Outdoors Columns

Up Moses Creek: Thinking Like an Empty

There were glass bottles, plastic drink containers, chip bags, foam cups, cigarette packs, grocery bags, a ripped-up Duke Power bill, a tire and a funeral wreath. Burt Kornegay photo There were glass bottles, plastic drink containers, chip bags, foam cups, cigarette packs, grocery bags, a ripped-up Duke Power bill, a tire and a funeral wreath. Burt Kornegay photo

I was at Lazy Hiker brewpub in Sylva enjoying a meal with Moses Creek friends and talking about the neighborhood trash pick-up that was planned for the morrow — part of Jackson County’s “Cleaning Up the Mountains” campaign — when one of them mentioned another person who lives up the creek and predicted that we’d see his Michelob Ultra empties along the road. My friend had picked up after him more than once. 

The next day when the clean-up group started work, the first thing I picked up was a blue Michelob Ultra can. When I bent down to pick up a second one, a Hollywood horror vision suddenly rose before my eyes. I saw the man downing an Ultra six-pack on his way home from work and leaning his arm out the window to toss the empties. N.C. 107 gets the first ones, Caney Fork the next. By the time he blesses Moses Creek too, it’s “Wendy, I’m home!”

It’s not just the roadsides that get trashed. Several years back, I hiked up to a mile-high rock pinnacle called Hangover, in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, and came on three hunters surveying the landscape and eating lunch. Hangover is one of the few natural summits in Western North Carolina that offers a 360-degree view. A wild rugged expanse surrounds you, and the Great Smokies dominate the skyline. At night from Hangover, you can see the lights of the valley towns in Tennessee — a kind of earthy Milky Way in the blackness mirroring the Milky Way above. When the men left, I discovered they had littered the summit. I collected their leavings and, walking down the trail, met one of them coming from the other direction. I held out the bag. “You forgot your trash.” “Oh, yeah,” he said, taking it. We were at a trail junction, and he turned off onto the downhill trail. A bit farther on, I passed one of the few small campsites on that rugged ridgeline and saw that he’d just emptied his bowels.

We’ve all heard the retort, “It’s my land and I’ll do what I want with it.” For those who toss garbage and treat campsites like toilet bowls, here’s the unspoken part: “It’s your land and I’ll do what I want with it too.” 

Moses Creek sprouted more than beer cans for us to collect. There were glass bottles, plastic drink containers, chip bags, foam cups, cigarette packs, grocery bags, a ripped-up Duke Power bill, a tire and a funeral wreath. To judge by the wreath’s faded plastic flowers, it had rested in peace for several springs among the roadside buttercups, golden ragworts and mayapples.  

I walked along, orange bag in hand, alternately looking down for garbage and looking up at the Great Balsams. It was full-on spring. Hooper Knob was greening up with early-leafing tulip poplars. Swallowtail butterflies flitted along the roadside and in the meadows. The sight of nature’s beauty reminded me of other kinds of beauty I’d also love to see full-on, like neighborhood amity and care for the land. But those beautiful inner things take thought and nurturing soil. If you’re running on empty, it’s so easy just to give a toss. A few probably even feel a creep’s pleasure in it. “Pick up THAT!”

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We picked up five bags of garbage that day, the wreath and the tire. Tellingly, that’s not a lot compared to what’s on other roads. A Caney Forker told me that after his group cleaned up a similar distance a few years earlier, he carried 34 bags of garbage to the dump.

Some claim that the litter blows out of truck beds accidentally. I say, “Bull.” Anyone who tosses trash in the bed of a truck knows the wind is going to whip it away. Besides, on Moses Creek you can’t get up to a speed that’s fast enough for anything to blow out. And beer bottles don’t fly.

Journal entry, June 14, 1986: “While taking a break from hiking on the Slickrock Trail where it parallels Calderwood Lake, I watched a man fishing in his boat. The air was still, the sky blue, and the lake’s surface was like glass. The green walls of the Unicoi and Great Smoky Mountains rose out of the water on either side. The man took out a sandwich, unwrapped it, dropped the paper overboard, and ate. He emptied a can of Vienna sausages and tossed the can, followed that with a candy bar wrapper, finished off a soda and flipped the empty, then threw out the bag that had held it all. He leaned back and watched his line in a half-doze, the trash floating around him in the mirroring lake.”

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