Living the #vanlife makes finding a proper shower for a special occasion more of an adventure

It was a reasonable promise we made to my 18-year-old stepdaughter: We will find a shower prior to your graduation ceremony.

This was back in May. My husband and I were finally fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and our first move was to head south to attend my stepdaughter’s high school graduation. The plan was to rent a camper van in Las Vegas, where she lives, and then gallivant around Nevada.

I had booked the trip as a desperate move in February when I was in dire need of something to look forward to. This was a time when COVID vaccinations were far from a sure bet. But we sorely missed the kid, and I was so sick of the four walls of my home and the beauty that is Alaska that I felt slightly nauseated. It seemed probable we’d be vaccinated by May, and getting a camper van seemed a little more COVID-safe than staying in hotels. Besides, camping is more my husband’s and my style anyway.

When the time came for our trip, we were both double-vaxxed and ready to take our heightened immunity on the open road.

Still, some caution lingered. It felt strange to be in an airport and on a plane, and stranger still to arrive to a Las Vegas that had recently fully reopened. We had to wait until the morning after landing to pick up our van, so we booked a last-minute hotel room in downtown Las Vegas. We knew there had been significant effort to “revitalize” downtown Vegas, but still thought it would be a little more laid back than the notorious nightlife at the strip. We didn’t realize that much of the younger crowd had shifted from the strip over to downtown.

This is how we found ourselves smack in the middle of Las Vegas’ newly revitalized downtown Fremont Street Experience the very first Friday after restrictions were lifted. The circuits in my mind short-circuited as we wandered the streets packed to the brim with people, including the delighted screams of those flying overhead on zip lines. Nary a mask was to be seen.

I figured, if we’re in it, we’re in it. Let’s see how well these vaccines work. But it was still all very overwhelming, and I was grateful when we picked up our van the following morning. Being out in the fresh desert air and away from crowds was a relief.

But the van lacked a proper shower. We rented a solar shower, but if you’ve ever used one of those you know the weak, lukewarm dribble extracted by tugging the tube just so; typically squatting underneath so the “shower” has enough gravity to force water downward. I’m not tall enough to hang it very high, and it’s not like there are many trees to climb in the Mojave.

When we met up with my stepdaughter for breakfast, we assured her that yes, her dirtbag parents would secure a proper shower prior to attending her graduation in five days. She handed us the tickets.

She would never ask, but I thought I saw some relief on her face. I know she was relieved when I said I was committed to finding non-Croc shoes to wear.

We parted ways, and my husband and I went off into the desert. We car-camped that first night on Bureau of Land Management land outside of Valley of Fire State Park, enjoying an evening run, the dazzlingly starry sky, and dry desert breezes. The next night we made it into the park and ran in the morning; hiked in the afternoon. We both took dribble-level solar showers before climbing into bed. Another two nights and several runs and hikes later up in Mount Charleston/dribble showers later, it was finally the big day. We needed to find a real shower prior to the graduation in the evening.

We pulled out our phones and started hatching a plan.

What were our options? I found a truck stop across town. It was unclear whether COVID precautions still prevented operation of those showers. We considered renting a hotel room for one more night, but neither of us particularly wanted to overnight in Vegas again — we agreed it was a better option to drive late into the evening farther into the desert so we could have a fresh start in the morning.

The idea struck: What about getting a day-rate pool pass at a casino near the graduation venue? Surely, if a casino provided day access to its pool, it would require showers prior to swimming. We’d get to hang out and read all day under the warm sun, and then we could get proper showers and a changing room to transform ourselves to Fancy Graduation Dad and Stepmom.

We found a casino, packed up our bags with toiletries, books and dressy attire, and paid the entry fees. I felt the rush of triumph as we marched confidently past throngs of people and screaming children toward a couple deck chairs on the periphery. We dropped our books to mark the spot.

The women’s and men’s restrooms were directly across each other in a freestanding building nearby. I went left; my husband went right. We were both back out in 30 seconds.

“Where’s the shower?”

“I don’t think there’s a shower.”

We stared at each other. I looked around, and right then noticed that by the pool there was one solo outdoor showerhead faucet. It stood nakedly, surrounded by people, clearly meant for the cursory chlorine rinse-off, not a full shower.

We had promised ourselves and the kid a real shower. But time was short, and there we were, poolside. Adaptable and resourceful people that we are, the “real” shower quickly turned into furtive restroom sponge bath and shave. I wet down my hair and body under the freezing cold outdoor shower, returned to the lawn chair to scrub shampoo on my hair and soap on my body, and returned to the outdoor shower head to rinse the lather away. I told myself no one was watching and what I was doing was perfectly normal, as the suds gathered round my feet.

We toweled off, packed our things and ended up getting fully dressed in the back of the van, parked at the upper level of the casino garage under a glorious desert sunset.

Later, my stepdaughter seemed sincerely impressed with our transformation. Despite all the odds, we do dress up nice. And getting to be there with and for her for this milestone was worth every bit of effort. Our little bonus was also having a good story to tell.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska (and sometimes, Nevada).