June 18

To love a person, a place, and a thing.

I rarely get nostalgic about objects. I have very few “things” that are precious to me. There is, though, an old blue backpack. I bought my Serratus Andromeda from MEC in 1997 and spent a year heaving the pack around Western Africa. My year in Africa was my first big journey abroad. It was the first place I fell in love with. In Africa, I learned the world was full of stories and characters in need of a writer, and my travels would be the subject of my first book – now mercifully out-of-print.

The blue backpack accompanied me on subsequent trips to the Middle East and elsewhere, but the Andromeda remains my “Africa pack.” In spite of the fact that the bag is stained with filth from a dozen countries, and that the fraying nylon jams up the zippers, and that I now own newer, better and smaller backpacks, I’ve kept my Africa pack around.

Tomorrow I leave for a short trip to Rwanda and Uganda to work on a couple of magazine stories. I’ve known about this trip for months now, but it only just occurred to me that it has been almost exactly 20 years since I was last in sub-Saharan Africa. It seemed only fitting that I put the Andromeda back into service.

As I dragged the pack out from the crawl-space beneath the stairs, I realized something else. I may have bought the pack for my trip to West Africa, but the first place traveled with it was to New York. I stopped there on my way to Africa to spend a week with my friend Gabrielle. Much of her family was visiting at the same time, and I was welcomed into their fold as if a stand-in for the one brother who could not be there.

I don’t recall too many details from my time with Gabrielle and her family, but I do remember that Gabrielle’s tiny apartment on Clinton Street was above a museum called the “Freakatorium” which claimed to possess, among other oddities, Sammy Davis Junior’s glass eye. I remember that the make-up artist who worked with Gabrielle at a photography studio also worked part-time for Playboy. “I spend my mornings powdering titties,” he told me. I remember how my obsessive reading of the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa utterly baffled Gabrielle who only read beautiful novels and poetry collections (and fashion magazines). I remember cooking a mint and Parmigiano cheese frittata for her family one morning, and how one of her sisters, apropos of nothing, predicted I would get laid seven times during my travels. Her estimation proved to be tragically over-optimistic.

There was nothing I really wanted to see in New York, though, other than Gabrielle. I felt invincible around her. I knew that my year-long trip to Africa would be a big deal for me, and I was scared, and I needed to spin in Gabrielle’s orbit for a little while. I needed to hear her say to me, as she often did, “I am so happy that you are alive.”

Gabrielle is not alive. Not anymore. She died this month and I still cannot comprehend the world without her in it. She would be happy to know that I am still traveling in that world, though. Still looking for far-away stories. Still writing.

But I feel far less invincible, now that she’s gone.

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