Dear Sundog: When I was growing up young and free, pooping outside was a lot more laid back and fun because there were fewer people and fewer rules. Is it possible to follow these rules and still have a glorious saddle outdoors, or is the fun ruined forever? -Branch
Dear Plugged: I suspect that when we mourn the end of being young and free, we really mourn the young part. When Sundog lay down at his mighty desk here at Sundog Headquarters (a single-width trailer on a dirt road), deeply nostalgic for those times, he grabbed a juniper branch, hung his ass over it. over the lip of the Grand Canyon, and let a sail, he admits that maybe it wasn’t the saddle he missed, but being young and dumb enough to imagine – and execute – this maneuver in first place.
As a young pup employed to clean up campsites near Utah’s Slickrock Bike Trail, Sundog personally lifted piles of human manure into trash bags and gloated over the eventual installation of pit toilets, even though they offended his natural sensitivity. The alternative – the inevitable digging up of someone else’s pile in your cathedral – is simply worse.
The history of the Continent’s Most Treasured Places parallels a history of increasingly stringent poo laws, that is, if you concede Sundog’s belief that what makes a place spectacular is the lack of soil. We’re talking here about the rugged beaches at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the desert islands of the Gulf of California, the high, dry peaks of the Sierra and the slot canyons of southern Utah. The conditions – desolation, rock, aridity, stars exploding in the dark sky – that attract human waste producers are the same conditions that make them unable to compost said heaps.
The first such test case for flood management was the Grand Canyon, where visitation increased exponentially in the late 1960s. The pristine beaches of the Colorado River were riddled with fire ash, water from dirty dishes, the stench of urine and corpses of poo in shallow graves. The Home Secretary himself, Stewart Udall, after a family tank through the Grand, demanded that his subordinates “clean up this filthy canyon”. Even arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater has lobbied the Park Service for more rules, perhaps realizing that extremism in defending rivers is not a vice. River runners pushed back against regulations, with an anonymous opponent issuing the rallying cry: ‘When you start putting diapers on the cows, we’ll start hauling our waste!’
Nevertheless, portable toilets – called groovers because of the grooves that appeared on butts after sitting directly on steel boxes – became the norm not only in the Grand Canyon but on all the rivers west, to so much so that by the time Sundog began guiding in the early 90s, these stinky boxes were no more controversial than stoves or tents or propane tanks, and the occasional putrid odors generated by carrying them downstream just became part of the greater joy of making the rivers flow. Who among us hasn’t been proud to situate the groover on a secluded embankment overlooking the swirling current, to revel in the scenery during the morning tour?
Transporting shit on a boat in a steel box is one thing; carrying poop in your own backpack is another. Yet over the past two decades, landlocked places invaded by explorers have followed the example of rivers. For a short time, outdoor educators offered “smearing,” an environmentally sound method of spreading poop on exposed rock slabs, allowing the sun and wind to dry out and spread. But stumbling across these Jackson Pollack-esque masterpieces has proven socially unacceptable. (To be clear, the best solution in humid climates with rich soil is still the trusty dig and bury.)
Next solution: a wag bag, a plastic bag that accepts direct deposits and which, according to experts, “contains chemical crystals that gel human waste and render it inert”. Such devices are now needed above the treeline on Mount Shasta and Mount Whitney in California, as well as on popular night hikes in Canyonlands and Zion National Parks in southern Utah.
Sundog is not a chemist and cannot talk about promises of faeces becoming “inert”. However, he can report that after carrying a bag from a hallway on Mount Shasta, he felt an ethical satisfaction that he had not let a landmine detonate by another traveler’s crampon or ice ax, and he also put his bag through a wash. machine in a laundromat because, even a week later, the stench seemed to be embedded in the fabric.
To your question, Plugged, even for a seasoned groover user like Sundog, there was nothing fun or glorious about shitting in a bag and then stuffing it in the backpack alongside salami, cheese and of the worn copy of Baudelaire The Flowers of Evilwhich he usually wears atop peaks (“My heart is lost; the beasts have eaten it.” Not to be confused with the perhaps more relevant Shuzo Oshimi graphic novel of the same name, in which a character says: the hand smells really good these days. Wanna sniff it?”)
However, as with those who resisted the groovers and cried for the bovine diapers, Sundog worries that those who resist the new changes are on the wrong side of history. That said, places so crowded and barren they require toss bags are a tiny piece of public land available for excremental recreation. Lower your standards and your panties will follow. You can’t make it to the top of Mount Whitney or inside the Zion Narrows, but there are still millions of acres where you can sneak up to a south-facing loamy knoll, dig your cathole six inches and party like it’s 1999.