Raymond Block stepped across the California-Oregon line at noon Thursday, ending an eight-and-a-half-month-long trek that involved picking up thousands of bags of trash up, then down, the Oregon Coast.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m really, really tired.”
The Coos Bay man is the founder of Leaven no Trace, a nonprofit that aims to make people aware of the sheer volume of trash along U.S. 101, dubbed one of the most scenic routes in the state.
“I saw a need,” he said. “All this trash and nobody doing anything about it. One road I was driving down in Charleston was getting worse every day. It was really something internal. My foot started twitching to get off the gas and put on the brake and pick up the trash. Every road I drive down is like that — epic proportions. There’s trash on top of trash on top of trash and a little more trash underneath that. I felt I had no choice. I have the ability to do something.”
So he pulled together $3,000 and in November 2015, started Leaven no Trace.
He came up with the name after he learned Leave no Trace was trademarked. One meaning of the word leaven is to transform or modify something for the better.
“It’s one of the questions in the Frequently Asked Questions (on his website),” Block said. “But asking about it keeps it in their memory because they have to think about it.”
That’s what his mission is all about.
Last year, he collected 182,000 pounds of garbage and 5,329 tires. He hasn’t had time to tally this year’s collections.
He started this trek last May, on the west side of U.S. 101 at the California border. He walked all the way to the Washington border, turned around and headed south on the east side of the highway.
Thursday, Block and his mother — who drives his pilot vehicle — arrived at the California border. They celebrated by spending some time on the beach and going out to eat in Harbor.
This trek, he said, he’s collected more than 4,250 bags of trash and discovered more than 120 illegal dumpsites.
“Locals tell me I haven’t seen the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It’s 100-plus years of dumping; for people in the hills (years ago), it was common practice.”
“It just breaks my heart,” he said. “It’s hard to think about the amount of resistance and lack of care humans have for our home.”
The filthiest place, he said, is Coos County — his home turf, and where he ran into legal trouble both this year and last.
Just last Friday, a judge found Block guilty of “unlawfully and recklessly creating a risk of public inconvenience and creating a hazardous condition” by leaving bags of trash alongside the road for the state Department of Transportation (ODOT) to pick up. Coos County officials also said his bags were “potential road hazards, which pose a significant financial liability risk to the county.”
“Offensive littering,” Block scoffed. “For cleaning up a county road. I’m not responsible for the trash problem; this is not healthy.”
On the other hand, newspaper op-ed pages along the coast are filled with letters of thanks for Block and his work. In Tillamook, he was nominated by the chamber of commerce as citizen of the year. His work is noted in Lincoln County and Astoria, as well.
Block forged on.
He’s seen a lot; the strangest was a small green bottle, which according to the label, had inside of it a pair of eyeballs that once belonged to a mouse.
Block has had a lot of time to think, too. He muses over the American obsession with buying stuff, our lack of caring about the only planet that can support human life, the fate of man as a species. He wonders who prospers from the squashed redeemable cans that can’t be turned in, but for which someone paid a dime. He wonders if plastic bags and styrofoam can be made illegal to sell in Oregon.
The job can be overwhelming, he said, but he won’t be deterred.
“Knowing I have the (physical) ability, nothing will stop me,” he said. “Having faith in the people who do care, the people who stopped to talk to me. I kind of just have to have faith. What I want is for people to act today, for tomorrow, with me. If I can get accumulation to drop 1 percent ... it’s worth it.”
With every piece of trash, he wondered how to do it.
The bulk of what he picked up was plastic, and the dirtiest places were Coos, Clatsop, then Curry counties, he said. No coastal county stood out as the cleanest.
And on the homestretch, in Curry County, he faced more challenges than usual.
The past week has been “very, very, very cold,” Block said of the freezing temperatures and snow.
In the narrow canyon near Humbug Mountain, he found himself splitting his attention between the dangerous, winding stretch of highway and the work at hand.
Then he learned ODOT had not only laid down plastic sheeting beneath the guardrails there to deter weed growth, but came in earlier this month with heavy-duty mower-tractors and shredded both the overgrown vegetation and all the trash on the shoulders.
“That was beyond unacceptable,” Block said Monday. “There are catastrophic amounts of plastic pieces from that job they did — and that stream shoots right out to the ocean.”
It took him six hours to go 6 miles, and he collected 60 more bags of trash.
It certainly isn’t a profitable venture, either. ODOT picks up the bags, so he doesn’t pay dump fees. But there’s gasoline, camping — and a man’s gotta eat. Block says he’s about $10,000 in the hole from last year, and another $5,000 this year.
“I’m not doing the 101 again; no,” he said. “I hope my work will inspire others to take care of their communities.”
Instead, he’s going to focus on education and prevention.
Block plans to purchase animal tracking cameras and mount them in locations that see the most illegal dumping. He’ll then shame perpetrators by putting the videos on local social media.
“‘Do you recognize this person?’” he said of the potential video he’ll obtain. “‘This person lives in your community. This person is a litterer.’ The data I’ve collected is priceless. I know of multiple sources where trash originates. Now it’s community awareness.”
But all that can wait a week, Block said, so he can recover.
“The problem’s so big, I’ll be doing this the rest of my life,” Block said. “I have no choice. My heart, my soul, my self, everything tells me somebody has to do something.”