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A Cross-Country Tour of Public Bathrooms & Some Tips!

Updated on July 20, 2017
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Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.


I recently went on a little road trip with my boyfriend to see all the Lower 48. It took us over 20,000 miles, more than two months, and god knows how many questionable bathrooms. I know, you're probably asking, "out of all that why is your first article about your trip based on bathrooms?" Well... because I have wanted to write this since my first tepid steps into an unseemly gas station bathroom. It's important! So here we go!

Step One: Finding a Bathroom

This one sounds like a no brainer but really, sometimes it's a bit difficult when you're traveling or in an area you don't know. We kind of figured we'd be using a lot of rest stops off the highway but we soon learned that there are thousands of highways which seem to have nothing on them but cows... thousands of miles worth of cows, occasionally with a deer or antelope munching in the fields next to their gaseous neighbors, hoping no one will notice their lack of bovine features. You won't even see houses here. Just cows, cows, and more cows.

Our next idea was McDonald's. Good old Micky D's has planted itself in almost every podunk little town, but not all of them! It helps to have a GPS that can find things like "fast food" and "Wal-Mart." McDonald's is great because you can often go in, use their facilities, and leave without any of their pimpled staff ever knowing you were there. Some places even have their bathrooms completely set aside from the restaurant, which is like the greatest service to public bathrooms ever. This all being said McDonald's doesn't always have the cleanest bathrooms... the burger flippers there aren't always overjoyed to be cleaning out the johns so sometimes you come across some really bad ones. I went into one that had no supplies in it what-so-ever, no toilet paper, no receptacle for the ladies' needs, no sanitizer or hand soap, no towels, and no blow dryer. Nothing. It didn't look like anyone had used it in years, like a ghost town, but just a bathroom.

Wal-Mart usually has clean bathrooms at the front of their stores and if they don't try the back of their store, you'll find a little used bathroom there. If there are no rest stops, welcome centers, fast food joints, or Wal-Marts, then you're either going to have to cross your legs and wait or be creative. It might be embarrassing but you might find yourself wandering into random bussinesses pleading for a place to go. I was nearly at this point in Pittsburg PA when I realized that all the fast food joints in the area had locked bathrooms that always read something like, "Bathrooms for customers only, please ask for key." Finally after going into a Subway and a Wendys we found a McDonald's on the outskirts of the city that not only had a bathroom but the friendliest damned people we'd seen in miles.

Step Two: Be Prepaired

Alright, so we've already seen that some bathrooms are less than well stocked. The best way to avoid this problem is being prepared for it yourself. Ladies, this is easier for you because you probably have a purse. Great things to have on you are hand sanitizer, wipes, and any feminine hygiene products you might need. NEVER rely on dispensers in a fix! If you really need a tampon they will be empty, guaranteed.

Besides being well stocked yourself there are a few other things you should do. One is check out the stall of your choice. Does it have toilet paper? A trash receptacle if you need it? If not go to the next stall, and so on. No need to waste your supplies if there's something already there.

Step Three: Don't be Fussy

This is important. I know there are a lot of people out there, particularly ladies and germaphobes, who are used to stopping at their local public bathrooms and using those little paper toilet seat covers before running off to use their soap and running faucet. This is not going to be a feasible option once you're on the road. Many of the bathrooms you come across will not even have these things as an option. In fact you might come across bathrooms which don't even have plumbing. Yes, you may find yourself using an outhouse. I was born in 1985 and well.. I didn't think I'd ever find myself having to use an outhouse. However there were some places on our journey, rest stops aside the highway, and even the public bathrooms at some parks like Death Valley and Redwood National Forest that were indeed just big pits in the ground with a toilet seat cover over them. They had no running water but most had hand sanitizer.

Step Four: Figuring Things Out

This doesn't seem like it'd be that big of a thing but really... there is quite some figuring out to do when you're using a public bathroom. I never know what is going to pop up next. The toilets have been the biggest thing. I never thought I'd have so much trouble figuring out how to flush the damn things. I know, you're probably wondering, "Don't most toilets have the little flush lever/button thing?" Nope! I thought so too until this trip.

A lot of bathrooms these days have self-flushing toilets. You'd think this would b a conveniant thing but most of the time the censor on these things are completely whacked. I've sat down on some that are like, "Hooray! A person sat down! I'm going to start flushing now! And I'm not going to stop! I'm going to suck them down the drains!" Those overenthusiastic toilets of course always stop flushing by the time you throw the paper in and then you have to figure how to get it going again. Other censors are the complete opposite. They don't flush until five minutes after you've left, after you've washed your hands and are about to exit. Most of these toilets do have a little press button off to the side in case you need to manually flush it.

As far as flushers go censors are the easy part. I had no idea toilets came in sooo many varieties! Push levers, buttons, censors, things on the top you have to pull up, nobs, you name it. Sometimes it takes a good long while staring at the thing to figure it out and if that's not bad enough the faucets can be worse.

Imagine walking by three faucets and having them all go off as you go by, splashing water well over the sink and drenching you. Wal-Mart bathrooms are notorious for this. Other times you sit there waving your hand in front of the thing like you're hailing a taxicab. I've even had to smack a few to get them to work. And then the faucets with the push down buttons! What a joke they are! You push the button and get 2 seconds of water if you're lucky. I find you have to generally push it down and keep it down with one hand while washing the other. It's absolutely mindnumbingly stupid but whatever works... Also be wary of the soap dispensers that shoot soap everywhere but where they are supposed to. This is easy to spot when you see a big bubbly pink puddle underneath it.

