Monday, January 28, 2013

Potty Perplexities

Sunfish Pond Privy, New Jersey
When my husband and I were first getting to know one another in 1987, I remember a specific comment he made while we were comparing our childhoods; “You’re kidding me, right?  You come from Pennsylvania, one the original thirteen colonies, and you grew up using an outhouse?!”  My dear Los Angeles, born and bred, city-boy just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that outhouses were still in use in areas of this country that he considered modernized.   He was a victim of our ability to attribute our personal experiences to a wide area of real estate that aren’t always true and often result in stereotyping.  He had only traveled to areas of Pennsylvania that were cities or large towns and therefore, was unfamiliar with the more rural areas of my home state.

You know how it goes; you visit Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend the fall Balloon Fiesta and are introduced to your first green chile cheeseburger.   You notice that rarely do you have a meal that you aren’t asked by your waiter, “Red or green?”  When you go back home, you tell everyone how New Mexicans eat chile on everything, not realizing that there are actually many New Mexicans who don’t care to eat chile at all.  But your experience has manifested in an assumption concerning New Mexicans and that is why we all know that Texas is loaded with gun-toting cowboys, the South is full of rednecks, everyone in Oregon is either an environmentalist or lumberjack and everyone in Maine eats lobster.   Of course, when our stereotypical perceptions suddenly are shattered by realities, it comes as quite a shock, hence, my husband’s surprise to learn of my outdoor bathroom habits.

Yes, I grew up using the outhouse on a regular basis.  My childhood home in the Appalachian Mountain foothills had a well that was going dry, so although the house had indoor plumbing, we conserved what little water we had and used the outhouse.  Exceptions were made for night-time nature calls, especially in the winter.  No one enjoys having to don a coat and boots over your pajamas to wade out into the snow and cold with a flashlight.  And our home was not the only place in which the outhouse was in regular use.

From September, 1978 through May, 1979 I had the privilege to live with my grandparents.  One of my chores while living there, was to “empty the buckets”, as Grandma put it.  My grandparents didn’t have ANY indoor plumbing, so the outhouse was used almost exclusively.  Again, nighttime was the exception, but without a flush toilet available in their home,  you would use the bucket sitting in the corner of the bedroom.  This baked enamel metal bucket with its matching lid and  wire handle was your indoor toilet or “chamber pot” if you prefer the more sophisticated term.  To us, it was just “the bucket” and it would be taken out in the mornings and emptied into the outhouse, rinsed and cleaned, and placed back in the bedroom with a roll of toilet paper by its side to await the next nighttime deposits.

The outhouse in use at their home at that time was the second one that had been constructed on the property.  I don’t know exactly why the older one ceased to be used; I had always assumed it was full, but I do remember how proud my grandfather was with the construction of the new one and how often he joked about the “improvements” that the new outhouse contained.  Yep, it was a fancy one!  It came complete with aluminum siding, a concrete floor, a real house door with a window and an actual toilet seat attached to the cut out hole.  It sure beat the old, dark one next to it that was covered in asphalt roofing shingles.

In the fall of 1985, my grandparents did eventually install indoor plumbing in their house as it was becoming harder for them, as the aging process took its toll, to haul water to use at the house.  Still, it wasn’t uncommon even after the installation to walk out to the backyard and discover Pappy “watering the weeds” at the edge of the property.  While, this may seem shocking or disgusting to some people, it was all just part of life for us and as natural for him as any creature that relieves itself in the woods.

Since those days, my outhouse use has been fairly limited to the occasional campground, roadside rest area or fiberglass port-a-potty that has been placed where other facilities are not available.  For most of us, this is the extent of our exposure to the once commonplace outhouse or privy.  But as I prepare to set out on this hiking adventure, I find myself once again facing the more primitive methods of relieving myself. 

There are 266 privies along the route of the Appalachian Trail most being located near one of the shelter or hut facilities provided for hikers.  That’s an average of 8.2 miles between structures.  As with old barns, churches and lighthouses, outhouses are often shown in photographic art as a revered piece of Americana.  There are some unique and interesting outhouses along the way such as the open-air, throne style privy at Moose Mountain Shelter in New Hampshire (shown here), “The Lorax” privy north of Damascus, VA with the entire Dr. Seuss “Lorax” story written on the walls inside, the two-seater with a backgammon board painted between the seats and the five-sided Penta-Privy.  I look forward to getting some pictures of some of these unusual pieces of American art.

