Discovering minimalism at the Mall of America

The Mall of America, Minneapolis, MN

I write this on the day I’ve earmarked to pack for my latest trip. For nearly eight years, I’ve committed to bringing, regardless of trip length, only what I can carry on my back. And by that, I mean a backpack that conforms to airline personal item criteria. I also sometimes bring a folding bicycle, but only when the inclusion of such simplifies my excursion, making it’s portage a net-positive.

I wasn’t always this efficient. For those who know me as a minimalist, it might seem as though this way of travel is the natural progression congruent with trying to live a simple life. The opposite, however, is true in my case. The realized benefits of traveling light seem to have slowly transfused throughout much of the rest of my life. No, I didn’t discover minimalism through a blog or documentary. Nor did I inherit it from my Father, who owned very little, and seemed unbothered by the allure of consumerism. I learned the value of less through a travel mishap.

In 2012, I found myself in a job which required moderate travel. These trips ranged from an overnight, to a couple of weeks. Because I didn’t know any better at the time, I’d simply pack whatever I thought I might need for the trip, including a complete change of office appropriate, and off-hours attire for every day I’d be away. As I look back, I find it a little ridiculous that I’d pack a full-size checked bag for a three night trip (I must have packed it tighter for a week). But I wasn’t footing the bill, so why not? That’s not to say I packed any lighter for personal trips, mind you. It’s just notable that the change occurred during this time of much more frequent than normal travel. And no, I didn’t learn anything by repeating the same behavior again and again in a protracted period of time. Rather, there was an event.

I was on my way to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada one spring for a one (which would then become a two) week work trip. Not only did I have my huge roller, and my backpack, I very nearly bought a new skateboard while on layover (more on that later). 

To set the stage for how I got into the predicament, I have to share my approach to business travel: It’s not that I hated the trips (although I far from relished them), nor were they an inconvenience on my pre-parent life. But I had the attitude that if the company was going to inconvenience my life, I would do well to maximize the experience to my benefit. Now a normal person would use this opportunity to experience new places, and eat and drink well on the companies dime. I did those things. But I also did my very best to make myself available to give up my seat on any flight which offered compensation for doing so, thus helping finance my personal travel. And I’d been successful on a couple of prior trips. This trip would prove to be the most lucrative of these wins. And also teach me to pack light.

My flight was on a Sunday morning. I parked my car in the long-term parking at Bradley, Hartford, and made my way to the Delta terminal, where of course, I had to check my huge bag. I wasn’t required to be at the office until Monday morning, but in order to get the most out of my trip, I oft opted to depart a day earlier. I rationalized I was positioning myself to be fully ready for an early and energetic start on my first day. And there was truth to that – I long prided myself on being the first one in (and often last one out). I was not a business major – rather, I took some pages from George Costanza (episode where his car was broken in the Yankees parking lot). I’d like to think my work ethic was far from what George was trying to affect – I found the solitude allowed me to do my best work during my peak performance hours. Staying late was all for show, however. At this position, I reported directly to the CIO, who lived in Vancouver, BC, but had a condo and car in Danbury, CT so he could work full time near the head office. So he basically had no life while in town. And aspiring at the time to rise up the ranks, I too, fell into that rhythm. 

