Your Best Vacation Is Someone’s Worst Nightmare

My friend Aaron is a pretty normal guy, by most standards: High school math teacher, homeowner, happily married, good hygiene, pays his bills, et cetera. We see each other several times a year, and almost every time we get together, we talk about one of his recent vacations with his wife, Krista. Without fail, this happens at least once in the conversation:

1. Aaron tells the story about some part of the trip, which includes one or more of the following: altitude sickness or other illness, monsoon rain, equipment failure, freezing cold, high winds, darkness, constipation, the opposite of constipation, saddle sores, mountain storms, and flesh wounds.

2. I listen, while making a face that is half-smiling, half-cringing, wanting to hear more heinous details, but not wanting to hear more. Sometimes I interject things like, Oh yeah, that’s the worst place for a saddle sore, or Oh, I had that happen with a blue bag one time, too.

3. We shake our heads and laugh.

Aaron doesn’t get lost. He doesn’t go into things unprepared. But sometimes, when you get halfway around the world, or you’re in the wilderness, or on a bike tour, things just happen. These are, as a friend says, the potential side effects of ecstasy. Among all the collateral damage of the vacation, there was a sunset, or a summit, or an opulent meal after hours of near-starvation, or all of those.

I saw a bumper sticker a couple weeks ago that said “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I was sure I could have a good conversation with the owner of that car.

Pretend you are Bob. Your co-worker asks you how your vacation was. Pick answer #1 or answer #2:

1. Oh, it was great, Larry. I spent Monday through Friday trying to sleep on a thin pad next to two other people in six-foot-wide tent in the snow. We wore three-pound boots with crampons on them, and by the third day, everyone smelled like a dead deer. We walked uphill on hard snow, uneven rocks and ice every day and carried 40-pound backpacks. On the fourth day, the sun came out for a few hours, so we woke up at 1 a.m. and walked uphill at high altitude, and at 11 a.m. we turned around and started walking downhill. Oh, the best part is we pooped in blue plastic bags every day and carried the bags of poop in our packs the entire time.

2. Oh, it was great, Larry. I sat on the beach and drank mai tais for five days. Got a massage, slept til noon every day. Oh, one day I went snorkeling for a couple hours. It was so relaxing.

Ever notice no one ever uses the word “vacation” when they describe outdoor-centric travel? We substitute “trip.” Taking a trip to Yosemite. A trip to Alaska. A trip to Baja. “Vacation” is more like spa, sightsee, relax, recharge, find the perfect balance between sitting and lying down in a chaise lounge somewhere, doze off in the sand — not endo, poop in a bag, get saddle sores, puke from exertion, get gobies from hand-jamming, explore new frontiers in body odor. Isn’t it?

I did a fundraising climb on Mt. Shasta a couple years ago with my old high school pal Robb, and he told me that he explained to his dad what we were doing — getting up at midnight, et cetera — and his dad, a sensible man, said: That is the dumbest. Goddamn thing. I have ever heard.

I laughed, because Robb’s dad is right. It’s absurd what we do for fun sometimes. You could probably say something about the fact that most of us spend 50 weeks a year getting soft behind a desk, and we need visceral experiences to recharge, not more inactivity.

Or you could say people are different — opposites, many times — and in fact, there’s a good chance my best vacation is your worst nightmare. Hell, my favorite pizza could be your worst nightmare, and my best mixtape as well. Some of your friends get you, and some don’t get you.

Aaron and I disagree on a lot of things, but his definition of fun, and “vacation” is similar to mine, which is maybe why we remain friends after seven years. The first day I met him — actually, the first couple hours — I have this memory of getting my face stung with blowing snow on Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park during one of many 40 mph gusts, and Aaron laughing and yelling back to me, “It lets you know you’re alive!” Indeed, my friend.


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

37 replies on “Your Best Vacation Is Someone’s Worst Nightmare

  • Dan McSwiggan

    Just started reading your blog. Great job. I have experiences like the above conversations all the time. I might just print your post and stop talking to people that I work with

  • Aaron F

    It’s really refreshing to know someone who sadistically “gets it”. The best things in life are the challenges, the shit that almost kills you but you can walk away and laugh about it later.

