Thursday, June 9, 2011

The private problems of water flow: From zero to 39,000 cfs

I can’t be quite certain what it says about me that I’m ending the spring hiatus from my ranger blog by writing about toilets. Dissertation demands sucked away most of my time and desire to sit in front of a computer this spring, but after completing an intro-to-conclusion draft I am now desperately seeking distraction from the much-needed revisions. So I’ve dragged my laptop outside where I can watch the sunset, frenziedly swat gnats, and contemplate the complications of pooping in the desert.

There are two toilet problems at Island in the Sky these days, ironically contradictory in cause. Down by the river, the problem is too much water; here on the mesa top, our problem is too little. Rising water levels on the Green River have flooded the White Rim Road and threaten the riverside campsites . To prevent the current from sweeping away Jeeps, bikes, and pedestrians, we closed the sections of road which had been drowned by the floods. I’m sure I’m overly dramatic, but I love the image of desperate campers running to the outhouse to escape rising floodwaters. I picture them sitting on the john, pulling up their legs while the river swirls around the base, slowly filling the tiny chamber. In reality, the problem isn’t people, but poop. Because the underwater campsites have pit toilets nearby, the maintenance crew went down and sucked the vaults dry with the “honey” truck, ensuring the flood waters would find no bits of paper and poo to carry downstream. I haven’t seen yet whether the toilets have flooded, but if you see a porta-potty floating though Cataract Canyon this week, you’ll know the river’s running fast and strong through Canyonlands.

While the rivers are bursting their banks 2000 feet below us, we have nary a drop to wet our lips at the visitor center.  The powers that be have decided it is time to end our “Let Burn” workplace fire policy: should the building catch fire, everyone run outside and watch the building burn to the ground. Aside from one wildland fire truck which holds enough water to douse a burning bush, we have no water for firefighting in the area. Finally, the park contracted to install a larger water line which would support an emergency sprinkler system in the visitor center. The building was previously connected to the residential water tank by a thin line which, I’ve been told, supplied water to a small sink back in the visitor “trailer” days. Such a line would merely drizzle water on a burning building. In planning the new system, the facilities crew dragged out every old map of the area they could find, searching for the spot where the old pipe lay. No map recorded it, though, so as they dug in their spades and backhoes, they promised us that they would try not to cut off the old pipe. Since they didn’t know where it was, once they hit it, the water would be gone for the next few weeks. Two days later they hit the pipe. That was over a month ago.

I know that hundreds of rangers in years gone by have endured drought on the mesa top. It hardly seems fair to sit in our beautiful new building, with high speed internet, semi-reliable phone systems, air conditioning and refrigeration, and still complain about the lack of water. It’s not even that I mind using the vault toilets, which are kept squeaky clean by our maintenance crew. My issues are two-fold. First, we have a kitchenette for lunch breaks, but no water for washing dishes. Which means that people deposit their dirty dishes in the sink and leave them there, wishing on the dish fairies to come in with their sponges of magic water and spoof away the caked on ketchup and cheese. Pathetic that grown adults have to rely on their coworkers to nag them into doing their dishes or punish them by confiscating the unwashed piles of dishes.

The bigger issue, however, echoes the problems we had at Norris in Summer ’04, when our rusty ol’ toilet in the office bit the dust. Suddenly, quick restroom breaks are transformed into half-hour interpretive roves. Naturally, we wait until we’re starting to squirm in our seats or dance behind the desk before we give in to this adventure. Surrendering at last, we throw on our hat and trek out towards the parking lot. As soon as we set foot on the pavement, however, flocks of visitors zero in on our shiny badge and thrust their way in front of us, barricading our path to the restrooms with a wall of maps and rapid fire questions. Winding through the masses like a celebrity, we make our way to the toilets, inevitably arriving at the tail end of a 40-passenger tour group chattering away in some unknown language. Quietly dancing in place as we wait out the line, we try not to grimace while we field questions from the relaxed-bladder tourists as they vacate the stalls. Finally, as our hand reaches out to the doorknob, some desperate mother runs up with a two-year-old, pleading with the kind civil servant to let them cut the line because little Susy just might not make it another thirty seconds. Of course, ma’am, go right ahead….

