The Tale of the Towel

by David Francis

Having come from a family of eight children, I never expect to have that much fun on vacations. Try to imagine eight children ranging from ages two to twenty, crammed into a single station wagon with no air conditioning, traveling from Indiana to Utah in the summer heat of mid-July. Now certainly families have suffered worse in fleeing war-torn countries countries and such, but this is the sort of thing my family did for vacation! I certainly remember the heat and cramped quarters of these trips, but I was pretty small when the family still made these mad runs, and I didn't have too much trouble squeezing into the tiny areas (floor, under seats, cubby holes, etc.) that my tyranical older brothers allotted me. What I remember with a true shudder, however, is the way my father minimized the number of stops we made along the way. I guess he really didn't have a choice but to be strict about this. I mean, if you stop every time one out of eight kids needs to go to the restroom, progress is going to be slow. On the other hand, there are few things more cruel than denying a child bathroom rights for a state and a half. My parents must have turned their hearts to flint in order to ignore the howls and moans of their children as the car went over bumps.

I think these family vacation experiences are why my vacation of choice these days is a nice long bike ride by myself. Elbow room certainly isn't a problem, and most importantly, once you're out in the country you can pretty much heed the call of Nature anytime you want. Of course, I still don't expect things to go smoothly. I learned that lesson on my first such bike trip I ever took by myself.

It started off really well. The first leg of my trip was a forty mile or so ride to my brother's house in Fort Wayne. My brother is an avid biker himself, and he gave me nice directions for a truly scenic route. It was blazing hot, but I had worked the entire summer in the pine fields of Indiana's largest christmas tree farm and I had developed a high tolerance for outdoor heat. You would also think I would have learned the value of sun screen lotion, but in the excitement of the trip, I somehow forgot to put any on. I realized this with about four more miles to go and after about five hours straight in the afternoon sun. As I finished up the ride, I realized I was going to be in for some serious pain for the next few days.

It was pretty bad, but I think my summer outside had toughened up my skin somewhat, because I have definitely had worse burns. I couldn't touch my back or arms without a yelp of pain, but I wasn't so bad that my vacation would be thwarted. I spent the night at my brother's house, and then started off the next morning for the second part of my trip which was to take me to the state park about twenty miles from Fort Wayne. This day was bad from the start. Not half a mile from my brother's house I got a flat tire. I didn't get upset about it, because you have to expect these things when you bike. I just thought myself lucky that it happened in town where I could actually get some help. I walked my bike back to my brother's house, but he had already gone to work. He lived right down town, so I figured I would just walk to the nearest hardware store, get a tire patch, and then be one my way. Of course, it was completely stupid of me not to have brought along a spare tire in the first place, but remember that this was my first vacation on my own.

Anyway, a helpful tip for future Fort Wayne tourists: Don't look for hardware stores there. They don't have any. After scouring the down-town for what before I had always considered a ubiquitous sort of business for down-towns, I went back to my brother's house, and I WAS getting a little angry at this point. I didn't have his number at work, but I figured he or his roommate might come home for lunch. That was about a three hour wait, but it was all I could think to do. I didn't want to leave all my equipment unguarded, so I was limited to how much I could do. Mostly, I just sat on his porch and napped. I wasn't relaxing much though, because I had planned to get to the state park around noon and spend the rest of the day swimming, hiking, and maybe canoeing. Now I realized I probably would probably get there with just enough time to put up my tent before it was dark.

My brother did finally show up, and after waiting, changing the tire, and eating lunch, I didn't really get out of Fort Wayne until about 4pm. That was about a six hour delay altogether. Still, the trip to the state park was very nice. The weather was nice and the roads and scenery were excellent. At about 7pm I saw a sign that read: Chain O' Lakes State Park: 1 mile. It was still fairly light out, and I thought I might set up camp and still be able to do some hiking at least.

Almost simultaneous with these thoughts, a heard a deep rumbling sound in the distance ahead. I picked up my pace, but by the time I reached the park entrance, the sky was black, lightening was flashing, and drops were starting to fall.

I had reached the entrance of the park without getting too wet, but the road to the camp ground is actually about two more miles. I had barely started on that road before the storm finally broke loose. It was bad--one of the worst I have ever seen. I was completely drenched in seconds. I meandered pitifully up to the campground entrance and paid my admittance with two dollars that had been so thoroughly soaked that they had more of a resemblance to oatmeal than national currency. Then I pulled my bike and myself under the awning of the camp store and just waited for the rain to stop.

