Heartbreaking, Crap in Paradise

by Kathleen Meyer, July 2012

Summer’s first dip in the river.

With the thermometer steaming at 98°F and spring’s gush of snow-melt having settled into a lazy flow, a friend and I head to our swimming hole of the past two years, the one left by the high, gouging run-off of 2010. We find the fishing access overflowing with parked cars, trucks, and raft trailers. Not a good sign for a Monday. But we know that the sandy banks by the bridge can be Coney Island-cluttered, rows of tanning bodies sprawled on Day-Glo beach towels, tilted umbrellas, beer coolers, boom boxes, and bevies of splashing kids—but by the time we complete a half-mile stroll through riparian woodland, our favorite beach will be private, peaceful, and delicious.

        Straightaway, we take to the beaten path. Not ten feet in, dead center in the trail, we’re greeted by dog shit—a fresh pile, and I mean pile, three looping layers, two flies already. (With excrement my enduring subject, I’ve learned that flies can locate a new issuance in twenty seconds.) Thirty paces farther along, by trail’s edge, two more deposits appear—older, drier, half-squished. Well, YUK! I want to go home. Nooo, I can do this. It means a swim. And surely, we’re beyond the worst of it. Don’t dogs leap from a vehicle, immediately tuck their hind feet beneath them, hump up, and crap? The path will surely get better ahead. After the first meadow, we fork to the right and enter the filtered shade of pines and willows. Knee-high wildflowers abound—daises, St. Johnswort, and yellow clover, or bee plant. To someone else, this vegetation might be as sacred as medicinal herbs or as dastardly as weeds, but, in this moment, to me, it’s a heaven-sent visual, eliciting sighs. Look! Look!

        Next we descend to an old cobblestone dry wash, dotted with new vegetation, and come abreast of a graceful patch of tansy, a long way from blooming; its yellow button blooms will delight in August. From it’s center waves a lone stalk of grass with an orchard-type seed head. The stalk, I stop to admire, examine, and coo over—it’s seven feet tall! I take a mental picture, with plans to look it up when I get home. We’ve encountered also, so far, a young Black Lab bounding toward us, until a voice from the left fork calls to it, plus a man and woman on the way out with a leashed pair of Shepherd-sized crossbreeds. Another two loose dogs are crawling up our backtrail, but their owners must turn off toward the inland pond because soon we lose them all.

        We climb through the last of the cobbles, occasional old chunks of desiccated dog doo littering the way. Shortly, the path splits again, three choices. Good God, did canine anxiety of indecision cause this evacuation? Smack in the sandy forks sits another impressive heap, maybe as old as an hour. The specimen fairly bubbles under the blazing sun, its stench permeating the cosmos. Again we angle right, this time to catch our route along the sheer bank, where I’ve often stared down at large fish sleeping in a deep trough. But the path ends. In space. The bank and our old track has washed downriver, taking with it a dozen trees. Now the current slides across a wide pebbly slope, churning out new water music. There’s nothing for it but to backtrack and bushwhack through the tall grasses, trees, and tangles of deadfall. A strong ambient stink of dog shit lashes my senses. I’ve ceased to enjoy the scenery. My eyes stay peeled, scouting ahead for each plant of my foot, for fear of a misstep. Just beyond the location of last year’s bald-faced hornet’s nest, which also seems to be gone, we reach our destination only to discover that the beach, too, has vanished and the swimming hole become a series of rolling gravel bars. Dropping towels, hats, sarong, mini dress, and water bottles on a strip of packed mud, we stretch out in the shallow water between bars for an hour, and I catch up on my friend’s winter in Baja. While we visit, we’re aware of seven more dogs jogging by. A twosome of Newfies sporting dreadlocks are turned loose in the water nearby, and this new odor launches my friend into a tale of “The only thing worse-smelling than a wet dog is a wet chicken,” and I lie back, let the cool water lap my earlobes, happy to be regaled by her long-ago trials at chicken farming. It’s eventually a bank of black clouds sailing out of the mountains that drives us to packing up and picking our way back through the malodorous landscape.

        Mother Nature’s changing nature, I easily forgive. Next time, my friend and I will arrive earlier and explore farther downriver for a new hole more divine than ever. The human destruction, however, is unbearable; it feels thoughtless, selfish, and wholly unnecessary. Mishandled feces rocket my ire . . . almost forty years of it, since I first began rowing rivers and landing on banks trashed with diapers, soiled toilet paper, and hastily hidden excrement. I’m thinking now Does our species never evolve in this department? If it’s not our own shit, it’s our dogs’? By morning, I’m bent on making a sign:


by Kathleen Meyer, late July 2012

Miraculous! The old, sacred swimming hole has re-emerged, the one that vanished three years ago when the river changed course. It’s bordered by private property, and there’s NO dog doo to rant about. It’s deeper than before, way over my head. The riparian landscape of familiar banks, swaying grasses and cottonwoods and wildflowers, chirping birds and jumping fish, and glad slant of sun—even at 5:30 p.m.—has everything down to my soul glittering. Immersed with my dear friend who is dying: we are electric in this moment, humbled and refreshed, here in the swimming hole that’s party to all our secrets—twenty-two years of shared traumas and joys and luxuriating. Paradise.

