THE FINE ART OF URINATION AND DEFECATION AL FRESCO
BY KRISTIN FISHER
Huddling inside the roasting goose down, I curse my small bladder and the raging blizzard outside my tent. I have to pee. This painful predicament occurs nightly while living on a glacier deep in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. Sometimes I win; other times my bladder. This is one of those other times.
I always initiate the process of a nocturnal piss by groping for my fleece hat and pulling it over my greasy, scalp-peeling head. After forty-five days sans shower, I could proudly proclaim it was impossible to distinguish between wet or dry hair – just two braids of congealing oil and sweat. Now, the primary task is to put on every layer of clothing before emerging from my sleeping bag into the icy night. I actually feel semi-clean until I don my grey thermal underwear, worn and unwashed for over a month. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen my naked legs. Nor can I remember what clean clothes reeking of Bounce’s “outdoor” scented fabric softener smell like. I sniff the armpit. . . . no, can’t remember. I assumed my body odor would reach a terminal stench, the point where it could no longer smell any worse. I was wrong.
All this motion allows glacial wafts to invade the gaping cavity and infect my flesh with goose bumps, erect hairs, and hard nipples. My bladder is throbbing. Scouring the base of my bag for a fleece jacket, Gore-Tex pants, and salty-stiff socks, I brace for the blast of arctic air that will invade my cozy cocoon and consume the heat my body had worked so hard to produce. One swift surge and I’m out, the stench of my open bag trailing.
I crawl to the door, unzip my final defense, and receive a face full of snow flurries drifting under the front vestibule. This is going to be fun. Taking care not to sit on a tent-mates’ appendage or the frozen tent floor, I shove my swollen, blistered feet into their own hell of rigid plastic and wet walls. These black, stubborn Scarpa boots, two sizes too big, have been my only means of transportation for forty-five days and have carried me over one hundred miles of ice, snow, rock, and mud. I regard them as I would a visit to the gynecologist – necessary but nasty. The thought of tennis shoes is orgasmic.
At long last, I lurch into the arctic night, scamper a few feet from our tent, curse every man for having a penis, drop my pants, and piss. Ah. The blizzard is rampant and I’m squatting inside the murky, white walls of a ping-pong ball while the wind whips my exposed ass. I bury my head and attempt to disregard thoughts of being blown off the mountain or carried into the whiteout by a starving Yeti. I grab a handful of snow, wipe myself, and dart back inside the tent musing, “All this for a piss?”
* * *
Two months ago, I sat in a circle on the grassy lawn of the National Outdoor Leadership School in Palmer, Alaska with sixteen other strangers strewn together from across the country. We were about to embark on an expedition of epic proportions – seventy five days of backpacking, mountaineering, and sea kayaking in the Alaskan wilderness – and we didn’t even know each other’s names. So, we took
turns introducing ourselves, awkwardly fidgeting for familiarity, and stating our goals for this trip. Tiffany aspired to become both a valued and valuable member of the expedition, of which she became neither. Sean sought to learn technical, survival skills necessary to live comfortably in our natural world– and to take a break from girls. I told him he came to the right place. On the flight over, an over-accommodating stewardess informed me that for a girl in Alaska, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” Big Willy came for the challenge. Rob wanted to clear his head. Me, I came for the experience – both the intensity and longevity. I wanted to assume an entirely nomadic existence, living like an Indian migrating day by day in hunt of game, utterly remote from society and the burdens it imposes. I wanted to be free from everyone and everything – from people, money, and all the little luxuries of civilization that we find so terribly necessary in our routine lives. Maybe it was the scene that I watched over and over in Sleeping Beauty where she soaks her feet in a mossy lagoon and sings to the animals, maybe it was the plush family car-camping trips we took when I was little, or maybe restlessness is simply in my blood; but the minute I heard about this adventure, I signed up. This act seemed rational at the time. Yet, I began to have some serious doubts as I felt the weight of the seventy-pound pack I would be carrying. Living outside on a glacier for two and a half months? No showers, no changes of clothes, no perishable food, no contact with any family or friends. . . Why am I here? The answer to that question became my goal.
