As this year draws to a close I realize that I only spent about twelve days in the woods, and I was thinking about all of the things I missed most about it: the immersion in nature, the enjoyment of physical exertion in fresh air, the feeling of freedom, the views. But as I imagine is the case with pretty much everyone, the thing I missed most about backpacking was, of course, talking about poop.
And seeing as I also imagine that you — if you didn’t get out on trail much — missed listening to people talk about poop, I decided it might be nice to metaphorically dig a 6-8” hole and drop some stories in it. Enjoy!
Appalachian Trail 2000: “The Jewish People Figured This Out Thousands Of Years Ago”
Many of the Shelters in the Smokies now have privies, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when none of them did, on the theory that dispersed pooping done during the course of the hiking day was a better management plan than concentrating use at a privy that would have to be maintained. Unfortunately that plan didn’t really work all that well, and each shelter ended up with a nearby “Poop Hill” that in some cases seemed uncomfortably close to the water source. And maybe that still would have been okay too, if not for all of the people who decided that carrying a trowel and digging an actual cathole was unnecessary. What you ended up with was a surface dookie minefield at every shelter, replete with white TP warning flags blowing in the wind.
|Smokies shelters were generally pretty gross|
even without the Poop Hill.
But that’s all background. The important part of this story is that I always carry a book with me hiking. ALWAYS. And I don’t limit myself to short books like a person with common sense would do. I read Lonesome Dove on the CDT (900+ pages). I read Shogun on the PCT (1100+ pages). Reading is such a part of my in-camp routine that I find it difficult to get to sleep if I don’t read at night.
So you can imagine my dismay when, shortly before entering the Smokies in 2000, I had finished a copy of The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper and had nothing to read. Fortunately some well-meaning religious person had left a copy of the Bible in a shelter, and I thought to myself, “well, I’ve never read THAT the whole way through before.”
I suppose it was serendipity that on the same day I experienced my first “Poop Hill” I was up to Deuteronomy in the Bible and came across this passage in Chapter 23:
“Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad:
And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee:
For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.”
Right there in the Bible: directions for digging a cathole.
And from that point on I did two things: I wrote the text of Deuteronomy 23:12-14 in all of the Shelter Registers until I left the Smokies — with a note that said “God wants you to bury your poop.” And for the rest of my hike whenever someone asked me where I was going with TP and trowel in hand, I responded, “going to ease myself abroad.”
I suffered from a bout of full-blown hypothermia while in Maine in the fall of 2003, and I was (I thought) justifiably paranoid about it in the fall of 2008 as I hiked through a cold and rainy fall season on the Pacific Crest Trail. And so it was that on Day 2 out of Packwood I was hiking alone in a cold rain monitoring myself for the Umbles and doing hand dexterity tests as I hiked. Dreading the idea of setting up my already wet tent in the rain, I briefly considered pulling up short and sleeping in a trailhead bathroom at Chinook Pass before deciding to push on towards my goal for the day: Camp Ulrich at Government Meadow.
|Almost slept in a bathroom near here.|
Camp Ulrich was the goal because there was a cabin with a wood stove there, and hopefully other hikers. It was 23 miles from Chinook Pass to Camp Ulrich, though, and as I slogged along it started getting dark. My progress slowed as my headlamp bounced ineffectually off a thick fog that set in. I was losing steam fast with about four miles to go and I realized I was getting slightly addled. Not wanting to risk missing Camp Ulrich in the pea-soupy darkness, I decided to bag the plan, set up camp, and do my best to ward off the early signs of hypothermia I felt setting in.
The cold rain continued coming down as I got my tent set up. I got into dry clothes and into my sleeping bag. I cooked in my vestibule. I made a Nalgene hot water bottle that I put in my armpit. And after eating I settled in to sleep wishing I had made it to the cabin while thinking I had made a solid decision not to try.
And then: I had to poop.
My brain still wasn’t firing on all cylinders but I knew I wasn’t going out there in my dry sleeping clothes and I also didn’t want to put the wets back on. Conundrum. Naked? Should I go out there naked? Is that what you do in this situation? I took a look outside and it was sleeting. Suddenly I realized that those stories you hear about finding dead hypothermia victims in various states of undress might be due to them simply needing to poop, and I was not going down like that. So I did the only other thing I could think of:
I pooped into a gallon Ziploc freezer bag.
|Somewhere in this photo is a well-hidden bag of crap.|
It's like a smelly version of Where's Waldo.
The next day I rolled into Camp Ulrich early in the morning and called it -- it was a short mileage day but I needed to recover and dry out my gear. Tex and Karen showed up (I had unknowingly passed their tent in the dark the night before) and they decided to stay as well. We got a good fire going in the stove, and I am happy to report that as I spread all of my gear out to dry they did not notice — and I did not have to explain — the freezer bag full of poop that I would carry for another 46 miles before getting rid of it at Snoqualmie Pass.
