The Unforgettables

At Across the West, we’re always ready to get on the road. At a moment’s notice, we’re ready to go. It’s a lifestyle. We embrace it. Of course with every trip, no matter how short the notice, there will be some packing, but veteran Road Warriors often have a bag or two that never gets unpacked, a kit of essentials that gets stored at home in a travel-ready state. The items in those bags are the subject of this week’s discussion. I call them the Unforgettables.

You obviously have to bring along a change of underwear and socks, but that’s not what this discussion is about. This is about the dozen or so little items that may not get used on every trip, but always go on every trip, because when they are needed, they’re needed right now. I carry mine in two separate bags, a backpack and a toiletry bag which I have mentioned elsewhere. It’s the contents of those bags which I will be examining today.

Fingernail clippers.
I can’t count how many times I’ve used my fingernail clippers for clipping things other than my fingernails. But I’ve used them for my fingernails even more. Buy a Trim brand Deluxe Fingernail Clipper with file. It’s well-made, and will last for years. It’s available for about a dollar or two, and is about the best value in personal care you’ll ever find.

Back-up lip balm.
Whatever your brand of preference, keep a second tube in your travel bag. I don’t want to think about how many times I’ve lost my pocket tube of lip balm, without which I never leave the house, and have been unable to find my preferred brand while out on the road, and had to buy a cheap tube of flavored wax from a gas station. It’s a small annoyance, but small annoyances add up on the road. My brand of preference is Dermatone Medicated with SPF 23. It’s available from Amazon in a 2-pack, one for my pocket, and one for my travel bag. I also carry a small tin of Dermatone Z-Cote facial sunscreen with SPF 30.

A clothes pin to keep hotel curtains closed.

Clothes pins.
Old-fashioned wooden clothes pins or their modern metal counterparts have a simple but important purpose in my kit: keeping the curtains closed in the hotel room. I have a couple in my bag, and I also carry a half-dozen thumbtacks. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of quality sleep, and one of the best ways to enhance sleep quality is by improving the darkness of your sleeping quarters. If I’m fortunate enough to be waking up after the sun, I try to ensure I’ll get to enjoy that extra time by closing up that curtain gap with a clothes pin or two, and sometimes even tacking the sides of the curtains flush with the walls. It’s a small step that can make a big difference in your sleep quality, and they take up almost no space in your bag.

Dental care items.
You’ve finally found a use for that tiny little dental floss you got from the dentist. Throw it in your travel bag! Of course if you’re one of those special human beings who flosses every day, you’ll want to have a full-size floss in your bag, but for the rest of us, a small one will probably do. The point is, have a dedicated floss that never gets unpacked. It’s a small item that’s easy to forget if you’re constantly having to pack and unpack it, so just throw it in your permanent bag, and forget about it… until you need it. And speaking of dedicated travel items, have a dedicated travel toothbrush of the same brand and model as your home one, along with a dedicated tube of toothpaste. Just get the full-size one. The small travel-size tube is going to run out exactly when it’s least convenient. Forget about packing and unpacking those items. That’s for weekenders. Leave them in your ready-bag and be done with it.

Medical care items.
I keep small bottles of Ibuprofen, Meclizine, and chewable antacids (calcium carbonate tablets) in my bag at all times. And a few Band-Aid Tough-Strips. I am not a medical professional. This is not medical advice. Consult a physician before taking any medication. The Ibuprofen and Meclizine come from Costco, one I take for pain, and the other I take for travel sickness, which I usually only get on boats. Meclizine is generic for Bonine, which is available in a box of 8 for $7 from Amazon, or a bottle of 100 for $4 behind the pharmacy counter at Costco. Seriously. $4 for 100. Just go to the Costco pharmacy and ask. A side effect of Meclizine is drowsiness, and I’ve heard, though I do not recommend, that some people use it as a sleep aid. Use only as directed. Meclizine, not mescaline. Be specific about that.

Phone charger.
Pony up and get a dedicated travel copy of the wall charger for your phone. Never take it out of your bag unless you’re using it on the road. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s easy to leave behind, either at home if you take it out of your bag, or at a hotel, if you forget to grab it from the nightstand before you check out. If that happens to you, don’t despair! Just ask the front desk at your (any) hotel if they have a spare charger you can borrow (keep). They will probably have a box full of them, left over from other poor saps who left them behind. Like a penny in the tray at a convenience store, it’s always there when you need it.

