December 12th, 2007


Urban Legends about living without water.... LJ idol

There are legends in Alaska, about hippies who live in the taiga, without the luxury of running water, power - unlettered, uncouth and unfettered!

Well, the unlettered part is generally just plain wrong. Most of the wild Alaskan hippies I know have college degrees - many of them have several - and most of them are avid readers. The other parts, those are true. I know - I was* one!

My husband and I built our house ourselves. We contracted out the concrete work in the basement, and the roof when October rolled around and we realized that it wasn't going to get finished before we had a few feet of snow on our 2nd floor. The rest, we built ourselves, and I have a host of interesting scars to prove it. There is still a spot on our unfinished bedroom floor where I can find the starburst of blood that dropped from my smashed finger when we were raising the 2nd floor walls.

But part of doing it yourselves is that things go much more slowly than just hiring someone to do it for you. And part of that slowdown was the running water part of the house. Once we had a heated shell and dsl, the rest wasn't really that important. It was more of a priority to work on my studio and put in bookshelves. So we went 5+ years without plumbing, and there are a lot of assumptions regarding living without water that simply aren't true. I'm here today to dispel some of those sub-arctic-suburban legends.

Outhouses smell bad.

This is actually only about 20% true. In the winter, all of the waste is frozen solid, and there's no smell at all. In the summer, there's often enough breeze that any smell dissipates. This was particularly true of our outhouse, which had no door. Best view of any outhouse ever; why block that with a door?

Outhouses must be cold!

In the summer, they're no colder than any indoor toilet, and I have gotten far more of a shock sitting on a cold porcelain indoor toilet at room temperature than I have using my outhouse at 50 below. No, that is not an exaggeration! Outhouse seats are generally made out of foam - either blue or white sheet insulation. Sitting on them, your butt is instantly insulated to its own temperature - no cold ceramic shock out there. There may be a bit of a breeze up from the hole, but if you're dressed for the weather, you'll find a trip to the outhouse doesn't chill you.

Outhouses are bad for the environment.

Believe me when I say that there is more moose and fox and vole poop generated per inch of our land than we will ever be able to match, even if we ate bran cereal three times a day. Mother nature is set up to handle a certain amount of animal waste and does a fine job of it. You wouldn't want to, say, build a city of outhouses uphill of a water drinking source, of course, but clearly that's not the case here.

You could fall into an outhouse!

Do you fall into your toilet? I thought not. Outhouse holes are generally as small if not smaller.

No running water = bad hygiene.

Not the case at all! Or at least, not necessarily the case. It was just a little more difficult to maintain the same level of hygiene. You still get smelly hippies, no doubt, but that's a lifestyle choice. It's amazing how clean a simple sponge bath will get you, and a partner can be quite happy to dump hot water over you. For a complete description of a patented Ellen-shower, check out this entry:

Brushing teeth can happen with a small cupful of water, and washing dishes is still done by hand in many places in the world: you just have to heat the water in pots before doing so, and if you don't have drainage, make sure you don't overflow your slop bucket.

Slop buckets stink.

Slop buckets? A slop bucket is what you have if you don't have drainage. All of your waste water has to go somewhere, and generally you'll find cabin sinks have a short stub down to the ubiquitous 5 gallon bucket. Do not overflow this bucket. And no, they don't have to stink. Once you've finished with your dishes, your bucket has a topping of warm, soapy water. Go dump it now, before it has a chance to congeal, and it rinses out the bucket quite nicely. Keep your bucket from sitting too long, and it should never smell bad. If it starts to get greasy build-up, add a little bleach, or spend another $1.47 on a new bucket.

'I couldn't live without plumbing.'

Baloney! You just don't know what you could live without until you actually have to. It would take a little getting used to, but it's definitely not an insurmountable kind of thing. There are some tricks to figure out, but don't think you wouldn't be able to 'handle' it. None of the habits and tricks require particular intelligence, dexterity or strength, just a little common sense and necessity.

It's particularly eye-opening to live this way for a while, and see how much water you actually need to accomplish tasks, versus how much it is easy to use without thinking.

Now, I think I will go take a nice long, hot shower and do a load of laundry. And maybe flush the toilet once or twice just for fun. These things are still novel for me...

*'was' being relative, as I still tend to wear sandals with socks, don't wear makeup, eat organic food, and am wildly uncouth when artists can't find the submission guidelines...