* * *
That question rears its ugly head one beautiful morning when I am assigned to the duty of “sanitation engineer”, or shit patrol in the vernacular. Every NOLS expedition practices “Leave No Trace” procedures, meaning everything we pack in we have to also pack out, including our crap. Thus, when nature calls, one must delicately aim and defecate into a white, heavy-duty trash bag for transport. Our crap would all pile up, one load on top of another, so that the precise color, consistency, and quantity of the camper’s crap preceding yours was plainly visible. This knowledge inevitably resulted in crap commentaries like, “Hey Will, don’t you think you should ease up on your fluid intake? You’re looking a bit wet over here.” Or, “Damn girl, those are some nice looking golden nuggets you have going on.” My duty as sanitation engineer is to carry these nuggets to the nearest crevasse and drop them into the crack. That is where the question comes into play: Why am I voluntarily carrying sixteen peoples’ crap in a white, semi-transparent trash bag and how did I ever get here?
After melting snow for water and cooking a mean breakfast of dehydrated hash browns à la Tabasco and garlic sauce, I tie onto the rope team, fling my hefty pack onto my back, and lug the precious parcel, dangling at my knees. My crampon-armed feet dance on the honeycombed ice as I bound over one crevasse to the next, revealing the pale blue, neon-iridescence gleaming in the crags. I soon forget the crap in hand and lose myself in the Alaskan morning. Black mountains make a jagged silhouette against pale pink and orange, Care-Bear clouds blanketing the glowing sky. I smile and
scamper about on my glacier. It is awesome and I am alive and living on a river of ice – a world where the sky is larger, the sun brighter, the land vaster, and the people smaller. Everything is empty and stagnant, no running streams or rustling leaves, only thick ice and big mountains that dwarf our world into a humbling perspective and render me so small and insignificant in comparison. Maybe that’s why I am here. Maybe I like the reality it feeds, forcing me to accept my meager place in the cosmos. . . . My epiphany is interrupted by crap nuggets caressing my shin.
By now, we have been hiking for two hours and have yet to intercept an exposed crevasse before we begin descending a steep pass. My triceps are pounding. Lunging from side to side, attempting to balance the weight of my poo-parcel and pack, I trip over those heavy, awkward Scarpa boots and send our waste cascading down the mountainside. “Oh, Shit!” I cry. “Literally!” shouts another member on my rope team. Wild cheering erupts as all sixteen of us stop and stare at our shit glissading down the glacier. Each one of us has made a contribution and we scream like pre-pubescent girls at a Backstreet Boys concert. Gaining momentum, it looks like a white Hershey kiss charging towards a giant gaper. If it lands in a crevasse I’ll be a god. “Go, go, go!” we all squeal as fists pump the air, hands cover heads, and eyes widen with a childish glee. I hold my breath. It misses by maybe twenty feet, snags a chunk of protruding ice, and explodes. Its contents ooze out, smearing the sparkling ice with lumps of human feces. We die. Big, burly-bearded mountain men giggle and we collapse on the snow heaving and shaking our heads in delight. So much for Leave No Trace.
* * *
I sat on the toilet at the Day’s Inn and cried. Instead of my mountain and clouds backdrop, I stare at sterile, plastic walls and crap in a cage of fluorescence. This process is convenient and hygienic, but far less rewarding. That’s when I realized why I was there – I finally attained my goal. I was there to feel the raw throb of existence, free to wallow in unfiltered experiences. I learned to live simply and see the world with virgin eyes, pure and untainted by civilization. Everything had mattered, and it mattered in a place so deserving of my time and attention. A place that is as inhospitable to life as it is encouraging and fully forgiving. We can rape, take, and consume, but the mountains are always there, eternally glowing and giving.
It’s strange how my epiphanies arise from fecal procedures. I wipe, only mildly excited by toilet paper, and flush. That’s it. I have disposed of my waste, no transportation required, no cheering. I sink into an orgy of self-pity. Never again will I be so entertained by something as simple and satisfying as my own shit.