There is also some opportunity to use regular flush toilets while passing through town or near the more populated recreational areas of the trail, but these trail privies provide the majority of a hiker’s restroom opportunities.  Or maybe I should say, the opportunity for a more civilized manner of relieving oneself, for there is another option and that, of course, is the all-natural-squat-in-the-woods.

While I have often been surprised by my fellow hikers actually spend time arguing over whether or not to pack out toilet paper, I can’t help thinking that we are providing proof for those outside of the hiking community of our “craziness.”  I mean, really, what sane person actually sits around debating the proper way to take a crap in the forest?  Well, the truth is, not just hikers, but environmental research individuals and many persons who willingly donate their time and effort to the maintenance of the trail and its facilities spend time discussing such matters.  While Bambi, Bullwinkle and Yogi can get away with letting it drop where it may, the concentration of humans along the trail make this drop-and-go method a bad option.  Consider this fact alone, there are 2-3 million visitors that hike some portion of the Appalachian Trail every year.  Now if each one of these persons was to squat leaving behind approximately 1 lb. of fecal waste within 20’ of the trail, there would be a pile of doo-doo at an average of every 4 feet from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the peak of Mt. Katahdin in Maine.  That sure would make for a lovely hike, wouldn’t it?

Now, of course, most day use or even weekend hikers are going to use the privies most of time.  But what about these long distance hikers who are out there for months at a time?  Are they actually able to “time” their restroom breaks or “hold it” until they come across the next outhouse?  (I did hear one hiker that bragged of such a feat.)  At the very least, I’m sure that at we all share the morning need to void upon waking.  And I’m confident that most all of us were also trained from our youngest days to go relieve ourselves before going to bed.  So if a hiker has camped at or near a shelter along the trail, then I’m sure that the privy will again be used with frequency, although the official rules strictly discourage the practice of using the privy for urination purposes and request that you limit privy use for the more weighted bathroom matters.

But what if you aren’t camped near a shelter with a privy?  And what about those night time calls?  Those of us over the age of 40 are quite aware that what used to be a rare occasion is now a regular nightly ritual.  Oh, I can hardly wait for the crystal cold night that finds me warmly cocooned in my down sleeping bag when the urge hits and I must expose myself to the wintry world outside as steam rises from my own personally created hot spring.  As I have done in previous times, I will focus on the stars above and the clarity of night sky and convince myself that any discomfort is worth the reward of such a wondrous site.

Of course, there is the option of creating your own version of a chamber pot in your tent.  One lady hiker friend is planning on using an empty peanut butter jar for just such occasions.  And why not?  If hospital labs can expect us to pee in those little specimen cups, then a peanut butter jar is a large throne by comparison. 

Personally, I’m considering an actual pot to use as my nightly chamber pot.  I’m carrying a 2 liter cooking pot with me which is much larger than most hikers carry and if I line it with a gallon sized plastic bag, it will make a suitable chamber pot complete with a lid.  Oh, I can hear you all now…ewww!!!  But I assure you, my pot will be totally sanitized before I eat out of it again, but even if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily be harmed by any residual urine.  Don’t you know that over 3 million Chinese are reported to drink their morning urine every day and that this is an ancient yoga ritual that is supposed to promote health?  Not exactly my cup of tea, though.

Anyway, I guess I should mention the actual Leave No Trace rules for disposing of human waste while hiking in the backcountry or for anyone who is out camping without privy facilities available.  For the deposit of number 2, we are instructed to dig a cat-hole 6-8” deep, ironically the same depth as the famous orange trowel blade used to dig the hole, and approximately 4-6” wide.  Do your business and clean up with a small amount of toilet paper or, for the truly rugged experience, a handful of leaves and deposit these in the hole.  Stir with a stick, leave the stick in the hole and replace the dirt, burying the contents.  For added security against curious animals that may dig up the site, place a rock or log across the hole.  Also, if you feel so inclined, you can pack out your used toilet paper instead of burying it and you are not to burn it.  If you are near a privy, use it, but, as stated earlier, only for number 2.  As for urination practices, we are instructed to urinate on rocks if at all possible and not on plants as animals will eat the leaves of the plants to get the salts left behind.  Also, you can pour water over your urination site to dilute it.

