Confessions of a Touring Cyclist: Public Urination
I'm not proud of it. But then again, I do feel satisfied whenever I manage to relieve myself at the side of the road in secrecy. Maybe it's the way I was raised. "You don't have to be hidden if you're fast!" crowed my mother, pulling up her pants after squatting in the middle of a hiking trail near our home in Alaska. As a youngster, I'd groaned and covered my face, terrified that someone would find my mom in the wilderness with her pants down. But now, years later, her teachings are proving useful.
When you gotta go, you gotta go.
Go ahead, make a face: I pee in public. If you're feeling shock or horror at the idea, then I'm guessing you've never traveled by bicycle through flat farmland. Pedaling all day, while sipping from water bottles, combined with an unforgiving, nowhere-to-hide landscape, means there will be a problem in the future of where to "go".
In 2011, I rode my bicycle (named Miya) across the United States. I started in Oregon, whose thick forests provided excellent coverage for covert urinations at the side of the road. Entering the deserts of Eastern Oregon, the dense sagebrush acted as my screen. All through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, I could find somewhere discrete to do my business: under bridges, behind boulders, even crouched in narrow ravines. But then I hit Kansas.
Kansas. I've written about her before. She's just so... flat.
I could always find somewhere discrete to do my business... until I hit Kansas.
Kansas, that early October, was so hot and dry that I was sucking down water like my life depended on it. Which it did. After three days of pedaling due East through the Sunflower State, one half of my body became so sunburned that it felt as if I'd been held against a barbeque. The relentless sun, which was sitting lower on the southern horizon at that time of year, had grilled the exposed flesh on my right leg and the right side of my face. It would be over six months before the "helmet tan" would finally fade from my jawline. (I'm all about wearing helmets, but I will be the first to tell you that having a blindingly-white stripe from your temple to your chin looks ridiculous. Wear your damn sunscreen.)
Between my sweating and my panting, most of the water I drank disappeared into the hot autumn air. But at some point, my bladder would give me the signal that it was full. Ever attentive to my needs, as a solo cyclist is apt to be, I would glance dutifully around for a place to pee.
There was one such instance when I literally found nothing. I had to go, and all I could see was cropland: miles of corn and soybean fields, crushed flat by harvesting equipment. There wasn't a single boulder, tree, or bridge in sight. Pedaling faster, I prayed that something would present itself. Kansas marched flatly on, unconcerned with my predicament. Even the ditch beside the road was just a slight depression in the dirt.
My bladder rang an alarm bell. Panicking, I picked up speed. I didn't need to look at my map (my gorgeous, perfect bicycle cross-country route map from Adventure Cycling Association) to know that my options were limited. There was no gas station or friendly convenience store ahead. There were only the small, clean, tight little farmhouses set back from the road, keeping determinedly to themselves. I wasn't tempted to stop and ask a local if I could use their toilet. My situation was becoming so dire that I wouldn't have time to introduce myself properly before wetting my pants right there on their doorstep. I needed to just find a nice, thick rhododendron bush and go.
No such luck. In the end, I skidded to a stop on the sunny highway, threw my bicycle in the grass at the side of the road, flung myself into the ditch (remember, just a slight depression in the dirt), squatted, and pulled my bike shorts down. In broad daylight.
In the end, I skidded to a stop on the sunny highway and pulled my bike shorts down. In broad daylight.
The road seemed busier at that moment than it had been all day. HONK HOOOOONK went the horn of a good-natured semi-truck driver as he careened past me. I winced, avoiding eye contact, and chose instead to stare at my pathetic bicycle where I'd thrown her. I peed for a long time. You know I did.
Whipping my shorts back up over my bottom, I walked nonchalantly over to Miya. More cars flew past, and I didn't care at all. That's the funny thing about being the slowest one on the highway: you're only in the spotlight for a brief moment, and then your audience has zipped past at sixty miles per hour. One minute you're the funniest thing they've seen all day, and the next you're shrinking in their rearview mirror. The cars that were passing me now had no idea what I'd been doing right there in the ditch a few moments before.
"Well, Miya," I said, heaving my heavily-loaded bike upright, "If we keep doing that, we're gonna get ourselves a reputation."
Swinging a leg over my trusty steed, I clipped my shoe into the pedal. I felt oddly accomplished, and a whole lot more comfortable. No wonder they called it "relieving" yourself.