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If the suitcase fits: a tale of two travellers

Peter and Marian Cheney’s Lotus gets unloaded after a two-week, 4,200-kilometre trip that highlighted their polarized approaches to automotive loading.

Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail

If you have ever watched commandos loading a C-17 cargo plane for a sortie to Iraq, you will understand my automotive packing philosophy. Everything that goes aboard my car must be essential to the mission, and each piece must be locked securely in place with a fail-safe hold-down system.

My wife's loading policy is different. Her priority is rapid, easy access to a range of gear that includes (but is not limited to) sunblock, makeup kit, tissues, hair elastics, perfume, note pad, pens, school lesson plans, hair brush, double-sided mirror with a desktop stand and a wallet that contains business cards, change in several currencies, and receipts that may date back to the time of the Chretien administration.

All of this goes into her purse, a leather sack that somehow expands to contain its ever-shifting bounty. And the purse can only go in one location – by my wife's feet, where it sits (unrestrained) within arm's reach.

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So much for my fail-safe hold-down system.

As author John Gray put it, men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. And so it is with my wife and me, and the loading of the car. Our divergent approaches came to the fore during a recent trip that took us through the eastern United States and Canada in our Lotus, a sports car that offers all the abundant carrying capacity of an F16 jet fighter (in other words, next to none.)

For me, restricted capacity isn't a problem (like all true gearheads, I love a good vehicle-loading challenge!) I approached our trip in the Lotus like a NASA engineer preparing an Apollo capsule for a lunar mission. I spent days planning exactly what we could take, then listed each item in a spreadsheet so I could consider its weight and placement.

The Lotus has only two storage areas – a cubbyhole trunk behind the engine, and a back seat so small that a circus clown would refuse to squeeze into it.

Unfortunately, much of the Lotus's limited luggage space would be consumed by my photo and video gear, which I keep packed in a pair of specially equipped cases, ready for instant deployment. My wife's luggage reflected a far different set of priorities – she had outfits for several social occasions, plus matching shoes, a jacket, sweaters, and her favorite pillow (which I considered an egregious packing luxury.)

My gear was heavily tilted toward the technical end of the spectrum – my camera and flying gear weighed about 50 kilos, but my clothing was limited to three T-shirts and two pairs of shorts. As we prepared to set off on our 4,200-kilometre journey, I was happy with the packing. Our personal luggage was in two soft-sided bags that wedged perfectly into the trunk. The photo cases were locked down in the back seat. (I threaded the rear seat belts through the handles to secure them, then winched down the ratchets.)

Then came my wife's purse. It looked even bigger than it had in the house, a jangling, lumpen sack that broke every rule of orderly loading. Putting it in our Lotus was like strapping a burlap saddlebag onto the side of an F1 car.

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"Why don't you take out what you need and let me wedge the purse in back?" I offered.

"I need it all," she replied. "It stays right here beside me."

I could see that I was beaten. And yet every fiber of my being wanted the purse stowed away. An old game was being played out yet again. It reached back to our respective childhoods. I had been trained by my father, a career military officer who had a container and lash-down system for everything he owned. Marian's father was a gifted musician who could barely tie a knot, and her mom traveled with a purse the size of a junior hockey bag – and no matter where her mother went, that gargantuan sack remained by her feet at all times.

Despite my father's military approach, my mother had also espoused an easy-access luggage policy. My mom had traveled with a large purse and sometimes a crafts bag that contained scissors, several skeins of wool and several sets of knitting needles – who knew when the urge to create a Mary Maxim sweater might strike?

As my wife and I headed south through Pennsylvania in the Lotus, I couldn't stop thinking about her purse, and the affront it represented to my perfect automotive load. It made no sense to me: my wife had to sit an angle to make room for the purse, and I kept thinking about where its contents would end up in a crash.

When we stopped at an outlet mall, I suggested we look for a small, zippered bag that could hold only what my wife absolutely needed at her feet, while the rucksack-sized leather purse went in back where (at least in my humble estimation) it actually belonged.

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I was greeted with an icy stare. And I had to admit that my photo gear took up a lot of room, even if it was perfectly packed. Plus I had brought along my flying helmet and gliding variometer (an instrument that tells you when you're going up or down – absolutely essential, of course.)

A week later, we were headed home. My wife's purse had swollen a bit after some shopping. I had added a couple of items myself, including a new pair of sneakers, but our little car was still well loaded (well, except for the purse.)

Then we stopped at a Walmart somewhere in Ohio. The prices were great, and I had to admit that we needed some new sheets and towels. As we checked out, my wife exulted at how much we were saving. All I could think of was a messed-up car load.

Ten minutes later, we had the sheets and towels jammed into the Lotus. The Apollo capsule precision of my load was gone, replaced with a haphazard back-seat jumble that conjured up a miniaturized, yuppified version of the Joad family's trip from the Dust Bowl to California.

Oh well, it was all perfectly safe. And if there is one thing I've learned in the 29 years since I met my wife, it's to make room. The perfect is the enemy of the good, after all. And I have to admit that the new sheets and towels look great, even if they were transported without fail-safe hold-downs.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More


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