Litter bugs: Sisters take on unending task of cleaning Gillette roadsides


GILLETTE — For a Wednesday, it was just about a perfect late spring Wyoming day: 70 degrees, a light breeze and a sky reminiscent of a Bob Ross painting, with happy little clouds of titanium white dabbed onto a canvas of phthalo blue with a fan brush.

In an impeccably maintained home on Jane Court, Madeline Martinez and her sister Myra Johnson were preparing to make a pretty day a little prettier still. They gathered up a large bag stuffed with plastic shopping bags from Albertsons and Smith’s, gloves (latex for Myra, cotton for Madeline), something to drink, and they were ready to go. They were on their way to pick up trash alongside the roadsides of Gillette.

As they left the house, they passed through a garage that was just as neat and tidy as the inside of the house, where Madeline’s husband, Jerry, busied himself with restoring a 1977 Thunderbird that was just about ready to be painted. The women hopped into a white F-150 that Madeline said she’d “pretty much taken over” from her husband, and they took off.

They made their way down Fox Park Avenue, which they both called “the dirt road” as if an official name had never occurred to them, and found a spot to pull off. A tractor was mowing inside the Cam-Plex grounds beyond the fence near where they’d parked, and on the other side of the road, a rider and horse ran through their paces, seemingly oblivious to the world.

Without pomp or circumstance, the women set about their work; Madeline, 68, on one side of the road, and Myra, 64, on the other. Though they surely didn’t plan it, they couldn’t help but look like sisters as they worked. Both wore shirts in the greenish-blue family, both had chosen jeans for the outing (Madeline, shorts; Myra, pants) and both wore black Skechers. If they went too far down the road to become hard to distinguish, there was a simple trick: Myra wore what, at a distance, looked like a small backpack but in actuality was a portable oxygen tank.

They worked quietly for the most part, each in her own world, and their plastic shopping bags quickly filled with detritus cast out of moving cars, from people who clearly thought only a fraction as much, if at all, of this land as the sisters did. It was not their land; they did not own it — and yet they cleaned with the same loving care as if it were.

In 2021, Madeline said she’d collected a literal ton, at least 2,000 pounds, of trash in her various trips out along Boxelder and Garner Lake roads and Highway 51. There’s no shortage of trash, she said. She remembered one time after she’d cleaned along a particular road that on the return trip back to the truck, in the hour or so that she’d been working steadily down the road, someone had thrown more trash right onto her freshly cleaned roadside.

After moments like that, she’d be forgiven if she never wanted to do it again, but Madeline said that her relatively few outings in 2022 were a byproduct of the weather, not discouragement. It still begs an obvious question, though.

Why do these two women, each in their 60s, elect to undertake such thankless work?

For Madeline, it seems as if she’s never given a lot of thought as to the why. It’s more like “Why not?” She said it’s because she can’t stand the sight of the trash.

Sure, she conceded, there are additional benefits that have nothing to do with beautification of the city, like the fact that it gives her something to do now that she’s been retired for about a decade.

There have even been some moments where she helped people out, real people with faces and names that she could know and that could appreciate her work. Like the time she found a woman’s purse or the two separate times she’s found wallets. Each time she dutifully returned them to their rightful owners, and each time she knew she’d done something that had really helped these people out.

There’s also the remote chance she might make some money from recycling, though she said for the most part it’s little more than pocket change. Although there was that one time she did find a catalytic converter.

“I said, ‘Hon, can you come down here and pick up this pipe for me?’” Madeline remembered asking of Jerry. When he arrived, he knew what she’d found. They got a sideways look when they went to recycle it, as catalytic converters are often stolen off of cars, but she remembered the more than $120 as one of her biggest paydays.

Then there’s the exercise and fresh air.

“I’m usually out there two to three hours,” Madeline said on the phone one day. “I can get about 6,000 steps.”

Both the step-counting and trash-picking bring to mind humorist and author David Sedaris, who’s written multiple essays now that began with his sudden fascination with meeting a steps-per-day goal that eventually married with a habit of cleaning up the streets as he went.

Myra likes the exercise the work provides.

