The first time I remember defecating outside of a toilet was when I was four years old. My father and I, along with my younger brother, were on our way back from the Brooklyn Children’s Museum via the B71 bus. It was winter, probably February, and falling sleet was visible through the bus’s windows. We saw this weather from near the front, facing the aisle, on a row of three blue seats.
We must have stopped at a coffee shop between the museum and the bus ride, because I remember holding a small cup in my hand. Six ounces of hot chocolate, likely, all of which I drank lukewarm within the span of a few minutes. And then, several minutes after that, the Rube Goldberg machine that is the human digestive system was triggered. I relayed the unfortunate information to my father, that I had just used the bathroom, on the bus.
“Is it pee, or poop?” was his next question, in a voice that was a little too loud for my own comfort. I affirmed the latter, and the tempo and timbre of his breathing began to melt into that of exasperation. His head looked to the floor in a gentle shake, and after comprehending the gravity of the situation, a sense of urgency induced by second-hand embarrassment clipped off any sense of gentleness in his words. “Come on, let’s go.”
The walk of shame was short, only about 10 feet to the front doors of the bus. As a relatively new member of society, I was exonerated for my wrongdoings, but the collective eyes of everyone else on the bus looked down the aisle mournfully at the responsible adult in this scenario, imparting my father with the weight of societal embarrassment. We were let off a few blocks later, on a walking search for a change of clothes and a change of scenario.
This past February, I sat down at a cluster of chairs in the Michigan Union with three then-strangers. The initial awkwardnesses of unfamiliar faces soon faded away — as we had a trip to plan. In a few weeks, over our spring break, we would be backpacking at Zion National Park in southwest Utah. We scrolled on our respective laptops through images of soaring cliff faces and alien rock formations, all colored in a rugged sepia-red. We scoured trails and itineraries, hoping to replicate the perfect vacations of others who pressed down paths in hikes before us.
After the three hours, we had booked campsites, created a day-by-day itinerary and divided up responsibility for the equipment that would protect our lives for five days in the wilderness. It was then that the topic of using the bathroom came up. One of our members, Andrew, read aloud from the park’s website, and we found out that we must not only poop in the woods, but also carry out “all human waste.”
We looked around at each other, with nervous smiles gradually emerging on our faces. There was some repressed laughter, evidence of past childhoods cracking the supposed maturity that gave us the privilege of going to college. Using the woods as a restroom seemed unpleasant enough, but the idea of carrying out what our bodies had just expelled seemed comically cruel.
Despite the logistical qualms of Zion National Park’s outdoor-pooping guidelines, the environmental justification is great. The dry sand and rock of the area’s desert environment make for slow decomposition, and this accumulation of unresolved waste can have negative aesthetic and ecological effects. As written in a Facebook post by the park service, “We don’t hike in your toilet, so don’t poop in our canyon.” In the coming weeks, we would have to mentally prepare ourselves for the challenge ahead: what happens when one of the most private times in our day is made visible for the natural world to see?
Squeamishness aside, defecating in nature is a common and necessary practice for backcountry campers and hikers. While attending the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program over the spring term, we were given the low-down the night before we departed for our first overnight mountain trip. When the topic was brought up to a dining hall of 40 college students, we exhibited similar reactions to what I observed at my backpacking meeting back in February: uncomfortable laughter and the hesitant acknowledgment that the steadfast bathrooms we took for granted would become absent for two days in the woods. The replacement would be a self-dug hole at least 200 feet from any water source and 100 feet from any trail. Though the anywhere-ness could be liberating in theory, this freedom of choice seemed exhausting in the mind.
We were shown various methods and poses to help us accomplish the newly difficult task of relieving ourselves. For the especially fit, there was the simple squat, no outside support necessary. For extra assistance, hugging tree trunks and gripping overhead branches was recommended, or leaning forward to use a friendly boulder. In an ultimate display of friendship and trust, you can try the partner squat, where you and another grip each other’s palms and get low together, being sure to coordinate the descent toward the ground. After being pantomimed by our instructors, the hall broke out into crackling laughter at the resulting image.
