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Walking the beer can roads

One of the blessings of western rural Kansas is the availability of sleepy country roads. My dog, Blackie, and I feel free to walk, rarely bothered by a passing pickup or self-propelled farm implement. We can hear a bigger truck coming from half a mile away and get ready. Jet liners ignore us.

When he's a mind to, Blackie spooks up quail or pheasants or chases a cottontail. Otherwise, he's free to sniff, scratch, pee or poop as the urge arises. Canine ecstasy.

Me, I savor the quiet, unsophisticated landscape and think unhurried thoughts, interrupted now and then to pick up an aluminum can, crumple it a bit, drop it on the road, stomp it flat, stick it in one of those plastic bags they put stuff in at all the stores now. Along the road I usually find one beckoning from a barbed wire fence or dangling from a limb low enough to pluck. The Brits call them witches' britches. They're everywhere.

Ninety-five percent of the cans are beer cans -- Budweiser, Keystone, a few Millers. I suppose that's because most of the traffic is farm traffic and most of the drivers are men. Surely some are farm girls or women, which may explain the other 5 percent. Real men, I'm told, don't drink sody pop.

I store the cans. Then, when we're in the city (or what passes for one in these parts) I take them to a recycler and get maybe 50 cents a pound. I don't look to get rich. It takes a ton of crushed cans to make a pound.

There's lots of other stuff, too -- like plastic bottles of various shapes and sizes, but mostly sody pop. There's plastic motor oil containers, empty sacks of various description. Old sunglasses. Dusty magazines. Styrofoam carry-out trays. Quite a bit of plastic baling twine, the stuff that winds so tight around a mower pulley you have to take a knife or a chisel to get it loose.

On one road, somebody dumped an old over-stuffed sofa. Maybe the same guy pitched out the toilet tank and bowl a year or two back.

I wrote once about a decapitated deer carcass some jerk had hacked the head and backstraps off. The rest of the animal wasn't good enough for him to bother with. A couple beer cans lay by the rotting body. No sody pop. In a month or so, the buzzards and the coyotes got away with all but scraps of hide and the skeleton. Blackie still helps himself to a bone or two before I can shoo him away. I've found more dumped critter carcasses since then.

You never know what you'll find. On another road not far from that one, somebody had pitched most of an old personal computer.

I bring home beer bottles, too, but there aren't many. I take them to Hill City's municipal recycling station. I don't know for sure how many people go there, but I'd bet most don't. The station accepts varieties of paper and cardboard, glass and aluminum. They don't take plastic or tin cans. That I take to Logan, where Phillips County provides a traveling recycling trailer for smaller towns in the county. Graham County could do that, but it doesn't seem interested.

And while Blackie gnawed on a skeletal foreleg of the decapitated deer, I got to thinking.

What we find along lonely roadsides here is comparatively little and comparatively harmless. No mountain tops are scraped clean to accommodate mining of climate-changing coal, no factory dumps carcinogens into wandering streams. Yet we are part of a larger mentality and a larger problem.

Seven billion human beings now inhabit this planet, this spinning globe we sometimes call "ours" -- as if our species had a deed to it from the Creator. It is, we assume, an LLC -- a limited-liability corporation. God has agreed to make reparation for any damages humans cause. We can keep the profit and enjoy all the stuff until we throw it away. That's assuming there'll always be an "away" to throw it where it doesn't come back to haunt us, and that there'll always be an endless supply of natural resources to manufacture more stuff to throw away.

We in what's called the "developed" world have sold our lifestyle to the rest of our species. It's not our freedom or our proclaimed favored status with God they envy. It's our consumerism. They want whatever they want, too. That problem underlies almost all other problems today. I'm betting it will lead to more and uglier wars for access to finite resources, and access to more places to dump the trash. And all that, I'm betting, will also lead to an ever-greater disparity of wealth and power.

Since no raindrop considers itself responsible for the flood, individually we figure we are exempt from blame. Collectively, it's somebody else's fault. If all that sounds too heavy, just toss it into the ditch as you drive by.

Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.

celtic@ruraltel.net