We had barely started our fifteen hundred-mile ghost town hunting vacation when I pulled our Bounder off east-bound Interstate 8. Running way behind schedule, my little herd and I still had to make time for a milestone in our RV experience at the Buckman Springs Rest Area. We were there to take our first dump.
I pulled in, my Bounder bloated and maybe even overloaded, what with black and gray tanks close to capacity, as well as the fresh water tank fuller than I had wanted and a dual axle trailer loaded with a Jeep Cherokee.
The road through the rest area is one way. I circled the facility and came around to where truckers and Rvers park in pull-through slots. Past that is the dump station. There was a line. I considered this a bit of luck. With two vehicles in front of me, I could see how the process was performed.
I have dumped literally tons, that’s thousands of pounds, of cow, horse and chicken manure into my garden patches, hot composted, vermi-compsted, even dabbled a bit with anaerobic composting, so I know my way around fertilizer. Still, a fifty-nine gallon tank full of human waste, what can prepare you for that? We have a septic tank at home, but where’s the leach lines on an RV to wash the nutrient rich waters to the fruit trees downstream?
I walked on the sidewalk past a small Winnebago to a class A rig I didn’t recognize. A man, dark thinning hair, bare chested, wet shorts and soggy deck shoes, was furiously washing the concrete around a six inch wide pipe with an open hinged trap gate that I assumed was the dump. He was lost in his chore and jumped when he finally saw me not ten feet away.
“Hi,” I offered. “New to this. Mind if I watch?”
He stared at me for a beat too long, swallowed, hard, then absently nodded as he continued washing down the concrete. The silence grew. The creosote scented breeze did not mix well with the coppery sulfur odor that hung around the dump station. What would it be like in Summer? Finally I decided to walk back to my coach. The man did not acknowledge my departure.
Passing the Winnebago, I glanced up at the driver, a portly woman in her fifties, staring blankly forward from behind the wheel. She did not glance down at me. At the galley table a man about the woman’s age sat reading the newspaper. An expensive looking bus conversion pulled up behind us, its air brakes making that distinctive squeal-hiss. I glanced back at the man in front. He was passing the hose up to a hand sticking out of the head’s window.
Despite sitting between the east and west bound lanes of Interstate 8, the Buckman Springs Rest Area is surprisingly restful, nestled in Cottonwood Valley, Sheephead Mountain fills the sky to the north, hang gliders launching off it precipice. Interior live oak, sycamore and cottonwood choke the drainage to the south that leads down to Lake Moreno Reservoir.
The silent man in front walked zombie-like around to the door to his RV and climbed in. He started his engine, and then sat there for another five minutes. When finally he crept out, the Winnebago in front of us pulled forward just as slowly.
I got behind the wheel and fired it up. In the rear view mirror I saw a little class A with a trailer loaded with quads pull up behind the bus conversion, and then a new truck with a trailer pulled up behind that. The two drivers hopped out and started a Chinese fire drill, running back and forth between vehicles, shouting and laughing. I pulled up to the Winny and shut the engine down again.
“Is it all right to start the oven?” Robin asked me as I started down the steps.
“The oven?” I echoed incredulously. I paused and looked around as if the answer could be found in the high mountain chaparel landscape around us.
“C’mon, it’s a simple question.”
“I don’t know….Yeah, go ahead.”
I walked around and glanced down at the dump station. This time I watched from a distance. The fiftyish woman wore a mumu. Standing at the dump, her holding tank door up, she had surgical gloves on and, as if in a stupor, slowly and deliberately pulled cleaning gloves on over them.
For a moment a story my Mom told about when she was an Army nurse stationed at Tokyo General during the Occupation came to mind. Tokyo had been pasted, the proverbial ‘no stone left upon another’ being the aftermath of massive saturation bombings and firestorms, so that no public works functioned long after the war was over, no power, water, no sewers. The Japanese adapted. Feces was collected and used for fertilizer in the rice paddies around the city, and when a man needed to urinate, he would turn toward a wall, cover his face with handkerchief or hand, and unzip. In Kibuki Theater, when an actor covers his face, he has left the scene. He is no longer onstage. So too, the person on the street facing a wall could not be seen by Japanese etiquette, indeed, was simply not there, as he relieved himself.
I wondered to myself as I was walking up to the dump station when someone was using it like barging in on an occupied bathroom?
