“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy once said, expressing an idea adopted by local nature lovers.

Pooh-poohing that there is anything extraordinary about her efforts, Carol Gregory persistently sustains her quiet and systematic efforts to keep Valley roads clean, one mile at a time. And as it turns out, the process is more rewarding than dirty.

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“It was so easy,” she says of the process to get state and local permission to start her trash collecting group along local roads and highways. “I thought there would be enormous bureaucracy I’d have to work around.” As it turns out, it is as easy as a phone call, costs nothing to do and all the necessary supplies and hard labor are provided by local authorities.

The venture was all born of a love of nature. Gregory is keen on long bike rides with her husband and leisurely walks with Precious, her dog. An admitted clean freak, the Ballard resident says you don’t really notice how filthy our roadsides are until you travel along them outside your car. “I like to see everything neat and tidy,” she says. Gregory noticed the signs along Highway 246 – the local women’s hikers adopted section of the roadway – and it spurred her interest. So she called up Sybil Kline and asked if she could join them, not for the hiking, but for the cleaning. For about three years now, once a month on a Tuesday morning, Gregory joins the hikers along their adopted route.

“They’re great,” she says enthusiastically. “They’ve turned out to be a great group of friends.”

Gregory always shows up, says Kline. She picks the most difficult part of the route to attack, is especially thorough, leaves nothing behind and is always last to come back in. It wasn’t until Gregory had been cleaning with the hikers for several years that she started joining the ladies for a hike.

That’s because of her work schedule, says Gregory. She has been an agent for Your Travel Center for more than 20 years. A few years back, they closed their Solvang office, leaving Gregory to work from home. She still loves her job and spends just as many hours working at it; only now she has more control of when those hours are. She can free up daylight hours to help keep the Valley beautiful.

The roadside cleaning is something the women hikers have been doing since the inception of the State Highway program. Even with the monthly cleanup efforts, Gregory kept noticing there were other “un-adopted” roads in need of a little TLC. So she created her own group, which rather than choosing an assigned section of road, look around to where the need is greatest and attack that.

One particularly filthy area she has tackled several times is McMurray Road, in Buellton, across from the McDonald’s restaurant where truckers park and – all too often – use our streets to dump their trash. “And bio-waste,” says Meagan Tambini, wrinkling her nose.

Tambini is one of Gregory’s regulars. “Trash is really my thing,” she says of her pet peeve. She can’t understand it, how people can live or drive through a place as pretty as this, and then open their windows and toss items that could easily wait until a garbage can is available at the next stop or gas station.

“I love it,” says Sandy Sullivan, another Gregory regular. Why is a lot harder question to put an answer to. As she sits in her car packed with volunteers, Sullivan shares the question with the others. In a minute, they will be dropped at locations along the route. Cars are left along the way, so the walk is always one direction and so supplies don’t have to be carried far.

“Well,” offered Ken Mills, “if you don’t like it, you wouldn’t be here.” His comrades nod in agreement, but still, that isn’t why. “The pay is perfect,” he says, and they all laugh, but there is a certain truth to his words.

“It’s nice to know that as a group we can make a difference,” says Louise West. She has helped before, but doesn’t group herself among the regulars. “What motivated me to join was Carol – she’s the driving force.” To that, there is uniform agreement.

Now with an ever-varying group of volunteers, Gregory tackles a different section of road, every other month. “It’s just a few hours six times a year,” she says. It’s a chance to be outside, hang with friends and give a little back to the community. When they are done for the day, most will meet up for coffee and share the carrot cake Gregory baked for the occasion.

For anyone who might want to start his or her own group, the process is pretty simple. Gregory identifies the section of road she thinks needs attention. Then she either calls the state or local offices in charge of that road to get a permit for the day. Then the bags, vests, hard-hats and even picker-uppers are delivered.

She has a stack of vests in her hand. Lightweight, nylon and covered in reflective strip. Each comes new in a sealed bag. Gregory has extras – just in case. On this day, she’d hoped to find 20 committed volunteers, but only 19 signed up. Then 23 showed on the morning of the pickup, eager to get going.

“It’s a good day for picking,” says Nick Wilson, who starts filling his bag as he waits for the others to gather supplies and load into the car.

“The picker-uppers are so great. They get everything, even cigarette butts – they’re really accurate,” says Gregory. You get exercise walking, but there is no bending over and no heavy lifting.

Neil Kline, whose wife, Sybil, does most of the cleanup organizing for the women hikers, tags along, bringing with him a sense of humor. He shrugs his shoulders in dismay at the section of road. “It’s a mess.” Bending over, he gently holds a wildflower aside and uses his gloved hand to pull away the bits of debris at the flower’s base. When the bag is full, he’ll tie it up and leave it. The state will come and fetch them later in the day.

If a dead animal is found, says Sybil, there is a number to call and someone else comes to get that, too. It’s not nearly as dirty a process as you might expect, they agree – though Gregory suggests that volunteers wear gloves, just in case. On this cold morning, most do.

What the cleaners take away from the experience is “a feeling of accomplishment,” says Gregory. Unlike some other volunteer opportunities, participants get to see an immediate result from their efforts. Being outside and being with friends are simple by-products of the effort.

Gregory’s group doesn’t have a name, despite the county’s efforts to get them to adopt one. “We don’t need the notoriety. Just doing it gives us pleasure,” she says.

On this day Gregory, and many of the woman hikers (and husbands) who signed on to help, take on a section of road that another company has officially adopted. For whatever reason, Gregory says, they haven’t gotten to it. The economy has hit many businesses hard in many ways; she isn’t trying to make anyone look bad – just to make the roadways look better.

And that, she says, is something she’d like to see people still seeking jobs try doing. It doesn’t cost anything, boosts morale and shows potential employers that you’ve been doing something constructive with your time, offers Gregory.

“It doesn’t have to be trash, if everybody would chip in, and not expect things to be dished out to them,” she pauses, smiles. Taking a deep breath, Gregory continues: “It’s something we should all do.” It just one small thing this growing group of nature lovers does for their community, their country. It’s their way of giving back.