What’s Tougher? Navy Seal Training Or The Campground Bathroom?

I spend a fair amount of time in campgrounds.

I wasn’t always a fan of campgrounds. But I have, thankfully, passed the age-threshhold that requires I accept pure unrelenting misery as a main ingredient in my outdoorsing so that I can prove what a RUGGED OUTDOORSPERSON I am. Things I have, hopefully, left behind forever include sleeping in the bed of my pickup, or, if there is a God, a tent.

Whether that threshold has been passed because no one expects an artifact like me to prove his toughness anymore, or because I really don’t care what people think is up for discussion. An observant party might wonder, based on my historical physical appearance, when exactly it was that I did care what other people thought. Fair enough. Either way, I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. And I’m not sorry.

Tents are awful, awful things. And despite the fact that I’ve done the vast majority of my outdoor sleeping in Maine, where there is really nothing that will eat you unless you all but offer yourself up with two deep-fried side dishes (or you die of some other cause prior to the predator’s arrival), I have never been able to fully convince myself that a tent is really anything more than an incredibly convenient Ziplock bag full of warm, tasty treats should the right brown bear take a wrong turn in Yosemite and stumble into my camp off a logging road in the Maine woods. Unlikely? Says you.

All of which is not to say I’m luxuriating in a 40’ Airstream. Far from it. The term “glamping” inspires in me the urge to spray flat black paint on every Pinterest-inspired pastel “lovingly restored” vintage camper I see, which is, I realize, probably not the response from a well-adjusted person. I plead the 5th.

What I’ve come to really enjoy is the tiny log- or rough-sawn-board cabin, big enough for a couple bunk beds and a table to play cards at. With a heater. Many rustic campgrounds now offer these little slices of heaven. They offer protection from the elements, warmth, a thin but nonetheless present mattress, and they are, as far as I can tell, grizzly bear proof.

Obviously, the simplicity of this setup requires that one uses the campground’s comfort facilities, and this brings us to today’s subject: The Campground Shower.

Now, for the reader who, due to his or her current membership in the RUGGED OUTDOORSPERSON stage of life who is scoffing at the idea of a shower while camping, let me apologize. Part of passing the aforementioned “Old Enough to Not Care” threshold is that one no longer feels it necessary to smell like the latrine at a county fair in order to prove one is having fun while recreating outdoorsingly. You’ll have a greater appreciation for this concept once you’re no longer roughing it in the Grizzly Bear Lunch Bag, and when sleeping closely enough to other humans in a tiny cabin that your outdoorsy odor eclipses their appreciation for just how RUGGED an OUTDOORSPERSON you are. This goes doubly for anyone partaking in activities that cause one to perspire. In my case, those activities include mountain climbing, breathing, and Backgammon.

Typically, for reasons known only to campground owners, the campground shower building at all campgrounds must be constructed by someone with zero experience in building construction of any kind. That person or persons must use only materials never intended for construction of a dwelling, preferably dragged several hundred miles to the building site over exceedingly rough terrain, and hopefully during a monsoon so that mold can begin forming on all building materials immediately and definitely prior to their use in the construction of anything. Further – and this is incredibly important – the “builders” must never, ever use any two of the same fasteners to put the shower building together. It is entirely reasonable to expect, when inspecting the methods used to build a campground shower building, that the counter in the sink area, for instance, is held together with nine galvanized 16 penny nails, two eighth-inch brads, an office staple, seven thumb tacks, model glue, a railroad spike and four rolls of Scotch tape. The finished product, of course, will have been slobbered with at least 17 thick coats of whatever color paint – the more offensive the better – was in the end-of-season bin at the local hardware store. One often wonders if the greatest source of integrity in the whole structure isn’t really just the coats of paint which were obviously completed by someone whose previous job was applying very, very thick frosting to wedding cakes, but who was fired because of zero talent for artistic presentation, and for having no appreciation for not also coating everything within three city blocks with sugary goo during the course of the project.

