Trash Trip

Exploring waste, from coast to coast.

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    Karen Hawes

    Okay, I’ll say it, “The Trash Lady.” Or, better yet, “The Queen of Clean.” Call me what you want, I’m sure there are some less-than-flattering descriptions to use, but I am kind of partial to, “Trashtronaut.”

    Anyway, I have a personal website with entirely too much information about myself, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, and what I find interesting. Hop on over to, to fill in countless hours of reading.

    There are some educational things there too and I’ve even received a handful of random messages, from complete strangers, who have thanked me for putting all of this stuff in one place. There’s something there for everyone

    The Idea

    It was a dark and stormy night. . . well, not really.  I think I was driving in my car, heading to Knoxville.  The idea for this trip began in 2006 but it could even be dated back to 2004.  However, I’ll start with 2006; during a trip to the northwest, a few months before I made it to Knoxville.

    I was driving around  Olympia, WA and needed a place to camp out for a few days.  I headed into the hills, looking at my little map and following the road signs to what was supposed to be a camping area.  After driving nearly an hour, winding up, and up, and up, around deforested zones and forested zones, I decided to quit searching and start car camping.  While there, I discovered something that was lurking around in all of the places I’d been to before, in every country, every state, and every city I’d seen.  Trash.

    There was a quiet spot, or so it would seem, not too far from where I was parked for the next few days.  After scaling a shallow gulch and small berm, I hopped down a tiny slope into a flat wooded area and took in the sights and smells of the juicy northwestern lushness.  However, I also found an uninvited guest: beer cans.  They were everywhere.  After gathering them up into a pile, scavenging for the ones hidden under leaves and behind ferns, I got to thinking.  This all drove home that lurking image I’d seen in so many places – trash, left behind or otherwise moved into every possible corner of living and non-living spaces.  I was saddened by the realization that this is how “our world is,” no matter where we are or how far we think we are from it.

    That was early summer; by late fall I had an idea.

    Being a data-freak engineer, I wanted to understand the boundary conditions of trash.  I figured I’d start out with the basics: observe and report.  But, gathering one set of data is not enough – I wanted comparative data.  So, I decided I’d compare my observations along one track – one which would include more than just trash but also that of culture – starting at the top of the continent and ending at the bottom of the next continent.  The Americas, in one fell swoop!  A “clean sweep,” so to speak.

    The name was originally going to be “Basuras,” only because “” was already taken.  I found that this name, albeit cool sounding, was often lost in translation.  So, after many, many iterations – over more than a year of intermittent thoughts – I settled on “Trash Trip.”

    The core concept has always remained the same: travel from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina.  The specifics have varied.  I was going to drive it all myself; only to decide on driving the US/Canada part, sell my car when I’m in the southwest, and travel by “other means” to all points south.  I have a large network of friends, from work, school, traveling, and (above all) skydiving.  To add to my network, beginning in April 2007, I’ve been using  Photos and video were always in the plan and now I’m adding GPS/Google Earth and a podcast.  I’m fully expecting there to be additional changes, as I move south.


    Questions, questions, questions. . . everyone has them, especially me! Here are the questions I often hear, with the hopes that you will find what you’re looking for before asking it of me.

    Question: How can you afford to do this trip?????

    OMG. This is the number one question of all. Period. The short answer is, “If you have to ask, odds are you won’t understand the longer version of my answer.”

    Here’s the medium-length answer, “Live in a manner that is nearly opposite of everyone you know and you will be able to afford to travel.”

    Now, the longer version of the answer,

    Cut all possible overhead, then cut some more. Go lean and mean, then get meaner and leaner. You will not have any of the conventional conveniences and there will be “relative discomfort” in your new lifestyle – when compared to your old colleagues. This “relative discomfort” is offset by the rewards of the freedom you will experience and the ways in which you will spend you time. After all, it is ‘your money or your life.’ You will make new friends who share in this lifestyle and they will not ask you about how you can afford to travel so much; instead, they will share their stories with you.

    There will be plenty of people who will become jealous of you, even acting out on it in mind-boggling ways that may hurt your feelings. Some will lash out with remarks like, “Wish I could quit my job.” Well, that’s their problem and the result of the choices and actions they’ve made in the past.

    This is their reaction to their dissatisfaction with their life, when compared to yours. You will find out who your true friends really are, and who you can trust, in the end. Stay positive, it is worth it. Perhaps the others will let go of their anger but don’t hold your breath – anger is an industry in itself.

