Wide-Eyed in Nashville
I must admit that I have watched almost every Youtube clip that exists about innovative ways to pack a suitcase - all to try and avoid excess baggage fees at the airline check-in counters. As a seasoned traveller, swanning about the world, I’ve tried all the techniques, and even brainstormed a few of my own ideas that I’m yet to try out, such as packing a bag in an oxygen-less vacuum of zero gravity or only buying clothes made of tissue paper (and hoping that it doesn’t rain). All of this to avoid the obscene luggage limits imposed on travellers these days.
Many years ago, there was almost no limits to the weight with which you could travel. It was the days of thick-soled shoes and even thicker denim jeans - you could pack them all with almost no possibility of paying extra luggage fees. The bags themselves were hefty behemoths, even before you loaded them up with huge hairdryers, travelling paperweights and folding bicycles.
Back in the day of nearly weightless airline luggage restrictions, I had bought myself a “rolling wardrobe” by one of the leading luggage manufacturers. It was designed to sit up vertically on two recessed rear wheels and two thick, substantial front rubber pillars. It had detachable shelves inside on which you could slide your clothes onto like a portable armoire. It was a tall, robust bag with an impressive width. It had a short retractable handle on top and thick, waterproof indestructible nylon outer.
The packing process would see me load up each shelf of the bag as it stood vertically before me. It was a lot easier back then as I’d simply take my entire wardrobe of clothes, size thirteen shoes and every conceivable travel gadget. I’d even hang suits and shirts in the specially-designed suit section. Eventually, when I had filled the bag to capacity, I’d get the help of a few family members to tilt the bag onto its back. Together, we’d then lift up the front suit section until the momentum flipped the bag mostly closed. Then a couple of us would climb up on the bag whilst one of us would zip it closed.
After it had been zippered shut, I’d have a friend or relative clear a path for me out to the car. Once the way was cleared, I’d then start by leaning the bag slightly toward me, allowing the highly-engineered recessed wheels to take the bags weight. Then I’d start building momentum and the bag would start to begin its roll, with me towing it in the direction best suited. A slow ‘kerflump kerflump kerflump’ sound would accompany the bag’s progress as its wheels turned on the tiles, (which might have flexed slightly underneath).
Eventually I’d be at the car and would once again employ the use of friends or relatives to hoist the bag with me (a multi-person job) into the vehicle, usually accompanied with the sound of the vehicle suspension being compressed with creaks and groans.
At the airport, and even with the generous luggage allowances of the day, I’d try and look non-nonchalantly off into the distance as I wheeled my rolling wardrobe up to the check-in counter. I’d then back the bag up to the scales with the wheels positioned next to the check-in scales. Using the recessed wheels as some sort of fulcrum, I’d then manoeuvre the bag backwards and upwards in the some movement trying to disguise any perception of physical duress and before long the bag would be lying backwards on the check-in luggage conveyor belt.
I would then casually glance at the number that came up on the scales and mentally prepare an argument if the bag was too heavy for even that free-wheeling luggage time. On this occasion, the bag was close to, but had not exceeded the limit for the airline, however the check-in lady did add a number of safety labels to my bag for the luggage handlers to be warned that attempting to lift my bag might lead to certain ailments, muscle strains or death.
With my bag now checked into the system it was like being relieved of a literally huge burden. I’d flit about the airport with my carry-on, enjoying the sights and sounds (I like airports) and then eventually I’d board my flight, imagining the plane leaning a certain way in flight depending on how the luggage handlers had decided to stow my huge bag in the cargo space.
On this particular trip, I was visiting Nashville for the first time. I’d decided to take in the sights and to meet a few friends in the music industry there. I was in my mid-twenties and keen to see this music city so many people had talked about.
The long flights, airport transfers and the like are their own story which I won’t go into here. After a lengthy couple of days of travel, I disembarked the airplane at night-time at Nashville International Airport. My bag eventually appeared on the luggage carousel and began its circuit, taking out a few unwary people as it laboured around the circle on the slotted rubber conveyor belt. Using my full body-weight, and some high school physics knowledge, I manhandled the bag off the luggage belt and guided it out to the taxi rank.
I’ve never been able to perfect the art of having any of my bearings when I arrive in a strange city at night. So I placed my entire trust in the hands of the taxi driver to get me to the extended-stay hotel I’d booked for the duration of my Nashville stay.
“Cool accent, man! You from South Africa?” said the taxi driver.
“I’m from Australia, mate.”
