Road Trash Warriors
In the beginning
I would never have arrived at this strange state of mind if the local high school hadn't closed down the track for a major renovation of the football stadium. Nope, I'd have just gone round and round and round that track trying to entertain myself with a Sony Walkman radio that only picked up two C&W music stations … tough duty for a classical music buff. But they did close the track and so there was no reasonable alternative but to head for the hills or stop walking my miles each day. I live a few away from town so the logical thing to do is walk on the country road in front of the house, but Sam, God bless 'em, insists on walking down the middle of the road beside me wagging his oblivious tail to the utter consternation of my neighbors who have to hang one pair of wheels in the ditch to get past him or engage in a deadly game of chicken. So, to save Sam I have to drive a mile or so away before beginning my walk. And I have to keep Sam alive because he's a natural born Skunker and they are mighty rare dogs indeed. Anyway all this finds me walking on some beautiful rolling countryside that has very little traffic and no unfenced rotweilers or dobermans. Important considerations, if you plan to walk five days a week. Of course, the big drawback was the incredible accumulation of road trash that cluttered the bar ditches for miles in every direction.
Day after day, I'd walk the new stretch of road staring at the trash in the ditches and thinking over and over "What kind of people would do such a thing?" Then I'd tell myself, "If you don't like it, why don't you pick it up?" Oh my aching back! No way was I going to do all that stooping and bending to pick up this road trash. So every day was the same: "What's wrong with these people?" What's wrong with me not to do something about it?" Then I was shopping at Target and saw the answer right on the "As seen on TV" end of the hardware isle: A handy grip gun with suction cups on the end. Even articulates in the middle to reach hard to get to places. I hesitated. Naw, I'm not ready to do this yet...am I?
The day after New Year's Day, I started noticing that most of the beer bottles said "Bud Ice" on a very attractive ice blue and silver label. Could one guy have done most of this. It got me fired up. Could I take on Bud Ice Man and win? The next day I stepped up to the challenge: I went to Lowes and with some help from one of the employees I located an even better $16 trash picker up gun made by Arcoa named the E-Z Reacher® Pro. I also bought a box of 20 extra-strength plastic trash bags and took the plunge. The battle was joined.
The Chip-away Tribe
Right away, day one, I decided to save and recycle the aluminum cans for cash. I didn't know what I was going to do with the money but I knew I was going to think of something later that would be cool. So I had one bag for trash, one bag for cans and of course, my trusty gun. The situation was a little awkward trying to remember which bag contained the cans and which the trash and all the time trying to juggle three items between two hands. I soon decided to pick up cans on one pass and trash on another day. I'd head down the road with 3 bags tucked into belt and one in my hand and in about 30 minutes I'd have most of the trash on one side of a mile and a quarter of road bagged. Then I'd finish my walk, get the truck, run back up the road picking up the trash bags and take the bags over to the recycle center's roll-off dumpster in Princeton. Pretty cool that they take everything I find on the side of the road except dead armadillos and coyotes. Well, no way your going to get this job done in one pass or in one day. And really I didn't want to. The main point of this exercise was that I was bored walking, and wanted to add something to the experience: So why not go up and down the bar ditches and pick up trash while you're exercising. Once I got my mind wrapped around that concept it started to be fun… like a treasure hunt or maybe more like walking along the beach looking for shells, except this time you're picking up everything you find. The treasure hunt part starts later when the sides of the road have been scrubbed clean and you're walking along just looking and hoping to find something and trying to guess what it might be.
My wife says she's sure I helped build the Great Wall of China in an earlier life. Well maybe so, because I have always been able to tackle projects that have no end in sight. I once spent 13 months of Saturdays building a stone entrance gate to our property. Another time two years building a deck. Well I'm a good builder, but a slow one. Nevertheless, adopting a stretch of road is surely a chip-away kind of project at least in the beginning. You know when you start it that it's going to take a long time to get it done hence the chip-a-way part. But more that that, you slowly realize that it's going to be a lot like painting the Verazano Narrows Bridge: As soon as you finish the job you go back to the beginning and start painting again. My Yankee grandmother pointed that fact out to me as we drove over it when I was nine. I never understood her point until now: It's not about getting the job done – it's about keeping the blasted thing painted.