I hadn't planned on making a fire originally, but everything in my saddlebags was completely drenched and the temperature was starting to drop. Since I didn't have a dry thing to wear, I figured I would need a fire. When the rain stopped I immediately found my campsite and put up the tent. I emptied my saddle bags and spread out my spare clothes over the wet picnic table. Then I went back to the store to see what I could do about getting a fire going.

This was the last night of my vacation and I didn't have a lot of money left. I had planned to spend it all on dinner that night and breakfast in the morning, but I definitely needed a fire to dry my clothes. There was no dry wood to buy there because the storm had surprised the shop keepers too and their wood had been outside during the rain. The store was getting ready to close for the night and I had to think fast. Reluctantly, I bought a bag of charcoal, some matches, and a newspaper to start the fire going. This left me with about seven dollars, but I didn't want to spend much on food because I knew I still had breakfast to worry about, and I did want to have some money left for the ride home in case something else came up. The clerk was telling me to hurry up because he had to close the store. I quickly grabbed a box of pop tarts off the 'reduced price' shelf, picked up a can of tuna as well, and then paid and left.

As you can probably guess, the charcoal was about useless. It made a lot of smoke and stank up the clothes I wanted to dry, but that was about it. With my clothes completely soaked, I was definitely getting colder as the night went on. I sat huddled over my room-temperature charcoal pit, pessimistically nibbling on a pop tart and occasionally dipping my hands into my can of tuna like it was a can of Skoal. It wasn't much of a supper, but the people next door took pity on me and gave me some of their campfire pizza they had made. I looked so sorry, I'm sure they thought I had gotten what I had from rummaging through garbage cans.

Which brings me to my sleeping arrangements for the night. Since the weather had been so incredibly warm for the last couple of weeks, I had decided there was really no reason to bring a sleeping bag. Sleeping bags take up a lot of room on the back of a bike and they are hard to pack. I had decided it would be easier to just take a small blanket. Well, the blanket was soaked now, of course, it certainly wouldn't be keeping warm. In fact, I was getting so cold sitting outside in my drenched clothes, that I decided to just try going to sleep in the tent where I could take off all of my clothes and lie on the fairly dry tent floor completely naked. It was a bit warmer that way, but it was still unbearably cold, and getting colder every hour. I shivered in the tent for some time this way, and then finally decided to go for a walk to try to warm myself up. I hated the idea of putting on my icy wet clothes again, but there was nothing else I could do. I got up, left the tent, and started walking around the campground at a brisk pace.

It wasn't really warming me up much since a cold wind had now started up to add to my temperature troubles. I walked by the bathrooms, and I saw one of the rangers changing the garbage bags inside and hauling off the trash in the back of his truck. A wild thought crossed my mind. I waited for him to drive off, and then I dashed inside the restroom. I had to wait for some old guy to finish brushing his teeth and leave, but then I was able to head over to the trash cans and pull out one of the trash bags. I didn't look at the inside of any of the cans--I didn't want to know what they looked like. I just grabbed a bag, wadded it up, tucked it under my arm, and then sneaked off back to my campsite. Once inside my tent, I stripped off all my clothes again, and then jumped inside the trash bag. It certainly didn't make me what the average human being would call 'warm,' but it was the closest I had gotten all night. It was just enough that I could sleep anyway. I didn't sleep soundly, mind you. Remember I still had a pretty severe sun burn, and the trash bag was sticking to my skin. Every time I turned in my sleep, I would wake up groaning with pain. Still, I did manage to get two or three hours of sleep that night, albeit typically in ten minute intervals.

When I woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and I could tell it was going to be warm again soon. I got up, put on my wet clothes, ate the rest of my pop tarts and headed towards the general store. After huddling in front of smouldering charcoal for several hours the night before, I really wanted to take a shower, but I knew there was no way I was going to do it unless I could really dry myself off afterwards. I HAD brought a towel with me, in case you're wondering, but it was completely soaked like everything else. Anyway, I decided to skip any more of a breakfast than the pop tarts I had eaten, and sunk all my remaining money into the cheapest towel I could find You have no idea how good that DRY clothe felt just to touch! I'll never forget. I took my shower, had the longest drying-off of my life, and then reluctantly put on my wet clothes again. Still, I knew they would get dry pretty quick on the road, and that with the sun climbing higher in the sky every minute, the worst was behind me.

I went back to the camp, took down my tent, and packed up. Before leaving, I left my half-bag of unused charcoal at the camp of my neighbors who had given me that piece of campfire pizza the night before. Then I was on my way.

I still have that towel to this day. In fact, I never travel without it any more. Everytime I start packing for a vacation, I come accross this thing and it reminds me to expect and accept the unavoidable obsticles that come with vacationing.