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 gasoline can.
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.
I 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.
But the 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 window?
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.
Perhaps 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?
"These 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 cleanup.
If it drives the cost of a 12-pack of beer up 12 cents, well, I’ll drink to that.