Picking up trash in the National Parks: Thank you Charlie Callagan!

The past two weeks, we’ve been slowly roadtripping out to the West Coast where my parents live. Usually we’re rushed roadtrippers, driving twenty-four hours straight to get from one side of the country to another. It was great having the chance to take our time and slowly make our way out to California, and we had a lot of chances to see things we usually would have passed over.

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On the Road Again

Our roadtrip took us to five national parks, one of our favorite things to see in this country. We stopped in Moab to see Arches and Canyonland, Bryce Canyon and Zion, and Joshua Tree.

Although we love the national parks, we’re always so discouraged by the incredible influx of people traveling in and out of the parks. While at both Arches and Zion, we couldn’t go one foot without hiking into throngs of people, and Bryce, Canyonlands, and Joshua Tree weren’t much better. It’s great that natural landscapes still exist for people to escape too, but the environmental impact of thousands of people cramming into one National Park can’t be great. As we hiked, we saw so many people going against Leave No Trace principals by hiking off trail, stacking cairns where they shouldn’t exist, or scratching their names into canyon walls. We saw microtrash (smaller pieces of trash, often created from opening wrappers) and general litter scattered across popular hikes, and sometimes even outright disrespect for nature and the historical relevance of some of these incredible places. It’s disheartening at times to see people behaving this way, but we both believe that by example people might be more inclined to preserve, advocate for, or protect the national parks in their own way.


Arches National Park: Who wouldn’t want to protect this incredible landscape?

That’s where our next volunteer efforts came in. We received a donation from one of Cooper’s previous employers, Charlie Callagan, a retired Park Ranger from Death Valley National Park. When Cooper and Charlie worked together both in AmeriCorps and for an internship in 2015, they would go on long hikes through Death Valley collecting trash in the backcountry that had been left there for years. According to Charlie, the National Park Service has a rule that trash left in a park for 50 years must be left where it is because it’s a historical relic. This can include things as large as old mines and as small as beer cans. Charlie and Cooper’s work was to hike into the backcountry and remove the trash before it had the opportunity to become historical.

In honor of Charlie, we decided to make an effort to collect trash throughout our national park travels. We would keep a grocery bag on us during our hikes and while in the parks and collect whatever trash we could find. When it came to the really heavily trafficked parks, we thought this might be a good way to demonstrate to others the importance of chasing down even their microtrash.

What we found so interesting about collecting trash in these parks was the reaction of others. Typically when Cooper picks up trash that I saw and didn’t grab, I feel a stab of guilt for not doing the right thing. We assumed others might see what we were doing and feel inclined to do the same thing, but instead what we found was that people would see us pick up trash, give us a strange look, and then walk right past another piece of trash without grabbing it.

It’s interesting to me that people who enjoy these parks wouldn’t feel immediately inclined to protect these landscapes, even in the most basic of ways. However, I want to hold onto the hope that one person saw us doing the right thing and was then encouraged to start picking up trash that they saw too. And even if this isn’t the case, at least we helped make the parks a little cleaner.

When it comes to food on the trail, we’ve decided to do a mix of grocery shopping at major points and shipping ourselves boxes when there isn’t affordable and diverse food options available. Thanks to Charlie and his donation, we’ll be able to supply ourselves with eight resupply boxes along the trail. Thank you again, Charlie! We appreciate your support!

For those that didn’t see, I’ll be blogging through The Trek. I’m still posting occasional things here, related to volunteering and other bucket list goals, but for all other PCT related posts, check out my author page at The Trek! We’ll be setting foot on the trail soon here, on the 24th. Until then, happy trails!


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