    I left my job in order to take care of the work I was doing outside of my job. I worked hard, saved furiously, and live frugally (notice how I used the present-tense for “live frugally” – it’s an ongoing process). Along the way, I have chosen to spend 1-2 months each year with my family; these will be the times I will fondly remember, instead of the new stuff I could have bought with the money spent on getting to and from their homes. Life is nothing but a series of choices we make, conversations we share, and acts we perform. These are the bottom-line figures by which I measure my success.

    Money only buys you things – you cannot get back time, so spend it wisely.

    Question: “Why are you doing this trip?”

    Because I want to and I can. Actually, because I made it so that I can do it. It was originally supposed to happen in 2008 but I delayed it until 2009 for several reasons; as it turned out, things are incredibly better, for me and for the trip, so the wait was worth it!

    More specifically, I have traveled a lot already and noticed trash everywhere I went. Some places had more; some had less. After a brief car camping experience outside of Seattle, in the hills, I came to question just how bad/good is it – from place to place. Then, I began to wonder how things varied, from culture to culture. Eventually, I thought to compare things, from top to bottom of the Americas, to see it for myself.

    This is not a masters thesis or an official report of any sort – this is one person on a quest for information. It isn’t an inquisition, to point fingers at anyone; this is to simply look, ask, and share. I respect those who are dealing with the “situation” because, after all, we all participate in this in one way or another – some participate in it a little more directly than most of us and make the trash disappear. The classic, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I would like to see more of us putting this back in sight, so that it is part of our conversations. Until we, as a majority, come up with something else, then things will remain the same and what I find today will be in place for quite some time. Love it or change it.

    What comes of this, the trip when all is done, remains to be seen. I have my hopes and ideas, which I will pursue, to try to make a bit of difference both here and wherever I find a kindred spirit. If you’re one, let me know.

    Question: “Are you really 40 years old?”

    Yes. According to my birth certificate.

    Question: “Where are you going?”

    As mentioned in the About page and other places, I’m going from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina. More precisely, Deadhorse, Alaska and Ushuaia, Argentina.

    Question: “Are you an environmentalist?”

    Not really. I’m actually an engineer; more specifically, a mechanical engineer with a master’s in telecommunications.

    I’m no more an environmentalist than the average person; we all want clean air, water, and land – that could easily qualify a person as “environmentally concerned.” We don’t want “bad stuff” in our backyards or in our bodies, otherwise we’d be buying gasoline or antifreeze and drinking it – it’s cheaper than bottled water, in many places (at $1 per 500ml, single-serving bottle, you do the math).

    In my mind, we’re all environmentalists. It’s just that some proclaim it more loudly than others and act on it more strongly; occasionally giving the name “environmentalist” a bad reputation of being equivalent to “extremist.” Unfortunately, the extreme actions of a handful of so-called extremists generally result in extreme reactions of a larger group of so-called non-extremists – none of which makes for a happy ending. Then again, my traveling and inquiring may appear as “extreme” to some; since it is doing something, while others quietly go about their daily routine. It’s all relative.

    But, going back to my background in engineering, I do view things a certain way. It’s not about whether or not I’m right or wrong – it’s simply how I view things. I am doing my own analysis of the situation; taking “data” samples along my route and comparing it as best I can. I hope that the sharing of this information will get more people thinking about their impact on the whole “system.” In my control systems class, many years ago, I learned that it’s all about inputs, outputs, and how the inputs and outputs are altered by the control system, creating the desired (or undesired) results of the system. We each have a hand in managing all three things, in our own tiny ways.

    It’s also a cumulative thing. A lot of people doing a little thing results in a big thing. A few people doing a big thing usually results in a small thing, which dies out quickly. Without the “critical mass” of large numbers, the results are fleeting at best. This is nothing new. Ben Franklin was well-known for his appreciation of the cumulative effect. That’s why I think it’s important to spread the word, getting more people on board and re-thinking their part in the “system.” Without this, it’s like trying to steer the Titanic with a 125cc outboard motor.

    So, again, I am no more an environmentalist than you or the average Joe/Josephine and I think we’re all in the same boat.


    I am ever thankful for the kindness of strangers. Most everywhere I go, I meet strangers. These strangers sometimes become close friends. After all, other than family, everyone is a stranger until you meet.

    Everyone’s kindness and generosity will determine many outcomes of my travels and this website. To them, I want to extend my thanks, via this page, listing everyone along with whatever information about them I can provide (regarding my meeting them and their help with this endeavor).

    Expect many updates to this page. . .

