I’ve lost count of how many outhouses I’ve used since arriving in Alaska six weeks ago. Not that I typically keep numbers on the sorts of bathrooms I frequent but the prevalence of outhouse use here has been so high that it’s worth noting. I’d say it’s probably 50/50 with conventional flush toilets.

What’s with all the primitive usage? Well, it’s Alaska. Here, living on the rougher side of comfort is just as common as not.

Dry cabins, they’re everywhere. Small one room spaces with no running water, a wood stove for heat, some sans electricity, the more luxurious ones with. Yurts. Abandoned school busses. Campers. These housing options reflect an Alaskan value that’s caught my eye from the start: work with what’s available, be resourceful. Here in Homer, that often includes have a low impact, be conscious of the mark you leave on the environment.

A few nights ago, Alayne and I visited a friend’s house for dinner. Given her glamourous natural beauty and San Francisco upbringing, Angelina isn’t the sort of girl I imagine would choose to live in a dry cabin in Alaska. She and her boyfriend have been inhabiting their quaint 700 square foot log space for three years. “It’s Alaska,” she says, “when in Alaska, you live dry.”

We filled our water cups with a 20 gallon jug of purified water. We steamed fresh Kachemak Bay mussels in white wine, garlic, parsley. We fried fresh halibut cheeks and wrapped them in tortillas with organic kale from her greenhouse. We sat gathered around a picnic table on the front lawn (the cabin was a little too small for group dining) and when one of us needed to pee, we followed the path to the outhouse. “It’s a lot harder in the winter,” Angelina hinted with a smile.

While in Talkeetna last week, Alayne recalled her early days in Alaska when she lived in a 400 square foot dry cabin with her boyfriend. They hauled water from the neighbor’s house 100 yards away and, since neither had a car, they dragged their firewood a half mile from the road to their cabin on a sled. They read books by oil lamp and bathed with water warmed by their camp stove. And when they had to use the bathroom they trudged through snow and mud to the outhouse. “It was beautiful,” she recalled, “it was so simple.”

How much potable water is wasted every time a toilet is flushed? Well, if your toilet is pre 1994, 3.5-7 gallons go down the drain with each flush, if it’s post 1994, federal law requires that 1.6 gallons be flushed. The federal requirement is an improvement, but say you flush your toilet five times in a day and there goes eight gallons of drinkable water. Within a week, you may use 56 gallons, and in a month 240 gallons. It puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

There’s also no curb-side trash pickup in most towns outside of Anchorage. You gather your trash and take it to the dump. You see the number of trash bags that fill your car, whether you want to or not. Alayne proudly remembered a time in Talkeetna when she and her partner produced one grocery bag full of trash for the entire month.

I’m not saying all Alaskans are environmental saviors, but there’s a noticeable level of consciousness here that is harder to find in the lower 48. When the conveniences of modern day living are harder to access and the prices are much higher, as they are in Alaska, it makes you a little more aware of what you really need to live and what you can live without. From what I’ve witnessed this summer, a life less ordinary is a life well-lived.

 

 

 

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