        Palms together, I bow to the water.

By noon, I’ve rethought it all, toned it down (actually slapped it way back before you’re seeing it here). I have designs on establishing a garbage can, a supply of plastic bags, a message with pleasant, helpful, inspiring instructions . . . like the walking paths in the city of Missoula. Two questions remain: Just whom should I lobby to fund it—Fish, Wildlife, and Parks? And totend it? A local scout troop?

        Three days pass and the full-on foul smell lingers, if not up my nose, then at the front of my mind. Yet my usual get-up-and-go has, in mid-July’s heat, drooped like a tired balloon. Exhaustion rules. I’ve grass to mow, two marmots to trap before they nip off the rest of my porch plants, a barn to clean, a book to research, a blog to write, and now—in between it all—tears to shed: where will I swim? 

        Dogs-Running-Free-with-the-Wind is one symbol of Big Sky freedom that’s bunk. What’s acceptable in the wide-open of a sheep or cattle ranch is not OK on highly adored river paths.


LEASH your Pets!

Pick up your TURDS!

Enough Disgusting Desecration

Hints for Hikers

by Kathleen Meyer, August 2012

On August 23rd, but also any time thereafter, click on the hiker’s Website Sectionhiker.com to view my guest blog, entitled “Uh-Oh!”

P.S. Keith’s story and now Dennis’s, both below, and Mark’s on Sectionhiker, all arrived as entries for man’s best poo story, which I launched in a cross-eyed state late last night on Sectionhiker (link above). You had to be there! And you had to be quick; the deadline was midnight, August 23rd. All three won in their self-established categories, for “First and Most Soul-Baring,” for “Absolute Funniest (with a ‘Yikes’! attached),” and for “Sweetest.” Important categories all.

It’s fun!

It’s instructive!

Big thank-you to Ms. T. P., for posing.

Running the Gamut

by Kathleen Meyer, September 2012

Last month I wrote the guest blog—“Uh-Oh!”—for Philip Werner’s Web site SectionHiker. If you haven’t read it yet, nor perused the pooping/weeing photos, nor checked out the comments, prepare to be amused and educated!

        To get you up to speed on trail lingo, “section hikers” are folks who traverse the long trails—as in, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail—section by section, not necessarily in order, over the course of more than one year. Those hiking an entire trail in one slog are called “thru-hikers.” “Flippers” are just that, perhaps attacking the southern section first, then, after the snows melt, jumping to the north end. The speed-demons who manage to cover all three trails in one year can claim the honor “Triple Crowner.” On top of those appellations, and to solve the problem of there being among us too many John’s and Bob’s and Mary’s, long-distance hikers adopt personal trail monikers—say, “Flyin’ Brian,” “Moose Charmer,” “Blueberry Fingers”—for which they become known all along their routes. Sometimes, a trail name sticks because of a fellow hiker’s drubbing, er dubbing: “Root Beer Hog.”

        But back to my guest appearance. About the time the eastern seaboard was heading toward midnight and I’d been at the screen in Montana for ten hours watching comments roll in, decidedly from women, I, in my cross-eyedness, blithely tossed out a general challenge for men to share a shit-in-the-woods story. The submitter of the funniest poo story would win a signed copy of How to Shit and a matching T-shirt. Two chronicles appeared before we all withered for the night; the third, I found in the morning. One posted to SectionHiker. The other two, to my blog. (Look for J. Mark Lane on the guest blog, Dennis Blanchard and Keith below.)

        Because, together, the three stories ran the gamut of emotions associated with fecal disasters, and because the authors, while getting quite graphic, kept, as requested, to the high road of eloquence, I decided that they all won. Keith, for the category “courageous first entry & most soul-baring.” Dennis, for “absolute funniest” (at least, for everybody but the poor squatter). And J. Mark, for “sweetest.”

        Before I forget, here is the string of feelings: shame; guilt; self-flagellation; embarrassment to the point of mortification; fear; gratitude; empathy; kindness; closeness and friendship; humility; humiliation; forgiveness; acceptance; compassion; respect; protectiveness; and then hilarity . . . from two sources. (What else can we do but laugh? and I’m fine because he’s entirely worse.) Add some more.

