in a purse. So there’s a phone, a wallet, and makeup.”

Out to the beaches to talk to one of the perfect youths who cruise the boardwalk in oversize clothes, wraparound sunglasses, and a brand-new Chargers cap. “I got bud. But everybody’s got bud. And it’s nice to have a toothbrush in case you wake up someplace. And gear. You know, it gets cold here at night. When it gets warmer, you can peel it off and put it in.”

Moving inland just a bit, to where not everybody has bud. A veritable gaggle of backpacks on a pack of dyed-hair-retro-fitted-pierced-baggy-KIDS, who speak over each other, making one voice. “Cigarettes, matches, lighters, my diary, tampons, my little black book, my calculator…” Suddenly one voice stops the rest. “Who can outdo this?” asks one girl, who then produces a magnificent feather hat and a blond wig. She models them to universal delight. The collective voice resumes. “Pez dispenser. I still have this piece of a phone. Band-Aids, breath mints, eye drops.”

A question to the hat girl, “You didn’t bring the lotion, did you? The lotion that’s, like, shaped like a dildo?”

“Oh, I don’t have that. Oh, shit! Oh, wait. I might have the perfume.” She rummages. Anticipation builds. Finally, she comes up with a bottle that frightens me but pleases the pack. The kids move on, leaving me to reel to the other end of the spectrum.

Once there I run into another teenager, Andrew, a rounded fellow with a rounded voice and a polite manner. Andrew tells me that I’ll have to get his father’s authorization to look into his backpack. Dad assents. “Medicine. Bus pass. Billfold. Lunch.” He leans conspiratorially toward me. “The sandwich is peanut butter and banana. Apple.”

Dad interrupts. “Did you get my lunch in there too?”

“Mama did the lunch.”

“Okay, it’s in there then.”

“Banana.”

In the billfold is Andrew’s “No Blood” card. “I’m a Witness. The reason [I carry the card] is because of my belief.” The card says “No Blood” and has a picture of a blood bag covered by a red circle and slash.

Andrew’s dad explains, “No blood. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that when Jehovah said not to take blood — you know, he says in Acts not to eat blood, but that also means transfusions, too. Because if you put it in your body, whether you eat it or whether you take it through your transfusions, you’re still taking it in you.”

He is on the bus and away before I can come back with Romans 14:14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean.” Something about Old and New Covenants.

More mundane affairs. A terse, bearded man at a bus stop, “Just laundry.” A terser, more heavily bearded man out for a walk, “Camera, map, bottle of aspirin.” A woman on her way to the beach, “Just my bathing suit and towel.” A law student, “I carry about ten copies of the Reader in my backpack.” Ah, the dry wit of the natives.

The tourists are even drier. Standard equipment is a camera, a travel guide, passports for foreigners, credit cards for all, extra clothes, and snacks.

The best tourists are a family from Orange County. Mom and both daughters have packs, and there is a carefully workedout system of carrying. After they’ve unpacked, I ask how they know which stuff goes where. “Oh, we know,” the older daughter assures me. “Are you kidding?” adds Mom. “We could do this in our sleep.” Some items are easier to place than others: business cards, wallet, birth control pills, and Tampax to Mom (“I’m not even embarrassed about my Tampax — you gotta carry those”), letter from a teacher to the elder daughter, and Puppy in My Pocket collector’s cards to the youngest. Sandwiches are distributed evenly, but Mom carries the chocolate.

Tourists aren’t the only transients in San Diego. Kevin lives on a ship. He is in the navy. I initially mistake him for an alternative-rock type, due largely to his German army-surplus pack, which he says he carries everywhere. The new-wavers loved them, and I didn’t know people in the military ever actually used them. My guess isn’t too far off, though. Kevin’s backpack holds tapes from Depeche Mode and Dead Can Dance. It also holds a journal. “I’m pretty much a daily writer, sometimes not, depending on how busy I am. I like to just be able to sit back and reflect. I can’t imagine anybody not doing that now that I’m doing it.

“This is a PC magazine. I try to keep in touch with what’s going on. Various books: Yeats, Poe, and this [The Grapes of Wrath] is turning out to be really good. In here I have pencils and stuff for drawing. My inspiration lately has been plants and things that grow. Whatever comes to me.”