Talking about pooping in the woods and actually completing the action are two different things. On the trail, pooping was hushed and actively hoped against. It seemed uncomfortable, inconvenient and strenuous on the body and mind. Using the woods as a bedroom was enough, and the addition of using it as a bathroom appeared taxing.
Inevitably, though, it happened. A request for the affectionately-named “shit kit” would be spoken into existence, and we would turn our heads left as a group member tramped into the woods to our right. As they carried away the Ziploc bag of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and a shovel, we sat down near the side of the trail, already waiting for their pending arrival.
After a short while, they would return, and along with the original shit kit, they seemed to have gained a mysterious smile. Hours later, the next person who stopped to use the bathroom also came back with a new sense of happiness and levity. It would happen again, and again, until rumors of “the best shit of my life!” circulated in whisper-shouts among participants of the program.
The qualifiers that led to this grandiose statement were usually similar. The budding birches, the stately pines, the smell of soil underfoot. The act of eavesdropping on songbirds’ conversation, the expansiveness left by the lack of walls. The act of digging up six to eight inches of earth, and filling it back up again. It was a satisfying form of solitude in that one is not really alone, even with the lack of human presence. The act of pooping was simply a response to nature’s call, and it was the feeling of being included in its conversation that could not help but give the feeling of gratitude. How could one be self-conscious about pooping in the woods when all other beings were doing the same thing? The outdoors gave us new permissions on what was acceptable to do as humans, so why not take up the opportunity?
A few weeks before, back in Zion National Park, I had the opportunity to try the act of pooping outside myself. I was armed with two “wag bags,” which would supposedly turn my waste into something pleasant enough to carry with me. Hence, I felt prepared, but not ready, to use the desert as a bathroom.
It was a cool morning on our second day, a nearby creek providing a gentle aquatic soundscape, the sun slowly carving its light into the shadowed cliffs surrounding us. I had just eaten a small bowl of oatmeal, likely apple-cinnamon flavored. Several minutes after my meal, I began to once again feel the aforementioned digestive Rube Goldberg machine. My internal clock was ticking. I grabbed toilet paper from my backpack, along with the shiny silver pouch that my shit would soon land into. I traced a path around the greening low bushes, and soon found myself a sizable rock sufficiently away from the creek and the campsite. I will spare the precise details of this particular bowel movement, and instead just relay my then-surroundings:
The rock that supports me is cool to the touch, but is beginning to warm by the sunbeams from above. My legs ache in their uncomfortable position, but my eyes are soothed by the gentle sway of humble conifers over a blue sky. I long for this vulnerable and, frankly — quite chilly, experience to be over, but I know I will soon be slightly disappointed by the bland sterility of a room-temperature toilet back at home.
It is done, and it is time to close the bag. As I slide my fingers along the sealing zipper, I begin to notice the size of the pouch. My liberal use of toilet paper helped to balloon the bag’s size into embarrassing proportions. I attempt to compress my waste and its company into a more reasonable volume, only to realize doing so would lead to an unfortunate popping of the previously sealed top. I resign, but can’t help but wonder: does my poop bag look too big? Can I not escape my human-societal consciousness, even as a temporary resident of nature?
I walk back to the campsite to reunite with the rest of my group, sheepishly holding my opaque bag of poop to my side in an attempt to hide its true size. As I strap it onto the outside of my hiking pack, I look up at the soaring rock face in the foreground, its shades of reds, browns and golds shimmering in mid-morning. I try to distinguish the layers striped above me, but there are simply too many to count. Within them, I see the tens of thousands of years that are stacked up in a sturdy geological record. Among those millions of fossilized morning rituals, the embarrassment over my own seems thankfully unjustified.
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at email@example.com.