        Hallelujah Keith, for stepping up to divulge something that has no doubt happened to us all, if not in the backcountry, then on a race from the front door to the powder room or in the aisle at the grocery store: Not getting there on time. To have then agonized about your wreckage upon nature, only sets you far above the crowd. The same ailment has visited me on several occasions, and only once have I been in a position to circle back and tidy things up. And yet, if these were the only types of unfortunate episodes occurring out there, Mother Nature would be content, and empathetic. 

        With none of the authors offering up a trail name, I here take the opportunity to pin one on each. Keith merits “Bravo!” Dennis, henceforth, will be known as “Belly Laugh” or “Yikes!” (By the way, I’ll never use your dung hole!) And J. Mark, I’m happy to knight: “Rides a White Horse.” For the record, I’d send any babe-in-the-woods hiking with J. Mark.

        Thank you, all.

Trail Reads

by Kathleen Meyer, October 2012

Lovely to find that someone peruses and employs my Books list. Huzza, Ellie!

        In looking it over myself a few weeks ago, trying to sneak up on it, see if it would inadvertently reveal something fascinating (or perhaps horribly dull) about me—and having never kept track before—I found it a pleasant surprise. It’s nicely diverse. That is, of course, in limited arcs, probably having something to do with my haphazard, rather than scholarly, process of finding books. They come my way through libraries, friends (as gifts and loaners and email suggestions), NPR interviews, The New Yorker reviews, authors’ readings, used book sales, and research projects. I will attempt pretty much anything that’s respectably written, except fantasy and science fiction, which I sidestep, in rather similar manner to my 60’s bypass of LSD, with the notion that inherently I’m unhinged and thus prefer my feet incased in a few bricks that won’t whip off into the wind, figuring full well I’d never make it back. Plus, reality in this world is hard enough to ferret out of nonfiction. Certainly there are books that flat out never hook me and end up in a growing heap beside the bed, untouched until I’m overtaken by the rare urge to clear out and vacuum (company probably coming). Only I would know the list points up that I’m attacking more fiction with age, but not much more, and also enjoying a bit of dug-straight-out-of-the-earth poetry. Whatever that is; let’s just say I lived most of my life with a narrow to zero appreciation for poetry, thinking it smugly obtuse, over my head, syrupy, or abstract to distraction. Then two decades ago, upon moving to Montana, poets started falling full-bodied out of the sky. The first was Ed Leahy (who’s now passed from our earthly midst); to hear him ply his remarkable voice to his poetry was to love it and to love him. Presently, Michael Earl Craig has me entranced—on the page and at the mike.

        Returning to my tally, it looks like history and memoir reign, especially cross-genre narratives of extraordinary physical quests or trials, recountings that are mind-bending in nature. A pen with irony, whimsy, or Bill Bryson-type humor will capture me. I’m drawn regularly to illuminations on ancient cultures and indigenous peoples and the struggles of the downtrodden. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes lands right at the top of my all-time favorites. (Receiving it one Christmas, with snow piling up around the barn, Patrick and I read it out loud to each other, in bed, alternately laughing and crying. I can’t remember a better book.) The aftermath of my tossing off a gruesome crime drama always contains a twinge of guilt, until I recall once again that my father, the eminent scientist, went to bed with paperback Raymond Chandlers, Mickey Spillanes, and John D. MacDonalds. But next, I’ll sink into a long, dense biography, an autobiography, an enlightening epistle chosen from a range of sciences, or an intimate look at a species of wildlife (see The Geese of Beaver Bog and The Wolverine Way). Politics is a constant fascination. And then, endlessly, there’s war: its memoirs and journalistic chronicles. (When the film “Killing Fields” came out many years ago, I wanted to strap every American in a chair to watch it. Fortunately, for my friends and neighbors, this idea matured into my own commitment not to turn away from, not to remain blinkered to, the horrors and pin-ball effects of war. To do so would feel criminal.) For balance, I’ll read children’s books—for instance, again and again, the delightful Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. Probably not lastly, there are the books about words, language, and writing itself. These I read and reread. And reread.

        Not to forget my headline: three trail accounts appear on my growing list (left column, black frame). Three Hundred Zeros: Lessons on the Heart of the Appalachian Trail and Women of the Way: Embracing the Camino (each by a Blanchard, respectively Dennis and Jane) are journeys for both the avid hiker and the La-Z-boy adventurer. They spirited me right down the trail, vista by vista, through blisters and backaches, shin splints and shitting, heat and hail, bedbugs and bears and rattlesnakes—all accompanied by kaleidoscopic infusions of joy. The third is Cheryl Strayed’s highly touted Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In the first 150 pages, I was tempted over and over to drop it in the pile beside the bed, but then she reeled me in, landed me flopping helpless in her net. By the time I turned the final page, I’d decided it was right up there with Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

        What are you reading?