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.
KEEP MOVING KIDS.
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?