Muddled Meanderings: How books about outhouses changed my life

Every Sunday when I was a kid, my mother would drag me to Enfield, Maine to visit with my great-grandmother. Enfield is probably the most boring place in the world for a preteen—isolated, sleepy, heavily wooded but with no real discernible features. Barely even a television set. At a time before naps became luxuries, it was anathema to solitary confinement.

As the women sipped tea and gossiped, I whiled away the time picking through my great-grandmother's bookshelf. Among the outdated national park guides and dusty town histories, my favorites were a series of books titled "Muddled Meanderings in an Outhouse" by a Montanan named Bob Ross (not the painter), all hand-signed by the author himself.

The premise was simple enough: Ross took photos of outhouses and waxed poetic about them. Sometimes the poems, all penned in classic structured style, were nostalgic. Sometimes they were humorous. Sometimes, they bordered on the ribald. It was heavy brain food for a bored pre-teen weened on fart jokes and Garbage Pail Kids.

Take, for instance, this gem accompanying a photo of a rickety old privy featuring a half-moon hole:

"Here's a seat with a great vast hole. It's built for folks with a half vast soul."

Witty.

No outhouse was off the table for Ross: he'd write about lonely outhouses out on the plains, space-age roadside porta-potties, makeshift privies fashioned from paint cans. It was all fair game.

I was fascinated. The images, coupled with Ross's whimsical (and surprisingly capable) prose, stirred within me nostalgia for a time and place I had clearly never been. I wanted to travel to each of these privies, experience the lonely plains and windswept winter mountains that they serviced. I wanted to understand the quaint singular experience of doing my business without modern comfort. I wanted to feel the wind slipping through the cracks as I flipped through a yellowed Sears & Roebuck catalog, one season outdated and missing half its pages to the needs of previous occupants.

And that, then and there began my wanderlust.

When my great-grandmother passed away in 1995 she didn't have much, but she did pass down her Bob Ross books. They sat in storage for many years until recently, after sifting through the collected detritus of adulthood, I came across them again.

I don't know a lot about Bob Ross. It took some amateur sleuthing to discover what I do know. The books are copyrighted 1970; by the time I found them, they were in their 16th printing (1982), denoting a respectable demand. They're seemingly self-published, and had been printed at Color World of Montana (which still exists) in Ross's home of Bozeman.

Ross's self-penned bio in the back of the book mentions a wife and kids, WWII service, and a career as a conservationist. There's nothing more about him online save a 2015 article which details his impressive military service (at that time he was 92 years old).

Today the books sit on my bookshelf in my living room. The spines are cracked and pages are falling out, but the poems and pictures are all still there. I don't know if I can say the same for many of the outhouses Ross waxed on about. Likely they're gone, faded like the memories of yesteryear they evoked. But the inspiration remains—the powerful wanderlust to see, do, and explore.