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.