I ran into another wandering artist in Balboa Park, a woolen old man with a fixed eye and the remains of an English accent. I never did get his name, and he didn’t want to open his pack, but he told me about it and about himself and about his sign.

“No, don’t photograph me. When I’m doing my paintings, out in the open, I don’t mind. But we all have our little reasons why, you see. It might be just because of the way I feel now, today. Because I’m an Aquarius, you see? And an Aquarius who travels all over the world and lives part of the year in one country and part of the year in another country, which is here, has moods the average person doesn’t have because they’re more sensitive. Now, I’m not saying they’re any better; I’m just saying they’re more sensitive. So, today, I don’t feel like it.” Okay. No photo.

About his pack, “I carry my art supplies in it, the essentials, so if I see something, I can sketch and draw. But there’s a second reason, too. I don’t want to leave them in my van. Because once I got broken into in San Diego, and they stole all my art supplies. That came to about $200, and they didn’t even know what they had. And other things, like my glasses and sunglasses. I carry food sometimes, because I’m on health foods. And if I’m painting somewhere, I don’t have to bother about restaurants. And water, for the watercolors.”

About his art, “I paint portraits, but I also paint everything. There’s an income for portraits, then I do one-man shows with seascapes and landscapes. And then for myself, I paint for my own inner self. I paint religious paintings and surrealism. This is an inner thing that you paint. Or I paint portraits of people and get the inner person, not just flatter them, you see, which is what you do if you want to make money. Flatter them. And if you want to get to the depth of things and maybe one day be recognized as different, you have to get the inner person.

“When I’m in England, I paint seascapes and landscapes, which is every summer. I’m what is known as a person who wants to be in many places. It might sound a wild kind of existence.”

Another traveler, David, limits himself to this side of the pond. “I’ve been across the country a couple of times. These are blankets. There’s two of them. One I got from the mission up in Oregon. Bedford, I think it was. The other one my grandma gave me. And they’re just about adequate for this time of year, you know. Here’s my sweatshirt and a rag. Here’s a sign I have in case I’m in a place where I don’t have any money. [‘No income. Your change will help. Thank You.’] Stand there. Some response, you know. It’s pretty good.

“And this is just a bag of clothes, socks and whatever. And I have a little bit of cereal here for snacks when I get hungry. Some gloves and a beanie. Surgical pants and a cup. And in the side, some sundries. Just some things I need, sewing kit, whatever. The usual stuff. It’s just your basic life, man. You know, I can get by like this.”

The life in Arden’s bag is a little less basic, probably because he lives “in the neighborhood; my other pack I have over at the house.” Arden is weathered, dressed in a blue satin jacket and a ball cap. The first thing he removes from his pack is a half-full (half-empty) bottle of Knob Creek bourbon, one of the single-barrel brands from the Kentucky Bourbon Circle. I doubt many backpacks carry such elite spirits. After that, it’s a curious mix of basic needs and day-at-the-park pleasantries. “Water bottle, newspaper, crossword puzzle book, legal papers, a knife, T-shirts, a novel, a radio and headphones, an umbrella. Then here, my glasses, extra pair of sunglasses, calcium pills, razor, painkiller.” I ask him if he’s got Hitler’s pinky ring. He replies that he’s never even carried dead animals. The quest goes on.

David and Arden are outfitted like professional time-killers. Sharon is another kind of professional, a pleasant psychotherapist who happens to carry a backpack. I ask her to show me what’s in there. “My appointment book, last year’s appointment book, my church’s parish directory, my receipt book, an address of my son’s former girlfriend in Tokyo, pair of shoes for work, my purse, a pencil, all my cold stuff. My diagnostic manual. Cosmetic stuff. I usually have my lunch in there. Sometimes I have an extra pair of socks, a tape a client wants me to hear.”

Sharon, the public wants to know, what’s the difference between psychotherapy and psychoanalysis?

“People who are psychoanalysts are generally medical doctors. They’re usually psychiatrists who decide to go into that format, that way of viewing a problem. We’re all therapists. Analysis is a very long-term thing, looking at really early childhood stuff, like when you were potty trained, and how long did you breast feed, and then all the significant others, and then it ties into maybe having problems with alcohol or cigarettes now. But it takes three to five years to grind through this. I was in analysis for three years, and you can’t, I mean, nobody pays for analysis for three years.