Now, I will be honest with you, I know a lot of people who would think that these rules are created by a bunch of hyper-environmentalist type people and that they are way too detailed.  I can sympathize with their point of view, however, after seeing the pictures and hearing the stories of areas that are so strewn with toilet paper and piles of human waste, I wonder if it’s not a necessity to make such rules.  I’m appalled at the disregard some people have, not only for our natural environment, but for their fellow man.  It makes me wonder about just how civilized some of us really are.  And we have to keep in mind that although the critters crap in the woods without digging cat-holes and burying their waste, they also don’t all congregate in a narrow strip of land to do their business but are scattered over a much great area.  So, unlike the animals, we must act more civilized and utilize ways to dilute our impact on the forest.
Thistle Hill Privy, Vermont
Yes, my husband learned early on in our relationship about my outhouse days.  He also learned that I had never lived in a house that had a dryer; I had never done more than heat water or make popcorn in a microwave; and that the majority of the meat I ate growing up was obtained not in a store, but through the annual rituals of hunting, fishing and slaughtering of animals raised for meat.  After his initial shock at such uncivilized and ancient behaviors, he jokingly and lovingly called me a real “Hill-Billy Hick” and it is a term of endearment that I have proudly carried ever since.  Now his concern is that after 25 years of trying to “civilize” this Hill-Billy Hick, when I return from six months of doing my business outside, he’ll have to housebreak me all over again.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mountain Melodies

For nearly four decades, Casey Kasem hosted the American Top 40 radio show which was a countdown of the most popular songs in the country.  One of the signature characteristics of this weekly broadcast was the long distance dedication, a segment in which Casey would read a letter highlighting a significant relationship between the author of the letter and another individual and which ended in a request for a specific song to be played in honor of that relationship.

Although I don’t remember any of the specifics from these letters and long distance dedications, what I do remember is the sensuous tone of Casey Kasem’s voice as he held his audience spellbound by the story in the letter.  It was if a hushed silence had fallen over all America and thousands of people were sitting around the glow of the radio dial breathlessly listening to the story unfold.  I would imagine that we, the audience, would collectively wipe away the single tear rolling down our cheek on the sad stories or would share the sigh and smile that accompanied the sweet and loving story.  Then the song would play and we would be left alone in our thoughts and eventually, through the music, be brought back to reality and out of our emotional trance.

Music is one of those universal cultural elements.  We use it to celebrate and to mourn.  We use it to worship and to protest.  We use it to give our opinions and to ask questions.  We use it to tell stories and to record our history.  Our experiences and emotions have an impact on music and music, in turn, has an impact on our experiences and emotions.  Just as the scent of a freshly cut lawn can carry us back to memories of summer days, music also, has the ability to transport us to a time and place in our past complete with all the emotions and visual images that play across the screen of our inner mind. 

Why one particular song will attach itself so strongly to a memory and another does not I cannot explain and will leave that question to the neurologist and psychologist to answer.  But, for most of us, the association of song and sentiment are a fact of life that we both embrace and resent.   For we know that the music, randomly playing on its own, can arbitrarily lift our spirits or send us into an emotional pit of despair and sadness.  Therefore, we often control the songs that we will hear to control our own emotional state.  Such is the case for the long distance hiker in making song selections that will be carried while on the trail.

Now, first of all, I must say that not all hikers carry music on the trail and some find it downright offensive to bring this artificial source of sound into the natural environment that they intend to experience.  General trail etiquette maintains that if you bring music on the trail, that it is to be confined to the range of your own hearing or at the very least, that you give consideration to those who wish to enjoy an unaltered natural state the courtesy of curtailing your music until you part ways.  Also, with the long distance hiker’s concern for the amount of gear they must carry, the means to play the music of choice is another matter to be given serious thought.  Do you really want to carry around another piece of equipment that needs batteries or that bad weather could destroy?  Is having music on your hike worth the added weight and worry with regard to loss, damage or theft?

At first, I had no intention of taking music with me on my hike.  I enjoy listening to music as much as the next person, but I very rarely play music when I am out camping.  We are so inundated with man-made sounds in our day to day lives, that I usually appreciate the break from it all when I’m outdoors.  The birds provide quite a bit of music as do many other elements of nature such as the babbling brook, the wind whispering through the pines or the chattering squirrel upset with my presence.  But there is a lot of difference between a few day camping trip and six months on the trail. 

