I have been locked in a battle of wills with my gastrointestinal system for as long as I can remember.
Usually, my bowels win.
At 5 years old, I woke in the middle of the night and made a mad dash for the toilet. Before I had time to slip off my SpiderMan undies and seat my adorable little culo on the cold porcelain, an abomination had exited my rear end and settled on the pale pink tile of our bathroom floor.
I still remember Mom running her hands through my mushroom-cut hair, telling me it was alright, and dry-heaving.
I realized I’d gone too hard on the ‘Devil’s Spit’ sauce at Famous Dave’s Barbecue in Brick, NJ when my junior wrestling coach had to swerve off the Garden State Parkway, so I could machine gun shit over the guard rail.
As the exorcism occurred, I begged every dead relative I could think of for mercy.
In 2008, I tried to force a fart prior to the second half kickoff against Ridgefield Park. It was hot torture trapped between my cheeks and spandex briefs, but I didn’t want to leave the field, as I had just become a starter and wanted to solidify my spot on the depth chart.
I topped the stat sheet that night, and thankfully, we had been wearing our black pants instead of the Vegas gold.
Weeks ago, I spent a wonderful evening with one of the only girls I’ve ever considered getting serious with. The next morning, we took her dog with us to get coffee. The plan was to retrieve my pup as well, and spend some time in the park. I thought we’d enjoy our morning pick-me-ups on a bench, then passionately kiss and lightly pet each other’s private parts while the canine rapscallions roughhoused.
As we stood on the corner waiting to cross, I admired her backside, and thanked the man above for such a blessing.
But, after the first sip of the specialty Cubano coffee I’d ordered, my gut gremlins went to work, and I felt a five-alarm-fire coming on. I informed my date that there was a serious issue I had to attend to, and Danny Devito-ed my way home. My dog rested his chin on my feet in a show of support, as I experienced a release that was both blissful and brutal. It was one of those shits you strip naked for.
Had my asshole not readied the artillery that day, I might be expecting twins by now, instead of trying to figure out if she’s seeing anyone else through Instagram.
As you can see, my intestinal adversaries have put me in a precarious position time and time again. I’m 28 years old— an actual grown man—and still, I’m good for shitting my pants two to three times a year.
When you’re a raft guide on the Yellowstone River, the 5:15 half-day trip is the worst. Yes, you rack up more river miles to pad your resume. But usually, you just want a cold beer when five o’clock rolls around.
I’d somehow lucked out through most of my first season and never been scheduled for it.
But on one of the worst days of the summer, I got penciled in.
There were overcast skies and a miserable, steady drizzle all afternoon. It was a scene out of a noir film. I sulked on the cold concrete of the boathouse floor and hoped it wouldn’t book, so I could hit the hot springs with my coworkers.
One of them asked me to ditch early and ride with her. But, when your name is attached to a time slot, whether any guests are signed up or not, you can’t really leave the boathouse. If the office books the trip last-minute, and you’re not around, you get charged with an RBO (“Round Buying Offense”). River Law then requires you to purchase a 30 rack for the community beer fridge, or face exile.
And sure enough, when the clock hit 4:30, the phone next to the paddle bucket rang. Before picking up, I glanced out the boathouse doors, and saw the wind and rain had intensified. A shudder of frustration ran through me. What kind of asshole tourist would book a trip in this?
After the office informed me that it was a party of two, I slammed the receiver down and stalked off to the air pump.
A fucking two-load.
A two-load means a light boat. A light boat means a longer trip, and more work for me. You float slower, and have to spend more agonizing minutes forcing witty banter on your guests. While my friends were having a warm soak and sipping daiquiris, I’d be rowing two shitheads through the rain.
Judging by the sky, I assumed there’d be a strong headwind as well. Trying to paddle a boat downriver against gusts blowing in the opposite direction is like pedaling a bike uphill. It sucks.
To combat the wind, I grabbed two eight-foot oars and strapped a metal frame and seat to the back of my raft. Rather than struggle with the wind while guiding by paddle, I’d row and muscle my way through.
On the shuttle ride to the office, I tried to shake my self-pity. I was being paid to take people rafting and make them smile. I wasn’t sitting behind a desk all day. The hot springs weren’t going anywhere between now and the end of the trip.