Oh Shame of it all
I worked 27 years in management for a major US company. I've co-owned a successful business for nearly 10 years. I'm the father of three graduates from name brand Texas colleges. What in the world am I doing picking up road trash? If I'm not thinking that surely everyone who drives by is. In the early days my ears burned: "Who is that crazy nut? What's he trying to do… make us look bad? Obviously what we have here is someone who has too much time on their hands! OMG, is this old guy scavenging for cans and bottles to sell? Maybe this guy had a DWI and is working off his community service hours." Well, people are going to think what they are going to think. How can you stop them? Does it matter? Am I re-defining myself in the eyes of the world as a person who spends his free time picking up trash?
For the first few days I wouldn't even look at the people who drove by. I'd just keep my head down and keep going. Didn't want to know what they were thinking. Didn't want to read it in their eyes. Within a week I had 2 1/2 miles of country road picked up … Five miles if you counted both sides one at a time. Finally, I screwed up my courage and looked into the eyes of the passing motorists. Hmmm, what's that I see? Almost everyone was smiling at me and waving. I knew they knew who I was. Heck, I've lived in this neighborhood for 28 years and driven the same green pickup for the last 10 years. That was more like a thank you look than an "oh you fool" look. We'll time would tell. Texans are polite as all get out, but more curious than cats.
The second week I collected about five bags of new trash. Oddly some of it looked old. Had I missed this stuff before. Then I realized that some of the trash was just blowing around the open fields and eventually getting caught back in the bar ditch. A phenomenon that would keep occurring for many more weeks. It was about here that the first person stopped her car, rolled down the window and said, "Do you know who I am? I stared at her a moment… she did look a little familiar. "Are you Crystal?" "Nope, I'm Crystal's mom", she said. Man sometimes you get lucky. I was about to ask if she was Crystal's grandmother. "I almost called the cops on you," she said sternly. "I was sure you were casing the neighborhood looking to rob us, but then I asked the mailman and he said oh that's just Mr. Bodwell picking up trash." "Yep, that's me … picking up the trash." I said. We talked about kids and grand kids for another minute and off she went roaring up the road. So here was another whole suspicious thought process I hadn't even considered.
For awhile I wanted to feel righteous indignation at the people who were throwing stuff out their car windows. But soon you get over it. Maybe they will figure it out and start enjoying the pristine landscape as nature had intended it. Maybe.
By now trash pretty much consists of big gulp Styrofoam cups from the Race Trac service station, or drive-thru litter from McDonald's, Sonic, or Church's Fried Chicken. You almost never see any upscale detritus from Pe Wei or Starbucks. I guess people who pay $4 for a cup of coffee tend to hang on to their cups even after the java is gone. I know I would. Gradually there were more changes. My road is a mix of about 25 percent homes and 75 percent pastures and fields. By the third week of making my rounds I noticed that there was very little trash in front of the houses. When I started the effort, their fences and bar ditches were nearly as littered at the field and pasture ditches. Not only that, trash that used to be in some front yards had been picked up. And I know I didn't pick it up. Still there are four trashers I can count on: 1) The person who drinks a Diet Dr. Pepper for breakfast every morning on the way to work, 2)The Keystone Light beer drinker who makes a deposit or two every day on the way home from work, 3) the guy who drinks Bud Light and folds the can in half before he throws it out the window, and my perennial favorite: 4) Mr. Bud Ice Light who leaves at least 48 Bud Ice beer bottles, the large paper cartons they came in, and usually the paper bag they left the store in as well each and every Friday and Saturday night and some week nights as well.
Bud Ice Light
If I told you that one five mile stretch of road alone contained more than a thousand Bud Ice Light bottles, would you believe me? Unfortunately it's true. All this on a road that was graded and paved only 8 months ago. I point that fact out because every one of those bottles had to have been deposited after the road was paved. So that's at least 125 bottles a month and there's at least 5 times as much roadway with Bud Ice Light bottles and cartons just as dense and in some areas more so. Over time I figured out it has to be a whole car load of guys doing this. Otherwise this guy would weigh more than 500 pounds with all those empty calories consumed. The MO is to drink about three quarters to four fifths of the bottle, screw the cap back on, and pitch it. Can't figure it out! Why do you buy premium beer, in a bottle no less which makes it more expensive than canned, then not drink all of it? Must be leaving something for the God Baccus or maybe for winos … as if we had any winos wandering these rural roads.