What would it be like to not hear any music for six months?  Could I do that?  Yes, I could, but do I WANT to go without it for that long?  My singing from memory is only going to satisfy me for so long before I’m sick of the sound of my own voice, then what?  Maybe hearing the occasional music over the speakers in a store, from a passing car or from someone else’s device or instrument would be enough.  Maybe, but it could just as easily be a style of music or song that causes me to wish I hadn’t heard it as one that I might enjoy.  What would be the benefits of bringing music along with me?  Well, for one thing, I could use the music for motivation, to increase speed or inspire myself when I get tired.  I can use the music to make emotional adjustments, ward off depression and loneliness or just to brighten the fifth bleak, rainy day of the week.  I can use the music to break up the monotony of picking them up and putting them down day after day after day.  I can use the music to celebrate accomplishments and to worship my Creator for the beauty of the creation around me.  Yes, the benefits could far outweigh the negatives. 

So, once again I find myself acquiring a new piece of technology, at least new to me, for my trip.  I have purchased a Sony W Series MP3 player with 2 GB of memory.  After doing some research, I selected this item because it does not have a screen like most MP3 players which will allow the battery to last much longer.  Also, this is a model designed for runners and is worn over the ears rather than carried, clipped or strapped onto the belt or body.  With a combined weight of 1.9 ounces for the player and USB charging cord I don’t think the weight will be an issue and I have 320 songs recorded to the memory with room for more.  I’m sure that many people and most of the younger generation would opt for a device with more storage and features but I’m quite satisfied with the simplicity and capacity of my selection.  It certainly is an amazing upgrade for an old school gal like me who still has cases of cassette tapes in the house.

One of my sons often critiques my taste in music by saying that I quit listening to new music thirty years ago.  While his opinion is a bit extreme, there is an element of truth to it; I prefer listening to music from the 1950s through 1980s over most music produced today.  Of course, this is a common generational issue, but I do have a hard time relating to some of the music of today and a lot of it I find just plain distasteful.  Of the modern genres, I lean toward contemporary Christian or country, but outside of that, most of the time, the older music will most often be playing on my truck radio or on the stereo in the house.  The tunes fit like a pair of old comfortable shoes and I can actually sing along with the lyrics.

While I sincerely hope that no one on the trail hears me singing out loud as I’m afraid they will think there is some critically injured animal in the area, I suspect that over the course of nearly 2,200 miles, I will let my guard down and at some point, this warbling walker will be thoroughly embarrassed by the discovery of my audience.  Over the years, to prevent my sad solos from being heard or to prevent being ticketed for noise pollution, I have gotten quite good at lip-syncing.  Of course, those skills are enhanced with my ensemble of air guitar, air drums and various other air instrumentals and a whole range of struts, bobs, glides and weaves that don’t resemble anything that could be mistaken for graceful dance moves.  I can only hope that I don’t scare some poor unsuspecting fellow hiker into calling 9-1-1 because he thinks I’m having a seizure and may require immediate medical attention when he sees me bee-bopping down the trail.

Lots of good music is designed to make you feel like moving your feet and in this case, that’s exactly what I want to happen.  The songs I have on my MP3 player have been specifically selected to meet one of several criteria.  Does the song give me a good or happy feeling?  Is it a song that I enjoy singing?  Does the song “pump me up” and give me energy or motivate me to keep trying or to go on?  Does the song remind me of a favorite place, time or person that makes me smile?  Is the song specifically related to the mountain environment?  Does the song fit the awesome views I anticipate seeing?  Does the song express my grateful heart for having this opportunity or is it an expression of thanks to my God for his creation?  Does the song have anything to do with rain, thunder or storms? 

I’m sure with the information I’ve provided so far, you can probably guess some of the titles in my MP3 library, but I will confirm your suspicions and say yes, Rocky Top, Rocky Mountain High and Rocky’s, Eye of the Tiger are all included.  My 30 year class reunion will be held in August and I should be somewhere in northern New England at that time.  While I haven’t decided if I will rent a car and drive back down to PA for the event, I have included the Statler Brothers’, Class of ’57 to remind me of all my classmates.  They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Betty Davis Eyes and The Locomotion each reminds me of special people in my life, namely two of my girlfriends and my mom.  Of course, the ultimate woman’s motivational song, Gloria Gaynor’s, I Will Survive made the list.  Chris Tomlin’s, I Will Rise and Casting Crowns’, Voice of Truth lift me up.  How Great Thou Art has always been one of my favorites and with the lyrics of the second verse being:

                When through the woods and forest glades I wander
                And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
                When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
                And see the brook and feel the gentle breeze;

how could I leave it out?  And, of course, my family would be in shock if there wasn’t a plethora of tunes included from the happiest place on earth, Walt Disney World. 