And the two-load? Who knew? Perhaps they were two swimsuit models, trying to inhale a little mountain air while taking a vacation from the tanning oil and unfair industry beauty standards.
I’d give them extra layers to keep warm, and we’d giggle together about the lack of insulation their string bikinis had provided. Afterwards, they’d thank me for saving them from hypothermia, and I’d be invited back to their four-story AirBnB overlooking the Gallatin Mountain Range. Their stylist would trim my beard and massage my scalp beneath a setting sun. Then, the hired help would serve us caviar and flutes of Dom Perignon in the hot tub, as the ladies and I played a rousing round of Truth or Dare.
At the shop, I stepped out of the shuttle feeling good. Grey skies or not, I was confident my fantasy would play out exactly as I’d imagined.
Prior to stepping through the doorway though, I felt a bit of pressure in my abdomen, and slipped around the corner to sneak a fart. I didn’t want to risk fumigating the models.
However, the force with which the gas exited my backside was alarming, and a burst of warmth tickled its way up my tailbone. I hadn’t had an accident in quite some time, but still, the unexpected power of the expulsion and the heat that followed were cause for concern. I’ve been in this game too long to just brush off that sort of firepower.
I froze for a moment and breathed.
In through the nose, out through the mouth.
After a moment, the pressure in my abdomen faded. Breathing deeply once more, I wiggled my cheeks, and thankfully, felt that everything was dry.
I’d secured a rare victory over my meddlesome innards, and beamed with pride as I stepped into the office.
My joy was short-lived. The office staff informed me that my crew was a couple, not cover girls, and were visiting from France. The frustration I’d been feeling at the boathouse returned.
There’s two things I can’t stand in this world— people who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and, the French.
It’s not the hats, the cigarettes, the pretentious indifference, or the perfectly flakey pastries. I don’t believe in stereotypes.
But, Europeans rarely ever tip their river guides adequately, if at all. We survive off gratuities and earn them by way of entertaining conversation with our guests. The language barrier makes that nearly impossible.
Around the corner they came, half zipped into their wetsuits, holding their paddles daintily and fumbling with the clips of their helmet straps. They were sun-starved and scrawny. A twinge of rage clung to the inside of my chest. Guides can pick out good paddlers from bad on sight, and it was clear I’d be doing all the work that day.
Their names were Marcel and Cosette.
Cosette was petite, and totally uninterested in my outstretched hand. Dead, dry hair hung lifelessly from beneath her helmet, and she looked at Marcel warily when I introduced myself.
Marcel couldn’t have been older than 30, but his jowls hung off his neck like a career Camel smoker in his 80s. His arms were propped up against his chest like a T-Rex. When I went to shake his hand, he folded both wrists downward, doing his best impersonation of a cat who’d been grooming his paws.
After several of my introductory questions were met with nothing but cautious nods, I cut the small talk and herded them into the van waiting outside. On the ride to the put-in, I skipped the standard spiel and stayed silent, trying to remember if I had enough cash back at camp to afford a beer or two at the hot springs later. All I had to do was hustle through eight uncomfortably quiet miles on the river. I could do it.
I rushed through the safety speech and proper paddling instructions, because really, I could’ve been reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to them, and they wouldn’t have known the difference. The sooner we were on the river, the sooner we’d be off and I’d be headed to the hot springs.
As I adjusted Cosette’s life jacket, a deep growl emanated from the area around my belly button, and reverberated through my bones. It was what I imagine a duck would sound like if you were to squeeze its ribcage in a vise. Evidently, she heard it too, and her horrified eyes locked with mine. I hurried her into her seat at the front of the raft, and demanded Marcel join her.
Panic gripped my brain and pain seized my insides as I rushed to the stern of the boat. There was another deep growl from my gut, followed by a sort of pop and hiss sound.
This was no false alarm. The siege was underway.
I cursed myself for drinking 10 PBRs the night before, and for having shrimp tacos with extra chipotle mayo for lunch. The fuse had been lit, and it was only a matter of time until detonation.
A rational person would suggest finding the nearest bathroom, taking care of business, and then just launching as planned, albeit late. However, the closest toilet was a ways away, and I couldn’t just leave two foreigners alone beside a river in Montana.