Continental Divide Trail 2012: “The Cow Dung Trail”
|"Can I . . . Can I get some of that water? No? Okay."|
If you hike the Continental Divide Trail you’ll notice that a fair amount of your experience revolves around cows. You hike through BLM land leased to ranchers. You go over and under barbed wire cattle fences. You get water from windmill-driven wells that are there for the moo rather than you. You’ll probably accidentally spook a herd at least once, and you’ll definitely get comfortable with cow shit. Because all of the places you might like to rest are also the places cows like to rest, and the places that cows like to rest are also the places that cows like to poop. I have taken naps laying directly on crap more times than anyone really should.
One of the other things about the CDT is that it’s not always as well marked as you’d like, so it’s not unusual for hikers to occasionally build piles of rocks for the friends behind them at particularly tricky navigational spots. They're not the “artistic” rock stacks made by people with the hubris to think they arrange rocks better than nature does. They're just helpful and boring directional cairns that are normally pretty unremarkable.
|At a certain point you don't even really notice the poop.|
Almost out of New Mexico, we were eagerly headed for Ghost Ranch and the cafeteria at Ghost Ranch (which had the food at Ghost Ranch) on a dirt road that we can call that only if we’re being charitable with our definition of “road.” We had taken a break a few minutes earlier and checked our maps while stopped, so we knew that the trail took a hard right off the road at some point. Eventually we found the turn at a fenceline, but would we have been looking for it if we hadn't just checked our maps? Possibly, but maybe not. It was unmarked and a classic spot to build a cairn, but the problem was there were no rocks. At all. What to do? We could wait for our friends behind so they didn’t miss the turn. That was certainly a short-term solution, but what about friends a day or two behind? And more importantly, what about the food at Ghost Ranch? Would the food at Ghost Ranch still be there if we waited? Probably, but maybe not. And even if the food was still there, it felt like cutting into Ghost Ranch food eating time was more of a sacrifice than anyone should reasonably expect from us.
So looking around and considering our options, we did what anyone who had hiked through most of New Mexico would think was completely normal: we made a cow pie cairn.
It was a perfect directional marker, because you definitely noticed it. You didn’t have to play the “cairn/not-a-cairn” game that would occasionally happen when you saw a small pile of rocks. No, this was a very tall, very obvious stack of crap. It was either a directional cairn or these were the weirdest cows in all of New Mexico. And thanks to the poop, everyone made it to Ghost Ranch with ease. Where the food was, in fact, still there.
Appalachian Trail 2015: “Proper Planning Prevents Poop Panic Performance”
I have hiked enough trails by now that I am usually pretty good at planning. So it was with both surprise and disappointment that I found myself in Caratunk, Maine waiting for the Post Office to open as my hiking partners walked out of town. We had crossed the Kennebec on the first ferry trips of the morning and had breakfast at Northern Outdoors. And then had another breakfast at the Sterling Inn. Having already hiked 4 miles and with 14.7 still to go, they rightfully didn’t feel like loitering any longer due to me being an idiot. So off they went; I would get my mail and do my best to catch up.
Why did I have a package waiting at the Post Office? I have no good explanation. I had a new pair of shoes mailed to Caratunk despite the fact that I would literally be in Monson the next day (a town where I had a planned zero day). And it wasn’t like I was being clever in avoiding a day the Monson PO would be closed when I got there. I was going to arrive in Monson on a Tuesday. And to add another layer of dumbassery to my decision, the Caratunk PO was only open from 2-4pm.
|Later, on the far shore, the phrase "dropping a Caratunk"|
would be coined.
So there I was, sitting in front of the closed Caratunk PO at noon, when I started receiving warning signals from my gastrointestinal tract that a pint of ice cream as part of second breakfast had been a terrible, terrible choice. I looked around me and started to sweat. They were doing construction on the building attached to the PO; the workers told me the bathrooms had been torn out the day before. My last thought before getting truly frantic was “that’ll teach me to take a zero in Gorham.”
I ran around behind the building. Realistically, there was no place to poop without being seen. And reviled. Back around to the front of the building, and now I was desperate. Desperate enough to do something embarrassing, but something not nearly as embarrassing as pooping my pants.
I went up to a random house and knocked on the door.
You want to talk about Trail Angels? I’ll tell you about a Trail Angel. Because the woman who answered the knock on that door graciously let a random stranger into her house to destroy her bathroom. Granted, it was the half bath next to the garage, but it had a toilet and that’s really the only thing that mattered. I apologized profusely on the way in, and I apologized even more profusely on the way out. She said it was okay, emergencies happen, pay it no mind. I’m sure after I left she Febreezed that room like she owned stock in it.
Anyway, I got the new shoes, clocked the 14.7 miles in them before dark, and to this day I still don’t know why I had shoes sent there instead of Monson and ended up having to poop in downtown Caratunk.
|The new shoes: KEEN McGuffins.|
I like to imagine that woman telling someone that same story right now, about the day she saved a dirty hiker’s dignity and also his pants. As for me, I like the story not only because it’s about how things can go wrong even when you think you know what you’re doing, but also because it’s about the kindness of strangers that is a hallmark of long distance hiking. It’s the sort of thing that reaffirms your faith in humanity, and I think we can all agree that’s exactly what a really good poop story is all about.