July 2008

The wizard of trash

By David Feela

Proof that the camping spot had been used by others was clear, with a crumbled fire ring of charred stones as evidence of the location’s endurance and a collection of antique trash testifying to its relative isolation. I walked the perimeter of the spot where I planned to stay, turning debris over with the toe of my boot, most of it rusted to a sunset hue.

The place hadn’t seen much traffic, probably not for decades – the style of trash and its state of deterioration was clear enough for me. There were beer cans everywhere, each with the classic double diamond cut punched through the lid; one for sipping, the other for venting. There must have been a great deal of venting.

Despite the trash, I felt comfortable at this location, visiting a ghost camp on national forest land, a long way off the pavement. A modern sign on the highway made it clear I had to limit my stay to 14 days, but whoever dumped this load might have stayed 14 years. Now, like a prospector, I had a temporary claim, a spot I had stumbled upon during my wandering, imagining it might yield something valuable.

After I set up camp, I spent the hours before sunset not hiking the canyon but inspecting the trash. I methodically dug through it like an archaeologist. To my right I tossed the beverage containers, to my left the food staples, and to my curiosity I consigned everything else. Though most of the cans sported bullet holes, their patina told me they’d been packed into this site during a different generation. Anything glass had been reduced to sparkles, and a rusted church key half buried in the dirt had hosted its last spiritual revival countless Sundays ago.

And then I saw it – the anachronism of the site – a sherd of aluminum from the post-alloy age: A muddy pop-top tab, aluminum ring attached. Someone else from my generation had stood at this spot and, naturally, dropped his trash. As Arlo Guthrie once explained, it was easier than picking the rest of the trash up.

Discontinued almost three decades ago, these ring-tab beverage openers were eventually replaced by the engineered lever of aluminum that now stays fixed to the can’s lid, a simple but remarkably innovative design to reduce litter. I slipped it over my finger like a wedding band. Maybe our next innovation will be to fasten the container to the users’ fingers, so both our off-road and roadside worlds will not be cluttered with aluminum and plastic bottles, this ever burgeoning flotilla of flotsam.

Last week a big pickup turning off Highway 145 onto a county road opened its driver’s door while the truck was still moving. I couldn’t believe it, and I worried that something had gone wrong. Then a woman’s hand released a huge bag of Happy Meal litter, soda containers and all, on to the road’s surface. She just let it drop, as if the earth were her trash receptacle. The door slammed, she stepped on the gas and sped away. I yelled, shook my fist, tried to memorize her license plate, anything, but she vanished up the road. She might as well have been on her broomstick. In my mind she qualified as the wicked witch of the West, but if I could have taken her broom I’d still be stuck with cleaning up after her.

As for my camping-trip trash, I left it exactly where I found it. It would have taken a wizard to make it disappear. And besides, the place probably deserves to be registered as a historic dump site, a monument to our stupidity. But if I ever find another heap of cans, maybe, just maybe, I’ll click my heels together and assemble a recycled tin man, one unencumbered by the urge to be partly human.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.