Now, picking up all these partilly full beer bottles means a maximum about 25 bottles per Hefty trash bag, unless you want to unscrew the cap and pour out the remains. Yuck! The more I picked up the crazier it all seemed. I decided I had to do something about it. With a half a mile left to go, I started collecting the bottles on the side of the road in twos and threes. I'd carefully line up each bottle side by side, pointed in the same direction, with the cap facing the road. I left them there for a week, thinking that maybe seeing these bottles would cause the Bud Ice boys to cease and desist. Nope, the bottles and cartons kept on coming. So I got another idea. I started consolidating the bottles.
Eventually I managed to get all the remaining Bud Ice Light bottles to one spot, a place in the road where their was an extra large margin of flat land. Here, I continued the previous pattern of alignment but got a new inspiration. I'd build a pyramid out of the bottles. Over the coming days I managed to build a structure about 3 feet high and 8 feet long out of 300 or so bottles. I tell you when the sun hit that wall of partially filled beer bottles the sight was glorious! I admired my work of art. I told myself that what we have here is a magnificent monument to stupidity. I even thought about putting up a sign: "Bud Ice Light Monument to Stupidity --> This way!" No that would really antagonize them. In the back of my mind I was kind of sort of hoping the county police would notice the monument and realize they had an epidemic of illegal boozers on their hands. I held my breath and waited to see what would happen.
About a week passed and then suddenly my Bud Ice Light monument was gone. I mean every last bottle. I checked the nearby field and creek fully expecting to see bottles everywhere. I knew that if they had scattered them, I'd be responsible for picking them up. But no, they were truely gone. I scratched my head and tried to figure it out over the coming week. It wasn't the Bud Ice boys because they were still making deposits. Maybe it was the farmer who owned the adjacent land and didn't want anyone using the neatly stacked bottles for target practice. Folks down here will shoot anything that looks unusual. Perhaps it was the county Road and Bridge crew who decided to snatch it before someone turned it into a humongous pile of broken glass. Maybe it was my trash guy who'd already offered to pick up my bags along the road when I first started collecting. I deferred because I know his stuff goes straight into the land fill. Or maybe it was someone with a sense of humor who is still chuckling about the fast one he pulled on me. I'm not sure I'll ever find out what happened. But that's OK. I enjoy a good mystery and gives me something to think about while I pick up these infernal bottles.
Now I'm going to be realistic. I may not even be carbon neutral in my efforts. I'm not a pure green, yet. I get the road trash recycled but at the cost of a lot of gasoline used to go get it and move it. Still, my additional exercise resulting from climbing up and down the bar ditches is helping with my wasteline. And I sure enjoy the walks more now that the view has greatly improved.
As for the Bud Ice Light boys, I know I'm going to win. Sooner or later they are going to get stopped and pick up a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) and maybe some MIP's (Minors in Possession) as well. That should put an end to it. The Mother's Against Drunk Driving organization has got so much punative legislation passed in Texas that I honestly believe you could get caught robbing a Seven-Eleven with a pistol and get off lighter than you would as a first timer DWI. There will be no more beer money after the legal fees and no ability to cruise without a driver's license. Or maybe they'll grow up, or get their own house to drink in. Old as I am, I know time is on my side and as much as I enjoy picking up road trash, I'll not be sorry to see the end of the Bud Ice Light boys.
You've Got Company
I was hustling down the road one day, trash bag and E-Z Grabber in hand, when I noticed a 50 something mand walking towards me. We stopped and introduced ourselves. Larry explained that his doctor had recommended 20 minutes of brisk walking a day. "Me too", I said, glancing down at my partially filled trash bag. Well I hadn't intended to say anything about the bag and pickerupper. But now I felt a little foolish standing there with these suspicous items in my hand: "Well I was walking this road and cursing the trash and getting more and more bored with my walk when I decided to just pick it up."
