A Holy Gritty Sacred Mess

Note: this is a journal entry from our 2012 summer on the road, exploring the Western U.S.

The Honda Odyssey crawled up the gravel switchback, barely recognizable under so many layers of dust, grit and grime—remnants of the several states we have driven through so far.  I held my breath as we rocked like a ship on stormy seas, up the narrow roadway, scattered with so many potholes, leaving rumbling clouds of dust in our wake.

The Odyssey sputtered, coughed it’s way up slowly, barely.  The challenge of these obstacles, coalescing with the intense heat of that day and the grade so steep, proved almost too much for our exhausted aging minivan.

As we rounded the last bend, with a great sigh my shoulders released the tension that I was somewhat unaware had managed to slowly and so thoroughly worm its way into my muscles.

Throughout this summer on the road, we have made a habit of finding these off-the-beaten-path, primitive campgrounds on Preserved National lands.  Seven dollars per night is soft on the budget though, it turns out, rather hard on the body.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen the inside of a shower stall and I’m at a breaking point—daily hikes under the hot sun have brought my body to record levels of an unpleasant stench—my exterior mirroring that of the Odyssey. The sweaty salt residue left from the strain of hikes in the Tetons and Yellowstone is an all around sticky, gritty business fused to my body.

Tonight is going to be another soft-on-the-budget, hard-on-the-body night.  But at the bottom of the switchback, the sign for this campground boasted of a flowing river.

A flowing river.

The images of sparkling mountain spring water flowing outside my tent was almost too much to hope for. My hope had my imagination leaping ahead of the slow crawl of the van– up to the river where I would soak in the cool water, suds rinsing off my body and hair. And oh, the smell of six clean bodies that would fill the tent tonight!  Finally(!) I was going to get clean.

It wasn’t difficult to find an empty site in a nearly empty campground (the primitive ones ones are always nearly empty).  I immediately searched the car for some soap, some shampoo, a towel, and headed for the nearby river, desperate to scrub.

I waded through the weeds and shrubbery at the edge of the river. There seemed to be a lot of weeds and shrubbery. Continuing through the scratchy briars, with one eye out for bears, my eagerness swelled with each quickening step.

And then I arrived. I arrived at the river. My heart dropped ten fast floors. Where the water once meandered there was nothing but a maze of cracks in the scorched, dried and thirsty ground.

I was feeling rather cracked and dried up myself.  On the verge of emotional collapse under the triple-digit heat. I dragged myself back through the brush to the campsite feeling quite sorry for myself, in the very sorry and pathetic state I was in. My husband was setting up the tent with the kids.

“Bryan.  I NEED a shower.” It took all my energy just to put my hands on my hips and speak with authority.

The tears had left lines down my dry dusty cheeks.  “I can’t do ONE MORE DAY without a shower.”

“Maybe we’ll find one tomorrow,” he said.  Same thing he said last night.

I turned away to sulk when three year old Josephine approached me, holding her crotch and stepping quickly from one foot to the other and back again. “I have to go potty SUPER bad!”

I picked her up and headed for the pit toilet a few campsites away.  I’m not particularly fond of pit toilets but they do the job. And I can definitely endure them for seven dollars a night. I’ve mastered the habit of holding my breath, dodging cobwebs, keeping my eyes on my feet (so I don’t ever have to know what critters are lurking in the corners), doing my business quickly and leaping back out the door all before having to draw in a single breath.

But Josephine, seemingly oblivious to the offensive odors, likes to sit and take her time.  She likes to sing in these disgusting confines. She likes to sit and make up little story songs about the little critters she imagines are in the corners of these foul, loathsome pit toilets. I always try to dodge toilet duty with Josephine.

On this day she began a song about a lonely little spider stuck in a sad little pit-toilet jail.  As she opened her mouth, I immediately felt the first prick of impatience beginning to frustrate me. I can handle this any day. Even smile at it. But not today. Today I can’t.

But as the music started coming, my ears perked up to listen. Something was unusual about this outhouse. This was a solid concrete pit toilet and the sound moved differently. Concrete floor, concrete wall, and plastered ceiling.  It echoed.  It was beautiful. It sounded like music in a great cathedral. It brought me back to high school choir. Without realizing it, my eyelids slid shut and and I rested my back against the wall, feeling some distant, familiar holiness in the moment.

I was relaxed. At peace in the pit toilet.

Josephine finished her song and her business, and was off. I locked the door behind her and decided to stay a bit longer as I found myself recalling classical Latin choral pieces and ancient hymns. My mouth opened and I sang, getting lost in smooth melodies composed so long ago.

They echoed off the walls so richly and beautifully. My voice flowed from one arrangement to the next, pulling songs off some dusty shelf tucked back somewhere deep in my brain.

A knock on the door from a waiting camper jarred me to the reality that I’m singing in the crapper and someone needs to take a legitimate crap. I opened the door, slightly embarrassed, slipped out, and quickly moved on.

All evening I keep going back though. I continue drawing in deep breaths of stale, putrid fecal air and releasing melodies so sweet they make me forget about the stink of the pit toilet and the stink of me.

I am magnetized to these sacred little moments in the pit toilet.

May I ever have the courage to enter the pit toilets of my world. May I have the eyes to see the sacredness within the mess. And may I have a spirit that is willing to lift my voice in the midst of it.

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