Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Man's Trash

Highway 101, the West Coast's route from Mexico to the Canadian border, rises along Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and wraps itself in old growth forest, looping to an end at Neah Bay where the American continent tapers into the North Pacific. Further south, where it meets the Hood Canal and State Route 104, you'd find me with my crew of a dozen teenagers in hardhats and red vests as we picked more than 30 years' worth of trash from the lush berms and rugged cliffs along the road.

After I had left the home for the bewildered and my 28-day stay, I found myself near unemployable as my mind began the slow trudge toward sanity, rewiring its synapses, trying to spark without intoxicants. The State was a godsend, viewing my classroom experience a virtue when it hired me to run a clean-up crew of teens. The tipping point was that on Fridays, when the byways in the Olympic Forest were choked with weekend campers and logging trucks, we'd get the kids off the road and treat them to an educational day at an environmental site, a hatchery or recycling facility.

I went to Olympia for a week's training, gathered up my white van with state plates and a flashing orange light-bar, stocked it up with day-glo warning signs and highway cones, hardhats and vests for the kids, and a huge water cooler. We'd start at dawn at the county terminus near Brinnon and Quilcene, mark the road, and begin walking. We'd take lunch breaks along the Big Quil or the Duckabush, watching the wild rivers blast through narrow channels beneath a canopy of trees and giant ferns. We'd bag the recyclables in white bags and take them away, leaving the less savory trash in orange bags along the road for the state highway crews.

I needed humbling: I had been a college professor at a Big Ten university and now was bagging filthy diapers, beer cans crawling with worms and slugs, discarded syringes and secret stashes of porn magazines and whiskey bottles from along the road. But that university professor had graded student papers in the Esquire Lounge and helped himself to pills left by his landlord physician in the forest house where he taught in Alaska, and having the grace of working with kids at their summer jobs, cleaning up the detritus tossed from speeding cars and semi-trucks by drunks and addicts seemed like karma to me.

There were six boys and six girls on the crew--when they all showed up--some from poor homes, all a little distracted and in danger of wandering thoughtlessly onto the highway. So I spent most of the day herding them around, setting out traffic cones and signs, and discouraging the kids from picking up needles and dead animals. Along the expanse of pines and granite between Quilcene and Chimacum we found a discarded deer head, tossed out by a hunter, and a makeshift dump where locals had chucked busted refrigerators, stoves, boat engines, motorbikes, beds and couches.

Someone had made a parking spot behind a wall of wild rhododendrons with a firepit, a lawn chair, and a carton filled with girly mags. We picked up the empty beer bottles and magazines for recycling, dumped out his cache of whiskey bottles and bagged them, too. Along the route we found a discarded appliance box filled with Audubon Magazines.

I marveled at how long some of the trash had aged along the road: tin beer cans that had to be opened with a church key, newspapers and magazines from the 60s, cans and bottles of Bubble-Up, Falstaff Beer, other products long since discontinued in the marketplace.

On the last Friday of the summer, I took money we had received from the recycling center and bought the crew pizza and sodas. I asked if they wanted the balance of the money for their own pocket change. We hugged and went our separate ways. No one had been injured, although once I had to grab one of the girl's shoulders and heave her out of the way of a logging truck that blew down our sign and blasted through our line of cones.

For the remainder of my seven-year stay on the Olympic Peninsula I drove the length of Highway 101, knowing it better than most people, knowing parts of it intimately, and had the satisfaction of doing a full day of work for minimum wage, helping the forest to survive us, and befriending local boys and girls that called out my name when they saw me walk the streets in Port Townsend, waved at me in their caps and gowns.

It was a good first job back from the dead, all I could have hoped for in those early days when hope was but a glowing ember.


Bill Stankus said...

I get your story but what really gets to me is our abusive treatment of the environment.

Road side litter is disgusting. I recently took upon myself to clean-up a small local road, about 1/4 mile long. The junk tossed from anonymous vehicles was disgraceful. In that short span I collected 12 bags of garbage - the kind of large HD black bags meant for collecting leaves and lawn debris. A staggering assortment of booze bottles and cans, pregnancy test kits, condoms - and this is in an upscale affluent neighborhood!

But the larger picture is the litter and garbage that is out of site - stuff tossed in rivers, lakes and the oceans.

I've been on ships in the mid Pacific and there are many huge rafts of bobbing garbage.

We treat the planet as one big dump.

Our sloppy attitudes say a whole lot about who we are.

Char said...

a telling journey back to sanity. sometimes humbling is the best journey....even if it hurts so.

dutchbaby said...

I am impressed with your honest, self-effacing account of your journey. I like how you approached this experience in a zen-like fashion.

A Cuban In London said...

'I needed humbling: I had been a college professor at a Big Ten university and now was bagging filthy diapers, beer cans crawling with worms and slugs, discarded syringes and secret stashes of porn magazines and whiskey bottles from along the road.'

Gabs, man, think of it as a service to our polluting attitude. Agree with Bill. It disgusts me what we are doing with the planet.

Greetings from London.