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The Terrycloth Talisman

When the going gets tough, the tough slip into something a little more comfortable

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration Gaby d’Allessandro

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I would like to start by saying: I do bring clothes on vacation. My friends, accustomed to receiving snapshots in which I am wearing a kingly Egyptian cotton robe at the Peninsula Hong Kong or a kitten-soft faux cashmere one at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza in Manila doubtless think this is a lie. And also want to murder me. But it is true. I wear clothes.

I do enjoy a good bathrobe, though. Upon landing in, say, the sunny South Pacific in January, the first thing I do is shuffle out of my parka, locate the nearest robe-shaped item and pretend I’m a tech mogul waking up in one of my many vacation homes. I still glow at the memory of the Four Seasons Hualalai on Hawaii’s Big Island, where I set down my suitcases and walked straight out to my waterfront lanai in a lightweight kimono-y thing with a black-and-cream banana leaf pattern. “How’s the beach, dudes?” I shouted from my porch, as if I weren’t looking right at it.  

Hoteliers are aware that their guests appreciate such comforts. In fact, there has been a bit of a comfort arms race lately, as properties scamper to top one another in such categories as Rarest Tropical Flower Used to Make Shower Gel, Slipper Material Most Resembling the Hide of a Baby Seal and Largest Number of Pillows Stuffed With the Downy Arm Hair of a Thousand Virgins.

It is the bathrobe, though, that gets me. This is partly because I’m a terrible packer, forever bringing raincoats to the beach and cocktail dresses on rafting expeditions. (You never know!) With a robe, you can rest assured that the hotel has invested hundreds of man hours in designing a garment that is the perfect logical expression of the weather, decor and spirit of the place you’ve come to.

But it goes further than that: The robe seems to cement the idea of the hotel as a surrogate home. No matter how bad your trip may go while you’re out and about (see: long lines, cold water, stomach parasites, getting lost, spiders), once you’re in that robe, you can be fairly certain you won’t have your toes gnawed off by a mongoose or fall prey to a taxi driver going from A to B via C, D, E, F and G. These things don’t happen in a robe. They just don’t.

This point was hammered home for me a few years ago, during a trip to a survival camp in central Florida. The plan was to rough it—really rough it. Accompanied by a former Air Force survival instructor, I entered the Florida woods carrying nothing but half a Clif Bar, a cup, a tarp, a lighter and a knife that could easily have come out of a CrackerJack box. After two days of rationing my Clif Bar and drinking ant tea (don’t ask), I set about trying to start a fire, which involved quite a lot of wood but very little in the way of flames. The former Air Force guy was no help. He was too busy running around the campsite chasing a bee with a machete.

That night I went to sleep in a tent I had constructed out of an oak bough and the tarp, brushing sand and tree bark off my face with the hand that wasn’t holding the knife for protection. When I awoke to a noise in the middle of the night, I wasn’t sure whether to be more afraid of alligators or my guide.

Upon emerging from those woods the next afternoon, I headed straight for the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando. The people at the front desk seemed concerned by my appearance; I’m pretty sure the woman who checked me in considered calling the police. But I made it to my room, where I showered and located a robe the texture and color of a summer cloud. Relieved of three days of survivalist grime, I called my mom from the terrace and told her about the ordeal from such a dais of comfort that it might as well have happened in a movie. Dying at the hands of a man who couldn’t catch a bee with a machete? Being bitten to death by vengeful ants? Not in this room. Not in this weave.

I could tell similar stories about the time I was almost arrested in Paris or sliced my cornea on a beach in Honduras or got disastrously lost in London while searching for a Tube station at 4 a.m. Each of these misadventures was followed by a restorative, redemptive swaddle, which somehow made even an aching eyeball seem OK.

Does that mean that the robe itself brought about the happy endings? Of course not. I believe in the garment as a talisman, a psychological multivitamin, voodoo protection, a medal of Saint Christopher made out of terrycloth. It is the physical symbol of being protected by the place you’ve chosen to rest. When you’re 5,000 miles from your home and—to put it in George Carlin terms—your stuff, a hotel room is your fortress, the robe your chainmail. During the good times you can play tech mogul all you want, but when the time comes that you really need that robe, it will be there, waiting.

Hemispheres senior editor Jacqueline Detwiler once packed a knife for a gunfight.

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