I will get this story out of the way first: my second-worst bathroom experience while on the road.
Last weekend, we pulled into the town of Tifton, Georgia at around midnight. The gas station off the exit looked promising enough. None of the tanks had plastic bags over them, for example, and there were a full set of working lights over the pumps, and enough activity that nothing looked abandoned.
I went inside the mini-mart to pee, and found a clearly marked door that said “TOILET.” This was also promising. Hidden toilets are never good. I found the one for my gender and went inside, noting that it was the stall variety rather than a one seater.
The end stall was occupied. I know this because the door was shut, which was also promising. The bathroom wasn’t clean, but nothing was obviously broken, either. All signs pointed to a positive peeing experience.
So I stepped into the stall and lifted my skirt to engage in the “hover” method of peeing, when I heard a voice from the stall next to me.
“Who are you?” The voice asked.
“Hello,” I said uncertainly, standing again from my half crouch.
“What’s your name?” The voice from the stall beside me persisted.
I didn’t feel interested in sharing my name with the faceless voice from the stall next to me, and my emotions were definitely beginning to sink into that panic that comes from being in a situation spiraling out of control, so I read what was directly in front of me.
The graffiti on the wall said, “GO WITH GOD.” So that’s what I said to her, hoping that perhaps she’d imagine that I wanted to convert her, and have no further interest in me.
This backfired, as you can imagine. “Ooh,” the voice squeaked. “I like that name. Now ask me my name.”
At this point, I could not pee out of sheer nervousness, and I got the heck out of there. I admit that my biggest fear was looking down toward the floor of the restroom only to see a face staring up at me from under the stall wall -- and I let my fear get the best of me. Still, I honor my impulse. If it feels uncomfortable, there’s no need to remain in the situation!
I’ve driven cross-country quite a lot (in several different countries), and I know a thing or two about using the facilities while on the road. This past weekend I went on a road trip from my home in Orlando up to Atlanta, and in the eight hours each way, I used four different toilets. I had the above weird bathroom experience, too, which is what inspired this article.
I will frame my writing by mentioning that I’m a physically able woman of Thai descent. In Thailand my body frame is considered large, but I don’t know enough Muy Thai to defeat a roomful of foes, and any burly teenager could probably take me down in a fight. This makes my perspective on roadside bathroom usage a little more fear-driven than for some tall, strong people, but perhaps it’s a necessary precaution on my part. Anyway, I will share my stories and advice, and invite you to give your own perspective too.
Now for my WORST road trip bathroom moment, experienced in the western edge of Kansas, somewhere near Colby. I am from many places, and, because of that, I have no particular prejudice against the square-shaped states in the American heartland. However, we’d been driving through the same landscape of flat cornfields for hours upon end, and the small dusty roadside stop was the first sign of humanity that we’d seen since Cedar Rapids.
My husband, a large guy of Palestinian descent, got out of our car to fill the gas, and I walked into the convenience mart to use the facilities.
It looked uninviting. It was not clean, and the bathroom was somewhere down a poorly lit corridor strewn with discarded cigarette butts and paper towels.
The bathroom was of the stall variety. I walked in and picked one of the two because the other one was occupied. I hovered over the toilet because there were things floating in the bowl, and I tried not to breathe too much. If I’d had another choice of toilet, I would’ve taken it -- but there wasn’t one, and expedience is sometimes everything on a road trip.
Suddenly, from the stall next to me, there came noises of not pain or strain, but pleasure. I felt my stomach clench -- I very definitely wasn’t expecting that kind of noise from this kind of place. Was it public sex? I wondered to myself, listening to the panting moans that were nothing like a horrific bowel movement.
I glanced at the floor under the stall to see if I’d missed a pair of feet -- BUT NO. The person in the stall beside me was alone. The panting and moaning were from self-pleasure, or maybe from something else that I could neither fathom nor understand.
I judge nothing, honestly. If that’s what makes you happy, great -- however, it freaked me the hell out, so I hightailed it out of there as quickly as I could, without even bothering to wash my hands. After that, I begged that we hold our need to urinate until we were as far from Kansas as we could get on one tank of gas. Kansas, some day I’ll return to you and have a much better experience, but it was not that day.