The driver drove me to the extended-stay hotel with a confidence I trusted fully. In the dark night near the extended-stay hotel, I disembarked and waved to him as he drove away, thankful for his local knowledge in getting me to my hotel. As my eyes continued to follow the taxi down the street, I couldn’t help noticing that down the road and across the street was an extended-stay hotel with the same name as the one at which I was supposed to be staying. I looked up at the hotel sign outside which I was standing, only to realise that I’d been dropped off at the wrong place - at night - with my rolling wardrobe. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I heard the sound of a laugh and the phrase “Sucker!” coming from the taxi driver down the road.
As I was able to glimpse the correct extended-stay hotel off in the distance, I was sure that I could walk there. So I began build momentum for my luggage to begin getting mobile. I took a step towards the street and looked right - clear. I lifted my foot to take a step when… BAAAAHP! - a truck blasted past from the opposite direction, it’s horn blaring and me grabbing hold of my rolling wardrobe to keep it from becoming a road statistic.
My heart now racing, adrenaline surging, I shouted internally at myself: “LOOK LEFT AND LIVE! LOOK LEFT AND LIVE!” The difference between Australians driving on the left side of the road and Americans driving on the right side of the road became a dramatic reality. I reorientated myself and began the haul up the road to the correct extended-stay hotel.
In that part of Nashville, they didn’t believe in wasting too much money on street lighting. My bag kerflumped over many mysterious, unknown things in the dark. Fortunately the bag had built up enough forward momentum that it simply crushed most things in its path. Eventually, with a heavy heart, I realised that I’d have to cross the median strip to the other side of the four-lane road with my rolling wardrobe bag. From the glimpses I saw through the night-time shadows, this median strip was less of a neat paved strip and more of an little-maintained urban forest of weeds and mud.
Chanting to myself, “Look left and live! Look left and live!” I raced across the lanes and onto the grassy verge of the median. As my wheeled wardrobes recessed wheels sunk down into the dirt of the median up to their axles, I realised that I might have a problem. At this stage, though, desperation and travel-weariness gave me a strength I didn’t know I had. I pulled that rolling wardrobe through grass and mud like an explorer through the Amazon. A dash across the lanes the other side of the median and I found myself on the other side of the road, the extended-stay hotel blazing with welcome light.
I kerflump kerflump kerflump’ed my way up the driveway to the hotel entrance. A huge sign by the door warned that the door would be locked from nine o’clock each night and that guests would need to use their key to open it. I didn’t have a key, but I noticed a bell-push. Before I could press it, a uni-student/night manager pushed the door open.
“Great accent dude. It’s not locked. You from London?”
Soon I was in my room, my slightly mud-spattered wheeled wardrobe suitcase standing resolutely in the corner.
The following morning I risked another taxi ride, this time to the car rental depot where I’d previously arranged to hire the cheapest car possible. The car I had hired was a two-door hatchback with wheels so tiny that I’m sure that they were designed by toymakers. I didn’t care - it was cheap!
I sat in the tiny vehicle getting my bearings by carefully examining a complimentary map they had supplied. This was before every device on the planet came with a GPS app. This was paper maps at their most obscure. With zero sense of direction, I held the map to myself and tried through osmosis to remember how to get back to my extended-stay hotel.
I stumbled through putting the seat belt on as I was on the opposite side of the car than I’d usually be if I was back home in Australia. Soon I was secured and rolled towards the exit.
Fortunately the road was clear of traffic, and so I confidently pulled out into the lane, only to realise that I was on the wrong side of the road and a wall of large SUVs and trucks was headed towards me. It was a miracle I hadn’t caused a head-on collision. I bumped up and over the median strip onto the correct side of the road, a sound of a quick mechanical grating behind me as the suspension kissed the concrete edging. Another hit of adrenalin. Another brutal scolding of myself, this time shouting out loud at myself in my minuscule car, “LOOK LEFT AND LIVE!”
All thoughts of remembering how to get back to my extended-stay hotel had abandoned me in the adrenalin rush of surviving my departure from the car rental depot. I looked around for street signs only to realise that I couldn’t see anything beyond the sides of the much larger cars and vehicles that buzzed past. Does everyone in the USA have to drive a pickup truck or massive SUV? Even a Volkswagen beetle looked huge from my tiny perch in this minuscule hatchback. I physically couldn’t see past the wall of larger vehicles and so I was missing all the crucial traffic and navigational signs.
I felt the car drawn down an exit - the car was so small that it was inevitably pulled along in the slipstream of other vehicles. I surrendered and took the exit, which turned out to be an onramp to a major freeway. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and thought to myself that at least it would give me time to think. A few moments later, I started seeing signs for Kentucky. I was leaving Nashville altogether.
