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Life from the roadside

It’s dirty, stinky, rude, incredibly cold, fulfilling, traditional and sometimes just heart-rending to adopt a highway
Wednesday, January 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:05 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

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During the Christmas season, Julie Naunheim-Hipps decorates the tree planted along I-70 in memory of her son, Matthew. (By BEN FREDMAN/ Missourian)

Spanning from Cove Fort, Utah, to a park-and-ride in Baltimore, Md., Interstate 70 bisects the country. It carves through the heart of the Green River Valley, cuts through the Rocky Mountains and forges through the Central Plains states before reaching the East Coast.

Missourians know their expanse of this road well. Stretching between Kansas City and St. Louis, with Columbia planted roughly halfway between, it is a worn black stripe of asphalt connecting east and west. The 120-mile section of I-70 between Columbia and St. Louis sees, on average, more than 30,000 vehicles each day, making it one of the most traveled roads in the state.

Cars, motorcycles and semi-trucks zip past farms, exit ramps, rest stops and billboards. The trip is punctuated with the sporadic placement of small, bright blue signs, where civic spirit is put into practice.

These are the tangible markers of the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Adopt-A-Highway program. The signs bear witness to the businesses, organizations and families who volunteer to pick up trash along small stretches of the interstate and the web of state highways that snake over and under I-70. Nearly 3,400 groups participate statewide, caring for more than 5,000 miles of road.

For some, it serves their passion for cars; for others, a mandate for public service. For a few, the reasons are more personal and more painful.

All have a story to tell in a drive-by culture.

A caravan of Corvettes

At 8:45 on a windy Sunday morning in November, the lot of a Wentzville Burger King, 81 miles east of Columbia, begins to fill with Corvettes. They arrive in all different hues, and their owners, members of the Route 66 Corvette Club, filter into the restaurant wearing Corvette gear — hats, jackets and sweatshirts. They joke, sip coffee and snack on cinnamon rolls until their president, Randy Moore, arrives to a round of applause.

Moore leads a caravan to a parking spot beneath the Exit 212 safety vests, big yellow trash bags with the MoDOT logo and long green sticks tipped with metal spikes.

The underpass magnifies the sounds of the highway. The whizzing noises of individual cars punctuate the loud, monotonous hiss of constant traffic. Occasionally, a semi zooms past, its great groan lingering in the morning air.

“We brought rubber gloves this time,” someone shouts.

“Oh good,” come several answers.

The crew gets down to business.

Bits of paper, Styrofoam, beer cans. Soda bottles, cigarette boxes, a C-clamp. Minuscule pieces of plastic, a red-and-yellow fishing bobber, a soiled white bra. It all goes into the bags.

“Usually we see a lot more car parts lying around,” says Linda Walker. “That’s what makes it fun — what you find when you come out here.”

Walker and her husband, Scott, are two of 20 founding members of the club, which formed six years ago within the Midwest region of the National Council of Corvette Clubs.

All club activities are done for charity. Route 66 members decided to adopt this particular section of I-70 because it’s just up the road from the General Motors plant. They have been doing clean-ups here twice a year for three years.

“They give us the lot for free to hold our events. They like us racing our GM cars over there,” says Chris Reitz, the club’s treasurer and an office manager for a commercial construction company. “We all feel pretty fortunate in our positions that we get to drive nice cars and want to give back.”

Her husband Tom, the organization’s governor, is an inspector for the St. Charles County Highway Department.

The members split up to tackle both sides of the highway. They move up the hill of the exit ramp, piercing tiny pieces of trash shredded by a recent mowing.

“Frisbee,” shouts Scott Walker as he hurls a hubcap toward the shoulder of the road. A car comes speeding down the exit ramp.

“Scott, be careful!” his wife warns. “There’s a car coming.”

Walker calls her over to point out some road kill — a bloated raccoon.

“I don’t even want to see it. It’ll make me all upset,” Linda Walker says. She pairs up with Bridget Balkenbush, stabbing trash and chatting about a recent NASCAR race. Balkenbush, a petite woman in a cartoon frog T-shirt, dark gray sweatpants and Mickey Mouse earrings, is an animal lover. The plates on her green Corvette read “BZ FROG.” The Route 66 club suits her passions and personality.

