Slopes rose into a glacial half halo above the cirque. Stream tendrils reached down from melting snowfields to bisect the alpine meadow. A full moon peeked over the pyramid of Thunderbird Peak in the distance. A toilet seat hovered, suspended in knee-high timber above a hole, eight feet deep and two feet wide.
“You guys’ll love it up there,” the Goat Haunt station ranger had promised my high school crew as we cinched up our packs.
“Imagine a big bowl carved in the top of a mountain. Waterfalls. Mountain goats. And wait’ll you see the low-rider. Best view of anyplace you’ve taken a dump. Guaranteed.”
Sacrilege and sanctimony dueled as I dropped my pants in the open air. The breeze brushed my naked legs, and snowmelt streamed over the falls below toward Bowman Lake.
At home we give clean and comfortable nicknames. Bathroom. Restroom. We hide them away in caverns lit by Yankee candles. We disguise and distract with Ylang Ylang sprays and soaps shaped like clamshells.
Here, a few scrub pines, the back of the toilet seat, and a hundred yards were all that separated my ass from the rest of Hole in the Wall campground. The looming shadow of Boulder Pass nibbled vestiges of sunshine from my pale thighs. Zip-off convertible pants pooled at my ankles.
Bare. Exposed. Liberated.
When a spring avalanche washed away the previous pit toilet, its remnants littered ledges under the basin lip. The low-rider was a temporary replacement: a box over a hole, an outhouse without a house.
“I talked to the guy who hauled it in, and he said it was a mess,” the ranger explained. “Planks and plastic all over. Shit everywhere. Oh, and bears. Apparently, a mama and her cubs were climbing through the wreckage while he dug the hole. Watch out for grizzlies up there. Sometimes, we have to close the campground if they’re really active.”
The kids got a kick out of imagining such ferocious beasts traipsing through puddles of human feces. “Hey, we’ve had to step over some pretty massive piles of theirs. It’s karma.”
Working trails that summer, we spotted a number of bears from a distance before they’d tuck and run, but mostly we dodged round mounds of scat that were deposited, steaming fresh, in our paths.
That was enough for me, even if I had to scrape my boots clean from time to time. I’ll take the fuzzy rump of a fleeing bear to the lumbering gait of an advancing one, eyes locked and steely. Though attacks in Glacier National Park are rare, my sordid brain still conjured a dark fantasy of having to call members’ parents, “Mr./Mrs. So and So? I’m sorry to inform you that your son/daughter’s been mauled.”
I shook loose the thought and zipped shut my sleeping bag. Only a few pudgy marmots had visited our camp so far, mountain groundhogs scurrying among the scree. The bears, it seemed, would let us sleep.
Pfft! Tuff! jostled me awake. Ping! Ssssp! At first, I thought the boys had snuck over to toss rocks and startle the girls, but it wasn’t nearly light enough for such antics. I listened again to rustles of movement nearby. Not rocks, but hooves, or… paws. I did my best to pretend they weren’t tripping over the taut guylines that tethered my rainfly to the hillside.
“Jason?” Katherine called from the neighboring tent. “There’s something outside.”
“OK. I’ll take a look. Give me a sec.” As illusory a barrier as was the thin nylon of the tent wall, I hid behind it for another minute. Four-inch claws. Furry tufts barely concealing eight-hundred pounds of agitated flesh. A hard charge topping out at thirty miles an hour.
Bear. Unleashed. Savage.
I unfolded the two-inch blade of my Leatherman and shook myself awake. What could I do? Scream and yell? Bang something together? Our pots were out of reach, hung with our food at the cooking area, not far from the low-rider.
I hadn’t completely decided on a game plan before I tore open the zipper of the door.
I leapt to my feet and whirled about, jabbing the knife wildly into empty space. A startled mule deer paused. Meadow grass shavings dripped from the side of her mouth along with my sweaty wool sock. After a moment of chewing and staring dumbly, she sauntered down the trail out of sight.
“Just a deer,” I groaned. I side-stepped the heap of poop pellets she’d left behind as I climbed back into bed.
Jason Griffith teaches 10th grade English in South Central Pennsylvania, where he attempts to navigate both sides of the hazy precipice between academic and creative writing. Jason lives with his wife, a talented visual artist, and three cats that run across his keyboard in hot pursuit of the muse. Follow him on Twitter @JGriff_Teach or visit breathedeepandteach.com.