The truth about the john: Adventures Off the Grid

by • September 13, 2015 • FeatureComments (0)154

Courtesy Laura Emerson If you have to use an outhouse, it might as well be spectacular. That's the Emerson motto.

Courtesy Laura Emerson
If you have to use an outhouse, it might as well be spectacular. That’s the Emerson motto.

Most women I meet have a spontaneous “ugh” reaction when they learn that we rely on an outhouse at our off-grid home. Then they are silent. Maybe they can’t imagine it. Or worse, perhaps they picture a disgusting Porta-potty at an overcrowded public venue. So, as a public service to polite, silent, curious readers, here is a “tell-all” about what it is really like living with an outhouse.

Above ground, I asked for a large room because I am scared of spiders, so I wanted lots of elbow room. Thus, our outhouse is 4-foot-by 8-foot inside, which, if you think about it, is about the size of many powder rooms. The hole beneath it is 4 feet by 5 feet by 6 feet – plenty large to last for a decade or more. Every once in a while we toss some lime down there, but let’s face it; an outhouse is a low-maintenance operation.

Photo courtesy Laura Emerson The Emersons' outhouse is well-kept and tidy, a step up from most backwoods johns.

Photo courtesy Laura Emerson
The Emersons’ outhouse is well-kept and tidy, a step up from most backwoods johns.

To make it more woman-friendly, it has a door.  A surprising number of such structures lack this feature. I don’t know if the reason is to increase circulation to reduce spiders and flies, or to provide a clear view of a bear approaching at one’s most vulnerable moment, but I insisted on  a door. Also, my outhouse lacks the ubiquitous magazine pictures of cars,  naked women, and animal carcasses tacked to the walls of every other such outhouse    in Alaska. Instead, silly and girly as it may be, I commissioned two stained glass pieces (of Alaska flowers) from a talented friend   to hang within the window frames. They cast rainbows on the painted yellow walls.

For added ventilation and light, the  building has screened soffits under the  high, steep eaves. We also added one of those whirly-gig things you see on the   roofs of many houses to release rising heat in attics. In this case, it punctures the hole beneath the structure and carries away    any methane. Thus, there is no more disagreeable odor in our outhouse than when one is alone in a powder room.

No doubt, though, there are incon-veniences. It is outside and unheated and  in Alaska. In winter, the seat is so cold that we replace it with a circle of polystyrene, which, with its air holes, is temperature neutral. To avoid midnight trips outside,  we have a “chamber pot” in the corner of our bedroom, like your ancestors did. For us, it is a white 5-gallon bucket, on top of which sits a camper’s plastic toilet seat with a round aperture for just such an application, topped by the bucket lid. It works well, except for the privacy issue, which took me  some getting used to. Every morning, I dump the bucket in the outhouse and rinse it at an outdoor spigot. About twice a week I swish it out with vinegar.

I learned to deal with the “necessary room” outside, and with the lack of privacy indoors. For me, the “ugh” part of the outhouse is creepy crawlies. The first July we lived here, I was so appalled by the number of flies crawling up the walls (from the hole, I assume) that I wanted to remain constipated all month to avoid entering. Even mosquito coils were not very effective. But then we got chickens.

Thank goodness for chickens for so many reasons. One is that they love bugs, dead or alive. Every morning during fly season (late June through July), whoever opens the outhouse door first calls the chickens. They come running as though to a free pizza buffet. It is immensely satisfying to hear the “whack a mole” sound they make as they peck up the protein on the wooden floor.  With a handy rag, I swipe off flies that died on the window sills and shelves. At those tasty extras, I swear: The hens make a delighted, giggling sort of utterance, like a diner who receives an unexpected amuse-bouche at a first-class restaurant.

Photo courtesy Laura Emerson Thank goodness for chickens, who keep the outhouse a bug-free zone.

    Photo courtesy Laura Emerson
Thank goodness for chickens, who keep the outhouse a bug-free zone.

The only spiders I see are daddy long legs (which aren’t actually spiders but the “ugh” factor is   super high for me). If they are so good at catching bugs, why do I never see them until August, when all the other insects seem to be gone? They give me some ancient, visceral creepy feeling. Unfortunately, they are usually too high for the chickens to reach, so insect eradication during that season falls to my husband … each and every single time I see one in the outhouse (or anywhere else). Hey – he was the one who wanted us to move out here to the woods.

Payback in the outhouse, buddy.

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