What is it about our stuff that we get so emotionally attached to? When my p.o.s. flip phone was upgraded to a smart phone for example, the grief and separation anxiety that welled up would have been more suited to a lost dog or a friend moving out of town. I missed the little pixelated bicycle in the background. I missed the “beep boop boop” sounds the buttons made when I texted. I especially missed the way that I could accidentally drop-kick it, battery exploding and all, and it would still faithfully function.
That phone stuck with me through thick and thin, even when I dropped it in the toilet. I don’t miss the harrassment for living in the stone age, but the joy that this simple gadget brought me made up for it. Now I can’t walk outside in anything more than 0% humidity without wondering if this smartphone is going to get water logged, or set it on a table without worrying if the screen is going to get scratched. So delicate this one.
It was on a freeway outside of San Francisco where this kind of emotional attachment struck me hard. Fashioned on my bike in front of all my luggage is my sleeping pad, which in addition to keeping me warm in the backcountry, also functions as a backrest while riding.
When a friend of mine moved out of Prescott, AZ several years ago, he offered me this old sleeping pad among other things he was purging. At the time I had been using an inflatable sleeping pad for camping, which desert dwellers know are vulnerable to popping on even the softest-looking vegetation, rendering them useless in the Antarctic nighttime temperatures that come with the high desert climate.
Since then this sleeping pad has accompanied me on many backpacking trips, always keeping me warm, and from time to time reminding me of my friend and my life in Prescott. We originally knew each other as co-workers at a local restaurant, then became good friends after we took an unexpected road trip together to visit our respective families in Sacramento.
I had kind of invited myself on this trip. When he told me where he was going, I explained that I, too had time off and that I, too had family in California! I think he was skeptical at first, but our drive up the coast turned out to be a lot of fun. For those who have never been on the road with a friend, it can pretty much either make or break a relationship. As far as this solo trip goes, I’ve already wanted to divorce myself like 400 times.
So anyway, here I found myself in California again, this time alone on a bike and trying to stay cautious in the crazy rush hour traffic. Traffic patterns in California don’t make much sense to me. One minute you’re coasting along with the cars at 75 miles an hour, then as soon as the red break lights glow you have to SLAM on your breaks to avoid crashing into 10 mph traffic. Then 4 minutes later you’re pulling the throttle trying to catch up with everyone again- it’s chaotic! My only guess for why it’s so stop and go is that California is just a really crowded state.
As soon as I saw the domino-like flashes of red lights pile up in the distance I began to decelerate, then stopped amidst hundreds of cars in the farthest passing lane on the freeway. I sighed, leaned back, then almost fell backwards off the bike when my back was met with an empty void. “What the-?!?!?-” I looked behind me to find that my beloved backrest was dangling by a thread off the left side of the bike. “Oh, S***!!!” I thought. I put the bike in neutral and tried to reach back to grab it, realizing that I had no way of holding this sleeping pad if it became completely detached.
Just moments after my hand left the clutch I saw the break lights release in front of me and traffic began to move again. The best I could do was to shove as much of the pad behind my back as I could and pin it with all my might until I found a place to pull over and fix it. My arms were completely outstretched in front of me as I leaned back as hard as I could, aware of how crazy I probably looked to passing drivers. As I shifted from 2nd gear to 3rd the wind resistance picked up between the folds of the pad and I could feel it flapping behind my lower back. “Please hang on, please hang on, please hang on,” I prayed.
I passed a green sign that read 3/4 mile to the next exit as I shifted from 3rd gear to 4th. The pad began flapping even more wildly and although I was accelerating, traffic was still passing me on both sides. I could feel the pad squirming out of my lower back centimeter by centimeter. I thought, “Just a little bit farther, just a little bit farther.” I looked over my right shoulder to pass into the next lane, somehow unaware of how much that would release the pressure on my left side. The pad began to slip and I sat back as fast as I could, just barely catching the last corner of it.
I let out a brief sigh of relief, but it came too soon. Suddenly I felt a release and almost fell backwards again as the pad came completely loose. “Nooooooooo!!!” I yelled. I looked in my rearview mirror to see the accordian flap wide open in the wind, like a bird with outstretched wings, then violently smack the windshield of the car behind me. “WIIIILSOOOOON!!!” I yelled. I didn’t name it Wilson but the reference seemed appropriate.
BAM! The pad flew off the windshield and under a car. BAM! The next car ran over it. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! Four more cars, I couldn’t watch. My sleeping pad was being torn to shreds. “WHYYYYY???” I cried.
I couldn’t get the slow-motion images out of my head, each successive car ruthlessly running over the pad, leaving black tire treads and tearing it to smaller and smaller bits. The wind kept trying to lift the pad to freedom, but the next car was always too fast and too strong, running it down and flipping it over before moving on.
If this were a movie, you’d see alternating scenes flashing between the wreckage in the rearview, my tearing eyes, and the memories that sleeping pad and I shared together:
Our first memory at my friend’s nearly empty house just before he moved- him handing me the sleeping pad, and me accepting it with a bittersweet smile. The next memory of sleeping under the stars in the desert in New Mexico. The next, shakily trying to fall alseep through a thunderstorm in South Dakota. The next, sleeping on the floor of my apartment the night before leaving for this trip. Then all the memories of riding together, all the people we met and all the sites we saw from the road- The memory of us sharing an icecream sundae on a park bench, the memory of the romantic candle-lit dinner where we ate the same noodle from a bowl of spaghetti, the memory of us holding hands and spinning in a circle in the middle of a beautiful meadow…
So I guess I kind of answered my own question as I wrote this post as to why we get attached to stuff. For me, objects can be just like that smell that pulls you into the past so strongly it feels like you’re there again; like the smell of fresh cut grass bringing you to your first day of pee wee soccer or something. It’s like pulling childhood artwork out of the attic and going, “Ooh yeaaaah, I remember this!” The “things” that string our memories together can elicit feelings and experiences in a way that would be difficult to recall simply out of the blue.
When I saw that sleeping pad fly away in the rearview mirror, a part of me was terrified that the memories associated with it would fly away, too. I guess we’ll find out as time goes on…