    Love & miss ya buddy!

  • Ryan

    My friend Mike has a license plate frame like that bumper sticker. He loves the outdoors and loves taking people out. He takes his non-outdoor peeps (co workers, parents of his kid’s friends, etc.) all of the time. He has only had 5 repeats on any of his trips: wife, me, another friend, and now my girlfriend. There is probably something to the fact that all of us repeat offenders enjoy suffering.

    I have a question: When you relate what you did in any more detail than “I did some climbing” or “I did some skiing” to people that don’t get it, do you feel awkward?

    • The Turkey

      With my outdoor friends its “Yeah, we hiked Evans. I puked at 14k and had to wait out a hail storm on decent. I was AWESOME.” With non-outdoor acquaintances the conversation starts “Yeah, we hiked a trail near Leadville,” and then their eyes usually glaze over.

      So far I’ve managed to keep my weekend habits a secret from my clients.

      • Aaron F

        I totally get what you’re saying Turkey! My wife & I trained for about 2 years (buying all the gear, figuring out logistics, etc) to climb Aconcagua completely self guided. Training & preping for two freakin year!!! Then two weeks before leaving for the trip my Mom said in an irritated voice “You know, I don’t even know where you’re going or what it’s called”, as if it were my fault that she didn’t know. All the while every story is meet with silence or a glazed over stare after about 2 minutes. The same goes for most people in my familiy.

        Sure can be deflating. Damn good thing we have friends to share the “I puked/crapped my pants/thought I was going to die” moments with, and then enthuastically say “that was fucking AWESOME!!”

  • Greg

    I was exploring a newly developed climbing area in the Adirondacks called Potash. No guidebook, no specific directions to get to the cliff, just go this way until this and keep going. We encountered poison ivy, multiple ground hives and super sketchy sport climbing. My dog had yellow jackets stuck in his fur, my gf got her first bee stings and had hives all over her chest and shoulders and I came away with some rashes from the ivy. What a great day. Can’t wait to go back.

  • Rebecca

    Ha! Just yesterday my husband arm-twisted me into signing up for a beach vacation. He actually said “I don’t want all our trips to be about skiing or mountain biking.” And in my head, I thought–uh oh, who is this man in my kitchen and then, what the heck am I going to do at the beach for 7 days?! P.S. Suggestions welcome.

    • Aaron F

      Almost anywhere you go there will something you can do that is exciting; you’ll just have to pay for it.

      Learn to scuba dive, go snorkeling, learn to surf, bring your running shoes & hit the beach at dawn, looking into renting downhill mountain bikes if there are mtns near by, road bike rentals, rent sea kayaks……do your research on the area’s local website. Most tourist destinations have all sorts of links to local businesses that offer exciting afternoon activities.

      Last resort; get a divorce.

  • Joshua riggins

    Great post, most ppl I work with or I’m related to, ask why I do the things I do… I tell them, it’s where I find a little grace. A little reminder of why we are alive. I especially liked the part about using the word trip rather than vacation.., I never noticed that, but it’s true

    • The Turkey

      Average Joe thinks:
      Vacation = Leisure
      Leisure = Fun
      So Vacation = Fun


      Outdoors (mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, hiking, running…) = Work
      Work = Not*fun
      Outdoors = Not*fun

      So it’s really no wonder they don’t understand…

  • greta

    Ha! Good read Brendan. Per most comments…it is best not to talk to most people about outdoor adventures, especially when the story involves a blue bag.

  • Derek

    I can totally relate to this story. Every year at least one of my vacations is what I term an adventure vacation. I always go solo (even from my wife) and just get away from everyone, all my daily concerns, and all the technology that’s always in my face. My last trip was a week backcountry camping. It’s funny because when I get back and relate to my co-workers (non-fitness/outdoor types) my stories from my travels they’re amazed. They don’t see how sore feet, boggy and muddy trails, fording chest deep rivers, camping outdoors and living out of a backpack for days on end is a vacation. Suprisingly it is these types of vacation that I come back feeling the most refreshed!

    Kudos by the way on your recent article in Climbing Magazine. I did an actual double take when I saw the Semi-Rad logo upon turning the page. Nice read.

