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Zen and Campground Bathrooms

Dear Savvy travel

My friend Aaron is an excellent storyteller. One of my favorite Aaron tales is a story about a travel recovery trip -- the topic of one of your recent Questions of the Week. This story has stayed with me for a long time, and with his permission, I'm sending it to you . . .

I got lost three times getting to the campground and once on the way home. I forgot the soy butter for the roasted corn and the fixings for breakfast. I misjudged the amount of food we would need (not enough bread, soy cheese or cantaloupes). I didn't see any of the meteor shower because of the overcast sky. There were too many slugs and daddy-long-leggers in our tents, food, clothes and hair. There wasn't enough firewood or pots to cook in. The river wasn't fast enough, the rapids were disappointing, and the creek by the campsite was overrun by noisy kids.

The tent took forever to set up. My sleeping bag kept slipping off my new thermal air mattress. The severe glass cut I received right before the trip was throbbing. I didn't bring the right clothing. The bathrooms were repulsive and overcrowded. I dreaded having to use them.

In general, I didn't feel like I belonged here. This wasn't my idea of camping. Nothing felt right. Radios were blasting. CDs cranked up. People were camped cheek to jowl, and everyone was so American: rude, loud, brash, focused on drinking and fishing.

After a swim in the river one late afternoon in the midst of this bizarre spin on a commune with nature, I suggested to my friend that we shower at the main campground. Little did I realize that this decision would be the turning point of the camping trip . . . and might well be the most transforming adventure of my life.

As we walked toward the sunset and into a disgusting shower room and toilet facility, there were two teenagers yelling in the showers at the top of their lungs about the cold water controls. Children were running around as two women cleaned and swept a mile a minute. The drama was about to unfold.

I picked the middle stall along the rear wall because it was the cleanest.

It wasn't long before things started getting dicey. The noisy kids were hitting stall doors as they ran screaming by, and two mops from hell came at me from opposite sides. Furious mopping strokes swirled across tile, spraying flotsam from the woods and camping areas across the floor. They were coming precariously close, heading straight for me and my privacy in an ever-narrowing universe.

And still they came. Undaunted. Almost indignant. Closer they mopped. First around the stall posts. Then on either side of my toilet. But when they mopped right over my feet, something snapped. Gave way. Slipped. Altered.

Instead of getting angry or sarcastic, instead of engineering revenge fantasies, instead of yelling or feeling helpless, instead of getting depressed by how everything wasn't going according to my expectations, I began to laugh. Slowly, at first. A giggle that grew into a raucous hooting. Then, a real Buddha belly laugh.

When I had planned a "quiet escape to the woods," this is not what I had in mind. It was all so ludicrous, so absurd and so funny, that I had to laugh. In that moment, I just stopped fighting. People in 12-step programs would say I had just let go and turned it over. Others would say I had surrendered to my higher self. The men in my group therapy saw me reclaiming my power. And still others would see it as giving up control and freeing myself from the past.

But whatever I did and whatever happened, I never felt so clear, so excited, so relaxed and so sane as I did at that moment in the filthy campground bathroom. I headed back to the campsite, and for the very first time, I felt that everything was okay.

-Aaron (with an assist from Ellen)



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