The Things They Throw out on the Side of the Road

I’ve stumbled upon quite a few butt plugs, vibrators, rubbery black dildos, and thrice-rained-upon gorged condoms. I’ve even seen a pair of bloody panties hanging in the reeds like some sort of sad surrender flag. I always shake my head at that stuff...

Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I live, was once considered the land of milk and honey. Andrew Wyeth, that famous American realist who painted “Christina’s World,” grew up here soaking up the rural beauty; Alfred Hitchcock filmed the bucolic scenery for his psychological thriller Marnie. The place was once replete with horse paddocks and endless rolling fields. It was once a cherished, quiet corner of eastern Pennsylvania—a green sanctuary visited by the crowded Philadelphia gentry on the weekends. The air was clean and fresh; the people who lived here got up before the cock crowed and toiled in the fields all day. At night, they soaked their calloused hands in basins and broke bread with their families by flickering candlelight. They bent their heads and said long prayers. They went to bed early and got up again the next day to do it all over again.

It still has a few horse farms. People still flock here to take part in fox “hunts” (don’t worry, PETA, they just track the animals, not kill them), which are nothing more than excuses for drunk rich people to mount their glorious steeds while wearing silly brass-buttoned red coats and Charles Owen-brand helmets and try their darndest to blast bugles between their noxious-smelling guffaws. The Wyeth family has a museum that’s full of Andrew’s paintings of the good old days. The silver-haired retirees still creak out of double-decker tourist buses, drawn in by brochures and websites that say this place is absolutely wondrous.

But it’s starting to turn to shit. 

In recent years, as those God-fearing farmers with their calloused hands began to die off, their families sold the land to a bunch of developers. The county’s carriage roads were widened into four-lane eyesores. Green fields were replaced by rows and rows of hastily built 4,000-square-foot McMansions, vinyl-sided abominations sprung into existence, pockets of bedroom communities shot up from the former greenery. Pastures were paved. Strip malls grew like mold. Soon there were minivans all over the place, since the suburbanites needed to get to get their kids to soccer practice. Fuck the farmers—it was time to buy a quick slice of the country before it became just another ‘burb, time to shuttle those over-planned kids hither and yon. The evidence that the county is easy to find; it’s scattered all over the sides of the highways. Soccer moms, tobacco-chewing Pennsyltucky rubes, IT transplants from Mumbai—they are all leaving their marks here.

As a long-time marathoner, I’ve been intimately familiar with the roads in Chester County for years, which has made me a witness to this sordid transition. Going out for a long run in these parts entails cataloging the absurd, whether you try to or not. Admittedly, roadside trash isn’t limited to Chester County, and there are plenty of disgusting stories about things tossed all across the fruited plain, but the litter I see on a day-to-day basis is particularly gross, if not uniquely terrible, so I took it upon myself to document it. The discarded shit on the roadsides of Chester County comes in two categories: that which is expected, and that which makes you ask, “Just what the fuck is going on here?” Let’s start with the expected garbage.

Most of it is booze—shattered vodka bottles and crinkled beer cans. Drinking and driving is risky in these parts, and the best way to get rid of the evidence, presumably, is to open a window and just chuck it out. After a few days, these items start to smell like ass. Ants discover the sugars and form long trails to the stale beer. Yellow jackets hover around to investigate. Small rodents scare them all away and sniff for half-digested vomit. Sometimes these bottles are just trucker bombs in disguise. If they’ve been sealed and get heated by the sun, the concoction of alcohol and uric acid inside will ferment and the canister will explode, shooting a foamy spray into the middle of the street.

Then comes the roadkill. Most of it is your typical tits-up raccoon or completely squashed squirrel. The worst carcasses for runners to stumble upon are the specimens whose intestinal walls have been punctured—the stench can get unbearable. Sinewy entrails and pools of bile cook like Mennonite scrapple on 100-degree days around these parts. Turkey vultures circle above. Occasionally, a runner will turn a bend and find a panicked bird flapping around on the asphalt, its wing fractured by a hurried soccer mom’s fat tire. I’ve stumbled upon a few of these fellas. The first time it happened, I had to stop and debate the ethics of euthanasia for ten minutes in my head—weighing the pros and cons—but after that initial encounter, raising a stone and putting these unlucky avians out of their suffering was as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. I do it all the time now; I regularly take part in my fair share of mercy killings.

Now onto the unexpected remnants of sex acts, which are surprisingly numerous. The muddied-up sex toys don’t jibe with the region’s reputation for devout Quakers and religious devotion. I’ve stumbled upon quite a few butt plugs, vibrators, rubbery black dildos, and thrice-rained-upon condoms. I’ve even seen a pair of bloody panties hanging in the reeds like some sort of sad surrender flag. I always shake my head at that stuff—no reason to think about it long enough to conjure up a story for how it got left behind on the median.

Then there’s the shit that causes my inner canoe-paddling Indian in the 1970s-era public service advertisement to tear up.

Last year, some savvy employee of a local landscaping company decided that the best way to get the good word out was to chuck white plastic frisbees onto the lawns of a development’s McMansions. Since the McMansion-ites around here don’t go outside that much, the frisbees just sat around until the rains began to wash them down into the gutters, then into the reeds, and, finally, into the east branch of the Brandywine Creek, which is where all trash finds its way eventually. For months, there was a veritable dam of these things—frisbees in the marshes, frisbees lodged between the branches of birch trees, upside-down frisbees spinning in foamy eddies like records on a turntable, croaking frogs sitting on frisbees, frisbees clinging to thorny brambles.  

And finally, there’s what I call the non-sequitur trash—detritus that doesn't make any sense at all. I can understand why the secretly alcoholic soccer moms or the sex-addict Pennsyltucky rubes don’t want to be caught dead with their bottles of booze and their vibrating, Chinese-made phalluses, but I can’t figure out the presence of things like discarded orthotics or a set of rusted steak knives. Over a period of six months, I’ve witnessed the complete decomposition of a plastic sack of maggoty meat. I’ve observed the rusting of an electrical socket plate and have seen the sun slowly bleach a Happy Meal toy. Sometimes I act as scavenger, like when I chanced upon CDs featuring Bob Seger’s greatest hits or Radiohead’s OK Computer. Mostly, though, I just let that stuff be.

Littering is a way of life here. Americans have been bred to believe that there’s always another green patch of land down the road. We can shit where we eat, because we can always just go eat somewhere else if the place where we were gets filled with feces. Our trash will always just magically wash away, wending its way into the streams and, eventually, the ocean. Or the paths I run along.

Lucius Brockway is a writer who can be found here.