"Good idea, " he replied. We went on about where each other lived, and how long. After a few more pleasantries we parted company and went on our respective ways. Over the next couple of weeks, I noticed that our overlapping peice of road was almost always clean. But not the further part he walked by himself. … That part was as road trashed as any other untouched part. Very strange, I thought. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the part we didn't share. Maybe someone else was picking up the trash. Or maybe people had just stopped trashing that part of the road. Hmmmm… no way that was the case!
Another section of roadway that I cleaned up was some hilly terrain where I had frequently seen one of my farmer neighbors walking. This section is almost completely uninhabited so it get's trashed more than most. The Dr. Pepper for breakfast person is famous for pitching her (for some reason I always imagine that it's a "her") cans and plastic bottles out along this track. But now I notice that this section is staying cleaner than usual. Is the farmer lending a hand? I suspect so because I know he asked a mutual friend why I was doing this.
Then, along a well trashed road I haven't got to yet, I noticed a short section, say about a tenth of a mile, that was clean. You notice trash when it's there – you almost never notice that it's not there. Keep this thought in mind if you are planning to do this for the recognition or because you aspire to become a road trash martyr. You are not going to get credit for this effort. But if you find that you have this wierd calling to pick up road trash. Then you will instantly notice that clean is unusal. Anyway one day I was driving along this stretch when I saw two young girls, about 10 and 14, get off the school bus and start picking up a few items of trash. Well that solved that mystery.
One day I was working a particularly badly trashed stretch of road, when I noticed that a huge section ahead up me was clean as a whistle. Now I was positive that that section was completely trashed the week before. Heck, I remember taking photos of part of it. Then I spotted a boy about 8 or 9 walking along the road. I stopped and asked him if he knew who had cleaned up the road. He said he had picked up part of it. "Who picked up the rest?" I asked. He said his sister had helped. I thanked him and drove on. I knew that there wasn't any chance that that boy and his sister could get 2 miles of bar ditches cleaned up by themselves in one weekend. Soon I spotted a man getting something out his truck close to the road. I stopped in his driveway and asked him if he knew who had cleaned up the road. "The county," he said.
"When did they do that?" I asked.
"Saturday," he replied. "They brought out a whole truckload of Community Service people and knocked it right out." When a kid get's a DWI or MIP conviction, the judge assigns them a certain number of hours of community service to perform. Those lacking a connection to get a coushy indoor service job like filing paperwork or sorting cans , wind up falling under the county's make work program and get funneled into some cleanup job at a park or along some roadway. Not what I was hoping or expecting to hear but I'll take the help any way I can get it – even if it is help provided under coercion.
The Magic Trash Window
I think very, very few people intentionally throw trash out the windows of their vehicles. But down here in Texas we've got something I call the magic trash window in the back of the cabs of many if not most pick-up trucks. You've probably seen them: the rear glass is divided into three parts, one of which can slide open to provide access to the bed of truck. This is handy, if say you want some flow-through ventalation in the Spring, or if you keep your brewskis in a cooler and really hate stopping the truck everytime you want another one. Anyway, this window has a far more important purpose. What you do is take any trash you might start to accumlate in the truck cab: empty cups, cans wrappers, containers, etc. and you just put it though the magic window into the bed as you rip along down the highway. That way you are not littering. Just depositing it in your truck bed for later removal at a more convienent time. Then when you get to your destinatin, voilà, the trash is gone! Magic!
Our Ecology Walk
My six year old granddaughter comes to visit most Fridays after school. When the weather is nice, she'll put a leash on Sam and let him take her for walk. I tag along carrying my road trash warrior equipment and get a little extra trash removal accomplished. At first she was busy with Sam but after a few trips she started helping out. I broke down and bought her her own Arcoa E-Z Grabber and pretty soon she got quite handy with it. She'd see me heading for a plastic bottle and dart ahead to get there before me. If I'd already done my miles that day we might take the four-wheeler with the old red Sears trailer attached. That way we could cover a lot more ground than simply walking. Plus she doesn't get worn out on the idea as quickly when we take the wagon. When her mother picked her up one day and asked her what she had been doing, she said, "Oh. Papa and I have been on an ecology walk." Ecology walk, well that's not a bad way to put it.
