Travel Blog

Photography, travel, and self-reflection

Traveling Light: Finding Meaning in Minimalism

I grew up in a lovely historical Middle-American home overflowing with collections of antiques a little too reminiscent of an episode of Hoarders. Acquiring stuff was encouraged. Eclectic chaos and clutter was the norm. Children tend to carry on the lifestyles of their upbringing, or they rebel into opposition. I was destined to become a hoarder. Or a minimalist.

I chose the latter, and by my mid-twenties I began pruning my belongings down to what I could carry in one carload as I darted from one side of the country to the other. I spent years on a perpetual road trip, becoming more and more comfortable letting go of anything unnecessary, developing a habit of buying only what I needed.

As a travel photographer, I’ve spent most of my recent years outside the country, further encouraging my minimalist tendencies. There’s no greater deterrent to acquiring stuff than by jumping the pond every few months. Airport security favors the light traveler. And carrying everything you own becomes an exhausting task when the bulk of it is greater than your own body mass.

Two winters ago I ran through Amsterdam Central Station loaded with shopping bags, a heavy backpack, and an overstuffed duffel bag the size of an adolescent manatee. Believe me, hauling the entirety of your belongings on your back while you race to catch a connecting train in a blizzard will be the last time you pack too many shoes.

So I’ve chiseled down my belongings into what I can actually carry: one suitcase and a TSA-friendly backpack. Along with a couple boxes of my most cherished childhood mementos tucked away in my parents’ attic, I own nothing else. If the Salvation Army awarded points for donations, I’d be at Platinum status. I’ve become an extreme minimalist.

It’s not always easy to let go of things, or to avoid acquiring more. Humans are an attached and sentimental bunch, assigning meaning and memories to all sorts of inanimate objects. We hold onto trinkets and knick-knacks and souvenirs. Americans especially have a consumerist mindset: buy the latest, buy the best, buy more. Buy on credit if you can’t afford it. We upgrade our electronics and cars and clothing faster than we need to. Our lives are filled with stuff.

To a perpetual traveler, stuff is a drag. The bulk of your belongings will slow you down, limiting your mobility. And keeping up with the Joneses only detracts money and time from the larger goal: travel more, see more, experience more. Live better. Live without clutter and crap. Keep the weight off your shoulders. Do you really need the latest gear? The latest gadget? Do you really need more stuff?

To a minimalist, value comes from people and place: our unique experiences, interactions, relationships. We live for the memories in our heads, the connections we make, and the stories we’ll get to share. To the modern consumer, the notion of casting off material belongings is disheartening, even painful. A consumer’s value is all wrapped up in the things they own and the objects they surround themselves with.

But a minimalist doesn’t need to snuff their sentimental urges entirely. I’ve acquired common necessities at meaningful times and places. Half of my clothes came from Amsterdam. I bought my hair brush in London, a blow dryer in Frankfurt. I bargained for sunglasses in South Africa, found a pashmina in Portugal. A while back I picked up a silk scarf in Paris, a necklace in Juárez. Most of what little I own has meaning or memory behind it—sentimental belongings that don’t add clutter to my life. Everyday usable mementos. The souvenirs of a minimalist.

It’s possible to live a meaning-filled minimal lifestyle. But you must be willing to place more value in the little things, on experiences over stuff. Live more, buy less.

And own fewer shoes.