    The Sounding Board

    These are the people who have taken the time to let me bounce ideas off of them and who have thrown their ideas at me. There have been two people who have been there since the beginning – and even before that:

    Don Manelli – Los Angeles, CA

    Mark Eveslage – Mill Valley, CA

    In addition to these two, there have been others who have helped me in gathering specific information about the more technical side of things, as well as adding their two cents – which I always aim at spending wisely:

    Chris Ashford –

    Roger Gilbertson –

    Nick Baggarly –

    Marc Miller –

    Russ Turley –

    Tom Rooney – Portland, OR

    Podcast People

    In my effort to provide more than just my thoughts and ideas on the topic of trash, I am forming teams to help me while I’m on the road. As part of the fun, I will have segments of the podcast to let them share their contributions to the whole effort.:

    The Surf Segment

    A core aspect of the whole trip, regarding where I’m staying each night, will involve, a.k.a. “CS.” In order to pull this off, fellow CSers are going to help me search, select, and collaborate within the CS community, lining up places for me to stay and contacts to meet in the cities where I will travel.

    Tom Rooney – Portland, OR

    Luis Saenz –

    Virginia Morales (non-CS) – Manassas, VA

    Claudia Morales – Guatemala City, Guatemala (pending)

    Deigratia Daniels – Atlanta, GA (pending)

    Maps, Maps, Maps (a.k.a. Michael, Michael, Michael)

    As I track my GPS coordinates, I will also share them online using Google Maps (and Google Earth). Along my ground trace, I will add photos, videos, links, and more, highlighting places I’ve visited. There will also be the ability for fans to contribute their photos, videos, and more to the maps. A team of friends will be helping me keep this feature fresh:

    Michael Briggs – Destination unknown (lives on a boat)

    Michael Bergen – Alameda, CA

    Michael Gregg – Mountain View, CA (pending)

    The Facebook Look

    I am still developing this web presence but there is a Facebook page for “Trash Trip” and a profile of the same name. I will be able to post updates to the status, for the profile, and co-administrators will help manage the fan postings to the Page. I am looking for people who are interested in this role and I have a few people in mind. If you are a friend of mine, let me know if you’re interested in taking on this role.

    Your Name Here – Send me an e-mail, via my personal website


    This list is pending and anyone who is interested in helping out here, please let me know.

    Your Name Here – Send me an e-mail, via my personal website

    Inside Information

    These are people who are in-the-know about all things trash. Their insights have helped, or will help, me in putting out information which is based on years of experience.

    Risa Buck – Ashland, OR

    Donald McSwain – San Diego, CA

    Vicki Figone – El Cerrito, CA

    Additional Contributors

    This list is for those who have helped me out in various ways of making contacts that have made a significant difference: making a new contact for me, an “insider” to information that has helped add to the content or has lead to other contacts, and more.

    Kelly and Sherman Lamb

    Rene Steinhauer

    Beth Bergen

    Help Out

    My goal is to increase awareness about trash, in an intriguing and even entertaining way; inviting people to get involved, in what ever way they might enjoy, through the channels available. It’s not about finding who to blame; it’s about understanding how we’re all involved and maybe finding a few good solutions in the process.

    The possibilities for helping out in this event are many and evolving. Making “little work for many hands” is my approach, where the cumulative-effect is what makes the difference. If you are reading this, I hope you find something which appeals to you:

    • Contacts, contacts, contacts — what will make this all happen depends on making connections with people in each community, preferably before I arrive. I am looking for people who want to help coordinate anything from a place to stay for the night and a ride to the next town to arranging interviews and coordinating community events. This can involve any type of contact including people who may or may not be involved with waste-management; people interested in improving their community; student/youth groups looking to get involved in some manner (online or hands-on).
    • Written-content contribution — Researching regional and global news and industry about waste management. This would be posted online, through text, links, and even included in the weekly podcast. Fact-check the info, as best as is possible, please.
    • Video-content contribution — Creating or finding fun, interesting, informative clips, showing how we view trash, in how it is generated, handled, and ultimately disposed.
    • Travel companions — This is a shoe-string budget, my shoestrings that is, so this goes to those who can pay their way and who want to be a part of something unique. I am not looking for one person to travel from top to bottom; there will be many short trips, so I am looking to travel with different people from place to place, who will help me shoot video, etc. Travel will be simple: by car from Alaska to Mexico, then sell the car and travel by whatever means available from there on south. Carpooling with friends, family, and friends of friends and family is the preferred mode of travel. Did I mention making contacts?

    I am not party to the waste-management industry or any environmental program; I am just one person, with an appetite to understand plus some skills to back it up and maybe make something of it.

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