As a Greenway volunteer, Sammy Sams picks up trash. Two to three times a week, he drives to one of the many local parks that serve as starting points for walking the Capital Area Greenway Trail System, a network of asphalt trails that extends for more than 100 miles and encompasses 3,700 acres of recreational space. Once Sammy arrives at his starting point, he puts on his yellow volunteer vest, takes a trash bag and a pair of yard-long pincers out of his car, and embarks on a zigzaggy journey up and down a two-to-three-mile section of the Greenway where nothing – not a cigarette butt or a shard of glass – eludes his watchful eye.
The first time I went with him on one of his volunteer walks, the trail followed Crabtree Creek through the relatively affluent North Hills area of Raleigh. I felt like I was on a scenic treadmill, a very pleasant place where people went to walk, jog, or ride their bikes for a set amount of time before returning to their homes, their work, and their daily lives. The North Hills trash Sammy collected seemed fitting for an area largely comprised of fine homes and pristine lawns. Consisting mainly of empty water bottles, plastic bags, a few beer cans, and random bits of paper, plastic, and glass, it stood in stark contrast to the trash collected on my second walk-along with Sammy in a very different part of town.
Earlier this week, he and I went to a part of the Greenway that follows Walnut Creek through the south side of Raleigh. Instead of residential neighborhoods, the trail winds its way through swampy brush and the occasional tunnel, the underbellies of roadways and a railroad track. The trail’s overall seclusion and its periodic proximity to busy thoroughfares made for a trash-collecting experience that was more indicative of an urban campsite than the scenic treadmill farther north.
A dirty mattress rested at the mouth of a drainage pipe as if the pipe itself had given birth to a Posturepedic baby; and a seemingly infinite number of beer bottles, cigarette butts and Styrofoam food trays, as well as a small tire and a few random TV parts, littered the side of the trail. Sammy said that when he visits this part of the Greenway, he often finds abandoned clothes and condoms, and a bystander once told him that at night it can get quite rowdy under the South Saunders Street bridge. Most telling, however, may have been one of the few homes on this particular stretch of the trail – a blue tent-like structure located deep into the creekside brush.