One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate

One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate
a regular guy

Saturday, June 4, 2011


A week is a long time to live without a formal toilet of some kind, especially in Colorado in the middle of February. What we had instead of a toilet was five acres of private property. Most of it was weedy pasture, sage flat, and juniper thicket. Our neighbors were not the nosy kind. Anyway we had bushes for privacy. In these parts there are no homeowners’ associations or restrictive covenants to prevent this kind of thing.

We were pragmatic and resourceful. We were not constipated. We always neatly buried our deposits. We were not savages, after all.

This all came about after my wife and I had lived in an old house out in the county for about five years. Our toilet flushed well enough, most of the time, except when our relatives visited. Then the thing flushed slowly and reluctantly. After they’d gone I would clean the tank valve then run coathangers and drano through the tiny outlets under the lip of the bowl. All wasted effort, of course. I was avoiding the reekingly obvious, drifting deep in the fetid currents of denial.

An inevitable morning came, late in winter, when the device again got sluggish in response to my own ablutions. And I noticed something unusual in the back yard, just outside the bathroom window, before heading to my office. A puddle. I drove off trying not to dwell on it.

The next morning I took a shovel and poked at a patch of sod that was now under an inch of water. I scraped away mud to expose big chunks of slimy wood that seemed to be… floating… until I punched through into deeper water. I stopped, found a long willow branch, and probed the dark abyss.

Time to call in a professional, I thought. February. Mud wherever the ground was not frozen, fresh snow expected tonight.

It was twilight by the time Alman, a dirtwork man I knew, arrived pulling a backhoe on a trailer behind his dual-axle pickup. By now his day should have been over, a strenuous one no doubt. Instead he unloaded and started the machine with its bar of floodlights, gently pushed down and rolled over my flimsy fence, jockeyed around into position and got down to the job itself, just as it began to snow.

The snowflakes were bright in the floodlights while he tore into the backyard and in minutes reduced my shovelwork to a swamp of muck and water. He dragged pieces of sodden black railroad ties up from a hiding place six inches below the surface of our lawn. Because that spot through the years had always been unaccountably green, I gradually had taken to believing that Nature favors the neglectful. I may not have been entirely wrong, but wrong enough.

Alman finally dragged away a dozen old timbers that had covered a cinderblock tank. The hold underneath was splashing full, a dark sparkling void against the thin snow surrounding it. It was full dark by the time he drove his backhoe back up onto its trailer.

(Railroad ties are saturated with creosote. They are thick, heavy, and long-lasting, but they rot eventually when immersed. My ties probably came from the Dolores and Rio Grande or the McPhee Railroad of a century ago when trains ran all through these valleys and forests. The narrow-gauge trains carried timber, machinery, and fruit. Spur lines collected timber destined for a Denver box factory. This is fine fruit country and the foothills were covered in orchards once— apples, peaches, cherries, apricots, even one foolhardy stand of avocados, everything you need to stay regular.)

I put some cash in Alman’s left hand and shook his right one. His hard cold work had left us surrounded by a chewed-up ruin of backhoe tracks and tangled fence wire and mud.

The next professional who visited us came a few days later, in a special truck driven at some expense from a town fifty miles away. It was a tanker truck with a cute company name and cute logo and it came equipped with a large pump and a fat hose.

The driver was a jolly-looking man with a broad moustache and strong hairy arms. He wore bright orange coveralls and black rubber gloves. He brandished a large hammer with an orange handle.

“Pardner,” he said to me in a fatherly (yet not necessarily a clean or healthy) way, “you and I are going to have The Talk. We are going to discuss Poop 101.” He grinned with obvious relish. Here was a man who actually knew some shit, and knew that he knew it, and was professionally authorized to spread it around.

I don’t remember profound or novel insights enlivening the jolly man’s well-polished Talk. Poop, having fallen into a septic tank, dissolves (mostly) and the liquid flows laterally through an array of perforated pipes.[1] The excremental fluid seeps out of the pipes then magically disappears into the earth. When the magic doesn’t happen fast enough, a big pumper truck with a cute logo extends a thick hose behind the flowers through the metallic throat of your tank, sucks your troubles away, then drives off.

None of this prim story applied to the situation in my back yard. What I had was a cinderblock pond brimful with liquid, shit, and liquid shit, currently surrounded by a mudbog. Somewhere out beyond Ground Zero lay the inert remnants of a leech field long dry, its frail pipes clogged with clay or choked with a spidery rootwork from summers dead and gone.

