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With These 3 Things, I Drove 13 Hours Without Stopping at a Public Bathroom

The author sits on the “toilet” in her private, portable bathroom. Photo: Emmy Friedler

After a decade as a Brooklynite, I’ve become inured to my parents’ requests that I return to my childhood home in Chicago. But this spring, for perhaps the first time ever, I found myself actually wanting to flee the city to visit my family thanks to a confluence of events: COVID-19, my being pregnant, and my sister also being pregnant at the same time. In the past, my pilgrimages home simply meant hopping a flight, but the pandemic, of course, changed all that. The process of getting from here to there felt more fraught than ever before.

With planes (and trains) ruled out, I spent the first few months of quarantine hatching a plan to make the 13-plus-hour drive to Chicago and merge pods with my sister. But there was always a problem (you could call it my No. 1 concern): How to avoid exposing my expecting self and my husband to the risks of public bathrooms, like hand driers and anti-maskers? Despite my most optimistic assessment, I knew I couldn’t just hold it (anyone who has had a squash-size-fetus sitting on her bladder knows this is not an option), so on a tip from my mother, I descended down the Google rabbit hole of portable toilets.

After looking at a few models, the Luggable Loo won me over. It is billed as a “camping toilet,” which to me suggested a scene far more pleasant than the reality of doing my business on the side of a road amid a dystopian pandemic, and its price felt like a reasonable amount to blow on something a small part of me still thought I might never, ever, have to use. (That it comes with a “seat” cover made it even more appealing.) Plus you’re meant to line the bucket with what can only be described as the human version of a dog-poop bag, which felt undignified yet slightly more sanitary. But as we came to terms with our solution, my sister reminded us it still had one flaw: Where would I find the privacy to put the bucket to use?

Which brings me to my final — perhaps most critical — purchase: The privacy tent. Though I wanted a cheaper version, I ended up buying a more expensive Stansport model because it was guaranteed to arrive in time and didn’t seem to require an engineering degree to use (most models appear just as easy to grasp). The night before we left, I unfurled the tent and found that it is quite big — my six-foot-five husband could fit inside it with me, if that didn’t defeat its entire purpose. The one downside is that, once released from its carrier bag, the thing is impossible to refold. (I never managed to pack it back into its bag despite several viewings of a video in which a man in hiking boots assured me that “there isn’t much to it”; because of this, we drove the entire way with the tent fully open in our trunk.)

Five hours into our journey, we stopped in a clearing surrounded by abandoned tractors somewhere in rural Pennsylvania and I turned to my husband with a slight grimace. “I’m doing it.” He looked grave: “Are you sure you can’t just hold it?” But with more than six hours to go, I knew I could not and that the open space was too good to pass up. After extracting the tent from our trunk (and coaxing it a bit back into its proper shape), I stuck the lined loo and a roll of toilet paper inside and voilà: a private bathroom in the middle of nowhere. Once I got over my embarrassment, the experience was almost delightful. The lining bag worked like a many-layered giant Ziplock, complete with a powder that seemed to eliminate any disconcerting odor. And because the bag folded over the edge of the bucket and was sealed off by the seat, there was no worry about coming into contact with any mess. After the deed was done, I sealed up the bag and threw the entire package away, leaving an untarnished receptacle. Despite some concern that I would emerge to find that my husband had driven away, he was still finishing his lunch unperturbed by the time I had repacked the whole setup.

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These 3 Items Let Me Road-Trip Without Using a Public Toilet