The Most Beautiful Outhouse Ever

Well, it’s over. August is gone. Back at the usual.

Savoring tangible souvenirs of my two weeks in the backcountry of Maine: multiple multi-color bruises on legs and hips from tumbles into the raging Wassataquoik Stream north of Katahdin, scratches on my arms from Saddle Ridge boulders on our darkened 8 p.m. descent, a few pounds lighter in my body.

14 days away. No external world news, no “have-to” lists intruding.

Only what was right in front of me, around me, under me: rocky paths, cedar aroma, turbulent stream-crosses, sun, moon, day, night, exhaustion, sleep, black breakfast tea, energy, next trek, bird song, an occasional moose.

Just what I needed. To quote my colleague Lindy Gold, “I had to unplug before I got unglued.”

I’m back in New Haven now. 1,000+ emails waiting, multiple phone calls, appointments to reschedule, home chores — forgot to water the house plants before I left — family happenings. Nothing terrible, just interminable.

How can I, in my “real life” here, keep some of that simple spaciousness and honest fatigue that was mine in Maine?

One tangible memory shoots up: the outhouse when we reached Russell Pond, described as “the most remote campground in Baxter State Park,” 8 miles north of Mt. Katahdin, a 7.6-mile hike from our Roaring Brook campsite.

We spotted it after a strenuous 10-hour hike; that’s the day I dumped into the stream twice. The outhouse was truly regal: solidly built of good old Maine wood, superbly situated, spiffy clean, and — get this — when I sat down, I had a 360-degree view of the terrain. The outhouse architect had left open-air “windows” on all four sides. When Brendan, the ranger, visited our campsite a half-hour later, I told him, “I’ve been in outhouses on five continents, and this is truly the most beautiful outhouse I’ve ever seen.” He smiled and said quietly, “Yeah, I like it, too. I built it eight years ago.”

Brendan’s outhouse: simple, beautiful, functional. Does exactly what it is supposed to do. With grace.

That night I remembered a quote I have on my home bulletin board from the English designer, William Morris:

If you want one golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Now that I am home, I’m inviting myself to clear my decks, little by little, as much as possible. Those summer clothes that are perfectly good and I haven’t worn in five years? Give them away.

And my cluttered mind? Now that’s the huge challenge. But really, not all that different from taking the next necessary step on that trail near Katahdin to reach a safe campsite.

In Thrive, Arianna Huffington writes, “Happiness and well-being are not just magical traits that some are blessed with and others not.” She notes that the researcher Richard Davidson has come to view “happiness not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis…

If you want to be a good tennis player, you can’t just pick up a racket — you have to practice … It’s no different than learning to play the violin or play golf. When you practice, you get better at it.”

Hike. Meditate.

I didn’t do either of them seriously until I hit my 40s. Still not “perfect” at either, but much less afraid of them now than I was decades ago. Yes, more skillful.

My coming-back-to-“civilization” message?
Be patient with myself. One step at a time…
Remember that outhouse.