Many readers of mystery/action novels will be familiar with the series that Lee Child writes featuring Jack Reacher, a former Army MP who drifts across the country finding trouble and fixing problems. Reacher has no home and no possessions. He travels with no baggage. He carries only his debit card and his toothbrush. Every three days he goes into a cheap clothing store and buys a new outfit, skin out, and throws away the old set.
I find this character’s travel habits very compelling. I myself travel as lightly as possible. I have not checked any baggage for airline flights in decades. I don’t pack for marginal clothing contingencies that expand my luggage requirements. I figure that if I need something, or I forgot something, there are stores everywhere. Go native, that’s my motto.
For the holidays, I went to Wisconsin for two weeks, visiting family and friends in two cities. I wondered if I could do it with no baggage at all, just like Reacher. I decided to make it a challenge.
Could I, in fact, travel with no luggage whatsoever? The short answer is…well, wait and see.
My rules: I would take no clothing at all and buy a new set every two days (I like to be fresher than Reacher evidently does). I would take my “toothbrush.” (I took most of my toiletries, including my toothbrush and my brand of floss, plus all my contact lens solutions. Evidently Reacher doesn’t wear corrective eyewear of any kind.) I would take at least one change of underwear, because I would arrive at night, the stores wouldn’t be open, and hey, I like to be fresh in the morning, what can I say.
And because I live in California and Wisconsin in December can be (and was) really cold, I also took my packable winter jacket (temperature rated down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit), mittens, a warm hat, and a scarf. The mittens, hat, and scarf I could have picked up in Wisconsin easily enough, but I didn’t want to trust that I’d find a warm jacket immediately at a thrift store. (As it turns out, I would have needed it right when I got off the plane.)
But my outerwear, toiletries bag, and change of underwear had to be carried somehow, so I stuck everything into my navy tote bag. My purse (and laptop! Very un-Reacher) fit in there, too. Already I’m carrying more than Reacher, but Reacher’s a guy, after all. Plus, fictional.
There’s a great St. Vincent de Paul store in my home town, my first stop, so I went there the afternoon after my arrival. By then I’d realized the problems of the Reacher Packing System if applied during the holidays. Stores would be closed on Christmas and New Year’s, maybe even Dec. 24 and 31. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to acquire a new outfit every two days.
What to do?
I decided that I’d buy as many of my outfits as I could all at once. And then, modeling Reacher’s behavior, I’d wear one for two days and then toss (read: redonate) it after I’d worn it the designated time. Doing laundry would also work in a pinch, although that solution did not model Reacher’s behavior. I haven’t read all the Reacher novels, but I’ve never seen him do laundry. It doesn’t seem in character.
I struck gold at St. Vinnie’s. I got one cotton sweater, seven shirts (one for a PJ top), one pair of flannel pants (for PJ bottoms), two pairs of jeans that fit perfectly, and seven pairs of really nice, dark, heavy, cotton-wool socks, all for $21. I figured jeans you can wear forever without washing, and the rest: two days of wear for each item would carry me for two weeks.
The tossing/redonating did not go as expected. People did laundry, and I threw things in. The tee-shirt/flannel pants PJ items got washed a couple of times, as did the socks and the magenta top, my favorite. I didn’t like one of the shirts after I bought it, and the sweater wasn’t nearly warm enough, so I redonated those two things the next day. (I’d worn a fleece top on the plane and wore that as my second layer for the entire two weeks.) One top was slightly dressier than the others, and I saved that and wore it only for get-togethers.
At the end of the two weeks, I had Christmas gifts I had to ship back (note to relatives: either no gifts or ear rings only, please!), and I included in the packing box the dressier top, the magenta top, the jeans, and the socks. Everything else I redonated on my last day.
So what did I learn?
- Strictly speaking, going Jack Reacher—i.e., traveling with no baggage—doesn’t work for me. I needed a tote for my toiletries, cold-weather gear, and the change of underwear. The summer might have different requirements: for example, I would probably want to carry my own bathing suit rather than trust I could find one at St. Vinnie’s. And then there’s always my purse and sometimes my laptop.
- Carrying only the bare necessities is liberating. Thrift stores are plentiful—at least, in the places I visit. If you’re not too fussy about what you wear, you can be clothed for less than it costs to check a bag with an airline. I like to wear natural fiber clothing (cotton, linen, wool), and I didn’t have any trouble finding items that fit my preferences. If I were traveling abroad, I’m not sure what my luck would be.
- I overbought. I didn’t need to buy two pairs of jeans, but they fit so well and showed so little wear and were so cheap, I couldn’t pass them up. I also didn’t need six shirts. All the people I visited do laundry often, and it’s easy to toss in a shirt or pair of socks here and there. It’s not what Jack Reacher does, but it might be what I do.
- I had fun. One of the St. Vinnie’s volunteers got into the Jack Reacher story and offered to become my personal shopper. There’s a remarkable energy when you need to buy a bunch of stuff and the prices are so negligible that you don’t fear making purchasing mistakes. You can throw financial caution to the winds, and the items are so eclectic that if you’re in the mood, you can change your usual fashion style with virtually no risk.
So would I do it again? Heck, yeah. I’m thinking about summer. Just call me Joan. Joan Reacher.