I’m bad at vacations: Or, how I know what burning pee smells like

Guest post by JM Hoover
The start of a horrible vacation...
The start of a horrible vacation…

I’ve never been spectacular at relaxing. Most of the time when we go on vacation I spend the whole time trying to make sure we have enough fun to justify the expense and the upheaval of our daily routines.

I come by this honestly…

I was raised with yearly family vacations that my brother and I refer to as the “Death Marches.” Every vacation was the same routine… we’d wake up as early as possible to transport ourselves out of state. Driving, flying, train — it all seemed to take the entire first day of our vacation. We’d check into a hotel, and I’d sleep in the same bed as my brother. I use the term, “sleep” pretty loosely, because my dad snores like a monster attacking a village where the village is inhabited by grizzly bears. Rested, my dad would wake up at 7am, get dressed as loudly as possible, and then leave to go get McDonalds for us. At this point you knew you had about 30 minutes left to sleep, because when he returned, we had to get dressed, sun screened, and in the car, before whatever tourist attraction we were going to opened. The itinerary for the day was to do as many things as possible before 5pm.


So starting to vacation as an adult I was wired to mimic the Hoover Death March, because that was the only definition of a vacation I had ever known. The idea of taking a nap on vacation seemed incredibly luxurious and almost wasteful. You can nap at home! You can eat ice cream at home! This is Sparta!

Perhaps this is why I have so many bad vacation stories…

My worst camping experience

Back when I was still pretending to like camping, my husband and I booked a two-for-one night at a Gatlinburg KOA campground. After the long drive, I couldn’t wait to get settled in our spacious, cool, mountain campsite with a view of the Little Pigeon River. But, when we rolled up to the KOA we discovered RVs packed, bucket to bucket, across a vast a treeless expanse of tarmac. The sun glared mercilessly off of all of the metal. The swimming pool was frothing with people, and the tranquil sounds of nature I had hoped for were replaced with guffaws, yipping dogs, and wailing children. The camp sites weren’t any better, they were located at the very back of the motor park and featured a sad campfire ring and no vegetation. Our neighbor on one side was a college kid wedged into a Honda fit who was typing furiously on a laptop. On the other was a large family who thought that the bathhouse was too far away and preferred to drop trough over the Little Pigeon River.

Oh the river, oh that! It was not the fluvial experience I was expecting. It was little more than a drainage culvert that was separating us from a Motel 6. We set up our tent in the baking sun, halfheartedly grilled some hotdogs, and then let the ambience over take us from inside of the tent. It was a little like sleeping back in my college dorm. Lots of doors slamming, the odd fight, distant snores (that made it feel more like a vacation), a random shrill scream, seagulls, rustling in the bushes, a cat fight with actual cats, trucks backing up, trucks backing up, trucks backing up… Wait, what is happening?

I checked my cell phone and it was about 3am. I lay awake, tortured, and tried to imagine what sort of company was receiving deliveries, campsite-adjacent, at 3am on a Saturday morning. I composed angry mental emails to shipping and logistics companies. I tried to engineer a pillow structure that would eliminate some of the noise. I braved the pride of feral cats to make the trek to the restroom, strangely comforted that the kid in the Honda Fit was still drafting his tome. When I returned to the tent I attempted to sleep, to no avail, because the sound of trucks backing up had morphed into a sound not unlike that of a go-cart revving its engine. And then another small, golf cart or dune buggy or something like that would begin to drone.

A quick check revealed that it was 5am. I sighed hugely to myself and gave in. I unzipped the tent window. I looked. I gaped. I was not prepared for the spectacle that revealed itself to me in the incandescent Motel 6 parking lot search lights…

What was it, you ask? What was the only thing that could be so bizarre that it rendered me incapable of ire? It was scores of Shriners, in their weird little popcorn tub hats, zooming around in their souped up Shrinermobile go-karts. The trucks had arrived in the middle of the night, and there, within spitting distance across the Little Pigeon River they were assembling for a parade. Men in all shapes and sizes, wearing suits and hats with tassles, were yucking it up and doing doughnuts around that parking lot. I abandoned all hope of sleep and sat entranced, wrapped in my sleeping bag like a burrito, and watched as they unloaded the rest of the cars.

