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Dragged down by a piece of luggage on wheels

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000

I don't know which to blame more: the wheel or the Americans with Disabilities Act. They both were part of the cause of my way over-packing on a recent three-week excursion to Africa.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the wheel. It's been great through the millennia, moving us from place to place, working well with the pulley and axle. But when it comes to lightening our loads, especially our luggage, I have a certain level of ambivalence.

Up until the time wheels started cropping up on every suitcase, travelers decided what to bring on long trips by figuring out how much they could carry. Today the query is: How much can you roll.

See the problem?

The ADA figures in here since it was enacted in 1990, suspiciously, just about the time wheels became the sine qua non of suitcase design. It isn't clear that the ADA spawned the roller revolution, but the law offered something wheeled luggage desperately needed: Ramps.

On behalf of wheelchairs, barrier curbs were transformed into gently slopping sidewalk access-ways. Steeply-staired entries were reconstructed into smooth zig-zag paths. When public buildings became inviting to wheelchairs, Samsonite cruised on in and packing went from an exercise of self-denial to one of free-wheeling excess.

It was due to wheels that, as I shopped for new luggage to take with me on a four-country trip, I wasn't thinking about carrying load, just holding capacity. I finally settled on 29-inch high expandable with inline skate wheels I nicknamed "Winnebago." Its deep well and multiple pockets would surely afford me all the room I needed to pack for every eventuality.

As I've come to learn, smart, seasoned travelers have a rule of thumb: Pile everything on your bed you need to bring on the trip, then put half back. But Winnie and I had no such notions of deprivation. With Winnie's generous girth and my naivete, "nice" outfits came with shoes and bags to match, coats, bathing suits and workout clothes were packed alongside books and emergency foodstuffs. The trip would bring me from South Africa where evening temperatures dipped to 40 degrees to Nigeria where daytime highs were in the muggy 90s, from meetings with presidents to a dusty refugee camp. My whole closet was relevant.

I admit, there was a moment of doubt. As I strained to lift Winnie from the bed to the floor it occurred to me that effortlessly gliding my luggage through Africa may not always be an option. It could be, after all, that Mozambique is not entirely handicapped accessible. But I couldn't decide what to remove, what kicky clog or sporty blazer not to bring. I was weak-willed, not weak-wheeled, so Winnie stayed packed. We were in it for the long haul.

Upon arriving in South Africa, regret hit me like an oversized Louis Vuitton carry-on. As the rest of the columnists and editorial writers with whom I was traveling collected their luggage, I gaped at the restraint around me. Many, especially those who had taken these kind of trips before, had brought luggage so small it could have fit in Winnie's expandable pocket. They didn't care if they were seen day after day in the same wrinkle-free travel garb, where pants become shorts with the pull of a zipper. Better that than be seduced by the lure of locomotion.

Regret soon turned to hate. As I unpacked, repacked, tried to roll the thing up stairs and into vans, I began to hate my luggage. It wasn't just an albatross around my neck, it was the bird who ate a Chevy. I was constantly apologizing to porters, my face squinching with sympathy pain and effort, as I watched them struggle with my behemouth.

The bag was too heavy for me to carry more than a few feet. Basically, I could roll it or heave it, but that was about it. I realized there were two things that could put an end to my trip: losing my passport or breaking a wheel.

There is no AAA for luggage, although maybe there should be.

So what did I learn? Well, I have a new appreciation for pack animals; and I can tell you the right shoes aren't terribly important in a country where most people don't wear them. Oh, and when the next generation of luggage comes on the market with a Hovercraft design, no matter how enticing it sounds, I won't be buying the "truck-on-air."

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