The Confounding Matrix Of Cool

The rules of travel that I live by are to try to fit in to the local culture, be a good citizen, and  turn up your nose at luxuries like beds. If you read my last blog, then you are acquainted with Louise, my imaginary cousin, who embodies all that is annoying  yet entertaining in my fellow traveler.

Long ago, My Royal Consort and I used to backpack and camp because it was a cheap way to get around. Once we had kids, we continued to try to travel on the cheap as best we could without being cited for child abuse.

As you might expect, this style of travel leads to an undeniable smugness, especially when contrasted with other travelers who do not practice the deprivation approach that I have learned to champion. Without the decadent, inflexible and goofy travelers surrounding us, those of us who think we are God’s gift to globetrotting would have no one to judge ourselves against, and would miss out on one of the great pleasures of travel.

Introducing The Matrix of Travel-cool

When it comes to travel, there exists a matrix of coolness so intricate that the only way to properly master it is to spend some time backpacking with Europeans and Canadians.

I got my first introduction to travel-cool from a German couple we met while waiting for a bus somewhere in Mexico. Right out of the gate, Werner started giving us static about the size of our backpacks and how their heft epitomized the American love affair with excess.

My Royal Consort and I were traveling for a few months with nothing but our backpacks, which contained decadent clothing, a tent and a few other odds and ends. Unlike us, Werner and Berta,  who were traveling for six months, had what amounted to day-packs and seemed to want for nothing.

Even though I initially thought Werner and Berta were being uber assholir than thou, I took their message to heart because they were undeniably cool and wonderful. We ended up traveling with those two for several weeks, and nothing would have made me happier than to be able to loan them something they needed, but because they were such accomplished travelers, they didn’t need anything from me.

The Principles of Deprivation Chic

1. Travel light and never, ever use a suitcase. Thankfully, on that first big trip, I had not made the ultimate blunder and tried to backpack with a rolling suitcase. Still, I had packed two pairs of shorts that were taking up valuable space that should have been devoted to pouch of  tobacco and some rolling papers.

2. Eat where the locals eat. The risk is well worth the reward in terms of price, local color and quality of food. If none of those rewards manifest themselves, take solace in the fact that you have hit one of the major milestones of travel-cool, which is to fit in. The corollary to this rule is to drink where the locals drink, because when you do, you end up in Brewery Gulch, instead of on the main drag drinking Bud. If you are lucky, like we were in Mexico, you get offered “pastillas” and guns by a drunk local.

3. If you are traveling abroad, stay in a hostel if you can. We stayed in one in Boquete, Panama with our kids, a stay that is now the stuff of family legend. All the money in the world could not have bought the memories that we took away form El Palacio—the snoring Venezuelan in the boys’ dorm, the roaring drunk proprietor, the terrifying electrical system, and the doll-sized beds. During our time in that town we saw some people who were staying in more mainstream accommodations enjoying amenities like functional plumbing, but I wouldn’t have traded one particle of my smugness for a whole roll of their complementary 2-ply toilet paper.

In the boys' dorm at El Palacio, Boquete, Pananma

In the boys’ dorm at El Palacio, Boquete, Pananma

4. Speak The Language. For me this is only possible if we are traveling in a Spanish speaking country. Despite my year in Paris as a second grader, I hate French. Trying to speak it makes me gag. Spanish speakers are unfailingly kind to you when you make a mistake and will graciously correct you in a way that does not make you want to hide your face in shame. My Spanish is greatly improved with the addition of alcohol.

Tents Vs. Trailers Vs. RV

This was a recipe for electrocution in a particularly choice place we stayed in Panama.

This was a recipe for electrocution in a particularly choice place we stayed in Panama.

When you mix camping into the traveling equation, there is an additional Matrix of travel-cool that must be taken into account. Obviously, tent camping is the coolest in the camping spectrum and the coolest tents are the kind that are the most Spartan and expensive.

Obviously, a bivouac bag stands alone at the pinnacle, with one-man tents coming next, followed by two-man, etc, with family-sized tents at the bottom of the heap. In general  the rule of thumb would be, the more amenities in and around the tent, the less cool the tent, however, the cool-killing display of luxuries such as propane grills can be ameliorated by casually displayed tangles of rock climbing gear and craft-brew beers bottles.

Having the pop-up camper forced us to rub elbows with the RV-ers in the campground. Despite being banished from the tent section of the campground, we knew that unlike our compatriots in the deluxe rolling poop tanks, we could still enjoyed plenty of hassles unhitching, hitching, making beds, and leveling our pop-up.

When we decided we wanted to take the cross-country trip we are on now, we went for the Casita travel trailer because, obviously, it is cool. Tiny, lightweight and practical, we knew they that we could roll into any RV park in a cloud of smug so dense that we would need fog-lights to find our way. The only people cooler than us are the people in vintage Airstreams, Scotties or Bolers.


As I said, traveling light is very important, so choosing the right clothing and accessories is critically important. My feeling is that there are certain American things that are so cool that they crush even the stiffest European competition—namely, square-toed Frye boots (brown), cowboy boots, blue jeans, silver and turquoise jewelry, the classic bandana, plain white T-shirts, flannel, and anchor tattoos.

What do the Germans have to offer in the way of fashion? Leiderhosen? Canadians have gaiters and their cool flag which they like to display prominently so as not to be confused with Americans, but despite their repudiation of us, they have been known to dip into the great American canon of cool when it comes to fashion.

On this trip, I sacrificed my Frye’s for the sake of space, and soon regretted it. Because we are in the west, I could not possibly wear cowboy boots, but could have worn my Frye boots, which are as rare as hen’s teeth around here.

Why couldn’t I wear cowboy boots in the west, you ask? Because the Fifth Commandment clearly states that a tourist does not wear the local attire. In other words, if you are visiting Marfa, Texas and you happen to purchase a Food Shark T-shirt (if you have to ask…), then you are prohibited from wearing it until you are in New Mexico.


When traveling long-term in a small egg, being neat, tidy and clean is the key to harmony. Having said that, the savvy traveler knows that a thick coating of road dust speaks volumes, indicating that the rig has seen many a mile and that the owners are bold and adventurous wanderers. Dents and scratches in the truck also enhance this perception.

My Transformation Into Louise

We  have been warned by full-time RV-ers that the next step for us is the forty-five foot Intruder, Probe or Pleasure Way (I am not making this up). It already seems like an awfully slippery slope. In a very short space of time, we have strayed from an explosive Coleman stove, to an actual three-burner propane stove. The daily quest for ice is a thing of the past now that we have a fridge, and I was recently convinced to abandon my 5-gallon pee bucket.

“What is so bad about peeing in a bucket and then stealthily sneaking it into the campground bathroom in an LL Bean canvas bag and dumping it down the toilet?” I protested as My Royal Consort excavated the extra clothing I had stored in the toilet, a toilet  that I had vowed never to use. As he worked, I gleefully reminded him of his past plumbing triumphs and opined that I would need to sleep with the windows opened in case we flooded.

I avoided the toilet all day long, but later that evening, my brain scrambled by a dinner, chilled wine, and the bewitching southwestern darkness, My Royal Consort’s siren song finally won me over and I was shipwrecked on the convenient shores of the commode.

I am ruined.




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  1. Al Fermeglia says:

    Your Royal Consort is leading you down the path of shame. Thank God he’s with you.

    1. admin says:

      Me too!

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