When my husband awoke, two of the men were spray painting their shoes gold by the river. They waved. I waved back. My husband made coffee. They jokingly asked us to throw a cup over. As soon as it was reasonable I hobbled over to the KOA office and told the kid at the front desk that we were checking out. “But you have a second night!” he protested.

This wasn’t our worst vacation. Not by a long shot…

Once upon a time, a few years ago, I decided to surprise my husband and planned a trip to a Christmas Tree Farm where we were going to stay in an adorable restored blacksmiths shop. It was a romantic one bedroom shack on the property. We’d been watching a lot of Frontier House on Netflix, and I knew he’d be excited to stay in such a unique setting. The farm was nestled in the North Carolina mountains, and we’d be close to a lot of cool places to hike. Doesn’t that sound cute?

This vacation was one of our top three worst vacations of all time. We ended up driving home in the middle of the night the second night there. Why? Was it because of the creepy landlord who reminded us that the lack window coverings meant she could see us all night long? Nope. Was it because the bathroom had multiple black widow webs? Nu uh. Was it because we’d forgotten the second page of the directions? Not that either, although all of these things were true.

In short, it was because of the toilet. Did we have to go in a hole in the ground? No. We should be so lucky. This blacksmiths cabin had an indoor bathroom with a yacht toilet. An incinerator toilet to be precise, which means you do your bidness in a wax liner, “flush” the liner in a containment chamber, and then it is burned. Which I guess is cool on a boat, because a boat is moving away from the smell. It is decidedly less cool in a stationary house… with open windows… and no air conditioning.

Do you know what your pee smells like when it’s on fire? Cause I do. Yeah. I remember vividly what that smells like — you could say it’s seared into my memory.

The first day we were there we drove up, relieved ourselves and went to dinner. When we came back a few hours later it smelled a little funky but not too bad. When we went to bed we couldn’t sleep because of the smell of burning well… everything. We went to breakfast and my husband felt like the other patrons were looking at us funny but chalked it up to his vocal enthusiasm for the Tour du France. The worst part? When we decided to pack it in and go home the next day we got in the car and realized that the smell was clinging to us. THAT is why people were staring at us. We drove home with the windows down and took a prison intake shower.

And you know what? That wasn’t the worst vacation I’ve ever had, either.

What are YOUR unbelievably bad vacation stories?

Comments on I’m bad at vacations: Or, how I know what burning pee smells like

  1. Wow, the worst one I can think of is when we drove 3+ hours to a historic city we had been to before and loved. We were going to do a long weekend there and I had gotten a good deal on the hotel. When we got there, the room we ended up on was on the corner of two very busy roads with constant truck traffic doing deliveries in the wee hours of the night. On top of that my husband had come down with a cold with a persistent cough – it was so bad it kept him from sleeping even with the cough medicine we got at the corner store. He got maybe ten minutes of sleep at a stretch. Between his coughing and the truck traffic I’m surprised I managed to get any sleep at all. When I drove us home the next day – without getting our money back for the hotel because the deal I had gotten was nonrefundable – my husband tried to sleep in the passenger seat. To pass the time I would count the seconds between coughing fits … he never made it past thirty seconds. I’m not even sure he made it past 20 seconds that often. Poor guy.

  2. Well, I certainly can’t top burning pee, but my worst vacation? A trip to the beach when I was in my late teens with my then-boyfriend and a married couple we were friends with and their family. The woman’s parents had rented the house. It was a long road trip and we were sitting in the back seat the whole time, so I was constantly feeling carsick. The married couple wasn’t speaking to each other by mid-way through the drive. The woman would only communicate by pointing at things she wanted. The guy, who was driving, wouldn’t stop when we needed to use the bathroom so my boyfriend threatened to pee in their back seat. When we got there, we found out that the price we had been quoted for lodging was per person, not per couple, which was humiliating because we did not have enough money to give the woman’s parents. So we gave them everything we had, and then didn’t have any spending money for the rest of the trip. And everyone was jerky about it. Then, our friend’s cousin showed up and she was a gorgeous 18-year-old who spent the entire week strutting around in her string bikini, and my boyfriend couldn’t stop staring and drooling, which pressed ALL my very extensive jealousy buttons. So I pretty much locked myself in my room and cried and refused to come out. The 10-hour drive home was extremely awkward, and we never spoke to that couple again (other than to give the woman the rest of the money we owed her parents). My boyfriend and I split up a few years later. I heard that couple got a divorce and the guy went to jail for embezzlement. This was probably 25 years ago and I still get the heebie jeebies when I think about that trip.