I can’t remember precisely how I made it back to my extended-stay hotel, but I did. I only turned onto the wrong side of the road one more time before getting back to the hotel. The great thing about my diminutive vehicle was how easy it was to park.
I visited many a friend and restaurant over the coming days. One thing that I kept getting caught out on was that sign on the door at the extended stay hotel. Every time I was there after nine o’clock at night, I’d get my key out and try and unlock the door to the hotel. And every time someone would push it open and tell me that it wasn’t locked. Give me any kind of directive on a sign irrespective of its accuracy and I feel powerless to ignore it.
I eventually stopped driving onto the wrong side of the road and over median strips. I soon become a natural driver, even if I had to adjust for the tiny size of my car and not being able to see any signs out the windows.
The time soon arrived when I had to buy fuel for my little car. Although it didn’t use a lot of fuel, it also had a tiny fuel tank. I chose a gas station at random and pulled in next to a gas pump. (We call them petrol pumps in Australia).
Now, I’ve filled up a wide variety of vehicles with fuel in many countries of the world. I’d consider myself a fuel-filling expert. So when I stood there between the hatchback and the fuel pump I expected no problems whatsoever. However, for the life of me, I could not find a way to get the fuel pump to pump fuel. I looked around me at the other drivers who were effortlessly filling their cars with fuel. After more than a few minutes of holding the fuel nozzle in my fuel tank and wishing for the pieces to come together I surrendered and walked into the fuel kiosk.
“Hey mate. I can’t seem to get the fuel going.”
“Great accent man. You from Kenya?” replied the fuel kiosk manager.
“Why don’t we head out and I’ll talk you through it,” he said in a friendly tone.
As I walked back out towards the hatchback, I thought to myself “This isn’t too bad. They’re so friendly here.”
It was around this time that I noticed that the kiosk manager wasn’t walking out with me like I’d expected. As I was wondering if he was one of those subgroups of society who use the word “we” in every sentence (as in how a Queen would address her subjects), I heard a weird scratching noise followed by a squealing feedback sound, coming from a speaker above me which I hadn’t noticed previously.
“Hey Australian dude! You in the striped t-shirt near pump 3! On the side of your vehicle, you’ll see a thing called a ‘fuel flap’. Open the fuel flap and you should see a round fuel cap. Twist the fuel cap until you feel it loosen in your hands…”
He kept on. I realised, to my horror, that he was going to talk me through the entire process of filling up a car with fuel over the in-house PA system as though it was my first time ever filling a car with fuel.
I noticed other drivers looking around for the idiot that this guy must be addressing through the public address system. As it became apparent that the ‘idiot’ that the kiosk manager was talking to was, in fact, me, I heard ripples of laughter break out around me. Fingers were pointed at me as people bent over grasping their sides with laughter. Worse still, the kiosk manager had identified me over the PA system as an Australian. It was not just about my own feelings of inadequacy - I was bringing shame to my country now. Oh the humanity!
The kiosk manager continued: “You should see a large hose connected to a ‘fuel pump’ beside your vehicle. Lift out the ‘fuel nozzle’ and insert it into your vehicle’s ‘fuel tank’…”
Eventually, amongst his endless and largely needless instructions, the kiosk manager came to the one part I needed regarding a small button I hadn’t seen on the fuel bowser which needed to be pressed and which was unique to that particular fuel station. By that stage I was humiliated and ashamed, especially as new drivers had joined the laughter around me. I filled the hatchback and skulked away, this time, at least, on the correct side of the road.
This particular first time visiting Nashville has led to many more visits. My rolling wardrobe luggage is now a dim memory (eventually the rubber in the recessed wheels gave way). I wish I could say that that was the only time I’ve had difficulty filling a vehicle with fuel in Nashville, however I haven’t had one visit without a “refuelling challenge” of some kind or other.
I recently visited Nashville again with a brand new “lite” bag which weighs the same amount as a pigeon feather. It’s made of some kind of NASA-inspired element and is shiny on the outside. I must have missed the memo that all bags must now include four wheels instead of the two recessed wheels I grew up with. After one flight, I didn’t recognise the bag that appeared before me on the luggage carousel. It was no longer shiny but looked like it had spent a year submerged in a swamp. The four wheels now all point in different directions, making the moving of the bag untenable.
And for some reason, even when I’ve gone to hire a micro two-door hatch-back when I’ve visited Nashville, I’ve been upgraded to large SUVs and pickup trucks. I’ll take it.