One day, I would like to take my duffel bag to its ancestral land, the town of Duffel on the River Nete in northern Belgium. I would go partially out of interest but also to honor my luggage in the city that gave birth to the fabric it’s made from. In my crazy fantasy, I imagine a town filled with people like myself, toting around carriers that forsake wheels for some old-fashioned hoisting. I would be among my own kind, a community of travelers whose luggage embodies adventure and freedom from any sort of leash.
I proudly belong to the cult of duffels, an identity as strong as one feels for a football team or a brand of toothpaste. I believe that bags are meant to be toted, not pushed like a baby in a stroller or pulled like a toy duck on a string. Luggage, says my gospel, is part of the enterprise, a test that you are strong enough and bold enough to carry this whole thing off. (“This” refers to the trip and all that it entails.) When soldiers go off to war, do they drag a precious roller bag across the hills and sands of conflict? No, they toss a camo duffel over their bulging deltoids, leaving their hands free for more important matters. Same scenario for me: I need unencumbered hands to carry my weapons of mass distraction: soda, sesame bagel and stack of magazines.
Raised by a family of duffel-baggers, I inherited the gene, plus a motley assortment of cloth castoffs. As sailors, we always packed in the soft cylindrical carriers with rounded, malleable sides — a giant squishy caterpillar. Luggage with hard edges, much less wheels, can scratch the fiberglass, Capt. Dad hammered into his offspring’s minds. In addition, the boxy carapaces would never fit inside our boat’s spatially challenged cabin. The duffel was the ideal crewmate; the roll-aboard was as unwelcome as sand.
Today, my voyaging craft is more often a wide-body plane. But the same philosophy holds, a pan-credo applicable to any mode of transportation. I have mashed my duffel, fashioned out of recycled sailcloth, into the ribbon-thin overhead space of Northeast Corridor buses and Caribbean island-hopper planes. My bag has rested like a lumpy dog between my feet on crowded Chinese trains and nestled with a small junkyard inside the trunk of a Mexico City taxi. On camping trips, it molds to the confines of the tent, providing extra insulation on cold evenings. During airport delays and long layovers, my duffel has performed the heroic duty of a jumbo pillow, my head sinking into its caramel-soft center. Before trying this with a roll-aboard, don’t forget to pull out the Tylenol with codeine.
Because of its mushable properties, the duffel performs like Houdini in the tightest of spaces. Nine trips out of 10, I go carry-on only. (My medium-size model always passes the dimensions test at check-in, even if I have to stomp on it.) Typically, I stuff the bag into the deepest recesses of the overhead compartment or the narrow gaps between rolling luggage. All I need is a sliver of real estate.
I once witnessed duffel superiority on a packed flight from Orlando. With no vacancies overhead, the flight attendant was forcing passengers to check their carry-ons. She looked at my bag with that same wicked eye, and I shook my head in polite dissent: I squeezed the extra air out of the bag, shrunk it down to the size of a small pig and shoved it under the seat in front of me. Perfect fit, plus I created a cushiony footrest — and showed the world the wonders of duffels.
Now many travelers brainwashed by the illusory brilliance of the roll-aboard might claim that duffels are heavy. They might shout me down, saying that I am one heave-ho away from a serious injury. I disagree.
Carrying a duffel is like a mini-workout. It strengthens my back as well as the Bridge move (consult your Pilates manual). In addition, after trips with multiple flights and hotel changes, I return home with some serious hard arm candy.
According to a study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, medical care facilities treated more than 53,000 luggage-related injuries in 2008. The main culprit: overstuffed luggage. As a duffel packer, I know my limits. Cram too much inside and I will have to resort to the kick-and-slide strategy. Not good for the psyche or the material. Those with roll-aboards, however, have convinced themselves that they can overpack because the wheels will perform the work of a mule. But not when it comes to heaving the bag into the overhead compartment. I am sure you can relate to that horrifying moment when the entire plane is watching you strain to lift your wheeled bag up and over like a heavy piece of furniture. And the line starts growing from coach, into first class and out the exit door. And the flight attendant announces over the intercom for passengers to please hurry up and store their bags because the plane needs to lift off.
Need a hand? Figures.
My affection for the duffel, however, goes beyond its space-defying capabilities and intrepid character. The duffel also keeps to itself. It will not list or fall into your personal space or run over your toes. And it is very polite. It never trips me, even when I am racing up airport staircases, passing rolling bags and their guardians frozen in place on the escalator. And it keeps me ahead of the crowd. Typically, I’m one of the first to exit the airport, even besting first-class travelers, who are granted a head start.
Striding out the glass doors and into my vacation, I sense a horde of roll-aboarders behind me, struggling to extract their handles and point their wheels in my direction.