“It’s just a closeness that’s nice,” she says, spearing a series of nine Milwaukee’s Best beer cans. “Other clubs aren’t so social.”

The women hear a burst of laughter. Scott Walker hurries over and dangles something silver before the incredulous group.

“You never know what you’ll find out here,” Scott Walker muses as he proudly deposits his find of the day into his trash bag. “Why would somebody throw their vibrator out of the car?”

Linda Walker shakes her head as she drops several Bud Light cans into her bag — a haul she finds less amusing.

“I hope I’m not out here when they’re driving,” she says. “It makes you stop and think — when you see these beer cans — how many people are driving under the influence.” She says she worries about what her husband, a lieutenant for the O’Fallon Police Department, has to face on the job.

But now Scott Walker is all laughs. He points out the small, purple chicory flowers blooming amidst the trash. He pokes at a root beer can that served as someone’s spittoon, releasing the stench of rotting tobacco.

“Eww, something stinks,” yells Balkenbush from 20 feet away. “Who farted?”

Walker moves on and makes another score, tucking this treasure in the pocket of his yellow windbreaker: a proof-of-purchase label from a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. He collects them on his morning jogs and during highway cleanups, then redeems them for gifts.

“He’ll send for stuff, and we don’t even smoke,” says Linda Walker. “Telescope, binoculars, clothes. We’ve gotten some pretty nice stuff.”

Scott Walker is the first to reach the club ‘s Adopt-A-Highway sign — their stopping point. He consolidates trash into a few bags, ties them off and leaves them on the shoulder for MoDOT to collect. After two hours, club members on the north side of I-70 had collected eight bags of trash and some odd items they stacked together like some kind of modern art sculpture: two Buick hubcaps, an exhaust pipe from a semi and a half-eaten ice cream cone.

“If you could just make everybody do the right thing, you could eliminate a vast majority of (trash) for sure,” Reitz, the treasurer, says.

As the club members walk back toward the underpass, a passing car sounds a common road salute.

Beep-be-be-beep-beep. Beeeep-beeeep. Shave and a haircut. Two Bits!

“They always honk at us while we’re out here,” Linda Walker says, smiling.

Back in the shelter of the underpass, the club members regroup, returning sticks and vests to Moore until next time. He pulls a few things from his pocket, eager to share the best finds from the south side of the freeway. Among them, a flesh-colored strip of paper with a woman’s seductive expression peering out (“This used to be pornography, but the mower got it,” Moore says.) and half a CAT scan.

“We just hope she’s in good health,” someone quips.

They head to a nearby Denny’s to celebrate a day’s work well done. Then a line of shiny Corvettes can be seen driving away, down the stretch of cleaned highway.

Up and down Route K

Close to home in Columbia, on a cold Saturday morning in December, five members of Chi Epsilon, the national civil engineering honor society, gather in MU’s Engineering Building East. President Chuck Poston, an MU senior, shows up in a tan, insulated jumpsuit and gives a few quick instructions:

“Don’t play in traffic.”

Then a more serious warning: “If you find like, needles and stuff, let them be. We did find a bag of death last time. I don’t know what was in it, but it smelled like death.”

The engineers pile into two pickups to drive down Providence Road until it becomes Route K. Poston pulls his white Ford onto the shoulder, past a “no parking anytime” sign, and parks. He signals for the black pickup behind him to do the same.

This is only the second time the organization has done a highway cleanup, and the first outing for a few new initiates. The group had done smaller, one-time service projects in the past. For example, when a truck hit a telephone pole and knocked the transformer into an engineering secretary’s roof, they fixed it for her.

Members agreed last May to adopt a highway spot.

Now, the small group of engineers brainstorms the most efficient way to tackle both sides of the road. They agree to split up, with a group starting at each end of their two-mile stretch and working toward the middle. Then they would cross the road and walk back along the other side. That way they would spend less time walking into the cold wind.

