The December afternoon was dry and warm as I eased my car along a remote, rock-studded road on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez, Colo. I hadn’t seen another soul, so it was a surprise when I came around a curve at 5 mph and spied a Ford pickup parked facing me in the road ahead.
The driver, a middle-aged man, was at the wheel;
his passenger, a man of similar age, was standing along the edge of
the road at my left holding a shiny box about the size of a
As I approached, the man hastily heaved the
box over the edge of the road into a ravine. The driver nervously
motioned his companion back in the truck, but the passenger was
nonchalant, dusting his hands as he sauntered back to the cab. As
they drove past, the passenger grinned and waved.
smiled back, but I was a little unnerved. What they had taken such
trouble to dispose of? A clue to some crime? I hoped I looked like
the sort of person who wouldn’t give a second thought to
someone throwing things into ravines in national monuments, but I
watched my rearview mirror uneasily till they had disappeared.
Then I found a place to pull over. Whatever they’d
pitched, I was going to find it: Nancy Drew was on the case. It
took scrambling, but I found a way to hike down into the ravine.
For 15 minutes I zigzagged, looking for the shiny box. When I
located it at last, I was dumbfounded: It was the cardboard case
for a 12-pack of beer. There was nothing sinister inside, nothing
at all, in fact.
This isn’t the strangest piece of
litter I’ve found. In our hikes elsewhere, in Utah, Arizona
and New Mexico, my husband and I have seen just about every type of
detritus imaginable, from snack wrappers to old shoes to the
shot-up and shredded remnants of a lengthy legal document, which
were scattered like confetti across an Anasazi ruin. Once, in a
remote, inaccessible and sun-baked part of Canyons of the Ancients,
miles from the nearest running stream, we found the remains of a
river raft. I still puzzle over how it got there.
mystery that confronted me now was perplexing in its own right. Why
would anyone take the time to stop a truck, get out and hurl such
an innocuous object into a crevasse? Why not just pitch it out the
I pondered the problem as I carried the box back
to my car. Maybe these guys had some littering ethic that required
them to dump trash where it wouldn’t be seen -- but I doubted
it. Their motive was probably more malicious. They were
purposefully pitching their debris where it couldn’t easily
be removed, where it would remain a blot upon the landscape --
possibly as a statement of opposition to the monument.
All littering, of course, is a form of vandalism. Wads of toilet
paper left by hurrying cyclists, crumpled pop cans strewn along
trails – all are akin to smearing mud on the Mona Lisa. Part
of the delight of entering a remote area is imagining that no one
has been in that exact spot before. A broken vodka bottle under a
juniper quickly strips you of that illusion.
sticking a dirty diaper on a yucca bush – such as the one we
saw recently at Hovenweep National Monument – satisfies an
inner need to mark one’s turf, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
Still, why ruin the sites you like to visit?
people must never be planning to come back, the way they leave
these places," a Bureau of Land Management employee once told me.
Decades of "Keep America Beautiful" campaigns and highway signs
warning of draconian penalties for littering haven’t
eliminated the problem. Some folks, like the duo in the monument,
just aren’t going to be influenced by public education. And,
barring some Orwellian presence on public lands, law enforcement
isn’t the answer. Sadly, the only real solution to litter is
to keep cleaning it up, as rapidly as possible. Trash quickly
begets more trash.
So I have a proposal: Since their
products constitute the bulk of the refuse strewn along highways
and on public lands, make the liquor, soft-drink and fast-food
industries pay a special tax , a penny for every bottle, can, cup
or wrapper they sell. Funnel the money directly to our underfunded
national parks, monuments and forests, to be used strictly for
If it drives the cost of a 12-pack of beer up 12
cents, well, I’ll drink to that.