Portable power bank.
While we’re talking about our mobile devices, grab yourself a portable battery charger. One of the best is the Dulla M50000 portable power bank. Its solid construction and 12,000mAh of power ensure you’ll have plenty of juice to charge even your most power-hungry device, anywhere, any time.

Laundry bag and portable hamper.
This is an odd one, I’ll admit, but I always travel with a laundry bag, and if I’m staying in a place for two or more nights, I also bring a pop-up mesh hamper. I hate looking at dirty clothes piled in the corner of a hotel room, and I don’t want my filthy, stinking socks mixing in with my clean items, so I bring a little bit of home with me on the road, in the form of a portable hamper. Why both the hamper and the bag? I store the dirty stuff in the hamper over the course of the trip because it’s more convenient to use on a daily basis than the laundry bag by itself, but at the end of the trip, I just dump it all into the laundry bag, cinch the top, and cram it into my luggage. Fast and easy.

Flushable wipes.
A small comfort of home. ‘Nuff said. I occasionally bring my own toilet paper, too.

Most of these items aren’t do-or-die items, but they do make travel a little more civil, a little more manageable for those of us who live on the road. They’re comforts, conveniences, or in some cases, inconveniences if you don’t have them. Obviously any seasoned traveler will have their own list of Unforgettables, but whatever they are, take steps to make sure that you never leave them behind. For me that means leaving them packed and ready to go at all times. That ensures that I never get on the road without all of my Unforgettable items.

How to Spot Mt. Whitney

When traveling north or south along the eastern edge of California, between locations in Southern California and destinations around Lake Tahoe, or to Reno or Mammoth, or for those rare travelers heading north beyond Reno, perhaps to Gerlach, Nevada to see the Fly Geyser, or even to the nearby Black Rock Desert to go to Burning Man, or maybe just to visit Sierra Army Depot outside of Herlong, California, the road for most travelers is US Highway 395. One question often comes up, while traveling through the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra between the towns of Ridgecrest and Bishop: which one is Mt. Whitney?

California’s tallest mountain, and the tallest in the contiguous US, stands at 14,505 feet tall, some 66 feet taller than the tallest mountain in the Colorado Rockies, Mt. Elbert, at 14,439. In fact, Colorado has some 53 “Fourteeners,” mountain peaks over 14,000 feet tall, while California has only 12 Fourteeners. But Mt. Whitney stands above them all, a fact that provokes the consternation of many a Colorado hiker.

Of course if you venture outside of the contiguous US, the stakes change drastically. Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,491 feet, and Canada’s Mt. Logan reaches 19,551 feet high. Mexico has a round half-dozen mountain peaks taller than Mt. Whitney, and Canada has an even 10, but none of them are taller than Alaska’s Denali, at 20,310, the only mountain in North America above 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters. Interestingly, the second tallest mountain in Canada and the United States is the same mountain, Mt. Saint Elias, at 18,009, along the US/Canadian border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

So compared to those giants, Mt. Whitney is relatively modest, but it’s what we have, and we’re proud of it. So when you’re traveling along the Eastern Sierra, and want to locate California’s tallest mountain, look to the west around the town of Lone Pine.

The location of Mt. Whitney

There’s a large mountain peak in the foreground slightly to the left, with two jagged ridges that transverse diagonally, downward and to the north, reaching the very base of the mountain just above the valley floor. Scan to the right from there, down along a saddle ridge, past a smaller secondary summit, and you’ll see a series of jagged, rocky, sawtooth peaks. The largest and tallest of those is Mt. Whitney, rising nearly 11,000 feet above the valley floor. The summit elevation is calculated at 14,505 feet, although the USGS brass benchmark anchored into the summit reads 14,494. It has been reputed that Mt. Whitney is visible from Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America’s lowest point, but that assertion appears to be apocryphal.

Packing for the Journey

No matter the destination, nearly any journey begins with packing. How and what to pack are essential questions, from the selection of the right baggage, to managing the load once the journey begins. There are countless factors that influence what to bring on your journey, and how to pack it all, so a little forethought can help to ensure that you’re prepared on the road.