It may be an odd mix of music, but as Francesca Battistelli says in her lyrics, I’m free to be me and this collection makes up my own form of a long distance dedication; it’s dedicated to all the relationships I’ve had over the years of my life including my relationship with the beautiful Appalachian Mountains.  So, I will follow Casey Kasem’s advice, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars" while I do The Hustle across the heights of Appalachia.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Time Travels

Most people have heard the passage from Ecclesiastes that states, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:” (Eccl 3:1 NIV), but fewer are familiar with another passage in Ecclesiastes that says, “Don’t long for ‘the good old days.’  This is not wise.” (Eccl 7:10 NLT)  At the beginning of each new year, we often look back as well as forward, but looking backward while trying to move forward can cause one to stumble or fall or, at the very least, slow one’s progress tremendously.

When I was young, it was a really big deal to stay up until midnight to bring in the New Year.  Our family of four had a tradition of opening a large jigsaw puzzle of about 1,000 pieces and challenging ourselves to complete it by midnight.  We ate snacks, watched television or listened to music while taking turns working on the puzzle.  Sometimes we beat the clock and sometimes not.  This tradition ended with my parents’ divorce and, aside from a pair of parties in my military days that involved too much drinking, so did my celebrating of New Year’s Eve.
For a long time, I found that the turning of the year made me very melancholy, though I always tried to hide these feelings from everyone.  All the year-in-review type of programs got me thinking about my own personal year in review.  Somehow, my end of the year countdown seemed to have me making a list of all the things I hadn’t accomplished or hadn’t acquired.  I would think about all the people who had passed away, whether they were loved ones I had lost or celebrities who somehow had an impact on me.  All this remembering seemed to do was lead me down a path of pessimism and grieving that didn’t make me feel much like celebrating.

Maybe this seems strange to the many people who enjoy dressing up and going out to a New Year’s Eve party.  They eat hors d’oeuvres, dance and drink the hours away until it’s time for the champagne toast at midnight.  The confetti falls, the party horns blow, kisses are shared and then the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne, themselves reminiscent and somewhat somber in nature, bid farewell to time gone by.

While I’m not a teetotaler, I’m also not one who believes alcohol is necessary to have a good time.  I lack skill on the dance floor and often find that the music played in most establishments is amplified to such volume that you can’t have a conversation with anyone who isn’t screaming within a foot of your ear.  Consider me old and boring if you must, but I don’t find that environment very pleasant and I left behind the clubs and party scenes of youth years ago for a more mellow and responsible lifestyle.

Some of that responsibility involved raising children.  Most of us have been through the New Year’s Eve with a child who begs to stay up until midnight only to watch them fall asleep an hour or so before the ball falls.  Sometimes we wake them up saying, “It’s time; it’s the New Year.”, only to have their sleepy little head nod off again without any real comprehension of the event.  We cover them up and let them sleep on the couch for the night or carry their little bodies off to bed.  We’ll be up to make breakfast for those same tired bodies in a few more hours, so there’ll be no sleeping off last night’s indulgences for us.

Before long, the kids are grown and on their own.  The only party horns blowing in your home are the resonating nostrils of your spouse in the recliner next to yours.  You watch rerun marathons on television and change the channel just before midnight to watch the young revelers in Times Square countdown the seconds as the ball drops.  You wake your spouse with a soft “Happy New Year, Dear.”, and give him a kiss and head to bed while tripping over the dog that is afraid of the popping fireworks outside.  Another new year arrives regardless of the celebration or lack thereof, because time travels in but one direction. 

For the first time in quite a while, I am actually excited by the turning of the calendar.  It’s 2013!  I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and now it’s finally here!  I’m now one day closer to my goal.  Yes, time will continue moving forward as it always has and I would be wise to learn the lesson that it teaches…keep moving forward.  That is how we will arrive at the next New Year, by moving forward; minute by minute, day by day.  It’s how I’ll get to the top of Mt. Katahdin; step by step; day by day; moving forward.

HAPPY 2013!!