By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Jose Estrada from Cal rans presents Dan Russell with an award in appreciation of his tireless efforts
February 15, 2018 (Pine Valley/Campo) – Dan Russell worked 27 years for the San Diego Fire Department. Now he’s a local hero for a different reason – working tirelessly to clean up trash along Interstate 8 and other roadways in East County.
“I’ve been doing it now for 12 years,” says Russell. “I would say I average five hours a day, six days a week. I pick up just under a thousand pounds a month…real close to 10,000 pounds a year; over 100,000 pounds since I got started.”
His friend, Bill Jones, contacted East County Magazine about Russell, whom he lauds as a “true hero.” Not only does Russell volunteer keeping roadways clean, he also gives of his time at Mountain Health community center each summer to teach children about the didgeridoo, an Australian musical instrument originated by Aborigines in the Outback.
An acquaintance who once had to pick up litter along a freeway as community service for a traffic ticket once told Russell she didn’t understand why anyone would this task if not required to, he recalls.
“I do it because I’m tired of our freeway being the trashiest one in the nation,” says Russell, who got inspired after seeing clean highways in Oregon and Washington. “The goal is to put a little gold back into the golden state, especially Interstate 8, because I travel that every day.”
At first, he did cleanup as an individual. Then a California Highway Patrol Officer stopped him for illegal parking. “He said ` you can’t park here – and if you don’t leave, not only will I cite you, I’ll arrest you,’” Russell recalls.
Then he learned about an adopt-a-highway program through CalTrans. At the time, Russell was a member of the Campo Minutemen, so adopted a section of highway in their name south of Interstate 8 east of Japatul near the Pine Valley bridge. After the group dissolved, Russell teamed up with two friends to put their own first names on the sign. “If you use your name, no organization, it doesn’t cost you anything,” he says.
They’ve been busy ever since, on the two-mile stretch from mile marker 38.5 to 40.5 at an elevation of close to 4,000 feet.
The most common items – and most dangerous—dumped alongside the highway are cigarette butts, which he attributes to vehicles no longer being made with ashtrays. He also finds plenty of beer bottles and other trash, as well as occasional treasures such as painted rocks that he’ll relocate for others to find and enjoy.
“One time a lady stopped and gave me a hundred dollars and said thanks,” he recalls, adding that nowadays, CHP officers stop and thank him, too. He's also received an award from Cal Trans in recognition of his efforts.
Asked his age, Russell quips, “halfway to 150.” He turned 75 in December. Far from slowing down, he’s now cleaning even up even more roadways including sections of Buckman Springs Road in Campo and Highway 52 in Santee. (photo, left, litter in a Campo storm drain.)
Next up, he says, “We’re in the process of getting permits for 52 up there in Kearny Mesa.”
In his spare time, he helps out at the Mountain Health community center, including volunteering to conduct a craft workshop each summer for children to raise money for services helping kids.
“I used to be involved in playing and making didgeridoos as well as boomerangs,” he explains.
He started with a boomerang business, since he enjoyed throwing boomerangs. (View video of his boomerang demonstration.) Then he met Richard Harrison, known as the “Boomerang Man,” in Louisiana while traveling across the U.S. “All these boomerangs were hanging on the wall, different types, and he had a long tube,” he recalls.
Soon,Russell closed his boomerang shop and started making didgeridoos. “I went on the Internet and found a popular band in San Diego called Indigenous.” He took lessons from a band member and then went to a didgeridoo festival held by a man in Oregon. “He and his wife lived in a yurt,” he recalled.
He also attended a didgeridoo festival in Joshua Tree that attracted people from Australia, “everything from a solo Aborigine coming over here playing didgeridoo and performing Native dances from the outback to modern New Age combinations of flute, didgeridoo and guitar,” he says.
His workshop at summer camp for kids at Mountain Health teaches kids about the instrument’s history and of course, includes a solo performance of the unusual instrument as well as a boomerang demonstration. He's also been known to provide spooky sound effects on the deep bass-sounding didgeridoo for a Halloween event. (Hear the Halloween didgeridoo sound effects .)
As for his work picking up trash, his pet peeve is companies that adopt a highway section for good public relations, but rarely show up to do the cleanup. He’d like to see more enforcement by Cal Trans of the requirements, shorter and more manageable segments available for adoption, and a lot more volunteers.
He doesn’t know who will carry on someday with his roadside cleanup volunteer work, which he acknowledges is “quite a commitment,” adding, “It never ends."
Learn how you can adopt a highway from CalTrans at http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/maint/adopt/.