Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On the Boundary, Part IV

I'm not sure why, but this morning, I woke up thinking about my favorite toilet.  Yup, you heard me right.  This toilet was on a hill.  It was a pit toilet.  Well, a close second are the toilets in the women's bathroom on the top floor of the Columbia Center in Seattle.  Each one faces out through a window in an outside wall and each stall has a great view of the city from above.  It was worth going to the hoity-toity company party to see that.  I liked the caviar too, but I like black better than red and they mostly served red. 

Still, my favorite toilet is that pit toilet at the top of a knoll at a campsite in Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario.  By the time we stopped there, we were down to four people and Wynne was still angry and tired.  She needed a scapegoat.  She was used to managing the people in her company and the way she did that was to pick at things they did.  As much as the rest of us, she was under stress from the challenges of this trip.

By this time in our canoe travels, Mike and I had learned enough about our menus that we'd carry a spice kit.  I'm telling you, a bit of onion powder and cumin makes a dehydrated packet of food much more palatable.  So Mike had taken to cooking and spicing things up.  He still does.  Somehow he's the first to get going and start the stove.  I've figured out that he likes cooking outdoors and he's good at it.  I'll help and I'll wash dishes too.  I don't want to be a lounge-about.  Besides, the only time your hands get really clean on these trips is when you do the dishes.  It's like having the luxury of a mini bath.  So, where was I?

Because we had to change our route, the four of us were pressed even more than before.  It was still hot.  The water still tasted like sludge.  Add to that the race for campsites because it was so crowded.  You could see a group of canoes across the lake and how they'd spot you and suddenly speed up.  See, our permit had us going a certain route.  When we paddled Suzanne and Nathan to the take-out, we lost a day and had to look at our maps and figure out another plan, one that didn't have too many portages.  There was no way we could get back on track with our original route where the permits had set aside enough sites for the groups.  This new route took us in and out of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario.  We decided we liked the way Ontario chose sites then managed and maintained them.  The U.S. sites seemed a little limited in comparison.  I don't remember exactly why.  We were in Quetico, I think, when we stopped at the camp with the toilet on the hill. 

You'll have to forgive some of the holes in my stories.  If you were in the know, you'd probably find some big holes, even outright lies, though none of them intentional.  We went on this trip to the Boundary Waters in 1991.  Oh, I always brought a notebook to the trips, but I was in la-la land back then.  Maybe that wasn't a bad thing, but my writing, well, my writing sucked and lacked detail.  So, we're all stuck with what's left in my brain. 

So there we were crossing back and forth across an International boundary.  There is so much hubbub about it now.  You need a passport.  I wonder if you'd need to carry a passport up there these days?  I hope not.  I'm not sure I'd trust my passport in a dry bag.  Many times, we didn't even know what country we were in at any particular time.  Oh, Mike and Harold usually knew because they hogged the maps, but I could only tell when we got into a pretty camp that we were in Canada. 

You know, Diablo Lake, the one we visited a couple of weeks ago, had such an amazing array of amenities considering that the whole thing was free.  There was a well-made pit toilet, a picnic table, a dock, and a bear-proof bin to save us from having to hang our food in a bear bag from the branch of a tree.  Those bear bags can get pretty hard to heave up into the air when you're on a trip with fourteen people intending to paddle for seven days.

Ah, right.  I was telling you about the toilet on the hill.  So, Mike was all excited about his spice kit and had planned to use it for the dehydrated chili we were going to eat.  We were camped at a rocky outcropping and he had the Peak I precariously balanced on a rock.  I kept thinking that the whole shebang would go over in the wind with our biggest pot on top.  It didn't and maybe that was a bad thing that night.  I don't know. 

I kept busy doing guard-work for the food pack while Mike cooked.  The mice there were aggressive little buggers.  Did I already tell you that?  If I so much as looked at Todd while he worked, one would leap for the opening.  It seemed like too much of a pain in the neck to zip and unzip it every time Mike needed something out of it, so I stood guard.  Indiana, our dog, would have loved that job if we'd brought her.  I got distracted at one point and one went in, another waiting for his opening as well.  I flung the first guy out of the bag by grabbing the Ziploc of gorp he clung to.  While I did that, I danced and stomped around the bag to try to keep the other mouse at bay.  Picture that. There's that decorum problem again.

