Our Garbage, Ourselves

Scaling Mount Trashmore, sorting through the clues to the mystery of everyday life

She notes that things will never be the same. And the department's most recent strategic plan waxes somber in spots: "Presently, the County continues to lose more waste to other waste disposal providers and faces the grim task of dismantling its recycling programs due to lack of both waste and money."

I shot my first rat twenty minutes before dawn. Or thought I did. When I clomped across the top of the garbage mound and bent to examine my trophy, it turned out to be a Russian-language newspaper flapping in the breeze behind a car bumper. One hundred and forty-seven feet above sea level, your eyes play tricks on you.

After hiking over to the sludge pile and leaving some snowshoe tracks for the night watchman, there wasn't much left to do. I put the pellet gun away. The exposed garbage on top of cell three is pretty minuscule A a few tons of yard waste and magazines, the odd metal chair, a patio grill. It didn't even smell that bad. In the past year, the keepers of the dump have spent $16,000 on aromatherapy. A company called Odor Control Inc. shows up periodically and delivers Odkio Avast 3, a neutralizing chemical. In an unintentional assist, the U.S. Customs Service recently dumped several cases of smuggled cologne.

It was more fun to contemplate the world directly beneath me. Under the hard-packed crust was the ultimate nonabstraction -- a mountain of clues to the mystery of everyday life. Walking here was like sailing above the ocean floor where there's known to be treasure.

To the west suburbia rose like a lost continent, a carpet of bronze sprawling for miles. A cigarette would have been nice, but I knew that in 1986, at a Steve Winwood concert, a woman had accidentally set her hair on fire. The flame from the cigarette lighter she was using had shot upward to a height of some four feet. The concert venue, in Mountain View, California, was built on an old landfill that was leaking methane. Trashmore is similarly full of methane (some benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and chlorinated hydrocarbons, too) and the county is exploring the complicated question of whether to simply vent the gas or attempt to capture it for use or sale.

Then I found a spot on the eastern slope and sat down to wait for sunrise. I've seen this old rerun on three continents and in thirty countries, from freighters, trawlers, catboats, and luxury liners. But when it came, I thought sunrise from Mount Trashmore was the best yet. Old landfills are sometimes turned into parks, and I propose we do the same to Mount Trashmore. I see a broad green field against a blue bay, picnickers and badminton -- and me, with the tiki bar concession. For the record, county officials say that while a park or other public-access area on top of Trashmore isn't out of the question, they have no plans at the moment to create one.

When I got home, I cleaned out my vehicle. There were Heineken bottles and Marlboro boxes, plus a hundred or so candy wrappers -- the archaeology of my wife's chocolate addiction. I threw everything into a plastic bag and dumped it in the trash can. Tomorrow, you see, was garbage day.

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