As Poston passes out the yellow MoDOT trash bags, someone makes the obligatory joke: “How many engineers does it take ...?”

The black truck heads two miles back up the road, while Poston, senior Ben Teymouri and junior Rachel Hordesky — both from St. Louis and new to the organization — walk south on Route K. The three get to work with little chatter, quickly getting into a rhythm of picking up pieces of trash and dropping them into the yellow bags. The wind is sharp and chilly, numbing noses and gloved hands. Poston picks up a piece of paper.

“Two chili Frito pies, one with jalapenos, one without,” he reads. “They spelled ‘jalapeno’ with an ‘h’ and a ‘j’ on the same page. It’s kind of fun to look at what people throw out.”

They move through a drainage ditch, tucked between small ranch-style homes and open hay fields. They pluck beer cans, bottles, cigarette butts and KFC buckets from the dirt. The ground is uneven, tipping their work boots and tennis shoes every which way. Wind and rushing water have flattened out the long grass, leaving a thick covering that obscures much of the ground.

“The best way to do it is to walk it and feel stuff crunch under your feet,” Poston says. Sure enough. Every few steps comes the telltale metallic clack of bending aluminum, the crunch of brittle plastic or the “thunk” of a beer bottle. Then the rustling of grass as someone digs around to unearth his or her find.

“I’m going to make a personal vow to never throw another cigarette out the car window again,” Teymouri mutters as he crouches down to retrieve a peppering of cigarette butts.

Hordesky bends down, then rises with a smile. “Hey, I found a dollar!”

“Finders keepers,” Poston says. Hordesky shoves the dollar into her jeans pocket.

As they make their way down the road, cars topped with Christmas trees zip by. A green mini-van drives past and honks out a greeting: Beep-be-be-beep-beep. Beeeep-beeeep. Shave and a haircut, two bits!

They pass a small strip mall. A changeable letter sign advertises Patty’s Place, a small cafe. PATT ’S PLACE. COFFEE. OPEN. VINTAG 10.6. The ‘Y’ in Patty has fallen off, and the ‘E’ in vintage is twisted and misshapen. Teymouri stops to replace the errant ‘Y,’ and the others applaud his handiwork.

“You’re a good man,” says Poston as he kicks a half-eaten apple out of his way. “Biodegradable, so we don’t have to pick it up.”

“It’s ridiculous how much trash there is,” Teymouri says.

They come upon a steep embankment that boasts several large pieces of Styrofoam and a few car parts — perhaps the remains of an accident. They make their way down into a deep ditch, careful to avoid thorn bushes. Poston hauls out a tan car bumper with a blue “Christian Chapel Academy values education” sticker.

They’re moving more slowly now. Their bags, swollen with trash, weigh them down. The others join them from the opposite direction, and it’s time to cross over and clean along the other side. After examining the state of the bulging trash bags, Poston decides he’ll have to make the long walk back to his truck to get more. Hordesky and Teymouri press on, walking against the wind.

A Panera cup, a bill long overdue, an antique soda bottle. It has grown too cold to talk. Poston returns with more bags, which are quickly filled with trash that piled up against the barbed-wire fence that separates the shoulder of the road from the fields. Fertilizer bags, Styrofoam, bottles, beer cans. Countless beer cans.

“I just got a stereo, and I’m going to throw all the packing Styrofoam out all over the highway,” Teymouri says in disgust. He and Hordesky try to make sense of the litter. They figure the beer cans came from underage drinkers who didn’t want to get caught.

But the rest?

At the 178-mile marker

Roughly halfway between Columbia and St. Louis is the 178-mile marker. Just past the High Hill exit on the roadside are two blue Adopt-A-Highway signs with weathered ribbons tied around the pole of each. They were erected by the family of Matthew John Naunheim-Hipps. They say only his name. One faces east, toward Matt’s home in St. Louis. One faces west, toward what would have been Matt’s future at MU.

“I never thought I’d be one of those people — people with a sign on the highway,” says his mother, Julie Naunheim-Hipps, 48.