I looked back. The two guys who’d been doing the Chinese Fire Drill were talking up to the driver in the bus. One of the guys, in shorts and floppies, held up a dump hose. Imperiously the bus driver made a slight nod, and both the guys enthusiastically bobbed their heads back. They turned toward me while looking past to the lady in the mumu.
“Okay, she’s already hooked up,” the one with the hose said as they walked down the sidewalk. The other one grunted. They both turned to me with redoubled smiles.
“Hi!” the guy with the hose started, nodded at my Bounder. “Your rig?”
“Yeah,” I answered, glancing back at my beast.
“Could you do us a big favor?” the other one asked. “Could you use our hose?”
My brows furrowed.
“See, what we’ve learned from vast experience -” the guy with the hose said.
“Vast experience,” his partner emphasized.
“- is that if a line like this uses the same hose, it speeds the whole process up.”
“You don’t have to wash your hose out, you don’t even have to get it out, put it back, the rig behind you doesn’t have to…”
“You can see how it would just get things going, get you out of here quicker.”
“And we’ll do it, if you like.”
“Well yeah, guys, sure.“ I answered. “I’ve never dumped my tanks before, so I’d be obliged if you walked me through.”
The duo lit up.
“Never dumped your tanks? You’ve never lived!.”
With that said, we all turned toward the zombie in the mumu. I glanced up at the grim guy at the galley table. He appeared to be doing a crossword puzzle.
“Where you guys from?” I asked.
“Oceanside,” the guy with the hose answered. “Coming back from Glamith. Where you from?”
“El Cajon, well, Crest.”
The tall guy straightened up and looked over.
“Still got a home?”
I held up two fingers.
“Fire stopped two houses up.”
The mumu lady slapped away her hose in the rear bumper.
“Okay, lets go!” the guy with the hose said joyously.
I lined the Bounder up with the taller guy giving directions. They’d already latched my door up by the time I got there.
“Okay,” the one with the hose said to me. “First you wanna make sure your knife valves are closed tight.”
“Sometimes people leave their gates open when they’re in a RV Park, then forget to close them when they leave.”
“Yours are closed, so taking your cap off shouldn’t be traumatic, but just in case...” The first guy twisted the cap counterclockwise, then carefully started working it off. “take the cap off slo-o-owly.”
“If there’s water in the neck here, it can come out with some force, so,” the second guy shifted into what might have been his Dudley DoRight imitation, “Hold the cap as if it were a shield!”
“That’s why they call this thing a splash plate,” the first guy motioned at the shallow sink-looking thing below the mouth of the drainpipe.
“Let it splash down here, not on you.” The taller one looked around him with a wrinkled nose and a confused look on his face. No doubt about it, the place stunk. The guy with the hose popped off the black cap on my hook-up.
“Two tank system.”
“Two tanks?” his partner said.
“Yeah,” the guy with the hose said.
“Flush the black tank first, the gray water second.”
“He doesn’t have to flush his hose out.” I heard both awe and jealousy in the tall guy’s voice.
“No, no,” the guy kneeling countered. “He’s still gonna want to wash his hose out, it’s just not gonna be as critical.”
The idea of recycling the gray tank, watering the pine trees in the front yard, for instance, had crossed my mind, until a surprisingly intense conversation with a county bureaucrat brought a vehement denunciation of such a practice, followed by a list of Federal, state and county codes I would be violating, and the amount of fines that I could expect to incur in the event I should be caught. I hung up when he started into the criminal codes. Now I saw that the gray water served a higher calling.
“Now, you wanna keep it going downhill no matter what,” the guy with the hose said to me. “So we pass it through this hole here and bring it out from the bottom.”
“Tight turn there.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said.
“Do-able,” the first guy said. The guy doing all the work fed the bare end of the hose through the hole next to the outlet. The taller guy reached under and pulled the hose out.
“Isn’t your hose kind’a short?”
Both gave me a startled look.
“No, it’s plenty big. Why, how big is yours?”
“A ten footer with a twenty foot extension.”
“Jeez, what’cha doin’, laying a sewer line?”
“Well, my wife bought it,” I countered defensively. “I guess she figures bigger is better.”
The taller guy shook his head.
“My wife says it doesn’t make any difference.”
“Well, your wife doesn’t have anything to compare it with,” the guy lining up the hose inside my tank compartment shot back.
“Lately,” the taller guy answered. “Lately.”
“That I’m aware of.”
