A New American Dream: Owning Only What You Can Carry

#vanlife was all well and good … but the new American Dream is divesting even further. I own only what I can carry on my back. It’s minimalism for the modern age.

Divesting is hot these days: all possessions “sparking joy” and tiny homes and #vanlife.

Been there, done all of that.

The 2.0 version of this, what more people are embracing every day, is the idea of only owning what you can fit on your back. These travelers make an art out of being able to transport their belongings from city to city and country to country in comfort. The goal is always to reduce what you own, not gather souvenirs and new local clothes. The less you have, the better.

It’s the opposite of the American Dream.

It’s the new American Dream.

Personally, I am on the heavier end of the nomadic spectrum, traveling with a 20-kg. (or less, in warmer weather) backpack that’s 65L. I work as a writer online so I also need to bring my laptop as a carry-on in my purple Kanken backpack, which I mention by brand only because it is a colorful, children’s size backpack. I also carry my ukulele. My lightweight yoga mat is strapped on to my pack, which I check when I fly.

I have too much stuff to travel quickly, but then, that’s not my style anyway. I usually live in a country until my American visa runs out, and then I go live in another country. I’ve lived out of a backpack for almost two years, moving around four continents so far.

Some travel days with my big ole pack are awful. I once made a rookie mistake of setting my alarm for PM instead of AM and woke up in time to give myself five minutes to tumble into a Grab and make my flight to Thailand. I slung my pack over my shoulders and ran across the airport to check in. I made my flight. It would have been less dramatic if I owned fewer things.

I’m always shedding things, but I’m also always refining what I own, too. I replace worn out clothing and try to think ahead to the culture and climate of the next country. I do have some souvenirs that I carry around. I could probably mail a box to my friend’s house, where I store two other boxes and my late grandmother’s hope chest that I inherited and filled with family heirlooms.

My hope chest is on Independence Road.

Instead of adding to my possessions, I usually just sell or give a big bag of things away when I leave. I’ve tucked pieces of clothing next to bottles of half-used cooking oil on to the free shelves of hostels. I sold a big bag of clothing to a vintage shop in Tokyo — I was flushed to discover that they took and “disposed” of items they didn’t want, giving me just a dime per piece. But, hey, $15.70 was better than nothing.

I cannot allow my bag to weigh over 20 kg, because that puts me in another weight class for airline travel. It’s like my bag is in the lightweight class. People in the featherweight — with just a 7-kg carry-on — are really impressive. Interestingly, I don’t really put a limit on my body weight. I haven’t weighed myself in so long, because no place that I stay ever has a scale.

I weigh more than my possessions.

There are definitely have some weighty and voluminous extravagances in my bag. My gratitude journal is entirely too hardbound, but it’s beautiful and helps me stay positive and manifesting success in my life. I have three packing cubes’ worth of clothing. I know I should pare down to two packing cubes, but I like to dress like a normal person.

Also, I’m female. Men can get away with a pair of quick-dry undies, t-shirt, pants, surf baggies, a collared shirt and a puffer vest. If each piece is high quality and fits perfectly, he’s basically prepared for all occasions. I just think it’s a lot harder for women to look appropriate and stylish on going out to dinner with friends or on a date, while touring, jogging and doing yoga.

However, there is one thing that I realized by getting my wardrobe down small enough to fit into a one-foot square cube.

No one actually cares what you look like.

If you have a closet filled with clothing at home and you have a job that doesn’t require a uniform, try this experiment: Wear the same outfit of basics three times in one week. Keep it looking as fresh as possible, maybe add a scarf. See if anyone notices. Unless you pick a really off-the-wall outfit, chances are if someone does notice, he or she wouldn’t even say anything.

Five years ago, when I first started traveling, I used to have a closet. I actually had two. I had an overflow closet for jackets, suits for work and fancy dresses for fancy parties. My main closet was filled with the usual: pants, skirts, long- and short-sleeve shirts and dresses of all kinds. It was jammed with awesome thrift store finds perfect for day-to-day life. Not everything fit perfectly, but whatever.

Of course, because I was paying rent on a two-bedroom house and had lots of space, I also had a heap of purses, hats, scarves and even a big plastic bin filled with costumes that I wore at music festivals.

It took so long to get ready in the morning. I had to decide exactly how I was going to show up wherever I was going. What part of me, what face would I show? Was it the crazy music-loving peacenik at a concert or was it the communications director who attended chamber of commerce events?

Now, I’m still all of those things, just with about two week’s worth of outfits.

To be specific, I own five dresses, three skirts, five pairs of pants, seven long-sleeve tops, four short-sleeve tops, four tank tops, two pairs of leggings, five pairs of shorts, a sarong, four pairs of socks, undies, three swimsuits, three hats and a purse. I own a pair of hikers, sneakers, black TOMS slip-ons, Birkenstocks and flip-flops. I’ll probably ditch three of the long-sleeve tops before my next country. It’s going to be hot in Vietnam … but it’ll be cool once I reach Uruguay later this year.

I can dress myself for a wedding, a hot dinner date, a cold night of camping under the stars, a jog or a yoga class, in conservative and tropical climates. I don’t think anyone is mocking my mix-and-match, relaxed vintage style. At least I hope not. At least everything fits.

Other stuff in my pack include a satchel of handy items like an extra pair of sunglasses, a door stop, a ball of hemp and mending supplies. I have a small electronics bag with my hard drive and some cords, and I have some fun stuff like a coloring book and markers and a Kindle. I always travel with reusable items including a cloth bag, foldable Tupperware, cutlery and chopsticks, a water jug and a coffee mug. And, of course, I have a first aid kit (that came in handy when I had Bali belly) and a toiletry roll that includes solid bars of shampoo, conditioner and facial soap from Lush.

I mentioned souvenirs: a bombilla and mate from Argentina for yerba mate and a small red baggie for a mix of protective herbs a friend gave me. I also carry a couple of memorable wine corks, including one from a champagne bottle ordered by a man I dated to arrive memorably with a flaming sparkler to our table in a secret bar in Penang, Malaysia. Annoyingly, I have Nag Champa incense that I bought in Australia (I head to India next), and I also have a set of beautiful origami papers that I bought in Santa Fe, New Mexico (I’m currently living in Tokyo).

Thoughtful men have bought me earrings. It’s probably the best gift besides dinner and drinks.

When people talk about tiny homes — I put in many hours of design brainstorming and sweat equity into one built on to a commercial truck that I lived in for six months in Australia — they dream of divesting to my level (or better). When people talk about #vanlife (I did that too, as well as staying in hostels, housesitting and living in cheap guesthouses in Southeast Asia), they dream.

The new American Dream is living simply, away from the trappings of commercialism.

In order to get there, you need to purge the old American Dream. You need to tear down the old concept of the house with a yard and a white picket fence. That’s not in the cards for most people in today’s lopsided American economy anyway. Not everyone has a career that allows them to travel and work remotely, like I do, but everyone has the ability to live with less.

Suzanne Wentley is a professional writer, full-time traveler, yoga teacher, energy worker and believer in you. Check out www.thelovelightproject.com

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