The belief that pure willpower can enable a human being to overcome any obstacles or odds is at the core of who I am. I could do this. I’d beaten the dookie demons before, and I’d beat them again. I just had to grit my teeth, put a cork in it (no, not literally), and row harder than I’d ever rowed before.
Hot knives cut through my stomach as we pushed off.
In the first wave train, I felt myself being jostled more than usual, and glanced backwards. I realized with horror that in my haste to get on the water, I’d forgotten to strap one of three points on the frame—the one that held my plywood seat in place.
With each successive wave, the frame shot upwards, bringing me with it, and my ass slammed down into the seat. The sky folded in on itself, the clouds grew grayer, and the rain came down harder.
It was as if the heavens were conspiring to bring about my demise by defecation.
I squeezed my cheeks tight and held on for dear life, wedging my feet beneath a cross tube and trying to use my weight to keep the frame pinned down.
Rollicking and rolling we went, bouncing down the river, up one wave, then down another. All the while, hellfire brewed in my tummy and grew more potent with each jolt.
As we approached the first large wave train, my intestines were ablaze. It was abdominal agony. The carburetor had been flooded with gas, the pistons were pumping at full speed, the exhaust was clogged, and my engine was about to overheat. I bit my tongue and put everything I had into holding on.
We T-ed up to the first big breaking wave and punched it hard. My French friends cried out with glee as water enveloped the front of the boat. But an oar dropped from my grasp as we came down the backside, and when I lunged for it, my foot slipped from beneath the cross tube. With the impact of the next breaking wave, the frame shot skyward, and so did I.
I came down with a thump, a groan, and an expulsion. My iron will had been overpowered.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a log. I’m not a total animal. It was what I believe intellectuals and academics would classify as, a “shart”. Just a brief burst, and then it was over.
Have you ever sat in the contents of a hot chicken pot pie? Neither have I. After that day though, I can say with confidence that I know exactly what it feels like.
I had failed, and once again, the gut gremlins got a W.
“Tres bien!” Cosette exclaimed in my direction, as she dropped her paddle and delicately applauded the rapids we’d just run.
If only she knew what else had been running.
Marcel shouted with alarm as I intentionally slipped off the back of the boat into the river. I waved him off and hid my bottom half beneath the raft, letting the downstream current rinse my cheeks, as shame washed over the rest of me.
I climbed back on board and turned the raft around. When rowing, the backstroke is where a boatman can generate the most power and speed.
Marcel and Cosette spent the rest of their float backwards-facing and oblivious, as I hurriedly pulled us through the last 7 miles, disgusted with myself.
When the shuttle van came to a stop outside the shop, I snatched their gear from them, said “merci beaucoup”, and bowed.
I sidestepped through the office and kept my back to the walls and racks of merchandise, like a cat burglar clinging to a ledge. Though the accident had produced nothing more than a dollop, and the river had cleansed me, I still worried there might be a stain on the back of my board shorts. I don’t know if Marcel and Cosette had planned to tip me, because I hung up their helmets and bid them adieu before they had a chance to strip off their wetsuits.
I slammed the van door and told Driver D to step on it.
“Trying to catch everyone else at the hot springs?” he asked.
“Fuck the hot springs. I need a shower. NOW.”
“I thought you guides bathed on the river.”
“I had shrimp tacos for lunch, D.”
He raised a brow. I stared at him and giggled till his eyes lit up with outrage.
“Ah, good fucking god man, you’re twenty-five years old.”
“Yes, D. I know.”
“You need a doctor and a psychiatrist. Watch the seat.”
Don’t judge me, Dear Readers. You may not admit it, but every last one of you has fallen prey to a shart at some point in your adult lives. Maybe not as often as it’s happened to me, but I know it’s happened.
That won’t be the last time I shit my pants. My bowels are simply too powerful. I’ve come to terms with it. I’ve even embraced my abilities to an extent.
As I devoured prosciutto and mozzarella while visiting my family a few months ago, I overheard a phone conversation my father was having in the next room.
“Oh, it’s nice having him home, yeah,” dad sighed “but let me tell ya something. If shitting was an Olympic event, my son would be a gold medalist. Every time he leaves the bathroom, I expect the paint to start peeling off the wall. And man, it’s been like that since he was a kid!”
The good lord gives us gifts as he sees fit.