“That I am aware of either,” the guy with the hose answered. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” He pressed on. “Now when you’re hooking up your hose, you wanna make sure you crank it all the way over.”
“Yeah, all the way. Make sure its all the way.” “Otherwise, whoosh!”
“Whoosh?” I asked.
“Think about it,” the first guy said. “You’re here pulling on this valve handle, the hose pops off…”
“And you’re downstream,” the taller guy finished as he stretched the hose to the dump hole. “In the path of least resistance.”
The first guy put his hands at the head of the valve and made a quick motion past his face. “Whoosh.”
“Everything’s hooked up, let’s start with the black tank.”
“Now,” I said. “Which knife valve goes to which tank?” I’d read the manual several times, and still wasn’t sure.
“This one,” the first guy said. “The big one is always the black tank.”
The taller guy put a foot on top of the hose at the dump hole. The first guy pulled the handle. A muted roar, the hose bucked. The first guy stepped away. We all nodded with satisfaction. I was surprised at the lack of smell.
The roar tapered off to a steady stream. We all stood and waited, then waited some more.
“Tanks’re full?” the first guy offered.
We all kept nodding.
“How big are your tanks?” the guy standing on the hose asked.
“Black is fifty-nine gallons, according to the manual, Gray I think is fifty-six.”
“Man that’s big.”
I fought the urge to do my Barney Fife Strut and Stretch. Yep, not only are my- not one but- two hoses bigger than yours, my tanks (stretch) are bigger, too.
The flow sounded as though it were finally tapering off.
“Have someone run the toilet in there,” the first guy said.
“Hey, Alex, could you go and run the toilet until I say stop?”
“What?” Alex The Eldest countered.
“I said,” I gasped, took a breath. “Run the toilet until I say stop.”
“Run the toilet?” the disembodied voice came from within.
“Flush the toilet!”
“Flush the toilet?” “Yes!” I bellowed, and my wife accuses me of really knowing how to bellow. “Until I say stop!”
“But we only have half a tank of fresh water, and I think --.” “Do like your father says,” my wife said.
“But shouldn’t we save water in case --” I heard the water pump come on.
“Go do like your father says!” I looked back at the two guys, who smiled obliviously.
“They tested him as gifted,” I volunteered to the two guys, “At what, I have no idea.”
The trickle in the hose turned into a gusher again.
“Let it run for awhile … now we close the valve…” The first guy shoved the handle hard. “You want some water in the tank.”
There was a five second beat. “Okay, tell him to stop.”
“Alex, you’re not five feet away from me,” I shouted at the bathroom window above the tanks. “Stop!”
“But I already have.”
“Ready for the gray tank?” the first guy asked.
The first guy pulled the second valve. The hose roared and bucked. If the black tank was a gusher, this was a flash flood. The gray tank smelled worse than the black, like dirty laundry soap.
I asked Robin to start the engine. I wasn’t going to sit there for five minutes like the last two rigs.
The flood, then trickle, finally abated. The first guy slammed the valve shut, expertly undid the hose, carefully working it so that any fluid still in the neck didn’t spill. He slapped the cap on and pulled the hose out.
“And y’don’t have t’wash your hose out!” the tall one added. "I bet you just lost about eight hundred pounds, y’know that?”
A better ride, I thought to myself, hopefully better gas mileage.
“Guys, I’m out’a here. Thanks a bunch. You have a good one.”
“Drive careful,” the tall guy waved.
I walked down the sidewalk to come around the front of my rig, for some reason started to step down into the gutter, and jumped back up. There in the gutter was toilet paper, used, looking like wet lasagna pasta, some of it wrapped around something. I fought the gag reflex, swallowed hard. And then I remembered the first guy with the wet shorts and soggy shoes swallowing hard, furiously washing down the concrete, down into the gutter I just nearly stepped in.
The smell was worse down at this end of the dumpsite. Shirtless, wet shorts, soggy shoes, swallowing hard. Whoosh! I thought to myself, and swallowed again, jumping to the dry side of the asphalt as I got over to the Bounder’s entrance. The RV smelled like fresh-baked bread.
“I made sweet rolls!” Robin proclaimed as she handed a napkin with a big piece of pastry on it to each of the seat belted kids. I got behind the wheel, looked in the passenger-side rear view mirror and began to pull out. Robin offered me a sweet roll.
“Want a piece?”
I swallowed hard.
“Wait ‘til we’re on the freeway.”