“I like it when it’s nice out there,” Myra said after her sister had given her the phone. “To get some fresh air. To get healthy.”

To walk alongside Myra as she works, the occasional hiss from her portable oxygen tank makes the trash-picking seem like an even bigger and more selfless gesture. But like her sister, the thought seems to have never crossed her mind; her oxygen tank is simply a necessary part of the excursion, no different from her shoes or her gloves. The one thing it’s not is a reason to stay home and leave her sister without help.

Despite all these potential fringe benefits, at the end of the day, for Madeline, it’s still about the trash. On Fox Park Avenue, as they made their way back to the truck, they wondered aloud about people.

“I just keep a bag in my car,” Madeline said, almost bewildered that everyone in the world doesn’t seem to do so as well. “That way, I can just keep my trash and throw it away when I get home. Or at a gas station.”

Both women agreed that the trash problem has only gotten worse in Gillette in the past few years. Madeline, who’s been here the longer of the two, said wistfully, “It never used to be this way.”

It’s the minor inconveniences of trash-picking that one discovers in the midst of doing it that reminds you why so few people give up their time to do it. As soon as you stoop over to mindlessly grab a piece of plastic that’s become a load-bearing part of an anthill you overlooked, you remember: This is no fun.

As soon as a liquid of unknown origin, a semi-translucent yellowish-brownish color that is probably rainwater (please let it be rainwater) but prompts imaginings of tobacco spit or worse, leaks from a mangled and punctured bottle, you remember: This is gross.

But mostly you remember how rarely you consider a simple truth: This requires no one’s permission. There is nobody stopping a person from this bit of community service; all one has to do is go.

More often than not, people don’t think about it at all. When they do, perhaps out on a walk with a spouse or child or pet, they might see the litter and lament: “Oh, pity. People really shouldn’t do that. They know better.” And then they resume their walk, never stooping to help the cause, never dirtying their hands.

This is what sets them apart, that simple difference between them and so many others; it’s what made Madeline and Myra seem like giants in the community.

They got back in their truck and drove to the end of Fox Park Avenue, where they pulled onto the side of the road where it meets Highway 51.

They started down a sidewalk, side by side, and then they split up. One would take the shorter expanse between the sidewalk and the fence line; the other would take the larger one between the sidewalk and the highway.

As they made their way farther away from their truck, the world opened up and suddenly everything felt enormous, except for the two of them. Giants though they may be, they looked tiny in that moment, consumed by their work.

The sidewalk reached into infinity; the land was so flat and distance so vast, it seemed impossible for them to make a dent in their overall goal. The sky was so big it enveloped them like under a dome; one’s peripheral vision saw that blue with those Bob Rossian happy little clouds all the way to the extreme edges of sight, unable to escape it.

Unlike on Fox Park Avenue, where the occasional car would meander by slowly, necks craning inside to see what was going on along the roadside, the highway was cacophonous with the ever-present hiss-and-whoosh of cars and trucks speeding by. It felt like a veritable certainty that few, if any, paid the sisters any mind.

That is almost certainly what they’d prefer, to toil along in anonymity, to avoid recognition. Madeline, to put it mildly, was not crazy about an article in the newspaper.

“I like what I do, but this recognition is not what I’m about,” she wrote in a text message, trying her darnedest to avoid an afternoon with a reporter. “My purpose is just to stay busy and do something good for our pretty little town and neighborhoods.”

By the end of that Wednesday session, she’d done just that: something good for her pretty little town. The back of the white F-150 that used to belong to Jerry before it was commandeered as a volunteer trash-truck was filled with maybe a dozen bags of rubbish and still more loose pieces of wood, plastic, rusted metal. It was proof of an hour and a half well spent.

Looking out across that space so long and wide it might have been hard to know just how much work they’d done; photographs from after might not look, to the naked eye, that much different than photographs from before.

But they knew. They were there. They did the work, the good deed, the selfless act. The bed of that truck was full of evidence. Their services were needed, and they answered the call. They could rest well in that knowledge.

And now the rest of the pretty little town knows it, too.

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