Getting Wet on the Cheap
Updated: Jan 28
While much of the country has been frying, or perhaps broiling, (I’m nobody’s chef), here in Eastern Oregon we have had a cool summer with more rain and later tomatoes than normal. We've waited patiently with both feet on the floor, our hands folded politely on our desks and our mouths mostly shut, for ripe tomatoes, and our patience is finally paying off. We now officially have too many tomatoes to eat! I picked 63 pounds of them in one day. That usually means canning, which will be determined by my bride, who knows about such things. It’s about time!
It has been a strange season for most humanoids on this particular planet, with distance being the most descriptive noun, as well as the most descriptive verb of our times. (As Calvin, of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame once put it, “verbing” weirds words.) “Social distancing” was not even a thing in any social group I’ve inhabited, until March 2020. Nobody said, “Hey, let’s socially distance from Darrel.” “Yea, Darrelict you mean!”
We just didn’t do that sort of thing, or at least we didn’t call it that. Now we all do! “Excuse me, sir. Would you mind social distancing your covid be-dripping carcass to at least six feet? Please!? Thank you. How about making it twelve? Come on, Marcie, he looks like a person who spits his p’s and b’s”.
We all grew up climbing on top of one another like herds of puppies. We don't really know how to handle such insociability. But summer happened, and many things were more or less as per usual around here. We folks in this latitude look forward to summer like perhaps all creatures hereabouts because our lives change dramatically. Winter clothes fall off, chores stack up, fresh foods abound, and the cat makes himself scarce. All pretty good stuff. (Sorry Zippo.)
One of our most anticipated activities of summer, lots of folks wouldn’t even acknowledge as an activity. (Drumroll, please) It is our outdoor bathing ritual! People don’t understand when we tell them that this is a big deal. I can show you the eye roll, if you need a visual. But it is a very big deal, and if you are reading this you are my captive audience, like having to listen to the best man speak at your wedding. Of course, I know you can roll your eyes and click away at any second and I'll never be the wiser.
The thing is, we have a spring on our hillside, and it is 900 feet away from our house. I wanted that water to use around the yard. It is sparkling clear water, and cold, but 900 feet of plastic pipe full of water, and laying on the ground in the full sun, gets hot! I didn’t take any 300 level college courses to figure that out. I instead scalded myself as I was rinsing foundry-work filth from my bald head to gain that knowledge. Since that initial, highly scientific discovery, we have made great strides at capturing this resource to our advantage. The first thing I did was to add a bunch of excess pipe to the already lengthy meander of the supply as it comes down the hill. I increased the diameter of the pipe to increase the amount of hot water that it stored. Then I built a scaffold upon which I mounted black plastic pipe in orientation to the sun, such that it would heat up faster.
Pretty soon, it became imperative that I make a way of storing hot water during the sunny
daytime, so that a bath could be taken later in the evening. So I plumbed in an old hot water tank that I picked up (just for picking it up), and arranged it such that the water from my solar collector scaffold would cycle in a convection loop, heating more and more over the day, until I had fifty gallons of very hot water in the tank.
We took the cold water supply from where the water enters the solar collector, and as you can imagine, from my early scalp-scalding experience, it can be too hot to call cold, in the heat of the day, if the grass in my field has been grazed recently. So on a very hot day, taking a bath in the middle of the day is not practical without running the water for long enough to replace the water column in the 900 feet of pipe from the spring with cold spring water. But, we don’t often want to bathe in midday, so it is just a small wrinkle in the grand scheme of things, a little like that line between where my balding started and where it has stopped.
We already had a nice stainless steel tub that I’d fashioned from an industrial double boiler and an old iron wagon tire, and so outdoor bathing became commonplace. Before long, we set to making a bathing grotto, such that our bare parts would be less bared to the world at large, in the case of a passerby getting in position to witness more of us than intended. Most of one summer was consumed in constructing our grotto, and most of our evenings since are spent there, at least long enough for a nice soak!
That anyone wonders, “Okay, but why?”, I can’t comprehend. Maybe it has to do with what one does for a living. My living is riven with a copious exposure to the dust and sweat of foundry work, so maybe I'm in a special category of "needing a bath". But even if I were a banker, or an insurance salesman, I think I would see the beauty of this outdoor bathing thing. Whatever the case, the water is free, and is going to come down the hill, as water will do, the sun is free and will shine as the sun does, the water will heat, the day will end, and in my particular case I will be covered in filth, and I will need a bath! There is no indoor bath or shower that compares to bathing and showering in the fresh outdoors, and air drying against a sun-heated rock, or looking up at the stars as they brighten and the sky darkens. It isn’t that it is cheap hot water. Yes, that is a thing, but what it really is, is (as Bill Clinton once put it) that a ritual that had always (in our house) marked the end of the day, a chore to be done before being allowed to climb into bed with my bride, becomes a thing in itself, a rejuvenating thing, like I suppose a jolt of espresso is to those who drink of such things. Bathing outdoors gives one a sense of wellbeing, and a spring in one’s step, and another hour or two of feeling like doing something useful, as opposed to a chore completed before going to bed.
As someone who has bathed daily for most all of my life, due in part to my dusty dirty work, I never liked to shower, or even take a tub bath. That has all changed. In the summer, I am a bath lounging animal, like the Snow Monkeys of Mt. Fugi.
But then summer ends. Of course it does. The water will freeze and break my pipes, so my system must be drained. After five months of transcendent outdoor bathing, (if we are lucky with the spring and fall weather), our ritual comes to a whimpering halt. And then, for seven months, (one of which is the always the dreaded February) I drag my soiled body up the stairs, every night at about 9:30, like a well-trained dog being sent to bed. I get into the fake shower stall, turn on the fake hot water, and wait against the corner of the stall until the mist of freezing fog, as one might expect from a December storm on the Oregon coast, slowly gives over to a scalding steam. I delicately dial in a suitable temperature, all the while, paying Idaho Power to do the lifting and the heating of the water from our well, dug deep into the private bowels of the earth. I scour behind my ears as I’ve been taught. I get clean, in a sense, but I don’t feel renewed.
I can show up at a party, back when we had such things, and appear about as respectable as I can present myself after a summer bath, but I’m dull and boring, and pretty much ready for bed. It just isn’t the same.
If you haven’t tried our outdoor tub, you don’t know. I know you don’t know, like I know you don’t know where I lost my favorite Case XX Muskrat pocket knife in 1980. My bride and I agree that our outdoor bathing grotto has changed our lives in a way we did not imagine it could, more than any other thing we have done to our home. Yes, a roof and doors and indoor plumbing are important, but they are known far and wide to be necessities. When it comes to the simple amenities that we like to cobble together to make our lives more pleasant, you never know how some little thing can be a big thing, however small it might look to others.
“Oh, you need a deck! You need a gazebo! You need a BBQ grill with 900 special features!”
Bullshit! As my mother often said, “You need a bath!”
An outdoor bath!