I recently took a hike up Perreau Creek Road near Salmon, Idaho. Its upper reaches narrow to a dusty two-track, which is frequented not only by hikers but by the ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) crowd roaring up and down on those four-wheelers. Perreau Creek Road is also lined with garbage. Guess who leaves that behind? Not the hikers. ATV use on the public lands in the West is a perennially chewed bone around here, though mostly due to the noise. I’m for banning them for no other reason than the trash problem for which ATV enthusiasts are almost exclusively responsible .
On this stunning fall day I amused myself by walking along and collecting cans that I tossed to the middle of the road, and then crushed with my boot. On the way back down I counted scores of these flattened cans in the road like a shiny metallic centerline with gaps. From the air they must have looked like a shiny zipper on a pair of pants. I left them all because there were too many to be carried by five people, much less by one.
Most people who don’t live here have a mental image of the rural West as a pristine place. This is false. Here in Salmon I’m wallowing in trash. It’s everywhere: in the park, along the river thanks to rafters, and on the streets and backroads. What is it about small towns — in the West or elsewhere — that makes people think it’s okay to toss beer and soda cans or empty plastic water bottles out of a car window? My bike rides on local backroads show an appalling litter problem. I sometimes carry an empty day pack to get some of it, but it doesn’t take long to fill it. In Salmon it’s commonplace to see an old pickup truck that doesn’t run behind a barn, or a defunct refrigerator or washing machine on a front porch, so it might be a short stretch to toss a can out of a car window. It’s a mobile extension of a twisted view of libertarian property rights.
Like much of the United States, Salmon is down on its economic luck with empty storefronts and vacant lots. But the socio-economic status of a place doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to trash. When I lived in Cody, Wyoming, the same problem persisted.
Cody is a prosperous tourist town four times the size of Salmon, with a dozen fast food outlets to Salmon’s two. I used to work for the Cody City Parks and Recreation Department, where I cleaned 17 parks daily. Some were so small that I finished them in a few minutes; larger ones — such as the main “City Park” — took a full hour. City Park had a dozen trash cans spread out over three acres. A dozen. And yet there was always garbage spread around on the grass and left on picnic tables. Dirty diapers were common. I always left the park clean only to return the next day to find it as filthy as ever. Cody High School was across the street. Enough said. A recent Friday night football game at Salmon High School showed me much the same thing. The school grounds crew must have had a busy Saturday morning cleanup.
That a lot of this mess comes from the kids isn’t surprising, as much of their material lives are disposable. But they can’t seem to make that disposal in a trashcan or dumpster. Considering all the environmental propaganda they have crammed into their heads at school, you would think that trashcan-use is a no- brainer. Island Park in Salmon (home to a skateboard facility; like Bill Maher’s TV show and Perez Hilton’s blog, certainly one of the signs of the impending collapse of Western Civilization) sometimes reminds me of a landfill with picnic tables. A big item with the kids are those large 32 ounce paper soda cups. Pepsi, Coke, Mountain Dew: they’re everywhere. Maybe along with sexting and taking naughty photos on a cellphone, this is an example of 21st-century teen rebellion. Old fogies like me dropped acid at the Fillmore; today’s kids text while skateboarding and littering the park. So much for transcendence.
America’s fast food culture shares some of the blame for this travesty of manners and civic virtue. Rural towns that as recently as ten or twenty years ago didn’t have a McDonalds or Burger King are certainly a lot trashier now. Add to this convenience stores, which give us the giant soft drink cups that I see littering the park and blowing in the gutters.
The weekend round of broken beer bottles on the sidewalk in front of the building where I live gets a bit tedious. The owners of the three bars in downtown Salmon don’t see a problem here. It’s part of the business they’re in. Yet none of the bar owners ever sweep up the broken glass in front of my building — I do. I guess they’re all in church on Sunday morning.
I don’t have an answer for this nationwide quandary. Much of it points to simple human nature. I find most of the Left’s environmental prescriptions to be bizarre, fanciful and hysterical, yet unlittered small towns used to be the norm in American life. So, short of a national “Broken Windows” program like the one ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani used so effectively in New York City, the trash will continue to blow around from sea to shining sea.
Hey, maybe ACORN could run it.
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