The Crucial Piece

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July 5th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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While trekking long-lost regions of the world, an intrepid traveler such as yourself frequently ponders what piece of equipment is of utmost importance to your travels, that item of indivisible necessity that you would prefer to give your life for than continue forward on the journey without its help at hand. Indeed, world explorers often find themselves in such a situation, as ferocious lions, fierce bears, and deadly restrooms continuously test your courage and resolve (not to mention the quality of such equipment). So what is that one crucial article for every seasoned global wanderer?

A backpack? A natural choice you may think, as where else will you store that ever-accumulating mass of schwag that spontaneously forms after moving from one UNESCO World Heritage Site to the next. But consider this situation.

In preparing for an epic three-day ride across the remotest stretches of the Sahara Desert, you, along with fifty of your now-closest friends, strap your bags to the roof of the questionably-built bus. “The bag seems safe,” you quietly mull in your head, “plus I put that Lewis & Clark lock on it that Mom gave me.”

Good call. When warlords take the bus in search of the piles of chachkas every tourist has onboard, that $11.99 lock is sure to slow them down a good five minutes. You really gave ‘em hell Columbus. The question you must now ask is, “Can I go on?” Sure, with all those sweet souvenirs gone, who would want to? But there is adventure to be had, and at least you still have your camera (as I know it never leaves the deadly clutch at your side).

So that one piece of absolute significance is undoubtedly the SLR camera, right? Having a visible reminder of the beauty you witnessed first-hand all those years ago is crucial for relishing your time abroad. More importantly, pictures are handy to rub in the face of that friend who, having abandoned his dreams of discovering forgotten tribes in Peru, settled and became an investment banker. Oh but not you, you grabbed life by the horns…and subsequently printed out a life-size portrait of you atop Machu Picchu to prove it.

Still, more likely than not, an adventurer such as yourself is going to find himself in dangerous situations. While a voodoo picture tool that captures the souls of locals is a valuable bartering chip in most parts of the world, it is now nearly worthless after you broke the lens fighting off hyenas and wild yaks during an 18-day trek across the Tibetan plateau. “But there aren’t any hyenas in Tibet?” Exactly, that’s why you have such a good travel story. Such a shame your SLR was a fickle companion. That Moleskin journal in your bag was also lost to poor craftsmanship (or by another name, warlords with bolt-cutters).

After being robbed of both a bag and a 2 gig memory card, what else is left to continue down the path ahead? Just the clothes on your back? Indeed, the clothes on your back are near vital, not to mention those below covering your decency. But as any world rambler has surely noticed, clothes are often more a personal choice than a necessity. At least that is what Chief Alitutu says to you when he hands over that skimpy brown loincloth. All the locals are wearing one, and being that you only have one set of rapidly-decaying garments, a single cloth is a rather refreshing, and breezy, change. When the children at the bathing hole make off with that last pair of jeans you so carefully placed on that rock, turning them into a quite splendid hammock, that loin becomes your last line of defense.

At this point, it would seem that nothing is of absolute requirement to you while searching to know the world. Food and water are obvious, but gracious families will always be found (though a naked dinner guest will test even the most hospitable of hosts). So what else is left? What single piece of the traveler’s rucksack (still stolen by warlords) could possibly fuel the drive to continue?

Try your hat.

Ah yes, the traveler’s hat, a bit of grace and style in even the most chaotic of situations. Perched atop one’s noble head, with eyes of adventure set beneath, the hat is what defines the explorer. The hat is what separates an Indiana Jones from a Mr. Fanny Pack (who, by the way, is now sifting through his medicine Ziploc, contemplating whether his Neosporin will somehow have an adverse reaction with the Claritin he took an hour ago).

“Wrap it with the damn bandana,” a real traveler would say, at least if he chose the black or possibly red bandana as his headgear of choice. The right hat can truly serve every need you may encounter. Bought some sweet schwag? Pile it up inside. Running out of clothes? A sombrero and a large rubber band will work magic. As for the camera, wouldn’t you rather protect the ultimate requirement for seeing the world, your eyes? Yet, this brings up an even more critical question to ponder: What truly is the ideal traveling hat?

