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Last summer my wife Betty and 14-year-old son Stewart spent five weeks in Spain trying to live on $5 a day. Some days they succeeded. They traveled on country buses, stayed in pensions and returned home glowing. Stewart, who cannot survive in a United States motel that does not have a swimming pool, was enchanted with ancient Spanish accommodations that had only one WC per floor. In the States he has a way of choosing the most costly items on any menu, but in Spain he raved about the no-choice meals served in pension dining rooms. Convinced that the whole trunk of an automobile cramps his traveling style here, he was green with envy there at youngsters who traveled for months depending only on the contents of a backpack. He brought back to our home a resounding, oft-repeated phrase: "Backpacking in Europe."
As he evangelistically described it, Backpacking in Europe was more than a form of traveling. It was a life-style, a political belief. It was youth exhibiting soaring freedom and independence of soul pitted against the aging Establishment that travels with suitcases, taxis and porters. So persuasive was he about the backpack that I wondered if the Establishment might be missing something. I wanted to find out. When a chance came last September to take a couple weeks' vacation from my IBM office, my Westchester County manse and prodding my son to do chores, I signed up for a low-cost charter flight to Brussels.
"His and hers vacations?" said friends. "How novel."
"Going alone?" said fellow workers. "How did you pull that off?"
I had qualms at first about committing the whole trip to a backpack. It seemed rather drastic. I borrowed one from a friend and took it home to experiment. I packed it to see if it would hold all I wanted to take. It wouldn't. I removed the bedroll and strapped a knapsack on the frame in its place. Then it would. It weighed 28 pounds. I hoisted the pack to my back to see how it felt. I walked around the house testing it. I went out to the garage, started up the lawn mower and cut the lawn. When finished, I was no more tired than I would have been without the pack, I decided to backpack.
There is nothing revolutionary about traveling around in this fashion. Armies have taught the technique to many of us, and in these quieter limes every dedicated hiker-camper has a backpack for use while scouring woodland wilds or scaling mountains. The current freshness lies in bringing the backpack out of the wilderness into civilization, checking it onto transatlantic jets, toting it through medieval streets, traveling everywhere fully loaded with everything you need on your back while your arms and legs are free to do as they please. It is ideal for navigating airports, hunting for and comparing hotels and even sight-seeing. So useful is the backpack for these pursuits that comparing it to the suitcase is unfair. And I emphasize that it is ideal for 50-year-olds as well as for kids.
The pack paid its first dividend the first hour in Europe. I landed in Belgium at dawn—1:30 a.m. New York time—and was resigned to the traditional zombielike existence for a day. My destination was Amsterdam, less than an hour away by air, but I dreaded a whole new chain of decisions and connections without some rest. By default I was drifting toward Brussels to find a hotel that would accept a guest before breakfast and thus allow a day for adjusting to European time. Then I would move on the next morning. Sleepwalking to the airport train, backpack in place, I saw on a television screen a flight to Amsterdam in 35 minutes. I stopped at the only ticket counter open and asked listlessly about space. A few phone calls later I was retracing my steps out to the departure gates on my way to Amsterdam. Now that could be done with a suitcase, too, you say—but not by a zombie struggling with a suitcase. The simplicity of merely asking the question, turning around and moving in the other direction was due to the backpack. And a whole day of my vacation was saved.
The next advantage that arose was a major one. A backpack gives you a chance to pick and choose your hotel on the spot instead of reserving it blind in advance from travel literature. You can walk on by—or turn around and walk out—if a suggested hotel is found lacking. You do not need to tie your trip down to a rigid prearranged schedule. I had a list of several low-cost canal hotels but wanted to see them before checking in to one of them.
The airport bus dropped me at the Amsterdam Centraal Station. I bought a map and sauntered past the row of waiting taxis into the large open Stations Plein. My list started with the Herengracht, a major canal. I set off on foot, drinking in the sights at close range—at walking speed—instead of whisking by in a taxi while trying to gauge the driver's skill, watch the meter, wonder how much a guilder was really worth and whether I should ask the driver to wait while I went into the first promising hotel to see if it had a room. Amsterdam is flat and easy to negotiate, and I reveled in the trivia that makes any European city attractive the first day; the popularity of streetcars, the tricky traffic control signals, the blue-enameled street signs mounted high on corner buildings and the daring of the drivers of huge rattling trucks that plowed down the middle of narrow cobblestoned streets.
The Hotel Hegra was 15 feet from the unrailed edge of the canal. It looked just right. The Hegra was less than 20 feet wide. It devoted a disproportionate amount of this width to stairs that were still the narrowest, windingest and steepest in memory. Headroom diminished as one ascended, and the handrail stopped on the last tight turn, where it was needed most. I made the last few steps by lightly steadying myself with my fingertips on the steps ahead of me. Later, when new arrivals made their ascent to the floor above, the thudding and bumping of suitcases, the audible consternation of the climbers, brought me to the door under the impression a piano was being moved.