I boarded my plane in Hartford on time, with my backpack on my back. For some reason, I had only, and all of my work gear in the backpack, and maybe some socks and underwear. I was helping to move an office (I was in IT), and even brought my telephone wireless headset and docking station – basically my entire office aside from monitors and a network drop. I had a layover in Minneapolis / St. Paul Minnesota. And here is where the fun begins. Waiting at my gate, I hear the anticipated call over the PA that my flight is overbooked, and they are looking for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a $500 voucher for use on a future Delta flight, and two $25 meal vouchers to use anywhere in the airport. Jackpot! No one was waiting for me at my destination, so I enquired. Turns out they could give me a flight the same day, just six hours later. Done deal. So I headed over to the nicest looking restaurant in the terminal, ordered a beer and a burger, and contemplated my next trip to California, paid for by my shrewd travel hack. I then thought since I’d never been to Minneapolis before, I should get out and see the town before my flight to Edmonton. I asked a passing MSP airport employee what I should see on my abbreviated visit, and he suggested the Mall of America. Not what I would have come up with on my own, but why not? I didn’t have much time to research other options, either. This helpful fellow pointed me to the light rail in the terminal, which would take me directly to the mall. He also suggested I present my flight ticket, as that would comp my train ticket. So I pocketed my ticket, a few bucks, a credit card (just in case), and rented one of those little lockers to stow my backpack. Because now I decided to travel light on foot – the way in which I did, I would come to later regret.

So for those who have not been, the Mall of America is pretty impressive. It features a 1.3 million gallon aquarium, a theme park (replete with roller coaster), and 8 acres of skylight providing passive solar heating. It’s an impressive space, without question. And so I spent some hours walking it’s miles. At a Tilley’s store, I was introduced to the latest longboards from Landyachtz, and wished I’d had the foresight to bring my 48” Sector 9 (a board I’ve flown with before). Riding from the hotel to the office every day seemed so tempting, I very nearly purchased a new board. Now anyone who has spent time in Alberta province probably knows that the road maintenance workers spread literal gravel on the roads for traction during the winter months, the way we use sand here in New England. And at this point in Spring, that gravel was very much still on the roads. I’m rather glad I didn’t buy that board at the time (I did later get a Landyachtz Dingy), as I was unable to use it. 

At some point during my meandering, I realized I was going to have to go through airport security again to re-enter the terminal. I also realized that, I’d left my wallet (with all ID) and passport in my backpack, which was locked on the other side of security. I know you’re reading this, and thinking how dumb that was – and you would be right. I have this weird thing about the security checks, where I have to have my shoelaces all undone, and every item not sewn to my garments (that includes belt) in the backpack prior to getting to the belt. I just don’t want to be that person holding up the line. So upon that realization, I immediately headed for the train back to the airport. I figured it might take a little longer to get through security this time.

Well the line at security was normal. When I explained the situation to the TSA officer, I was asked if there was anyone on the other side who could get my things for me. There was no provision to handle my dumbass situation. Having my ticket on me did help some. If you recall, I was told I could be comped for the rail trip back to the airport by showing the ticket. This didn’t work out in practice, as at that time on a Sunday, there were no humans at the depot, and I had to buy a ticket out of the vending kiosk. Well TSA had to get on the phone with someone who had access to my “permanent record.” They asked me questions like the names of my neighbors, which I would normally be able to answer, but out of nervousness, did not do well. I was eventually able to convince them I was who I said I was, and had no intent to harm anyone. So I was then brought through the metal detector, and got a pat down. The worst part about getting one of these, is that the officer announces every move before doing it “running my hand against the inside of your left leg.” It’s already an uncomfortable situation, and this courtesy for some reason made it more uncomfortable for me.

Well I got through it, and was able to make my flight to Edmonton. My huge checked bag, unfortunately, did not make it. Presumably it was on the flight I was originally scheduled to take, but Delta was unable to re-unite me with it there at the destination. There’s more to tell about how I had to show up at the office in worn clothes, and how that affected my confidence. However, the aforementioned events were enough to affirm that it’s best to travel light, and not check a bag, if possible. These days, not only does my backpack suffice for my stuff, I end up packing some of the kids things, as well. I’ve learned about quick-dry travel undies. I’ve left some clothes I would have otherwise donated, at a destination I visit multiple times per year. Those aren’t really necessary steps, but it shows I’m able to learn a lesson, and really be thoughtful about what and how I pack.

Post Script:

I was able to bring home some local beer unavailable in the US, thanks to that big checked bag, which a couple of days later, was delivered to the hotel, as promised. 

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