I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon exploring the depths of our sewer system with a steel snake, and I think I can say that I’ve had better days.

Our sewer gets clogged up with lint and whatever else comes out of the wash machine so often that I’ve rigged a cap on top of the sewer stack that I can easily pop off whenever I notice that water is slow to drain out of the basement sink where the wash water collects. I’m not sure why it gets clogged as often as it does. I imagine some day I’ll find out. It’ll probably be the same day we have to hand a couple thousand dollars over to a plumbing contractor.

But in the meantime, I’ve been able to bust the clog pretty reliably with a sewer snake, a fifty-foot-long stainless steel hand tool powered only by gritty determination and lubricated with plenty of good old elbow grease. Like many a classic hand tool, I bust a sweat inside of ten minutes using it, so it’s not only a tool to fix things, it’s a way to keep in shape. Trying to look at the silver lining here.

The snake slides directly down the stack and into the sewer. The first ten or twelve feet slide in easily enough until they meet a bend in the pipe. Then I have to start playing a game of tamping it down until it meets resistance, tugging it back a couple inches and tamping it down again until I finally manage to sneak the head of the snake around the corner. Once I get it past that first corner it’s fairly easy to get moving again, although that corner does make it noticeably harder.

About twenty or twenty-five feet in, the head butts up against something. I’m not exactly sure what, but I’ve got an idea that it’s the joint where the basement toilet or the floor drain, maybe both, meets the main sewer line, and it’s a bitch to get past. The head doesn’t seem to want to go on from here. I don’t know if it’s trying to go up one of the branch lines or what, but it sometimes takes me as much as an hour of shoving, tugging and cursing to get the snake past that point. This is one of the few home improvement projects that doesn’t benefit from a lot of loud and repeated cussing. I do it anyway.

When the snake finally gets moving again, it’s only because I keep at it forever and ever and ever. Suddenly it just pops free of whatever obstacle is down there and moves on. And holy shit, what a relief that is. Especially when I’ve been at it for any more than twenty minutes and/or I’ve worked my blood pressure up to head asploding levels.

I don’t have to go much further from that second obstacle to bust whatever’s clogging the pipe. Just another foot or two and the standing water in the floor drain starts to drop. Unfortunately, after the snake gets past that joint or turn or whatever it is, getting the rest of it down there becomes a game of inches. Half the snake is writhing around down there in the godawful muck of the sewer, bent around at least one corner, maybe two. We’re talking major friction.

When I tamp it down, I have to make sure it’s perfectly straight. If it’s even slightly out of line, it goes sproing (not getting too technical for you, am I?) and twists around the inside of the pipe like a classroom model of DNA. I can tamp it down three or four times before my concentration wanders and the snake goes sproing. Much cussing follows, but only the first hundred times it goes sproing. I’m pretty tired by the hundredth time and change strategy to trying to save my breath when the cussing dwindles until the only sounds I can make are inarticulate grunts.

I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a motorized snake, because power tools are hella awesome and this particular one might possibly save me a lot of time and aching muscles. The ones I’ve seen in the store, though, look a lot like cheap knockoffs of the heavy-duty version that a professional would bring to the job. I figure I could get maybe one or two uses before a crucial but irreplaceable plastic part would break, so I’m not gonna go there. If it ever comes to the point that I can’t bust a clog manually, that’s when I’ll call the professionals to come in with the big artillery for a full-out assault.

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