On the night of Sept. 30, 2000, Matt, an 18-year-old senior at Kirkwood High School, was scheduled to meet some friends for a late dinner at a truck stop in High Hill. He was tired from juggling school and three jobs — at St. Louis Bread Co., Wolf Camera and a school portrait studio — and had just finished shooting photos at the school’s football game. He called a friend to see if he could get a ride, but his friend couldn’t make it. So Matt hopped behind the wheel of the black Honda Accord he shared with his mother.

Just after midnight, Matt nodded off. The car drifted onto the grass median between the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-70. Matt jerked awake and veered back sharply. The car flipped off the other side of the highway.

“They said he died instantly — went off the road and overcorrected,” Naunheim-Hipps says. “Thank God that he didn’t go all the way across.”

A scruffy teen with a handsome smile looks out from the small photos she carries with her in a tiny brown leather album attached to her car keys. Her son, frozen at the age of 17.

“I thought somebody had stolen the car — that it wasn’t him,” Naunheim-Hipps says, describing the moment she got the call. She was in Texas visiting her sister, and the two got on the first flight back to St. Louis, where she collapsed.

“My sister said my husband carried me through the airport,” she says.

Going east on I-70, a few miles beyond the long, gradual incline where the road sinks and rises through the Loutre River Valley, a flat stretch leads through New Florence and High Hill. To the north are vast fields, to the south a farm with phalanx after phalanx of young trees. New life a constant reminder of one cut short.

An employee of the tree farm witnessed Matt’s accident and called the highway patrol. Naunheim-Hipps says she wanted to get in touch with him but was never able to. She cherishes visits from Matt’s friends.

“I felt like I wanted to connect — anybody that was there or anything,” she says. “You’re just so excited to see somebody that was a part of him, to have a part of his friendship from other people.”

Naunheim-Hipps remembers her son as a strong person who had overcome some hard times. She had raised him largely alone, without help from his biological father. She dated Matt’s stepfather, Jack Hipps, 62, from the time Matt was 3. The two married, and Hipps adopted Matt when he was 15. That same year, a friend’s dad who had been a father-figure to Matt died. Matt turned to marijuana and alcohol.

“He just withstood all of the adverse things that happened to him,” Naunheim-Hipps says.

But with the support of his mom and stepfather, Matt enrolled in a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation program offered through his high school. He always wore the group’s symbol, a sailing knot called a monkey’s fist, around his neck. The knot curls tightly around a central weight at the end of a rope, and sobriety brought a significant heaviness and power to the end of Matt’s life.

“We really got to know each other better, and I got to see him progress into that man,” Naunheim-Hipps says.

Soon after Matt’s accident, the family went out to the scene to clean up debris.

“We picked up pieces of the car for a couple of months,” she remembers. She hunted for his pager — “a piece of him I wanted” — which a highway patrolman later brought to her. After the scattered remnants of the tragedy had been cleared, the family marked the scene with a small cross built by Matt’s stepbrother, Shane Hipps, 28. Six months later, they had an evergreen from the tree farm planted there. Naunheim-Hipps says she plans to plant a tree to commemorate each year since Matt’s death, but as of now it’s just the lone evergreen.

And she worked with the Department of Transportation to adopt a portion of the highway.

“I just wanted that spot,” she says.

Relatives and friends go out now, to clean up trash, to decorate the evergreen tree and signposts for the holidays, and to feel closer to Matt.

And whenever Naunheim-Hipps drives past one of Matt’s signs, she honks — an old family tradition left over from leaving her mother’s house when she was younger. Beep-be-be-beep-beep. Beeeep-beeeep. Shave and a haircut. Two Bits!

“You really don’t know what those signs mean to people until you become a part of that group,” she says now. “I used to see them but I didn’t really feel them.”

A mother’s pain runs deep, and although the highway carried this ache to her like a vein of sadness, she feels an overwhelming desire to travel it — to reclaim the place of her son’s death.

“Sometimes I would just go out there and sit,” she says. “I just wanted to be out at that spot — the spot where he took his very last breath. I feel that that is really where he is.”


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