I’d like to tell you about my favorite outhouse.
Do you have history with many outhouses? you ask…
Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do. When you pride yourself on being a dirt bag, ultra-hardy mountaineer, rebelling against the “norm” and trying to spend money on climbing trips not rent, yes, you might end up living in places that have very few amenities.
Running water? Electricity? Flush toilet?
I have lived without the above, in varying combinations, willingly, many times over.
I’ve had outhouses that suck or stink or are slightly precarious. Summer outhouses, winter ones, with roofs and doors, and without.
Probably the worst was south of Breckenridge, in the winter, at the base of a fourteener. Each morning, after a storm, one had to either shovel to get the door open or shovel to get the door closed. We kept the seat in the house, only carrying it out when necessary, because if it froze, one ran the risk of butt cheeks sticking to ice.
But the one rustic commode that I remember with the most fondness was in Utah, on top of Guardsman Pass … elevation 9,717 feet. It was part of my estate there in the Wasatch – my estate that could only be reached eight months out of the year on skis, up and over a pass, four miles in from the nearest plowed road.
So many things to tell about that cabin, but for today, I’m thinking about the outhouse only.
My cabin was a summer A-frame tucked away in an aspen grove overlooking the Timpanogos Mountains. It was solitude defined. My nearest neighbor, Ralph the hottie, was a gunshot away.
That meant that a gunshot in the distance signaled emergency and one should slog on over to the other’s as fast as possible in waist-deep snow to check out the situation and save the day. Granted, one had to hear the gunshot first.
I had electricity and a woodstove. I had a record player with Cheap Trick at Budokon and some old Time magazines with Michael Jackson on the covers.
The previous owners had gone up for a weekend in the summer of ’82, closed the door when they left, and never returned. It was a total time warp – lots of orange and avocado green and shag and shit.
Snow blew in through the single-pane windows. If I didn’t want things to freeze, I put them in the 1970s Freon-filled fridge. I melted snow in a dog bath on top of the woodstove. I cut wood on my skis with a chainsaw. I smoked a ton of grass– one of my four neighbors was a pot dealer; she lived only two miles away.
I had to be at work at 6 a.m. My morning ritual consisted of getting a fire going, brewing coffee, putting on 15 layers of clothing, and skiing over the pass, often in a blizzard or breaking trail right after one, to get to my car in time to change clothes and drive into town. It meant getting up at 3:30 every day.
It also meant frequent questioning of my sanity.
My alarm would go off, obviously in the dark. I’d brush the snow off my face (gotta love single-pane windows), roll down the ladder, stir the embers in the stove before loading it up, turn on the electric coffee percolator and then flick on the magic switch.
The simple, cream-colored light switch was the single most cherished item in my home and I will tell you why…
It miraculously turned on not only a light but also a heater in the outhouse 30 yards away. I ‘d turn it on, then begin the layering process:
Long underwear, tops
and bottoms, x2. Socks. Bibs. Sweater, vest, fleece, parka. Sorrels, hat, mittens, scarf, goggles.
Then out into the elements, shovel in hand. More often than not, I had to dig my way from the front door to the outhouse door. Often the walls along the pathway were so tall that I had no place to put more snow. I was usually sweating at 4 a.m. at minus 2 degrees by the time I reached the commode.
And then, as if on cue, (or so I like to imagine) the door would open up, welcoming me into the bright and the warmth to have just a few moments of luxury before spitting me back out into the dark and cold.
The outhouse wasn’t big – lots of banging elbows and such while trying to wrestle my way out of all of my layers – but I often thought that I should just move in and forgo the whole cabin, kitchen, bedroom thing.
And then things would start to thaw out just the tiniest bit and I was reminded that I probably didn’t really want to live in a toilet – not matter how warm it was.
Sometimes, and this was huge, if I took an extra few minutes to get out there, the seat would actually be a little too hot for my sensitive derriere. It was probably my only opportunity to say, “It’s too hot” that entire winter.
Leaving the outhouse to get on with my morning was challenging, but that was the purpose behind turning on the percolator before my morning constitutional – something to entice me back through the snow into the barely warm house.
And the entire pot of coffee at 4 a.m. is what enabled me to ski up my driveway and over the meadow and through the woods when any normal person was still asleep in their bed, knowing that when they awoke, they would pee without risking frostbite.
Living in my cabin that winter was a lot of work, it was a constant challenge, constant discomfort.
But there were certain things that so far outweighed the hard: the view of the mountains, the solitude, the simplicity, and the sheer joy of having to poo.
Suzanne Strazza is an award-winning writer in Mancos, Colo.