One enters the shower building through the flimsiest of screen doors, doors which, probably at a period sometime before the internal combustion engine had gained popularity, last had serviceable screens on them. The screens are still there, but only as a reminder that someone once had the intention of keeping out insects smaller than a seagull. At this point, the screen is comprised of more open space than screen, and this reminds you to check on the status of your tetanus vaccine, due to the high likelihood that sometime during your stay, a good amount of the jagged edge of the screen will become embedded in some part of your anatomy as you enter or exit the building. Also, every screen door to every shower building in every campground in America automatically closes with the aid of a spring once used as an integral part of the suspension of a 1957 Cadillac. What this means is the spring is actually 157,000 stronger than it needs to be, dictating that each time the door is released by someone entering or exiting the building, it closes at the speed of light, and upon meeting the frame, produces a sound approximating a sawed-off 10-gauge shotgun being fired a foot and a half from your ear. If you’re lucky enough to be staying in a campground that is heavy on poorly-managed children, which is every campground in existence, you can expect to experience this noise around 175 times an hour. If you should decide that you want your children to give up all video screens forever, give them a campground bathroom screen door to play with. There is nothing a child more fully enjoys than causing psychosis in adults through the repeated unnecessary opening and slamming of the campground bathroom door.

Once inside, one notes the sink area, which consists of three or four unmatched sinks, dropped into the previously-discussed counter, then “sealed” in place with an amount of silicone caulking that suggests that the contractor was convinced this particular facility would be ground zero for the dropping of a nuclear weapon, and that well-secured sinks would ensure humanity’s survival. The contractor also appears to have been drunk and blindfolded when the sealant was applied, to the extent that errant globs of the stuff appear in such quantities and shapes as to offer a convenient location to safely serve as an elevated kind of platform large enough to safely hold one’s full toiletries kit with spare room for an electric shaver and a plate of eggs.

The faucets reflect a design that was never, ever part of any “style” and will offer only water that was until just moments prior frozen, and several gallons of that water remain on the counter itself seemingly permanently.  The collected water countertop water dribbles continuously onto the frigid concrete floor, where it mixes with the 43 cubic feet of campground soil brought in during the 275-visits-per-day of our adolescent friends. The water and soil slurry thusly produced is a form of mud so slippery that anything less than a pair of crampons will result in ending up on one’s back with a life-altering concussion.

There will be two or three hand towel dispensers, empty of any product, and somewhere there will be a soaking wet roll of the entirely useless product – a product public schools describe to us as “paper towel.” The qualities of this paper product are:  1) Offering zero ability to absorb even the slightest moisture, and 2) Boasting the unique ability to smell like a long-ignored cow pen when introduced to water. As I mentioned, the roll that is present will be entirely waterlogged, despite its hydrophobic properties when what you desire is dry hands, and thus it will be filling the area with its unique stench. (As an aside, I would LOVE to know who the paper products salesperson was that originally convinced every school in America that this brown-cardboard-on-a-roll was “paper towel.” I would sooner believe that a cafeteria products salesperson could hold up a chain saw and convince the powers-that-be that “this is an effective piece of cutlery for meatloaf day in the hands of 13-year-old-boys.”)

There will be three or four shower stalls. The door on each will be constructed of thin plywood or chipboard and will have one of the other springs from the Buick. Each will have been painted countless times, and each will have been drilled with sufficient holes (one for each of 63 substandard attempts at installing a totally useless form of lock – either a sliding barrel lock, or a hook of some kind, neither of which have existed in the door for decades) to appear as though it has been repeatedly shot with the previously mentioned sawed-off 10-gauge filled with buckshot. Of the three or four showers, 50% will be out of order. The remainder will require quarters, which invariably you will have left back at the cabin. This will require you to hike back to your cabin, which is located either a day-and-a-half’s hike away, or 3 ½’ feet from the bathroom building’s exhaust fan. These are the only two campsites available in any campground in America, ever.

Once you return from retrieving your cash, you begin the anxiety-inducing process of HOPING THE MACHINE ACCEPTS YOUR QUARTERS.  Despite the claims contained in the hand-scrawled note on the coin drop that says “25 cEnts fOr SiX mINuets,” you will pump enough quarters into the unit that if you had chosen to vacation in Vegas instead of Desolation Gulch Campsites, by the time the water comes on you would have hit the $100,000 jackpot three times. As a side note, the only way you will determine which showers don’t work is to realize that you have dropped a Ferrari payment worth of coins into the slot, to absolutely no avail.  

