BOSTON — A Chinese philosopher was right when he observed that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But by late-20th-century American standards, he was also a bit wrong. For modern travelers, every journey really begins with a trip to the mall to stock up on a list of items that will supposedly ensure safety, comfort, and convenience on the road.
And how that list keeps growing! To flip through the pages of a travel-supply catalog is to look in wonder at the marvels of miniaturization that can lighten any traveler's load. The eight-ounce hair dryer. The three-inch flashlight. The four-inch binoculars. The three-ounce electronic language translator. What travel-loving catalog reader, dogearing page after page, can resist the appeal of these ingenious devices, promising to cover every contingency?
Yet a paradox exists. As luggage has become more streamlined and as clothes have grown more casual, the experts' advice - "Travel light" - becomes increasingly possible. At the same time, a counter-trend is gaining momentum as marketers create other "needs" guaranteed to add weight and bulk to even the lightest carry-on.
Some of these "needs" involve marketing protection against the perceived dangers and aggravations of modern travel: Smoke hoods for escaping plane crashes and burning high-rises. Personal safety alarms. Wearable air filters. Antipollution masks to filter airplane insecticides and tobacco smoke. Door-stop burglar alarms, locks, and motion detectors with 80-decibel sirens to keep intruders out of hotel rooms.
It's enough to produce the heaviest, most invisible baggage of all: fear.
Other inventions are more benign, illustrating a sobering truth of modern life: Every convenience begets other necessities, euphemistically labeled "accessories."
Consider the computer. In its ability to keep a user connected anywhere in the world, it offers the potential for unparalleled freedom. But wait. What's a computer without a modem, and what's a modem in a hotel room without such accessories as a modular telephone adaptor, a coupler, a telephone filter, a tool kit for rejigging wiring in the wall, and a device to protect against "damaging overcurrent"? In one catalog alone, such essentials fill two pages.
To accommodate this gear, another catalog offers a dual-purpose suitcase called "the carry-on office." One side holds clothing for a one- or two-night stay. The other half features a fold-out computer briefcase "to carry all your business needs: laptop, cables, batteries, disks, and papers."
Another merchandiser encourages travelers to "take your desk drawer on your business trips." A multi-purpose tool includes scissors, stapler, pencil sharpener, tape measure, ballpoint pen, staple remover, carton opener, and hole punch.
Can anyone blame increasing numbers of executives for saying no to business travel? In a new survey by Hyatt Hotels, 1 in 3 executives admit they would stop traveling immediately if they could be sure it wouldn't hurt their careers. Tired of crowded airports, overbooked planes, and filled-to-capacity hotels, they're delegating trips to others and keeping in touch with clients by video conferences and e-mail.
Some of these inventions have their uses, of course. Taking home-sweet-home, or even office-sweet-office, on the road obviously guarantees at least a few creature comforts.
Still, to watch the endless stream of suitcases and boxes tumbling onto airport baggage carousels, and to watch the faces of passengers waiting anxiously to be reunited with their possessions, is to be reminded that the theory of "less is more" applies on the road, as well as everywhere else. As backpackers and other unencumbered travelers can attest as they breeze jauntily past the baggage claim area without stopping, the "don't-leave-home-without-it" school of packing is as dated as the steamer trunk.