  • Desundial

    Yep – the thought of a wasting a week on the beach lying around drinking margaritas and getting sunburned is a nightmare! Then again, getting socked in by a storm for a week in a tent, lying around eating m&m’s and bacon sounds pretty good.

  • thom

    Good post as always. I saw the coolest bumper stick on an old Outback in Seattle a few weeks ago – ‘I’d rather be in the North Cascades.’ I figured short of trying to flag the driver down and ask where he/she got it I’d just hit up the Googles – but … no luck. Dammit I want that bumper sticker ha!

    But yes – exactly what you said – I am sure I could have a great conversation with the owner of that Subaru!

  • josh

    I used to think what I did with my time off was the norm. Who doesn’t want to hike for hours and get set up your tent in the middle of a God’s wrath hail storm? Who wouldn’t want to see the spleandor of lighting dancing around the peaks you are climbing tomorrow? I get the most joy and sense of awe when the weather goes south. Everyone around the shop I work at thinks I’m crazy for it.

  • Christa

    This described my vacation last year to a “T”. I climbed Rainier with a couple of girlfriends. It was exactly like you described in scenarios #1. The best part is that everyone in my office thought I was nut case for not “vacationing” on a beach somewhere. Different strokes, man.

  • Eric O'Rafferty

    I’ve had “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” as one of my e-mail signatures for years.

    This line made my day: “That is the dumbest. Goddamn thing. I have ever heard.” Thanks!

    I will be heading over to Trango now to get one of those bumper stickers. Maybe I’ll buy something too! Thanks Mal!

  • Will

    I should take you snorkeling sometime, I have a bit different approach to it than you might imagine.

    Just one anecdote as a foil to the idea of tropical snorkeling, I’ve found three guns snorkeling underwater: a Smith and Wesson .38, a functioning speargun that I still use, and a rusted AK-47 from the Serbian assault on Dubrovnik during the Balkan War.

  • Brian

    One hour of personal internet use was authorized to me here in New London CT for the purpose of ordering flowers for my wife or girlfriend. I didn’t. No email or social networks though.

    I came here instead, to read the words of an old friend whose words still seem wise after 4 weeks of indoctrination.

  • Rob in Pb

    The first time I saw that sticker was on the back of Bridwell’s beater station wagon. “now that’s legit!” I thought. But I can never use it.

  • Art

    Facing a bit of this with my upcoming marriage. I live in DC, and would be considered more of a prospective outdoorsman who longingly looks at nature and says, “I need to be out there more” and get out for hikes a few times a year, than a true outdoorsman. I envy the true outdoorsman. My fiance is one of the girly-girls (referencing a different blog post on this here blog), and I want to go camping in Yosemite or Redwood for our honeymoon. To her, this is not a proper honeymoon. To me, it would be the experience of a lifetime and there would be no better way to celebrate our marriage than to rough it together for a few days. Please be kind to this city-boy when reading this, and don’t judge too harshly.

  • Kendra

    Yep, I have the “oh yeah I went on another hike this weekend” convo on Monday mornings a lot, when what I really mean is F— yeah I summited Adams this weekend and loved every moment! It’s really simpler that way. Fortunately I have a couple of people in my circle that enjoy the full epic story, but some of that is just best held close as a personal journey. 🙂

  • teej

    “Ever notice no one ever uses the word “vacation” when they describe outdoor-centric travel?”

    Uh…I do.

  • Ryan

    I use the word vacation. Normally I come back to the office with a broken bone or two and talk about vacation. It baffles people which is part of the fun. Great Blog, I’ll subscribe.

  • Laurel Ambrose

    This is so spot on! Nobody back here in Canada who doesn’t live for the next moment they can get outside understands why star watching at 19,000 feet in Nepal while puking on my hands and knees outside a tent was one of the more memorable moments. You can still be suffering miserably for a lot of different reasons and experience some of the greatest memories of your “trip!” Thanks for this one.

  • John Frieh

    Every time I see that bumper sticker I can’t help but think “No, but your retirement planning strategy is.” Why is it that climbers so strongly embrace their passion or sport usually at the detriment of often more important things?

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