While most of my road trash collecting has been a solitary effort, I have enjoyed having my wife and granddaughter along. I suspect people are more impressed when they see a family unit picking up trash than when it's a solitary effort. Maybe seeing a kid pick up trash that they might have thown out will make them think twice the next time. I don't know. Maybe not. But it can't hurt. I am convinced that being out there picking up road trash on a regular basis is having an impact on people's behavior. It will probably never deter the teenagers from pitching beer cans, beer bottles and empty cigarette packs. But the rest of population seems to be responding favorably. Maybe once something is clean, it's human nature to want to keep it that way. But if it's trashed already, what's one more item?
One Saturday morning, I put the three 30 gal trash bags of crushed aluminum cans in the back of the truck, collected my granddaughter and off we went to the scrap recycler. I put the cans on a scale, went into the office and the fellow tried to put $8.75 in my hand. "Nope, give it to her," I said, pointing to my granddaughter. Back in the truck, she asked, "Why do I get the money Papa?"
"You earned it darling," I replied. "You earned it by picking up all that trash". Now let's go to Walmart and you can buy something you've been wanting. We've got to help jump-start this sagging economy!"
Success … of Sorts
Over the course of two continuous months of patrolling what has now become about six miles of road, I've seen some unusual things. I know for sure that one person had a bad cold every day for two weeks because each trip I would find three or four used Kleenex tissues lying in the margin between the road and the bar ditch. I was glad when he or she finally got over it. Then I started finding music CDs, sans cases, lying about every 200 to 300 feet. Why would anyone throw these things out of the window one at a time? It cost's money to buy them or time to make them. It just doesn't seem to make sense how they got there. I imagined a young married couple having an argument and he has grabbed her collection and is yelling at her and firing them out the window one at a time. Nope, that wasn't it – these things were on all the road sections I cover. Must have been a teenager sailing them like frisbee's. Maybe it was the Bud Ice Light boys. But firing CDs out the window at night? You wouldn't be able to see where they went. No I still don't have a good theory. Then, an even stranger find, a garage door opener. In peices of course. But over about 20 feet of road all the peices were there including the battery, so it must have fallen off something that was going down the road. Normally folks clip these things to visors so there is no possibility they could fall out. Maybe it was a farmer who used it on an automatic steel barn door. Briefly I considered putting it back together, driving down the road pushing the button and seeing what door opened. Which got me wondering why people didn't do that with their own garage door openers in dense city neighborhoods. Sooner or later you are bound to share a code with someone else. Or how about those "electronic car unlock buttons" … just drive around at an airport parking lot at night pushing you car door open button and see what car flashes it's lights. The things you think about when you are picking up trash. I pitched the garage door parts, except the battery, into the bag. The battery goes to Best Buy with all the other used batteries I've been saving … when I finally remember to take them.
I can honestly say that the burden has lightened beyond anything I thought possible. Yesterday I walked one of my original sections of road. We're talking a total of two and a half miles (counting both sides) of road. My haul for the day: One large styrofoam cup with lid and red plastic straw. One Keystone Light beer can. One plastic Dr. Pepper bottle (she'll never get it.) And one empty pack of Marlboro 100 lights. And that was all my fellow man reguritated over the course of an entire week. Incredible. Maybe people do like thier roadways clean. At least enough to slow down the littering once the view has been purified. I know that I try valiently to get every tiny little scrap of trash out of there with every pass. I now believe any amount of road trash will encourage more. I have also become convinced that most people will respect a clean environment. But if you clean it only once or twice and then stop maintaining the appearance, it will surely revert to its former trashy condition. However, if you are diligent about getting your exercise and keeping the roadsides trash free, then you will receive unseen help and cooperation. You will not labor alone or in vain!
But it's not only about the trash and litter, I'm going to be walking this road anyway. Why not keep it clean? Once its' clean it only takes a few extra minutes to keep it that way. Only a few extra minutes to become a certified "Road Trash Warrior". How about you? Want to become one too?
Sure. Sign me up!
© 2009 Road Trash Warriors