This brings me to the educational part of the article. Given my experience with road trip potty stops, what advice could I give you about bathroom breaks while on the road? In the stolen words of Johnny Cash, I’ve Peed Everywhere, Man.
First bit of advice:
Even if it seems tempting to multitask and pee at the same place where you refuel, if there is any way for you to choose a roadside chain restaurant instead, the safety and cleanliness of the restroom is usually worth your time. Here’s the thing about peeing with a female body: even if you are able enough to use the “hover” technique (where you essentially bend your knees in yogic “chair pose” and carefully aim), it’s much nicer to simply sit on a clean toilet seat.
Chain restaurants have also never left me feeling unsafe. I pondered how to properly raise the issue of safety in this article, because it unpacks a can of things that are better left to more involved discussions, but perhaps I can suggest these ground rules: if a place feels unsafe for whatever reason, get out of there, and try your best to go elsewhere. All normal suggestions for safety apply, and all normal critiques of these suggestions also apply. When I ran into the overly inquisitive woman and the publicly sexual one, I decided that instead of engaging them and going down a path out of my own control, I’d simply leave. (Fine, I ran, both times.) That was the best decision for me, and I recommend that everyone heed their own comfort level during strange bathroom encounters.
Second bit of advice: This involves accessibility, because this truly vital. Once, traveling with my father (who has paraplegia) in the middle of Colorado, we stopped by a small family restaurant. All public places in the US are required to have wheelchair-accessible toilet facilities, but some are definitely more code-worthy than others. We’d been hiking in the hills all day, and my father needed to go. There were several problems, including stairs leading up to the toilets, and the fact that my father’s chair wouldn’t fit through the men’s restroom door. My father did wheelies to scale the steps, and then used the woman’s room, which was marginally larger. But still, the restaurant was clearly unprepared, and the result was a few moments of wondering whether he’d have to pee in a bottle.
The best thing to do when traveling with my father has been to plan road trips around bathroom breaks at his fully wheelchair-equipped hotel. This makes for shorter road trips, and every person is definitely different in comfort and ability, but it eased our minds about where we might find good enough facilities. Aside from that, national fast food chains are definitely the places to go. I also give mad props to Colorado National Parks for making their outhouses measure up to accessibility standards. They are not only clean, with full hand sanitizer dispensers, but they also have enough space for wheelchairs of any size.
Third bit of advice: If you know you are going to be in the middle of nowhere with limited choices, keep supplies such as tissues and wet wipes with you. It’s good to have this stuff around in the car anyway, but it’s vital if the One Place to Pee has no toilet paper or soap or paper towels. It’s especially useful if you are beyond the realm of humans and into places where there simply are no places to go that don’t also have free-range cattle (I’m looking at you, Wyoming). These places sometimes also have no posted speed limits on the road, and big signs that inform you that the police fly helicopters instead of driving cars. Basically, it’s a big sign that if you’re out of TP (or anything else), you’re screwed. You might also want to carry road flares in your car for such places, but that’s an entirely different article.
Fourth bit of advice: Heed the local customs. When I’m traveling the Bangkok to Chiangmai road back home in Thailand, I sometimes encounter an interesting bathroom sign. The sign shows a Western-style seated toilet with footprints on the seat, and a big Ghostbusters “no” across it. "What the heck?" you might ask. Well, traditional Thai toilets are squatting toilets, set into the floor with two foot treads and a trough between. The sign is a reminder to people that Western-style seats really shouldn’t be squatted upon with your feet on the seat. This is good to know, really, even though I much prefer the traditional Thai style of toilet simply because your body doesn’t have to touch a single part of it.
I’m safely at home again from the latest road trip, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be hitting the road soon. (Hmm, where should I go next?) I’m curious to know your advice about toilets and traveling. What have I forgotten? Please share your tips about how to make those five minutes of vulnerability on the road that much easier!