You have to admit, though, that I was earning my keep.  Maybe it was worth keeping the damn thing zipped up while we worked.  Harold had gone off in search of a good bear bag site.  We'd need it for the mice as much as anything.  The mice may have distracted Mike from his spices when he was adding cayenne pepper to the reconstituted chili and a clump of it fell in.  He managed to spoon out some of the clump before it dissolved, but the pepper was the same color as the sauce.  There was no knowing how much went in until he tasted it and no adding corn meal to fix it. 

Now, I had been feeling pretty bad about what happened with Nathan.  It was a much-needed slap in the face for me when they decided to leave.  I had contributed to the meanness that had gone on.  I had been condescending.  I had been derisive.  We were all in a bit of a funk, handling their departure in our individual ways.  Mike was very quiet and it seemed as though he was the only one I could apologize to.  Wynne didn't think we'd done anything wrong.  I'm not sure what Harold thought, but talking about feelings wasn't his forte.  I couldn't make anything right just talking to Mike.  Remember, he was the only one among us who had nothing to be ashamed of.

I could see he was suddenly worried about his spice-kit experiment, but I was still mired in my own thoughts.

"Don't worry, hon," I said.  "It'll be fine."  So he stirred it up and called it done.  We all took heaping helpings, this being day three when we really started to get hungry.

The first bite brought tears to my eyes.  I made myself take a second bite and it stung.  I started laughing, hoping that would break the silence and distract Mike from the tears in my eyes.  Mike was totally silent.

"I can't eat this shit!" Wynne yelled and she flung her plate across the rocks and stomped off.  I had a moment of pity for the mice who were going to clean up that mess.  Harold, sitting on the rocks near us, grumbled what sounded like an assent. 

I stopped giggling and ate.  I ate every biting morsel of that chili on my plate. 

"It's not so bad," I said to Mike through my tears.  He looked kind of pale as he ate, and there was sweat dripping from his temple, but he stayed silent.

Now, there's an unwritten rule about these trips.  If you don't need to pee when you get into camp, you're not drinking enough.  With the heat, the exertion of ten flat miles and three or four portages, and don't forget the bilge water, I wasn't peeing.  We had gotten into camp, yet I didn't follow the trail up to the toilet.  That may have been another amenity of the Canadian camps, that the smell of the toilet was put a few extra paces away from camp.  I didn't need to pee that night either, though I'd used the clay taste of the water to assuage my flaming tongue.  We all went into our tents early and I still hadn't peed.

At about 5:30 in the morning, however, the chili gave me pause.  I didn't want to get out of my warm sleeping bag.  I didn't want to wake Mike.  Back then, we had our bags zipped together so we were like two butterflies developing in a single cocoon.  I couldn't move without waking him.  There was nothing to be done.  'Urgent' was the word.  As I walked in the cool pink air up the hill, I was cursing the Canadian amenity of putting the stench a ways off from the camp.   I just wanted to be back in my nest.  Finally, I got to the top of the crest and there it was, a simple toilet seat with nothing around it but the landscape.  It was aimed toward the south across the lake we'd paddled.  I could see a ridge, half lit in the morning light.  The sky was glowing pink and gold in the reflecting lake.  A breeze blew away any black flies, mosquitoes, and ordinary toilet flies from my white back side.

Urgent and burning.  I have to admit the chili powder had done its work, but I like to think there was some healing element to that burn, like Merthiolate on a fresh cut.  But then, I felt better and the glory of the morning was all around me.  The only thing that could have improved that toilet was if someone had thought to put it on a swiveling dais.  The pink, gold, and blue sky shining from above and from below set things back into balance.

It gave me some perspective, this toilet.  What was more important?  In the long run, spilling chili powder falls a lot lower on the scale of infractions than does picking on someone who is down already.  I was with Mike, right where I should be if I was ever going to learn that. 

I'll always remember the peace and the perspective I found at that toilet.

Thank you for listening, jb

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