Step Five: Know Where You Are

Alright, so let's say you really have to pee so you take a bee line to the bathrooms and then come out only to realize you have no idea where you came from. This can be more than just a case of losing your car. We happened to have gone camping one day and I spent half an hour wandering the campground trying to figure out where the hell our tent was. I knew it was over a hill but where was the hill? I think I took a pretty thorough tour of the entire campground before I found another living soul who I could ask directions from... SIGH.

Step 6: Keep A Sense of Humor

This is probably the most important step of all. Since I went on my trip with my boyfriend we'd often find ourselves playing, "What's in your bathroom?" I was always a bit jealous his bathrooms always had interesting graffiti where the women's bathrooms almost never had any scribblings on them, and when they did it was always two names within a heart or something similarly reeking of tween girl. Apparently the men's bathrooms were always interesting... some of the more interesting pieces of graffiti, "Free the Eskimos!" [in Texas] "Bill Engvall for president!" and a plea written by a "lonely trucker" to all hookers int eh area who might want to give him a run for his money. He obviously forgot that hookers tend to be female and therefore tend to use their own bathrooms.

Speaking of hookers, if you use rest stations, truck stops, or travel center bathrooms you may come across some of these charming ladies of the evening. It makes for interesting conversations when you get to the car. "What was in your bathroom?" "Oh just a couple hookers getting out of their day clothes." My boyfriends retaliated by saying there was a very friendly drug dealer in one of the McDonald's bathrooms. I am not sure why but McDonald's seems to be the place to get some McPot these days.. we both witnessed quite a few of those little hush-hush conversations but that's all for another entry. So is the woman who I saw bathing her infant in another Micky D bathroom.

I think the strangest thing I encountered in a Wal-Mart bathroom was a teenage girl and a waste pail full of bloody tissues. She hung her nose over the sink crying, "I can't get it to stop!" I offered to call someone for her but she declined. Then you get sad and somewhat funny things like a middle aged woman at a truck stop washing her face in the sink, muttering, "I'm too old for this shit."

And then there is the just plain weird, the little things you're not sure if you should say something about. We camped at Yellowstone for four days and during that time w witnessed some of the worst parenting ever. At one point we witnessed a little boy go dashing into the bathroom while his mother chased behind him yelling,"You're not going to the bathroom! I'm not waiting for you!" "But I really have to go!" "I don't care! I'm not waiting for you! We need to get back to the tent!" "But I'm already sitting down!" "I don't care! Get off that pot!!" I am not sure instilling massive bathroom anxiety is a valid parenting technique but whatever... I know every time I give gentle parenting advice people hiss at me, "Do you have kids?! Then mind your own business! You have no idea!" It's an all around mindfuck.

Some Final Tips and Observations

I don't mean to be sexist but if you are a woman who has to pee do expect to wait because almost every public bathroom everywhere is chuck full of women, girls, and mothers with small children. It takes awhile for everyone to get filtered through, especially since a lot of you are trying to clean up your stall before you use it and then taking extra time to do god knows what.

Also ladies, if you are wearing a skirt or a dress check the stall thoroughly for puddles of water and be carful not to dunk your skirt in the toilet bowl as you're pulling it off. I found that skirts of a very certain length always ended up in the bowl whenever I wasn't paying attention... and the long skirts often got utterly soaked in the puddles on the floor. Let me tell you, there are few things more disgusting than walking back out to the car with your skirt soaked in toilet water clinging to your ankles for dear life.

I know most woman will completely bypass the first stall thinking that's the one everyone uses first. This is usually the opposite of what's actually going on. The first stall is very often the least used and therefore cleanest. Worse come to worse you can just move to the next stall.

I know after readin this article the first questions everyone is going to ask will be "What was the best and worst bahrooms you've been in?" Well, I have actually been to quite a few bathrooms that were so sparkling clean you could probably eat off the floor, often those bathrooms were in unexpected areas like McDonalds or truck stops and even gas stations. The worst bathrooms I have been in were often campgrounds and national parks. Besides the fact many were outhouses there was a number that had bugs the size of my fist crawling in them and cleanliness? Dear lord, the worst bathroom of all time came from Yosemite National Park, just next to the Bridal Veil Falls. It was so bad I snapped a quick photo with my phone. It was so dirty women were walking in and then right out. Toilet paper littered the entire floor and there was even one toilet that had been turned into a geyser of tampons and pads. There were so many they were hanging out of the top of the bowl! This plumbing catastrophe could have been avoided if someone was emptying out the little trash tins in the stalls but nooo... and toilet paper? Despite having enormous rolls most stalls were out. There were a few sparing drops of soap. My boyfriend claims his bathroom there was "The shittiest bathroom I have ever been in - quite literally! There was shit on the walls!" Now why some of the money I paid for admittance wasn't used to clean out the bathroom I don't know... your tax dollars at work? Probably.

Bathroom at Yosemite, near the Bridal Veil Falls. Summer of 2011
Bathroom at Yosemite, near the Bridal Veil Falls. Summer of 2011

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