“Therapy should be more of where a person goes to a therapist, deals with some of the inner conflicts that are blocking them from resolving a problem or making a decision. Or maybe they have really poor decision-making skills, and then they learn a system of coping better.”

Thank you. Second, in response to the dictum “Anybody who goes in for psychoanalysis ought to have their head examined,” how do you know when you need treatment?

“Usually with my patients, it’s because they’ve suffered some sort of crisis in their life, and it’s usually some sort of loss. It’s usually a relationship loss or a pattern of relationship loss. And I work a lot with addictions. They got caught on a DUI, or they’re losing their job. I think there’s some amount of perceived loss.”

I wonder what Sharon would say about Lou, a seemingly normal, friendly businesswoman who compulsively drops pens into her pack. “Innumerable pens. It’s funny, you know, you keep dropping pens and pencils in because you think you don’t have any, and then you go to look, and, oh, my God! Hundreds of them.”

Another revelation, “Candy from a restaurant, Life Savers…oh, more snacks. Gosh, some of these are probably…oh, more snacks.”

Lou also carries “Post-Its, dental floss, a rubber band, headache pills, knitted pen case. I think my aunt made it. Old name tag, nail file, matches that I never use, one of those fake $3 bills, map, dark glasses, and, oh, I should remember these. These are tokens good for one free meal at the mission. You can get them at the San Diego Rescue Mission. And then, instead of giving money to people, because what they do is they go and they buy drugs or they buy alcohol, you can give them one of these. You know, you use them downtown. I think it’s a neat idea.”

With San Diego’s perfect climate, it is no surprise that a lot of older people end up here. I stop one such fellow as he strides purposefully along. He is round of face and chipper of spirit, and as he begins to speak, he leans back a bit, as if launching into a diatribe on kids today. It is not long in coming.

“I play tennis, I’m a senior citizen, and I walk seven miles a day over to Morley Field, from First Avenue. I think San Diego’s got everything, and I’m so happy that all the rest of the seniors don’t know about it. Back in Providence, I don’t know how they can stand it.”

Roll diatribe. “My rackets are 15 years old. All the kids today, they’ve got these great big stupid things that are 17 feet wide. This is only about half the size of what they use today. But I find it has no resistance. The doggone things they have today, they go all the way around to here — I mean, for heaven’s sake, what the heck do you need to hit the ball with? All you need is something about this size; and if you’re not blind in one eye, you’ll be able to hit the bloody ball.

“All the kids look at me, they say, ‘Boy, you are an old bugger.’ You know, ‘We’ve never even heard of those rackets.’ But as far as I’m concerned, I played my best tennis in my previous 20 years, so I’ll stick with them.”

Not all our retirees are imports. Lloyd, a classically dressed ex-teacher, is a 38-year veteran, including a stint at a local community college. His backpack is actually a side satchel. Lloyd has prostate cancer, and most of his bag’s contents are medical in nature. But there is also a copy of The Spectator, and it starts him on his take on the way of things.

“We have the best system of education in the world. People complain about our system of education, but we’ve got the best one around. It’s the television. And what are we teaching kids to be? Consumers. We’re training them to be consumers.

“I’m appalled at the lack of reading. I’ll take a stack of magazines [he names The Spectator, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Review of Books] and look through them for things that interest me. Then I’ll skim a lot of them and jot something down if I want to think about it later or relate it to something. We have no common culture.

“When I was a kid, people used to have to go to Sunday school. And I don’t think I particularly loved it, but I’m delighted at what I learned there. It used to be, you could refer to Abraham, you could refer to Israel, and you could relate it to something contemporary, and that would broaden everybody’s comprehension of what you were talking about. People can’t relate anything to anything anymore.

“‘It’s boring.’ I’ve heard that so many times. ‘It’s boring.’ Well, the people who are bored are generally boring people because there’s so much to know and learn in the world.”

Finally, there is the backpacker proper. David, the cross-country voyager, had called his pack’s contents “your basic life.” The backpacker has to take these words to heart. His house is on his back; he can literally live or die by what he has or does not have inside it. I asked Floyd Craig, who was preparing to lead a Sierra Club weekend outing to Indian Rock, to give me a picture of both pack and packer.