  3. All of the vacations I’ve planned or attended in my adult life have gone very well (knock on wood) – but I remember one from my childhood that was particularly awful, in the same vein as burning pee. My parents thought it would be fun to go to Chicago, taking the train there and flying back home. It was a good idea, I agree. Except that the sleeper unit my family was packed into shared a wall with the bathroom, and there was some kind of backup in the ventilation system. So every time someone flushed the toilet, which was every half hour at least as this was a shared bathroom, the stench of sewage filled our teeny tiny room. No amount of face-covering or layers of sheets over your nose could keep the smell out and there was no escaping it. There were no other sleeper units available for us to move to. We were gagging, disgusted and awake all night long.

  4. As a kid my family rented the same beach house along Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan for the same two weeks every summer. I remember complaining because we never got to go to Disneyland or do anything like the crazy Caribbean vacations my rich classmates took, and my parents would tell me, “You’ll appreciate this when you’re older!” And boy, do I.

    It was a bit of a challenge figuring out how to vacation with my fiance, because he comes from a family like yours. We’ve finally settled into a good mix of planned events, possible adventures, and relaxing.

  5. Oh dear. Except for the snoring and the McDonalds for breakfast I could be your dad. I have definitely been guilty of wanting to do All The Things when on holiday. Not that I can’t relax or I’m opposed to it, but when I’m in an unusual place I want to make the most of it and doing things I could do at home, or doing nothing feels like a waste of opportunity. Although things like looking at the view, sitting on the beach (in between periods of swimming), chatting after dinner etc. don’t count as doing nothing.

    Fortunately (especially for anyone else we go on holiday with) my husband is the complete opposite. He’s the kind of person who likes to get to the hotel and simply sit or lie down in the room for half an hour, or an hour, or however long he feels like.

    When we first arrive this is agony for me. I’ll have bounded around the room like a child opening all the doors and cupboards and drawers (sure it’s a hotel so they’ll probably be empty, but you never know) and vaguely unpacked a few things while talking about all the stuff we’re going to do and then I want to go out and do said stuff.

    But after that first afternoon/evening we usually hit a good balance. I’ll persuade him to head out at 9am instead of 12am and then we’ll have time to wander around and find that really cool restaurant where we have lunch, and he’ll persuade me not to completely exhaust myself and end up feeling miserable by mid-afternoon.

  6. I think my worst family vacation was when I was about 11 or so. I’d shown a big interest in history during the previous school year and my mother thought it would be cool to cut our annual beach trip short by two days and stay in Philadelphia to see historical locations. It would’ve been cool except for the fact that my father is absolutely terrified of cities. Even the small city we live near which has a population of 80,000 tweaks him out.
    We left the beach, drove to our hotel room, and literally stayed there. My parents had gotten into an epic fight on the drive and once we got to the room he sat in a chair and didn’t speak. Not to mention it was absolutely pouring outside due to a tropical storm. I think we ventured out to go to dinner but I don’t really remember because I think I’ve blocked a lot of it out. We may have just gotten room service. I do know that the next morning it was still raining so we checked out a day ahead of schedule and just went home.
    What a disaster!

  7. Lovely story-telling! I adoredthe Shriners description too.

    You know that little knowing smile the campground owner has as she offers you that special site ” right on the cliff, with incredible views of the sea? ” It’s because she knows the constant wind coming from the sea will be never-ending. It’s physics. Or meteorology, maybe.

    So you’ll be lying in your humid sleeping bag on a limp air-matress. And WOOSH. The tent fabric will literally touch your face as the tent tries to lie flat. Then SNAP the tent will balloon as it attempts to lift off. Then WOOSH. Then SNAP. Until at three am CRACK. You actually break a pole.