In the rush of midday, a restroom break can easily turn into a half hour affair. Once last week, I tried sneaking around the back side of our quad of vaults, coming face to face with the front of the line. I patiently waited while those who were there before me filed through, and then tried to slip in on my turn. But the person across from me took the stall, and then the next one took another. Finally, one woman whispered to her man, “Sweetie, I think that she is waiting to go next.” He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time: “Oh, I thought you were just there to direct traffic.” Toilet patrol, indeed.

And so, to commemorate a month of roughing it with the vault toilets at ISKY, I thought I’d share my favorite outhouse story from Southeast Utah. Yellowstone peecicles will assuredly endure as my most memorable NPS potty experience, but this was my first glimpse into what happens when the federal government manages toilets.  

To fully appreciate the enormity of this situation, imagine yourself in the Utah desert in July. The air temperature pushes 100 degrees all summer long, radiating off the rocks day and night. The tin-roofed toilets trap all that heat inside a 5’-by-5’ room. The sweet smells of decomposing waste simmer in these stalls, luring in flies as big as your fist and various other cold-blooded reptiles (I’ll save the story of mating rattlesnakes for another day). Nowadays, sophisticated venting systems circulate the air and do a remarkable job of mitigating the smell, but the older, primitive vaults remind us of grimmer times of nose-holding and speed-squatting. 

When I was working at Arches a decade ago, the introduction of time-released automatic air fresheners promised to revolutionize the world of outhouses. These water-bottle sized contraptions could be bolted inconspicuously to the inside wall of the outhouse. Drawing power from a pair of double-A batteries, the device periodically squirted a sweetly-scented potion to combat the evil stench with bursts of daisy and peppermint. Today, the automatic restroom air freshener is a standard public restroom appliance, but in those days they were just trickling into use and Arches had the chance of a lifetime to spice up their outhouses, literally.

The air freshener came with a catalogue of at least a hundred scent packets which could be ordered to stock the machines. They offered fruity smells and soothing smells and the smells of freshly baked bread or rain steaming off the sidewalk. The company seemed to have captured every scent-memory of human history and massed produced them for public restrooms around the globe. I’ll admit, the sheer number and variety of capsules for sale was a little daunting. If I felt so, imagine how our maintenance crew felt, sitting in the break room flipping through a leaflet which seemed like an Avon catalogue with its frilly names and scents. These gruff men whose olfactory glands had been corroded away by years of running tractors and handling every chemical legal in the United States—not to mention cleaning the outhouses—stared helplessly at page after page of perfumes.

Still… one would think the choice would be obvious. First, we’re working in a National Park, so perhaps we should go with something outdoorsy, a nice pine scent perhaps or something with “breeze” in its name. Second, considering the 100-degree temperatures, we needed a scent which would stand up to the heat, far from the sweaty, sticky summer smells which keep us at arm’s length from each other and as far as possible from dumpsters and alleys during the heat of the season. In other words, no cotton candy or buttery popcorn. Finally, the scent had to meld, somehow, with the dominant smells of the outhouse. This last one was a tall task, I know, but if you avoided smells that reminded you of your grandmother’s house, the corner bakery, and anything your sweetheart dabs behind her ears on Valentine’s Day, you’d probably do fine. 

Following these simple, common-sense rules, no one should have problems selecting an appropriate scent for the Arches outhouses, even our rough and toothless maintenance crew. Or so we thought. Our confidence was dashed and our senses cruelly tormented when we opened the large crate of scent capsules they had purchased for our outhouses: all summer long, in the smothering heat, we would take care of our most personal business while basking in the aroma of … bananas.