Craig is a classic of the type — well built, with large, dexterous hands and a soft, almost retiring manner of speaking. He has been camping since his youth in New Jersey. “I used to take my friends out. I used to tell them, ‘Just bring a canteen of Kool-Aid’ — that’s what we drank — ‘and a raw potato.’ I would teach them how to cook the potato in the ground. I was a kid, I used to do that. So it’s been with me.”

He’s come a long way since then, moving to San Diego, joining the Sierra Club, and moving up through the ranks so that he is now qualified to lead outings. “Since I’ve been a Sierra Club member, I’ve found out that not only do I need to enjoy [backpacking], but other people need to enjoy it too. It’s just to let other people know and to help them be aware of the things we have. It’s visual things, and it’s also to get away from the atmosphere of the city. My favorite thing is to let other people enjoy it. I really like taking people out and giving them that sensibility.”

He begins taking me through his Kelty pack, which covers his entire back and then some. Nearly 60 pounds when fully loaded, it has sustained Craig for up to four days. But “water was available. That’s the key. You have to make sure water is available. Of course, you could always dig a hole and put a plastic bag in it, and pray for rain.” Water, since it doesn’t come in dehydrated form, is heavy; but although Craig carries a water filter, he always brings four quarts with him on a trip. One quart in each of the side pockets and two in the bottom of the center pocket, wrapped in a plastic bag.

People have three basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing. Craig starts with shelter, unpacking ground cloth, two-man tent, tent fly, foam pad, air mattress, and goose-down sleeping bag. Also in the bag for the sleeping bag are extra pants, extra socks, and an extra shirt.

“When you’re hiking, you sweat, and once you stop, you can get a chill.” In the top pocket, he keeps a sun hat and a winter hat; his rain gear is in the center.

Food has to be prepared, so he carries a mini-stove, white gas, three pots, and a little salt and pepper and oil. The food itself is dried pasta and vegetables for mealtimes, trail mix and power bars for hiking. There is soap for cleaning pots, soap for tooth-brushing and washing, and a trowel and plastic bags for waste disposal.

We wind up with camping equipment and luxuries. Map, compass, camera, binoculars, side knife, first-aid kit, and an extra rope. “What would I use it for? There’s a story behind that. As a kid, I used to just pull things with it, but sometimes…There was a guy over in National City who was just about ready to jump off the bridge, and I talked him out of it. And I had my belt. And I took my belt off, and I wrapped it around his wrist. And as I pulled, it got tighter. And I talked him out of it. So I said to myself, ‘Well, if I had something a little longer, maybe I could do something else with it.’ So because that happened, I started carrying ropes.”

The last item Craig shows me is an old army survival manual. “I always read it every time I go out. It shows you where to get water, and it shows you desert things; this guy [in an illustration] is getting water from the desert, and there again it shows you how to use the watch to find out where you are. This is an old-time book.”

Packers and students, artists and drifters, kids and retired teachers.

That, San Diego, is what’s in the sack. ■
Matthew Lickona

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The Jehovah's Witnesses cite four biblical texts (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:12-14, Acts 15:29 and Acts 21:25). They say these mean that blood, the life-force, belongs to God and is not there for human use. They believe it a sin to eat not just black pudding but also to eat the flesh of animals that have not been properly bled.

And they extend the ban to transfusions. They won't even allow someone's blood to be stored before an operation and then used after it to replace their own blood loss. Blood is not to be stored; it is to be poured out and returned to God. Some JWs even reject dialysis or cell salvage on these grounds. Some will not accept red cells, white cells, platelets or plasma, but accept "fractions" made from these components.

There is a philosophical problem here. When a substance is broken down into components does the original remain? Some 90-96 per cent of blood plasma consists of water. The remainder is albumin, globulins, fibrinogen and coagulation factors. JWs say these may be used, according to conscience, but only if taken separately. Opponents say is like outlawing a ham and cheese sandwich but allowing the eating of bread, ham and cheese separately.

They are criticised for other inconsistencies. Blood fraction products are only available because of blood donation – a practice JWs condemn as unethical.

Oct. 6, 2010

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