Indeed, a hat is a matter of personal taste and style. It should be the pure epitome of your personality, yet should not stand out from the local flavor that you will soon be immersed in. Nothing divides a traveling man from a tourist more than his choice of headwear. Those Mouse Ears are perfect at Disney World, but have no place when lost in the desert, staring down 100 tribesmen, and of course, their pet Tibetan hyenas.

A look at the endless options of coverings leaves you both confused and ready to call off the trip all together. While that Ushanka on eBay sounded like a bold alternative, slipping on that Russian bear of a hat while rounding Angkor Wat is just plain silly, though credit is deserved for bridging cultures. A classy Panama hat would seem appropriate for any Latin America expedition, that is, until you discover you look like every self-made drug lord in the region. The decision to wear a pure white suit didn’t help either when trying to cross the Colombian border.

A sure-hit for every man is the classic baseball cap. Such a fine choice can serve dual purposes: Collegiate team caps embody both team pride and the image of a learned man. Imagine finding yourself in the depths of Burma, where another foreigner has caught your eye from across the food shack you stumbled upon.

“Oh, you went to USC?” he says with an air of surprise.

“Why yes, I did. You must have recognized the hat?” you proudly announce.

“Yeah…I know it…I went to UCLA,” he responds with a timid voice. Suddenly, you realize why he’s wearing that Ushanka in the middle of Burma.

The hat is what makes a traveler, yet its exact style and appearance cannot be determined in advance. Rather, the perfect hat should be decided by a mix of both fate and spontaneous elation. You need not travel to the ends of the earth in search of the ultimate in headwear, but quite contrarily should let that piece find its way to you. When spotted, the decision to buy will be immediate and without hesitation, it will be the embodiment of everything your travels have been and will be.

A story.

Kashgar, Xinjiang is a daunting destination. Tucked in the far western reaches of China, the desert oasis has been the setting for more than a few timeless adventures. Its rugged mountain surroundings are the places of dreams, its scorching sands those of nightmares. Such an epic locale should rightfully be the home to such an epic piece of headwear.

I found myself lost in the winding streets, my skills in Chinese of little use while trying to buy a bagel from a local Uyghur man. He eyes me with contempt, secretly wondering if he should actually sell such a delicious bagel to such a poor example of a man. I needed just a bit of sustenance to keep me going in the 100 degree heat, my blonde head already a flaming red after a poor decision to leave the baseball cap in the hotel. I did not want to ruin my god-like gold curls under a sweaty cap, though the decision may prove to be a health hazard in the future. I was also unsure if hat-wearing was acceptable inside Id Kah Mosque. Inside, my girlfriend pats the top of my head with a concern once reserved only for my mother.

Back on the streets though, I again wander aimlessly. Sweat pours from every crevice while I desperately ponder how all the locals keep such a refined look to their everyday attire. I want to rip off my clothes and throw out the hulking camera, again noting their unnecessary nature. Anything to cool down.

And there it was.

Perched atop a stack reaching to the heavens, the perfect travel hat beckons to me. Its light brown hue expels both pure elegance and rugged, untamed beauty. From a distance, its high crown resembles a Fedora, its front brim bent down with a hint of daring. Upon closer look, it is something entirely new, something fresh, something entirely…me.

The salesman lifts it up with smooth hands, much how one would hold a newborn. Placing it upon my head, the fit is both perfect and inspiring. Golden curls intact, its crown folds slightly inward down the middle, a perfect gripping point for a classy “How do you do?” to passersby. A dark brown belting wraps its base, hiding the short brim, and true character of adventure, below. The hat is without name. It likely has a real name, but who cares? It is my travel hat, my perfect travel hat.

I pass by the bagel stall from earlier. The Uyghur man tosses me a few freebies and a smile. There is no question tha


2nd July 2007

Absolutel Incredible
While reading, I wanted to match your with an equally engaging comment, but now find myself at a loss for words. I truly and utterly am blown away my good friend. It was not unlike reading a Bill Bryson, or David Sedaris, or David Rakoff (name drop? me? never.). Without a doubt sensational. I commend you on another fine essay/story and recommend you send this to a fine publishing house to reap the rewards you so definitely deserve.

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