This cinderblock tank, now open to the sky, had been our septic system entire. Whatever comfort we had enjoyed through the years happened thanks to porous cinderblock, stacked without mortar, the rich effluent slowly percolating through the back yard— a simple and altogether natural process, in fact a near-perfect exoneration of the Neglect principle, at least until the roof fell in.

Getting the big pumper truck into position was a bit awkward, its hose barely reaching into the dark pond. We lost the poppy patch and some trim on the tool shed. The orange-suited man used his orange-handled hammer it to pound a few snaps and seals on the hose end, then switched on his pump. It ran for about four minutes while the surface of the dark fluid receded. Then the pump shuddered and went abruptly silent.

“I’m done.” he said, giving me his pity grin. You poor sucker. “Too much debris down there. Debris clogs the hose, burns out the pump. Not worth it.”

Not worth it, I thought, no, not worth it even for the standard house-call, not to mention the surcharge for mileage, the poppies, and the shed….

Then the jolly man and pumper truck were gone. I stood alone, staring at a chaos of contamination, nonsensical shapes poking up through the glistening coal-sheen surface, musing, what a complete load of crap.

I knew what I had to do.

On a shelf in a shed I had a disposable coverall, given me by a friend who worked as a hospital operating room technician. It was a white zip-up complete with feet, hood, and gloves. The shed also contained a pair of tall rubber boots, a ladder, rake, shovel, and tin bucket.

The rest of the day was routine: Climb down the ladder to the slick submerged floor of the chamber, scoop or somehow maneuver stuff into the bucket (depending on the shape and consistency of particular pieces), climb the ladder with bucket in hand, step out to cross the mud apron, walk randomly to some new spot in the snowy field, and pour fragrant muck upon the earth. Return empty, descend the ladder, fill the bucket, and so forth.

Deep in the tank I found and cut taproots from nearby trees and pelagic mats of rootlets. Some things were harder to explain: A wrench. A scythe. Some kind of wheel. Sections of iron pipe. Pieces of a plastic picture frame. Bits and pieces I carried up the ladder and set aside, returning with shovel to fill bucket again with pure, smooth gravy and dumplings.

I might add some fragrance into the telling, but in fact I don’t recall much smell at all—at least not after getting started. As if a lone tree were to fall in the forest, and land smack across my nose, there would be no smell. I suppose I also did a lot of mouth breathing.

You might wonder why I went on doing this, gradually emptying the pit, knowing in my guts that an entirely new tank was the only plausible remedy. I have asked myself.

One answer is, now I know for sure I have been baptized. Bathed in the blood of the lamb, as it were. Initiated into fundamental truths about the carbon cycle, about peristalsis and metabolism. The medusa face of organic life.

But it was only a baptism after all. Less pleasant work is still necessary. Some people bathe in the stuff daily (a hereditary caste of sewer cleaners in Kolkata, for instance). I hear the corpse business is grimmer still. As humanity is dispensable, so humility is indispensable. But even so.

Another answer: We really needed a sewer of some kind to get us and ours through until the spring. We needed an indoor commode and an occasional shower. From a certain point of view, at this point the system was at least halfway fixed: The toilet did flush more freely now that it poured out of a blackish pipe and through the fresh air into a very well-ventilated tank.

Over the next few days we spanned the pit with two-by-fours. We found tin sheets to fit over these, weighted them down with a few rocks to secure them from the coming windstorms, and carried on. Fortunately it was the back yard and not facing the road. Anyway the county real estate market has stunk in recent years, especially in late winter.

Some weeks later, Alman returned with his backhoe to smooth down the last of the debris. He tumbled the cinderblock monstrosity down into its own hollow and buried it in a hash of old clay and a dump truck’s worth of fill soil. As Alman moved the earth around he turned up a big orange-handled hammer. I keep it for an amulet.

Eventually, in the spring when our thin pasture was dappled with patches of thick green growth, a third kind of professional arrived on the scene. Burly men in hardhats installed a solid cement tank and buried long rows of new, roomy infiltrators. It was a top grade system, fit for the 20th century, just in time to see it end.

[1] Known in waste management circles as a leech field, the name recalling macabre medieval medical procedures.

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