I had long been tormented by luggage – so I set out across America without any

If I didn’t carry a suitcase, I wouldn’t have the stress of packing. Or that, at least, was the idea.

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At the Eurostar check-in at the Gare du Nord in Paris, there’s a young, pink-faced woman struggling with a wheelie bag about the same size as her – whereas I’m insouciant, with my tiny little shoulder affair, although there was a time when even this much by way of impedimenta would have made me sick to the stomach.

I can’t remember when my intense revulsion from luggage began but it must have been in the early 2000s and was at least partly a response to the increased security after 9/11. After all, what is the point in packing all those pants if they’re simply going to be unpacked again at the airport and their tedious gussets exposed to the withering gaze of your fellow travellers?

But my bag-o-phobia was also a response to often travelling during the early 2000s with four small children: an undertaking that always felt like the progress of some medieval monarch touring his domain, such were the quantities of clothing, bedwear, food and even crockery that we had to cart with us. Left to my own devices and travelling solo, I went commando, taking ever smaller carry-on bags – until, one epiphanic night, as I lay awake fretting about what I should take for a forthcoming three-week, multi-city tour of the United States, this revolutionary idea floated, light as a feather, into my cognitive hold: why not take nothing? That’s right – nothing at all. Why not simply set off for the other side of the world with nothing but the clothes I would put on that morning?

Just the thought of it was exhilarating. I began fantasising about what it would be like to encounter the New World naked, unadorned – and, in a sense, for the first time, because, when you stop to think about it, contemporary affluent human beings and snails are not that dissimilar. Both species travel, in effect, on their stomachs (although, granted, human beings aren’t true gastropods) and both carry their habitation with them, whether on their back or boogieing along behind on dinky, rubberised wheels.

Haven’t you noticed the way your luggage – particularly on a protracted journey, with multiple stops – becomes an odd sort of cynosure, gathering into itself your anxieties, as well as providing you with a largely false sense of security? “Where’s my suitcase?!” you scream in the echo chamber of your mind as your eyes dart feverishly around the departure lounge – then you feel the warm flood of relief as you realise it’s between your legs.

You arrive at hotels and carefully unpack the suitcase so as to create a little milieu of your own effects, and the following morning you fold it all up, pack it away again and slither on to the next stop. You begin to think about your luggage the way you do about your home, dividing it up into separate “rooms” that need to be kept tidy and well maintained. Most of all, your luggage provides you with a barrier against the alien and frightening world: your clothes are your armour, your electronic equipment feeds you reassuringly familiar cultural input, while your toiletries salve your desiccated and sunburned skin. But by travelling with nothing, I would abandon all this prophylaxis – instead, it would just be me, naked and unadorned, encountering a new location with my senses fully exposed.

There would be this benison and, I hoped, another one: if I didn’t carry a suitcase, I wouldn’t have the stress of packing the wretched thing. In the years since I began to downsize, I had become increasingly preoccupied with the business of packing, because while my bags grew smaller, my anxieties remained in the form of too many changes of clothes, books, and so on. On the night before a journey, I would lie awake in bed mentally assembling this paraphernalia, then imaginatively cramming it into the bag – a dry run for the slapstick to follow: the oofing and the zip-yanking. But if I took nothing, I wouldn’t have to endure either this performance or the intangible Rubik’s Cube manipulations that preceded it.

Or so I assumed. Travelling without any luggage turned out to be just as weirdly obsessional as travelling light. The problem was simple: pockets. I was travelling around the US in the autumn, moving between three climates, and my waxed-cotton jacket was the logical garment. The trouble was that it was equipped with no fewer than three substantial pockets and a fourth, very large one, like a poacher’s. So, instead of lying awake mentally packing a bag, I found myself equally insomniac as I mentally filled pockets. Far from encountering the New World newborn, I ended up journeying from Toronto in the north to Los Angeles in the south-west, then to New York in the east, all the while dragging behind me a jacket fat with stuff.

Still, the experience hasn’t cured me of my antipathy: even though I’ve retreated, retrenched, and accepted that I must travel with at least minimal effects, I cannot stand idly while the vast baggage trains of others pass me by. Often, as at the Gare du Nord, I’ll see someone busting a blood vessel as they try to heave their stuff on to a conveyor belt or off an escalator. At these times, some evil spirit will take possession of me. I’ll lean into them and whisper: “You can’t take it with you, you know.”

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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