Labor of Love: Meet the Backcountry Sanitation King

Meet Michael Rash, sanitation king of the backcountry. Be glad he uses Purell.
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Meet Michael Rash, sanitation king of the backcountry. Be glad he uses Purell.

The first part of Michael Rash's job description sounds pretty darn good: "Work six months per year hiking backcountry trails. Make your own schedule. Good hiking boots required." The second half, however, would chase most sane people back to the classifieds: "You'll be the sole caretaker of 21 backcountry latrines. Rubber gloves strongly recommended."

But for Rash, of Hesperus, Colorado, the perks of being a USFS Sanitation Technician outshined the fouler aspects of the job. For 21 years. When he retired last October, he became the longest-serving kybo cleaner in Forest Service history.

The Texas-born Rash entered the workforce inconspicuously enough, managing a Marriott hotel for eight years. But the white-collar atmosphere was too domestic for this avid hiker, so in 1974, Rash ditched his corporate gig, relocated to Durango, and eventually took the sanitary-tech post. He liked the idea of job security in a wilderness setting. "Who else would want to be the 'doo-doo' guy?" he asks. Rash's duties included some frontcountry bathroom Cloroxing, but his core responsibility was traveling to and maintaining backcountry latrines dispersed over 600,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest.

The best and worst of his job? He found both at the latrine atop Kennebec Pass. Rash and Froggy, his Forest Service truck, would crawl up a rutted-out jeep road, slaloming around basketball-size rocks until the truck sat atop the 11,867-foot pass. The view was killer and the hiking opportunities spectacular, but there sat a particularly moody composting toilet. The unit operated on natural air circulation and a solar-heated chamber to turn the waste into dirt–in theory. Unfortunately, the eco-crapper malfunctioned at altitude, which meant Rash had to rake and turn the uncomposted mess to move the process along. On one occasion, after he had climbed into the pit below the toilet, he heard footsteps on the gravel above. The door slammed shut, and a yellow stream rained down. "I began banging the chute with my rake handle and yelled, 'Goddamnit, I'm down here working!'"recalls Rash, chuckling. "I've never seen anyone cut off their business so quick." The startled hiker ran out, screaming, "We've got to get out of here! Now!"

Will he miss his job, now that he's retired? "I'm going to hang out with my wife Maggie Mae," he says with a smile. "And never clean another toilet again."