An Outhouse in Winter


Farm Notes

This is going to sound completely crazy, but we don’t have an indoor bathroom. We have an outhouse…in winter…in Central New York.

To be clear, we usually have a bathroom—one bathroom—but that “one” bathroom has been torn out and is getting a complete remodel. We have zero bathrooms… and one outhouse.

On the one hand, this is fantastic news. Our old bathroom was put in during the early ‘70s and an update was long overdue. Add to that an impressive slant in the floor (we’d walk downhill to the shower!) and a very noticeable sponginess in the floorboards around the toilet; we’ve long worried about what we might find once the fixtures were torn out and the beams below exposed. “How long can we ignore this problem?” became less of a philosophical question and more a game of Russian roulette.

On the other hand, we now have a port-a-john parked outside in the snow.

“Frosty the Porta Potty” and I have actually gotten quite close over these last couple of weeks. After bundling up to go outside, he is the first to greet me every morning with his ice-cold seat. He’s also a little drafty. On a windy day, the vent pipe—which normally carries odors away—perfectly blasts cold air down into the tank and up to the vulnerable backside of the seat’s occupant. During a snowstorm, the icy bits cruelly pelt the outside of the plastic box. Dogs and cats alike have tried to peek in, even clawing at the door as if wanting to join me. (I can now identify each of our three dogs and 11 barn cats by their one peeping eyeball.) Visiting Frosty at night is perhaps my least favorite. Half-asleep and with headlamp on, I can see my breath and little else!

But it’s not all that bad, really. It’s a lot like winter camping, or at least what I imagine it’s like camping in winter. The kids, my husband and I have all managed to “shoulder through” this together. We’ve learned to strategize and coordinate trips into town, using our favorite public restrooms as a “treat.” We even rigged up a make-shift shower in one of our heated storage rooms in the barn. It’s a bit of a pain, so we’ve had only a couple “shower nights,” where everyone in the family takes turns under the hose/shower head and then makes the mad dash back to the house. I’m rather tickled that my children now know how quickly wet hair turns to icicles. I’m not sure how far this will carry them in life, but it certainly gives them stories to tell well into adulthood!

This experience has been also a fantastic, humbling reminder of what it was like for generations before us, and the many things we now take for granted. This 150-year-old farm probably had multiple outhouses over the years, perhaps not far from where “Frosty” now sits. And of course I have thought many times over the last couple weeks about local Amish families and what their lives must be like, day to day, year in and year out. It’s not for the faint of heart! I’ll be so very grateful when the bathroom is finished.

Me, circa 1973, with my cat, Flower. She loved to sit on my head! You can see our outhouse in the background. On a small hog farm outside of Humphrey, Nebraska.

Me, circa 1973, with my cat, Flower. She loved to sit on my head! You can see our outhouse in the background. On a small hog farm outside of Humphrey, Nebraska.

There’s probably no perfect time of the year to tear out one’s only bathroom. But oftentimes on the farm, things get put off until absolutely necessary. In fact, we may intrinsically know that winter is coming, but that first snowstorm—that first arctic blast—is still a bit of surprise. While we try to get things buttoned up on time, there are so many little things around the farm that just didn’t get put away; I wonder where that bucket of tools went or where my daughter left that extension cord…somewhere under that blanket of white. Other things are just harder to contend with once they’re frozen: that clump of wet, junk hay that was dumped in the manure spreader; the exposed water line to the barn that was fixed but not re-insulated and boxed back in. And of course, my old fingers are not ready for the cold yet, either. I have yet to install replacement glass in the barn windows and I quietly curse the bale-grabber buried in snow that has to be cleaned before it will attach to the skid steer.

The farm and I may not be quite ready for winter or 2018. But, I have a new bathroom to look forward to—and that may be all I need!