Three Years of One Backpack and a New Attitude

Why minimalism is so attractive.

By Rose Ernst

Rose Ernst

When I left the United States in November 2019, I fully expected to return six months later.

After I’d left my stressful job, I planned a sabbatical in the United Kingdom, Cyprus, and the Azores. I offset my costs by housesitting part of the time in more expensive places like the UK and renting in less expensive places like the Azores.

You know what’s coming. The plan had to be changed.

My partner and I were sitting in our lockdown apartment overlooking the beach in Portugal, wondering if and how we should return to the United States.

His job had suddenly become remote overnight, so there was no reason to return, especially since traveling that far and to the epidemic’s epicenter seemed dubious from a health or logistical standpoint.

“Why go back at all?” I asked.

Other than friends and family, we had no reason to return. And though we’d lived in Seattle for decades, neither of us felt rooted there, nor did we feel a strong sense of community.

So we became permanent slow travelers and haven’t regretted a moment of it.

And that’s why I’ve lived out of one large backpack and a small bag since November 2019.

Mindset and Lessons Learned

Our bags, waiting for a bus. Rose Ernst.

As an autist, minimalism has always been attractive — perhaps because my brain is a maximalist. Having a few possessions lowers my cognitive load, and provides for visually clear spaces. I don’t buy into the so-called clash between minimalism and maximalism because I enjoy both: one in my physical space and the other in my mind.

At home, I’d go through purging periods, but the clutter would always return. I’d use capsule wardrobes for work — and would love putting them together — but my eye soon drifted to another outfit in the thrift store.

We all know that clutter begets clutter. It seems to be a law of physics in a world of consumerism. Or maybe even the laws of thermodynamics?

Practicing minimalism in a fixed spot can be challenging since you constantly negotiate what comes in and what must go out.

Beyond that, if you have a chronic illness or challenges with managing energy, even making your bed can be draining, let alone keeping the tide of physical objects at bay.

If you’re a minimalist at heart who lives in one spot, I have empathy for you! It’s actually much easier when you live out of one backpack.

Changing External Constraints

Mindset people will tell you that everything is an internal game.

It’s true, but creating external constraints can avoid making minimalism into a game of willpower.

Let’s say you’re trying to eat less ice cream.

Instead of buying ice cream and having it in the house, you just avoid buying it altogether. The craving will eventually subside, you’ll replace it with something else, or you’ll give in to going to the store (which is not likely to happen every night, but if it does, you might have a new exercise habit on your hands).

Of course, this is easier said than done if you have kids or others in the house who want ice cream. But the basic point remains the same.

You can apply the same logic to what you own, except you turn it on its head.

Imagine you have a freezer full of life-saving medicine you need to take every day. This medicine is very expensive, and you cannot afford to just throw it away.

Every inch of the freezer is crammed with this medicine.

At the store one day, you eye that lush chocolate ice cream winking at you behind the frost-covered glass doors. 

Of course, you could just eat it now, but you’re not that hungry. You’d rather eat it tonight.

What do you do?

You either buy the chocolate ice cream and eat it immediately, or you just sigh and move on.

That night, you briefly remember the ice cream and wish you had it, but eat a banana instead. And you sleep better since you didn’t gorge on ice cream.

So what happened here?

You had external constraints (life-saving medicine) that prevented you from buying something you didn’t really need.

The same applies to living out of a backpack.

Even after three years, I still feel disoriented when I enter a thrift store because even if that lovely top is cheap, fits, and looks good, I still shouldn’t buy it.

If I do buy it, I not only have to adhere to the “one in and one out rule,” but I ask if it can have a dual function (part 2 in this packing series), my new standard for everything that I own now.

Loving What Is

Sammy with his pheasant. Rose Ernst.

Sometimes, I feel like Sammy (above), carrying around a battered but loved toy pheasant. My backpack is battered, and all my possessions are well-worn. 

The urge to replace everything with the new comes in waves.

But those waves are usually brief. What replaces them is the freedom for my brain to move in beautifully chaotic circles without the burnout stemming from worrying about and maintaining so many objects. 

Happy packing!

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