    So the next day, you will ask for a site as deep in the woods as there is, mosquitos be damned and you will smile the secret smile at the happy family after you who gets offered the special site…

    Oh and once we had a joyous skunk, happily prancing between the chairs around our lovely campfire. Be still. Be very very still.

    There are many many stories to share. Like that time I cooked all week-end in the little aluminium pan that comes with stovetop popcorn since someone forgot the pots…

    I still love camping though. To me, the inconveniences are worth the “adventure”. Hubs tends to agree with you though, while kiddo has inherited my outdoorsy love.

  8. I live in Asia, so honestly, most of my vacations are amazing. A short trip to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, S. Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines (we avoid China – Hong Kong doesn’t count – but I have been to China. I’m not on their blacklist…yet) can be done on a budget the way you might get a cheap Southwest or JetBlue flight and camp or stay in an airbnb for a budget vacation in the US. I’ve had a few bad things happen while traveling, but nothing that ruined an entire vacation (camera and iPod Touch back when those were a thing getting stolen in Turkey, being sick on a bus and repeatedly puking into little plastic shopping bags on an overnight bus through switchbacks in Myanmar, puking on a bus driver – yes, ON a driver, because I was in the middle of begging him to stop the bus – in Xinjiang, taking a huge crap in an outhouse perched over a pigpen full of happy pigs in Guizhou, getting bronchial pneumonia and enduring a 6-hour minibus trip packed to the gills with people, rice bags and ducks that sped down a bumpy highway blasting a weird repetitive techno version of Jingle Bells – it was not Christmastime – in Sumatra, screaming at a scamming cab driver in India, being sexually harassed in Bangladesh. But all of these were one-offs on otherwise great trips).

    Only one vacation stands out as being singularly awful, which was the Chinese New Year we decided to camp in the mountains of Taiwan. You would think that, being subtropical, it would be fine to do this in February. You would be wrong. It was cold and rainy and fog obscured the gorgeous view for two straight days. Our friend’s tent leaked. We were just cold and uncomfortable. We had taken the bus to the mountains so to get from the campsite to the nearest town (which was a mountain tourist town) we had to hike 1km up a hill and wait in traffic for the bus, in the cold rain. We had thought food would be available at the site but it was not – the site manager took pity on us and cooked us dinner for a small fee plus the cost of ingredients.

    It was so rainy, cloudy and muddy that rather than explore the mountains and farms, we spent an entire cold day in an unheated Starbucks shivering and admiring the total lack of a view in a place that on a clear day is absolutely stunning.


    …that is just one of the fine views we did NOT see.

    So, we left a day early and went back down the mountain, got a hotel in the nearest town, took much-needed showers (it was way too cold to shower at the campsite), vegged out with beer watching bad TV for a night and explored the (slightly less rainy, and with inside stuff to do) town the next day. It wasn’t all bad – we found a temple shaped like a Chinese medicine gourd that someone had built because he dreamed a god told him to.


    So even that wasn’t THAT bad, though most of it was a literal wash. In cold rain. On a mountain. In a tent.

  9. No really awful holidays, but once we went camping with friends when our daughter was two years old, and to stop her being freaked out by the dark, my husband bought some coloured fairy lights to hang in her part of the tent. Now, I never sleep well when camping but of course my husband was out like a light in about 10 minutes flat. Our daughter, however, was delighted by the lights. And commented on them. All. Damn. Night. ‘Lights! Colours! Pretty!’ Even when we switched them off. Even when I lay next to her muttering ‘Go. To . Sleep’, through gritted teeth.

    To add insult to injury, the best morning she cheerfully piped ‘I sleep well! Mummy sleep well!’

    No. Mummy did not sleep well. She did get a nap in the afternoon, though, thank God

  10. “This is Sparta”!!! LOL!
    That is so true. It took me a long time to get over that mentality. Now I only plan half a day of sightseeing when I go somewhere. I’m still left with residual guilt when I return and people ask me “Did you see X,Y,Z?”

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