The sky smelled of rain that day, but in a hesitant, non-committal sort of way. The pipes – white, slender, and made to clasp hands – lay ready on the back of the trailer. The well-aged yellow of the backhoe warmed in expectation of fistfuls of mud and rock.
We were laying waterline down a road for some participants who had no access to water in their homes. The idea of someone in the populated U.S. not having running water in their home came as a surprise to me, and the revelation that even people who lived out in the country were attached to city water here (rather than a well, like I have at home) came as another. But I was here, ready and willing to get my hands in some dirt.
The rain arrived with the rumble of the backhoe. I watched from the sidelines as the yellow arm stirred up the dirt and piled it to the side, my clothes becoming steadily more damp as the trench grew steadily longer. But the rain was, after all, afraid of commitments. So it soon fizzled out, only coming back for brief reappearances throughout the day. Appearances that, by the time the sun had beaten the water from our bodies, were welcome.
Once the backhoe had dug enough trench line for us to begin, Clarence and I jumped down into the waist-deep furrow; pipes, glue, and markers (to keep the four different water lines that we were laying in order) in hand. We laid the pipes, then covered them with a thin layer of soil, picking the rocks out of the dirt as we went. The backhoe would return to fill in the rest.
As I paddled through the damp earth with my hands, I couldn’t help but think of another version of myself: The elementary schooler on summer vacation. There was a pile of dirt in our backyard that year, and like any new and potential-packed element of the outdoors, it became a playground for my brothers and I. On one occasion I marched outside, brown hair swinging loose, skinny limbs clad in a blue butterfly shirt and matching shorts, and buried my hands in the dirt for no other purpose than to get them dirty. I dug around in the dirt, letting the soil grout my fingernails and turn my hands and forearms to a pleasing shade of gray.
Just getting dirty for the sake of getting dirty was fun. But the most fun part came when I walked back to the house. Here was what I was waiting for. Here was the reward that I had paddled about in the dirt to get.
Slap. Slap. Slap. My bare feet found their way to the bathroom linoleum.
Whoosh. On went the water.
And then came the prize, as I gleefully watched my hands turn the clear water to brown. Yes. This was the best part. I could in no way have explained why, but there is something about watching dirt wash away that is remarkably satisfying.
But today me hadn’t reached that point yet. Today me was still in the trench, pawing in the dirt.
“Four!” Clarence called out the pipe number as it was glued to its companion.
“Four!” I responded, as I marked the other end with my Sharpie. And then, just for jollies, added a small picture of a barn to the side of the white pipe. A sketch from me, meant to be forever buried beneath a few feet of soil – a proper place for the display of chicken-scratch artwork.
And then the tossing of the rocks and the paddling of the dirt back into the hole. The soil grout was lining my fingernails once again and my already sun-browned arms were turning an even more pleasing shade of dirt.
“It’s HOT, Eee-lizabeth.” Clarence wiped his face on his shirt.
I nodded in agreement. When it started to rain again; a light drizzle, I didn’t complain; I welcomed it.
We made it to just past the creek that day, then stopped. This was going to be a several days’ job. The rocks were slowing our pace. We climbed up into the truck with our muddied boots and our muddied clothes and our muddied limbs, and left, saving the rest of the trench digging for another day.
And now for the best part.
Pit. Pat. Pit. Pat. My sweat-stockinged feet found their way to the tile of the bathroom.
Whoosh. On went the water.
And away went the dirt. The satisfaction was still there and I was my elementary school self again, smiling as I watched the clear water turn to brown.
But, of course, the most smile-worthy part of all this is that my playtime in the dirt had a purpose this time: to allow someone else to experience the satisfaction that comes from walking into the bathroom of your home, turning on the water, and watching the dirt wash away from your fingertips.
It’s a good feeling, that. Just ask the little girl with the butterfly shirt and her hands in the dirt.