Santa Rosa man on quest to clean local creek
Last spring Robert Ashe had started riding his bike from his Santa Rosa home to his job as a school custodian in Sebastopol.
He picked a route that took him mostly off of city streets. He rode from the Prince Memorial Park near Santa Rosa City Hall, down onto the greenway and west where he’d connect to the Joe Rodota Trail.
Ashe, 63, took in the beauty of the creek, of the waterway, of the system of paths meant to take users a little bit out of the city and give them a dose of nature. But on his rides Ashe took in other things too: potato chip bags, beer cans, soiled sweatshirts, needles.
“I’m going, ‘Are you joking?’” he said of his initial reaction. “I had no idea it was so trashy in so many different ways. I was getting really upset.”
But instead of taking a different route or just grumbling, Ashe got off his bike, got a bag and gloves, and got to work.
“I thought, ‘You know, just settle down, and rather than throwing stones, get involved,’” he said.
‘It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous’
Since May, Ashe has been on the greenway, a few hours each morning, six days a week.
He follows generally the same path each morning, covering the same ground he covered the day before, each day filling up bags and bags of trash. He worries if it’s not picked it up, it will eventually end up in the ocean.
“Ultimately my goal, my number one goal, is the environmental tragedy that is going on and trying to mitigate that as best I can,” he said.
Ashe sees it as both a looming tragedy but also a painful missed opportunity. The creek is an unused, or forgotten, or overlooked, or taken for granted gem, he said.
He sees the trash and neglect keeping people away from the waterway and system of paths created to augment it.
“This is one of the premier spots in the city,” he said. “My business head comes out and I look at this and think ‘Oh my god, the amount of traffic you could create, tourism, the utilization of this whole greenway area.’”
Every morning Ashe sees what the greenway is, but he can’t shake what he thinks it could become.
“I don’t see anything unreasonable with having high expectations,” he said. “It has the potential to drag in tourism, you go eat downtown, in the Railroad Square or Roseland then say, ‘Let’s go take a walk.’ It’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous.”
“For some reason or another, we have decided to just let this go,” he said.
‘I don’t think anybody doesn’t want to do the right thing’
Keeping the vigilant schedule he keeps, Ashe is bound to meet people. He strikes up conversations. But he doesn’t let much get in the way of his progress. He walks faster than your average bear despite toting a plastic bag that grows increasingly heavy as the morning wears on.
On this morning, working the north side of the trail down closer to the water than the main path, a man rides by on his bike, and calls out, “Thanks Robert!”
“Morning Kevin!” Ashe calls out over his shoulder.
Kevin rides with his daughter on the greenway, dropping her off at day care, Ashe said. He stopped to talk to Ashe recently and Ashe told him of his work. Now they exchange greetings.
He bids good morning to passersby.
When he comes to an area where tents are erected or where people experiencing homelessness are sleeping, he picks up things around the outer edges of the area but doesn’t venture too close.
While he is quick to pick up wood and planks he finds (the resultant ash from fires blows into the waterway, he said) he doesn’t touch the cardboard he finds. He knows people don’t burn it, they sleep on it.
“I respect the fact that they are sleeping on concrete,” he said.
“There are some really great people down there, they are just sweet souls,” he said. “Unfortunately, they have made some bad decisions.”
On this day, he found one used needle. The day prior it was two. The city has issued him a container to collect them and keep him safe. In his car, he has a container filled with 16 spent needles.
Sometimes he talks with folks who sleep on the pathways he cleans. Sometimes he has real exchanges; other times he doesn’t have time or people aren’t in the mood.
When we meet early Tuesday, he moves our conversation down the path and away from a man I had not noticed was sleeping nearby.