The first choice to make when packing for your trip is the baggage. For me, the choice depends on where I’m going, for how long, what my mode of travel is, and whether it’s for business or pleasure.  And while this is not a discussion of the best brands or models of bag, some strong consideration should be given to what sorts of bags you need, and how they can be used for different kinds of trips. On short trips for pleasure, I’ll usually go with a small roller bag and a backpack with necessities. Longer trips obviously require larger baggage. And trips for business often require a slightly different configuration, depending what materials or equipment I need. Regardless of my destination, I have two bags that I always bring along, and which in fact I never unpack: my backpack and my toiletries bag. The backpack contains cords and cables for electronic devices, ear plugs for noisy flights and loud hotel air conditioners, a pair of back-up sun glasses, ear buds, a pen, and a few other comforts and accessories. My toiletries kit contains travel-dedicated copies of the standard items I use at home, including a full-size tooth brush and proper razor, tooth paste, deodorant, hair product, nail clippers, and other items. By never unpacking those bags, storing them at home in their pre-packed state, I ensure that I never get on the road lacking any of these essential items.

After selecting the proper luggage, it’s time to actually begin packing it. I pack in reverse order: the first items to go in are the last ones I plan to use.  Seasoned travelers should be skilled at predicting what they’ll actually need on the road. I pack in outfits– pants/shorts, shirts, ties, jackets, and outerwear– making a plan for each day’s needs, and factoring in days when I’ll need more than one outfit. Consider the weather, as well. Wet socks are a miserable experience. In fact, depending on the nature of the trip, I generally bring a complete set of extra undergarments (socks, undershirts, etc.) beyond what I actually expect to use, in case things don’t go as planned. I often don’t use them, but they’ve saved me countless times, and they barely take up any room. And don’t forget something to sleep in. If that means your skin, then so be it, but I generally travel with some kind of sleep or lounge clothes, for one main reason: if I need something from the hotel at the end of the day, and a valet, housekeeper, bellman, or other hotel worker has to bring it to me, I don’t want to have to put on regular clothes again to answer the door (and whoever is bringing it to me doesn’t want to see me undressed). Not all hotels have robes available to use in the room, so a comfortable pair of sleep pants and a soft shirt are generally enough to protect your modesty and that of the hotel staff.

I usually have at least 3 pairs of footwear. First is comfortable athletic-style shoes which I generally wear for the travel portion of trip, and which are easy to slip off and on in airport security. Next are my “utility shoes,” by which I mean the appropriate footwear for whatever situation I’ll be in, related to my reason for travel. They could be dress shoes, work boots, or any other shoes for conducting your business on the road. Finally, I always bring along a lightweight pair of flip flops for lounging around when the day is done. I don’t do slippers, but many people do, and they can be a welcome comfort for road-weary travelers. For dress shoes, I generally select in advance one color of shoes, and coordinate my clothing selections based on that, to prevent having to pack multiple pairs of dress shoes. Black is highly versatile, but other colors may be appropriate, depending on your style. Men often have it easier in this regard than women. But regardless of your shoe selections, I shouldn’t have to tell men to match their leathers. Finally, when packing shoes, I always either wrap my shoes in a plastic grocery bag, or pack them in a dedicated shoe compartment in my bag. I don’t want my clothes rubbing up against my shoes. It’s rough on the clothes, and unsanitary.

Once I finish packing, I assemble all of my baggage in one place and make sure everything is secure, that the zippers or closures all function properly, and that I can carry and manage it all myself. I can usually handle two large suitcases, a backpack and laptop bag, but I rarely travel that heavy. Self-sufficiency on the road is important for me, but individuals who require assistance in transporting their baggage should check for arrangements for assistance in advance.

Finally, I double-check that I have any required travel documents, identification, or other important articles, make sure my phone is charged, and that I have my watch, wallet, keys, and other pocket-necessities. I double-check the locks on the doors and windows, turn off the lights, and walk out the door.

One last note: I make no effort to pack light for the sake of packing light. Some people consider packing light to be a goal unto itself. I don’t. I favor, rather, packing efficiently. I don’t want to bring things I don’t need, but neither do I want to need things I didn’t bring. I generally don’t re-wear clothes, and I take no pride in packing for 10 days in one small bag. I pack the things I need and want, and they take up the space that they take. Other travelers differ on this point, and you should make up your own mind.