Jeff Chen had the idea for a trash pickup across America after encountering a trash-filled national park trail.
THURSDAY, Aug. 19: Picking up from Dupont City to Charleston. Meet at noon at the Rite Aid in Dupont City, 3175 W. Dupont Ave. FRIDAY: 7 p.m. potluck dinner at Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 502 Kanawha Blvd., Charleston. SATURDAY: Picking up Charleston to Dunbar. Meet at noon at state Capitol. SUNDAY: Dunbar to west of St. Albans. Meet at noon at Shawnee Park.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They call themselves "pickup artists" -- and you can take that literally.
If you happen to spot a cadre of twentysomethings (including one fiftysomething volunteer from Moscow) in bright yellow-orange vests gathering piles of trash along area roads in the days ahead, you're looking at a pretty remarkable commitment.
The four founders of PickUpAmerica.org, along with volunteers that might include you if inspired by their call to personal action, are picking their way across America, picking up trash from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
They've been moving across West Virginia for a few weeks now and are looking for like-minded "trash-terns" as they pick up through Charleston, on to Huntington and beyond.
"On March 20, we left from the coast of Maryland on the Atlantic Ocean. We dipped our feet in, burned some sage, said a nice prayer for the ocean and started picking up trash right there on the shore line," said Davey Rogner, a 24-year-old from Silver Spring, Md.
"Pretty much, we've have been doing it ever since. Full-time, picking up litter. We are the anti-litter."
But it's more than just a do-good effort by some younger folk looking to score a good deed for a few days.
The group's founders are in it for the long haul -- and you can take that literally and figuratively. They aim to dip their feet in the Pacific off San Francisco sometime in 2011, having not only cleaned up hundreds of roadways on the way, but also leaving lessons behind through music, dance and art about the cost of America's disposable culture.
They'll stage a high-profile event on Sept. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. on the state Capitol Complex lawn, building a mountain out of recyclables. (People wishing to help build the piece should gather at 11:30 a.m. that day at Haddad Riverfront Park in downtown Charleston.)
"It's going to be all recyclables we've gathered from the side of the road in Kanawha County," said Rogner.
Rogner and crew worked one day recently along the Greenbrier River near Alderson. The crewmembers were impressed by the beauty of the Mountain State, and then noticed the huge volume of trash alongside one of its most beautiful rivers.
"Seriously, this is ridiculous," said co-founder Jeff Chen, 24, of Columbia, Md., surveying the litter from a day's pickup, from old tires to wires, plastic bags, plastic bottles and other detritus lining the road beside the river. "There's 14 bags of trash there. It's disturbing how much trash there is."
Chen came up with the idea for the walk across America while climbing a trash-littered trail in Yosemite National Park. Upset by the mess in what is supposed to be a national treasure, he and his companion picked up every bit of trash they saw on the way down.
"The idea kind of came from there. I wanted to walk across the country and pick up trash. And it kind of turned into, 'Well, why is there the trash in the first place?' And it's because of our disposable culture.'"
Rogner picks up the theme, which group members share in potluck dinners, school talks and art and musical gatherings.
"We're hoping, one, to clean and beautify America, as much as we can," he said. "But, two, to send a message to folks that this is a beautiful country and we should really start taking care of this land and educate about how these plastics and consumer commodities and this packaging that is meant just to go to a landfill is really damaging these beautiful ecosystems like this river right here."
The group's other co-founders, including West Virginia native Kelly Klein, 24, and Kim Alexander, 23, of Silver Spring, Md., have also turned to their photo and video blog at PickUpAmerica.org. There, they recount their journeys, including struggling with burnout and the seemingly endless trails of trash.
"I felt like I had to give back somehow and this is one heckuva a way to do it," said Alexander. "I was honored to be a part of this. I really enjoy talking to little kids about this and trying to instill into their heads to reduce, reuse and recycle and use art to influence it."
The group coordinates with state highway departments to pick up the bags of litter they collect. The Maryland Department of Transportation estimated the group saved taxpayers more than $24,000 in cleanup costs.
They're supported by only a small grant, donations along the way, in-kind contributions of help and lodging and sales of reusable water bottles and T-shirts. "We're very creative fundraisers. We accept donations from folks," said Rogner.
West Virginia metal sculptor Mark Blumenstein helped out as the crew passed through Alderson, even mounting one of his signature bobbing metal characters onto the hood of Rosie, the colorful Pick Up America van that has ferried the group this far across the country.
With the help of local volunteers who sign on for a few days, they have picked up more than 58,000 pounds of trash along 575 miles of road since leaving the Atlantic Coast.
Chen poses his own call to action to people his age who otherwise will inherit an Earth-ful of litter.
"There are simple things all of us can do -- reduce the amount of plastic bags that you use. It's all ending up in our waste stream and it's going somewhere. We're running out of space on the planet. We've got to take action now. Us young people have got to take action right now. We're going to be the ones living with this in the future."