Summer of '76

The locker

girl sitting with backpacksA dog is man’s best friend they say. That may be true for around home, unless you are a cat person instead. But what about out on the road? Talking specifically about guys and gals train hiking around Europe here.

At that point, all your worldly belongings of any importance (since they are the only ones with you) are in your backpack. Even if you follow Rick Steves’ advice and pack ultra-light, there are still plenty of times when you don’t really want to carry that big backpack with you wherever you go (like climbing all the steps and winding streets to the Jardin Exotique in Monaco).

So what did we do with those backpacks? If you are staying in a hostel or hotel, the answer is simple: leave it there. But for all the days when you are not staying somewhere, your new BFF was the luggage locker/left luggage office at a train station.

station locker signIn the ’70s every self-respecting train station had lockers or a luggage office.

If the latter, then just get in line, hand over your backpack and watch the guys in the office store it for you, which might include anything from just dropping it on the floor in a pile with all the other backpacks to putting it on a large tray that went on a conveyor belt down to the nether regions of the train station. Either way you got a piece of paper with a number and some scribbles on it—your claim ticket. Not to be lost, folded, spindled or mutilated, lest you never see the backpack again.

If the station you were at had lockers, the trick now was to find an empty locker that your backpack fit in. If you followed Rick Steves’ packing list to the T, you could use just about any locker. For the rest of us who had full frame backpacks with a sleeping bag attached, the hunt was on for the large lockers. Once you found an empty one, you shoved the backpack in, deposited the required coins, turned the key and took it with you. The key went into a safe pocket, not to be dropped or lost.

Generally you could leave your backpack for up to 72 hours, which meant you could even do an overnight side trip and come back for the backpack before the time was up.

On the rare occasion that the station had neither a left luggage office nor lockers, walking around to the train dispatcher’s office and asking really, really nice, just might convince them to let you leave your luggage in a corner in their office for a few hours.

In Monaco in August 1977, the lockers were full, there was no luggage office and the adventurous among the train hikers just left their backpacks in a pile on the platform while checking out the city. I admit that I was less adventurous and carried my backpack with me while climbing up to the Jardin Exotique, as well as going down to the breakwater in the harbor (although there were plenty of backpacks there). I just kept telling myself that it was all good exercise and when I was finally floating in the azure-blue waters off the breakwater, it was all good.

Footnote: These days lockers are not nearly as common at train stations. Something to do with security and the threat of terrorism. Somehow life was simpler back then, when the only terrorists who put bombs in train station lockers was the IRA and that was up in England.

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