Suburban outhouse has rustic lineage
August 1, 2022 | View PDF
"I think I opened the wrong door and went into the 'men's'", her friend said to my sister, Shirley, after returning to their car, which was parked in the driveway of my house. "The one I went into had a urinal." Shirley laughed and said, "No, you found the right place...his and hers in the same outhouse."
They had stopped at my house for a pit stop on their one-day trip from Glennallen to Anchorage a few months into COVID. Sometimes Shirley would call and give me a "heads up" first, but not always. I heard about this particular stop days later. Shirley's trips back and forth from her home in Glennallen had her traveling at odd hours – sometimes very early and other times very late – and she liked the convenience of stopping and not bothering us in the house, so it was an established tradition years before COVID.
So much has been written about outhouses, including whole books with color photos. Most Alaskans have had at least a few encounters with these out buildings, but for others, they are a daily way of life. Some experiences are hilarious and others terrifying, such as the one a little over a year ago, when a woman sat down only to have her bare bum bit by a bear in an outhouse near Haines.
But, back to mine... When we moved back to Palmer in the fall of 2011, we purchased a house that certainly wasn't our "dream" home. Most disappointing was finding both bathrooms located down a long carpeted hallway. During the summers, my husband, Gary, and I intended to spend many hours outside trying to create a landscape with areas for flowers, berry bushes, and a few vegetables. Our plot of land came with a small unhealthy lawn surrounding the house on three sides and the rest was untouched wilderness. I greatly disliked having to not only remove foot gear, but many times jeans caked with mud or other dirt, just to go inside for a few moments to use the bathroom. It wasn't so much of a problem for Gary, of course.
He considerately thought up a wonderful solution, for which I will always be thankful. When he had a separate shop built to one side of our house, he included a carport in the design. Later, he built two rooms at the back of the carport, one of which he turned into a very nice outhouse. White painted interior, recycled counter top for the "bench", a standard white toilet seat, homemade toilet paper holder, small upper cupboard for extra TP, vinyl squares of flooring, and a narrow width, but regular construction door with self-closing door hinge. His final touch was an exterior door handle made of caribou antler. My only contribution was two art prints and a framed poem titled "The Old Outhouse," by our long ago Kenai lake neighbor, Noel Hansen. It was a couple of years later that Gary installed a simple design urinal.
My history with outhouses goes way back to the one at our family's cabin on Kenai Lake, a cabin that Dad bought in 1947, long before I was born. It served its purpose until finally being demolished two years ago. I remember Mom helping me onto the seat when I was too young to climb up on my own. It was kind of a scary place – small, dark and with lots of spider webs. In 1979, Gary and I moved into that cabin when our oldest child was three, and until Gary got indoor plumbing installed, I emptied the "honey bucket" into the same outhouse I used as a child.
Growing up in Glennallen, our family had more than one outhouse, but thankfully we also had a functioning bathroom in our trailer home. One cold winter, though, when I was a teenager, our water system froze up during a weekend trip to Anchorage. The rest of that winter, Mom made a morning trip out to the outhouse to empty the honey bucket before we all left for school. I should have been more thankful for that Mom-powered indoor plumbing arrangement.
I certainly understand the happiness about indoor plumbing, but back in 1974 when Gary and I were setting up housekeeping on raw land near Fairbanks, I remember being equally happy when we finally acquired a real outhouse. No more perching over a downed tree. We repeated the whole tree-to-outhouse upgrade two years later when we developed raw land in California, where Gary built a spacious, sturdy outhouse and then nailed his Alaskan black bear hide to the outside wall.
I want any fur nailed to the wall, not on the seat – even at 40 below. There is a fur-lined seat in an outhouse by a cabin back in the woods behind my previous home in Slana, but I don't like the idea. I'm a cleanliness fanatic. Instead of fur, sheepskin, or even Styrofoam, I like the routine I learned from another Slana family. They keep the toilet seat on a nail by the back door of their home. Whenever anyone has to use the outhouse, they take a warm seat with them.
Years ago, my dad told me about his most unique outhouse experience. He was deer hunting near Onion Bay on Kodiak Island. The cabin featured a rustic three-holer outhouse, built at the edge of a rock bank next to the water. When the tide came in, the rocks were efficiently washed clean. Stormy weather made white caps on the water, and blowing snow and the bitterly cold wind howled up off the water through the three holes. Dad said it seemed like a good idea to plug up one of the holes by sitting down, just to make the place a little warmer.
Now here in Palmer, I could be wrong, but I think we have the only outhouse in our whole subdivision of slightly more than 100 homes. Had Shirley's friend opened the other door at the end of our car port, she would have been greeted with the sight of numerous long handled tools, a weed whacker, extra tires, propane bottles, and containers of gasoline. She opened the correct door in her search for our suburban outhouse.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.