Finally the shower splutters to life. You will recognize that the shower is operational only by closely examining the ancient, yellowed plastic nozzle of the shower head. If the water is coming out at a rate comparable to that of someone releasing liquid from a medicine dropper while attempting to feed a baby mouse without drowning it, game on. Your bathing nirvana awaits.

Stepping into the campground shower stall, you will recognize that the space was designed by someone living in another time and dimension in which humans did not exceed four feet, and where McDonalds was not an accepted part of the daily diet, and where milkshakes had not yet been renamed “lattes,” which is the bougee European name for milkshakes according to those in the know. Due to the utter lack of space in the stall, any bodily motion beyond a rigid, military-style, at-attention stance will result in your touching various parts of your body to the shower walls. The contortions necessary to access the areas of your body in most dire need of cleaning will be entirely impossible unless your job title involves the word “yogi.”

By law, it appears, campground shower stalls can only be constructed of one of two materials: Concrete blocks or yellowed plastic. The concrete version will have been lovingly painted with the same attention to detail as the other elements of the room, and despite the comfortable ambient July temperatures outside, a concrete shower stall will never warm beyond the mean temperature of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in January.  This means that the touching of any appendage or cheek of any kind to the wall of the shower will result in the immediate plunging of that body part into hypothermia.

The other acceptable shower stall material is a form of plastic only available for purchase in the early 70s, when every campground bathroom in existence was constructed. This plastic was produced only long enough to provide the shower stalls solely for campgrounds and was immediately outlawed thereafter, and the inventor jailed for crimes against humanity. The most wonderful property of this material is that it is like a kind of cultural time capsule; though originally off-white, it has now lovingly absorbed the color, texture and appearance of a time when every human endeavor was undertaken while smoking heavily. It has now assumed a hue whose name, if it appeared on a crayon, would be “Depression.” It is also pock-marked with an impressive number of burn holes from smokers who clearly allowed some body part to touch the wall of the shower, and who, while recoiling in horror at having made contact with the toxic germ stew thereon, inadvertently touched the lit end of his or her Lucky Strike to the plastic, leaving an indelible brownish-black reminder that it was probably time to cut back on Quarter Pounders, (a process made less troubling by increasing his or her Lucky Strike intake.)

There will be absolutely nowhere to place, hang or store your toiletry kit, unless you can reach the top of the stall. If one is of sufficient height to access this area, it will be the width of a thumbtack, and built at such an angle that anything placed on it will fall numerous times from its perch into the shower stall, which drains at an average rate of one teaspoon per day. Thus, when it takes its inevitable tumble, it will land in a 6” soup, the ingredients for which include all the rinse water from the last five shower attendees. If you do manage to arrange your bag semi-safely on this makeshift rack, , and if you’re brave enough to look upwards while so doing, your heart will be warmed to realize you’re operating under the watchful eye of a family of arachnids (by “family” I’m talking something in the 300-400 range) who have built such an impressive network of webs that together they could easily ensnare a flaming 747 travelling at full speed. And judging by the size of most of them, 747s and all their passengers have been the main source of calories for the last decade or so. I’ve seen large enough spiders in campground bathrooms that I began silently planning my negotiations with them just in case one of them does drop into the stall while I’m bathing.

“Look, I know you don’t owe me anything, but I have children. I’m a dad. Please let me live! You may not believe this, but I never kill spiders in my home. Heck, I don’t even throw them out! I let them stay. Would you believe I even went so far as to set up a little spider-sized table and chairs so spider families could share in the joy of a nightly supper of web-to-table flies in total comfort? So how ‘bout it? Maybe just take an arm, maybe the lower part of a leg? Look how meaty these legs are! I drank a lot of lattes to have a calf that size!”

Thankfully, I have not yet had occasion to try and reason with the brand of wolverine-sized bugs found in all campground bathrooms, but feel free to utilize any of the aforementioned techniques, should you find it necessary. So far as I know, there is no copyright on human-spider negotiation methods.

