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Traveling with a Bad Back

We know we look bizarre to others, but we don't care. Traveling with a bad back is like traveling with a small child—it is liable to act up at any moment, so one takes whatever preventive measures are necessary. Embarrassment is not a consideration. In fact, not only are we unashamed of our weird behavior; we're also a little proud of it, of the extraordinary survival skills we've had to develop. Several years ago, when I was beginning graduate school and still a bad-back novice, I moved myself from Chicago to Florida in my grandmother's 1973 Chevy Impala, a model that offered snazzy herringbone upholstery but no built-in lumbar support. Drifting painfully off to sleep in an interstate motel at the end of my first day of driving, seriously worried whether I would make it through the next, I had a spiritual vision: I saw my wooden cutting board. It was packed in a box of kitchen things in the car's trunk. But I could get it out of the trunk, I could use it! (Translation for the uninitiated: I could place it behind my back while driving.) I have never forgotten that small miracle; today I still enjoy an absurdly warm relationship with that cutting board.

Of course, one can now shop national bad-back catalogues and specialty stores for equipment that sometimes suspiciously resembles airline pillows and golf balls. But while special services and appliances can be helpful, there is something liberating and deeply satisfying, perhaps even inherently American, about knowing one can make do without them. My cutting-board revelation, I recall, made me feel as though I'd just earned some kind of grown-up Girl Scout honor badge. And perhaps I had—perhaps that was my moment of initiation into the secret society. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I observed an Asian woman sitting, eyes closed, at the edge of my hotel's Jacuzzi, massaging the sole of her foot with the plastic handle of a screwdriver. If she'd opened her eyes, I would have winked at her.

Watch Your Back: Useful Stores and Catalogues

Back Be Nimble 800/639-3746 (U.S. only) or 713/521-0003; http://www.backbenimble.com/. A complete on-line catalogue of self-care products, orthopedic supplies, mattresses, and ergonomic furniture. Travel-related items include the Tempur-Pedic pillow; a swivel seat cushion for getting in and out of a car; the Relaxor massage pad for sitting in a car or at the office; the BackRest self-inflatable back support; and orthopedic satin pillows. There's a retail store at 2405 Rice Boulevard, Houston.

Healthy Back Store 800/469-2225; http://www.healthyback.com. Order from this extensive catalogue on-line or by mail, or visit five retail locations (in Rockville, Maryland; Raleigh, North Carolina; Springfield and Vienna, Virginia; and Washington, D.C.). Employees are trained by physical therapists, and products can be returned within a 90-day period. Popular items include the Cascade self-inflating backrest (air is rolled out for easy storage) and the Drive Away Back Pain audiocassette, which provides back-protection tips and gentle exercises that can be done while driving.

Relax the Back Stores 800/290-2225; http://www.relaxtheback.com/ The largest specialty retailer of back-care products, this national franchise has 80 stores in the United States and Canada. Its Business Traveler's Survival Kit includes a travel pillow, a neck rest, a stress belt, Viscolas insoles, an Accu-Masseur, and more. Recommended: lightweight, stackable, collapsible luggage by Tutto.

Wendy Brenner's first collection of stories is Large Animals in Everyday Life, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award (W. W. Norton, 1997).

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