R.K. “Bob” Pernsteiner of Clarkston understands freedom in ways many Americans never will.
In the ultimate in minimalist travel, Pernsteiner traveled for 26 days through Europe with little but the clothes on his back. Unburdened by luggage, he traced his father’s World War II path through the Czech Republic where the weight of history hit him hard.
It began 20 years ago with a box that Pernsteiner, 61, found in a little-used closet in his parents’ home. In it were letters his father wrote to his parents while fighting overseas. On May 6, 1945, he marched with Patton’s 3rd Army to liberate the town of Plzen, Czechoslovakia.
Pernsteiner was struck by his then 25-year-old father’s description of people lining the street crying tears of joy, crawling over vehicles to kiss soldiers and shake their hands, even as hidden snipers continued to shoot into the crowds.
The irony was that Pernsteiner’s great-grandfather immigrated to America from the same country in 1884 so that his sons would not have to fight in a European war. It weighed on his father’s mind that he might shoot a cousin conscripted without choice into the occupying German army.
Pernsteiner’s father died in 2008. Before his death, his son asked if he’d like to visit their family homeland and the town he helped to liberate but his father said no.
“He could never talk about the war,” said Pernsteiner, who made the trip last spring and recently self-published “Just the Shorts: A Minimalist Journey Through Europe.” The book is a how-to on minimalist travel against the backdrop of his trip through the Czech Republic, France and Italy.
Pernsteiner learned to travel light backpacking in the Northwest. He later applied the same thinking to business trips during his career with Clearwater Paper, which took him around the U.S. and to Brazil and Japan. He travels with nothing but the clothes on his back, his iPhone, credit card and ID. Instead of a briefcase he takes a thumb drive.
“The freedom of traveling without luggage is hard to describe unless you do it,” Pernsteiner said.
But could he travel that light for 26 days overseas? He researched the idea on the Internet and couldn’t find anyone who had gone to the extremes he wanted – no backpack, only with what was in his pockets.
“It looks like you’re just going to work,” his wife, Cathy, told him the day he left for Europe. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans, a collared polyester cotton dress shirt, socks, a pair of ExOfficio underwear and a lightweight jacket. In one pocket was a Ziplock bag no bigger than a hot dog (without a bun) with a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, razor, ear plugs and medications. In another pocket was a pair of lightweight swim trunks for a planned dip in the Mediterranean. In another were his iPhone, a very small charger made for European outlets, credit cards and ID.
Pernsteiner arrived in Plzen for the town’s annual celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation. For decades under Soviet occupation the liberation celebration was banned. The fact America was involved in the liberation was suppressed. The celebration was reinstated in 1990, the year the country held its first democratic elections since 1946.
Around 1,000 people gathered in the town square for the celebration, he said. There was loud music and dancing. When huge TV screens in the square began to play video from the 1990 celebration everyone turned to watch, Pernsteiner said. To his surprise, many began to cry.
As he met people and word spread that his father was among the Americans who helped liberate the town people of all ages started coming up to him, thanking him profusely, some unashamedly crying, others saying it was an honor to know him.
“You don’t know what to say,” he said. “I told them, ‘I thank you for my father.’ ”
The six-day celebration included more than 100 re-enactors in period gear, down to the cigarettes they smoked. In the book, Pernsteiner writes about asking an American re-enactor why the people were so emotional about an event that happened before most of them were even born.
“He said he asked the same thing and was told that in America we don’t know what freedom really means like they do, after living through the brutality of the Nazis and the Soviets.”
Pernsteiner’s trip continued on to where his family lived for at least 200 years before they immigrated and to where he sat in a church pew with his family’s name. While traveling, he washed his clothes every night in hotel sinks using hotel shampoo or soap and then hung them on a hanger to dry by an open window or, if needed, with a hairdryer. Traveling so light he was able to cover more distance each day than he would have tending to luggage, he said.
“I never regretted it, never once,” he said about traveling as a minimalist.
Who: R.K. (Bob) Pernsteiner
What: Signing copies of “Just the Shorts: A Minimalist Journey Through Europe”
When: 3-5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19
Where: And Books Too, 918 Sixth St., Clarkston
Cost: The book is $10.