But all is not lost, for now the shower is on, and you have fully engulfed yourself in a deep, rich lather, which will rinse away all the challenges of this experience and leave you clean and fully refreshed. Perhaps you will fish for perfect, fat native brook trout today. Or take an uplifting walk along a trail last travelled by the Native Americans who quietly and respectfully occupied this area. Or maybe just sit and marvel at the majesty of the distant mountains, topped by brilliant-white cotton ball clouds, the whole marvelous vista seen over the impossibly-still expanse of a stunning glacial lake. The world is your oyster. You are in the wilderness. You have become one with it, and the warm, comforting shower water gently massages you into a sense of peace at the possibilities that lie ahead of you…

It is a little-known fact that campground owners carefully calibrate their showers to sense the precise moment that the human body is well-covered in suds, and it is at this exact point in time that the tepid single stream dropping sadly from the showerhead will cease, leaving you shivering, naked, waterless and slathered in Ivory. You carefully consider your options in the lonely silence, the only sounds remaining being the drip, drip, drip of the water coming off the sink counter into the muck, and the screams of a deeply intoxicated man advising his child to “NOT JUMP THE %&^%#^*&*** FIRE ON YOUR #$@^&*&^% BICYCLE!” The spiders quietly rustle as they engage in spidery behavior (lifting weights, sharpening claws, perfecting the craft of being creepy and terrifying) above you. There are no quarters left in your jeans pocket, you know that for certain, their having been jammed into the quarter slot, and now probably already used to pay for four years at Harvard for the daughter of the campground owner.

You step from the stall out into the adjoined “dressing room,” and realize that you have left the warm fluffiness of your towel hanging on the one item in the room that serves as a hook – a bent and oxidized 16 penny nail – outside of the dressing room, in the sink area. Your only choice is to dash out and grab it and return to the quiet refuge of the area to mop the soap from your body and put on fresh, clean clothes. In a moment of optimism, you think to yourself, at least you have that.

You make your heroic leap, hoping to acquire the security-blanket-of-dryness and return across the five or six feet quickly, and without being detected. In a rare moment of universal kindness, you have been provided a completely empty shower building.  Your powerful jump toward your towel impresses even you, a reminder of your glory days as a high school athlete. Those were the days! You were even on the starting squad for one game, when four of the starting team members were benched for having selflessly re-sided the principal’s home with toilet paper on a Friday night that may have started with their experimenting with a home-distilled product that was produced for both drinking and removing paint from metal. Yes, all you needed was that once chance to prove to the coach that his decision to have you “keep the books” all season was a grave mistake. You started, alright, and within one minute and 23 seconds, you had been replaced by the team manager, who was forced to play in his brown corduroys, such was the desperation of the coach to also give him his big break. What a thoughtful, giving man, that coach. He was so impressed with your performance that he brought you right back to the bench to reserve your skills and energy for a more important part of the game. He was also a master of strategy, as you can see. So you may be aging, but man, you still have the athletic ability of a person 20 years your junior, who perhaps enjoys an impressive appetite for television and home-delivery pizza, but younger than you nonetheless.

As your mind prepares to stylishly stick the landing on this rare feat of physical prowess, your forward foot hits the greasy slop of the floor and you are immediately thrust high into the air, momentarily suspended and spinning in such a way that, in your airborne state, your body fully rotates 360 degrees and you are given ample time in that totally unique slow-motion-during-an-accident way to once again full absorb the details of the room.

You land flat on your back with such force that campground mud and shampoo suds mix automatically with scientific precision, and as your head bounces from impact, the campground door smacks the door frame and snaps you back to life, in the process causing permanent hearing loss of approximately 40% in both ears. You’re laying naked, and are now entirely smeared with a not-unsatisfying mud/soap body wash. (If this combination has not already been marketed as miracle skin renewal system by the beauty industry, I call dibs. Or at least want royalties). 

A young boy, his bicycle dumped thoughtlessly just outside the door, stands before you, his lower legs inexplicably sooty and, strangely, singed by fire. He stares at you for a moment, seemingly unphased by the spectacle before him. Slung over his shoulder is his towel. The rubber bottoms of his high-top sneakers are slightly melted and a small plume of smoke wafts from each one.

He looks down at you, blinks for a moment while attempting to adjust to – or mentally block – this unfortunate reality, and says, “My dad said to ‘go take a %&^*%&^* shower.’ You got any quarters?”

Mike Faulkingham is a saltwater fishing guide who lives in Maine. You can find him hiding under the blankets at www.fishportlandmaine.com.

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