By Nolan Lister, Boulder City Review
As a geologist, Dr. Peter Huntoon helped create geologic maps for the majestic Grand Canyon and Canyonlands national parks.
But in his own hometown, seeing the detail and beauty of his surroundings was getting more difficult by the day.
“I got to see the prettiest places and then I retired here, because it’s a nice place,” the Wyoming native said of Boulder City. “But I go out in my backyard and the place is completely trashed. I was looking at it and I thought, ‘Somebody ought to do something about that.’ And then you look around and nobody’s doing anything. If that’s the case you either bitch, or you do something. So we just thought, ‘Okay that’s a good project. Why not?’”
Huntoon and his wife, both 69, retired to Boulder City in 2000 and instantly fell in love with the River Mountain Hiking Trail just north of town, but were appalled at its condition.
“That place was pretty trashy with a lot of tires … there were mattresses out there, old phone poles. So we just started cleaning it up because it was our backyard,” he said.
With merely a shovel, a pickax, a small chainsaw and a little sweat, Huntoon rebuilt sections of the trail that had been washed away by a rainstorm, hauled away tires on his back and cut apart abandoned telephone poles, using the wood to designate trail heads and build steps into areas with steep gradients.
“We just started picking this stuff up and hauling it to the dump and it kind of became an interesting project,” Huntoon said.
No one asked him to and he told no one of the plan.
“He didn’t come to me about it. It was just one of those things that happened,” said Kathleen Kimball, Huntoon’s wife. “He’ll sometimes just take off with a rake and a shovel and a hoe or a pickax or something, and I won’t know that he’s gone. He’ll come back and say, ‘Well I just did this or I just did that and built a few new steps,’ and it’s done.”
Huntoon estimated it would take him three months to fix up the trail.
“We started on it and it took exactly three months of six-hour days, five days a week,” Huntoon said. “We rebuilt it. It’s now the finest preserved Civil Conservation Corps trail in the state of Nevada. It’s been very gratifying.” Huntoon drives a ’66 Chevy pickup truck. Its light blue color is barely distinguishable these days. The truck, like its owner, is an improbable workhorse.
“That’s a Wyoming thing,” said Kimball. “I don’t remember exactly how long he’s had that truck for, but he’s nursed it along for many years.”
At the suggestion of a friend, Huntoon moved his attention to the remaining desert surrounding the city.
He services a 60- to 70-square-mile area.
“We’ve used the city limits as kind of the boundary for our project and we simply went on every dirt road that leads out of here, found all these dumps and started picking them up,” Huntoon said. “It was kind of an amazing thing because I was worried there was a lot of it. Well, there was a hell of a lot of it.”
Huntoon estimated he has taken more than 300 truckloads of waste to the dump, amounting to just about 200 tons.
“If somebody left a load of crap along the road, everybody would do the same thing,” he said. “So if you had a little pickup load out here, in about two or three months you’d have three or four pickup loads. It’s how litter works. It’s just human nature.”
The trash he removes from the desert is anything that people generate as waste. He has removed everything from beer cans and yard waste, to industrial freezers and washing machines.
“The only thing I haven’t found out here is a body,” Huntoon said. “That sounds kind of absurd, but I’ve been expecting to find one sooner or later.”
Everyone dumps trash into the desert, he said.
Government waste found
On a road leading to a Federal Aviation Administration radar station near town, he found about 20 computer monitors that had been thrown over a cliff with Bureau of Reclamation Property labels on them.
“That meant hiking it out of the canyon,” Huntoon said. “That was a real job.”
On multiple occasions, he said, when a Boulder City resident without family died, their belongings were thrown out in the desert.
“The stuff is neatly stacked up and covered in plastic, as if someone is coming back for it, but they don’t,” he said. “It’s sad because you take the boxes to the dump and they break open, and you see all the guy’s life in front of you, old family photos, all their school annuals.”
When Huntoon was younger he collected old paper money, a hobby that still interests him. He writes columns for coin collector journals. He travels to Washington, D.C., three times a year and visits the National Archives and the Smithsonian Institution to research material for his columns.
“It’s just another project that keeps me busy,” he said.
Occasionally, the two “projects” overlap.
“Every once in a while I’ll find money out here,” Huntoon said. “One day I was picking up a bunch of litter. I reached out and picked up a $5 bill. That was nice.”
He laughed at the idea, adding, “Oh, I’m making a lot of money! I’ve picked up 10 bucks in seven years.”
Vehicles require hard labor
Eventually, the former geology professor at the University of Wyoming also found a use for the old acetylene torch he kept in his garage.
“I started getting more serious about picking up some of the worst stuff and ultimately what we tackled were the abandoned vehicles,” Huntoon said. “Since I’ve been doing this, we’ve cut up and hauled away 15 cars and pickups.”
Huntoon said the vehicles take between four and six hours to dismantle.
“What I actually enjoy out here is something that requires a little technical finesse to get it out,” he said. “I really enjoy a challenge and getting something out that’s hard to reach, like a car down in a valley.”
Huntoon keeps before-and-after photographs of every vehicle he hauled out of the desert and stories to go along with each one.
One particularly challenging project came from a station wagon, or an “urban assault vehicle” as Huntoon calls it, half buried in a wash outside of an electrical substation just west of town.
“I was cutting this car up one day and there was this guy on the inside of the fence yelling at me,” Huntoon said, reminiscing. “After a while I realize the guy’s trying to get my attention and he was a worker at that facility. All he was trying to do was say thanks. That was amazing. It was nice. He doesn’t have a vested interest in the place. That wreck had been there for 20 years. That guy had been looking at that eyesore for 20 years.”
Little recognition for task
It is rare that Huntoon is recognized for the work he has done over the last eight years.
“I look like the help,” he said. “I look like the guy that’s cleaning the ashtrays in the casino. People won’t even talk to me. I’m dirty. It’s not the kind of thing where people are saying, ‘Oh, nice job!’ or anything.”
But that’s not what he is looking for.
“He is an unsung hero, someone who is doing this because he has a passion for our deserts and keeping them clean, and he’s doing it because it is the right thing to do, not for any kind of recognition,” said City Councilwoman Peggy Leavitt, who nominated Huntoon for the city’s 12th annual Bill Andrews Award after she saw the before-and-after photographs on the city manager’s desk.
“He’s contributing so much to our community, but he’s unknown because he’s doing all of this behind the scenes.”
The award recognizes Boulder City residents for outstanding service in the community.
Past winners of the award include community leaders like former County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury.
“I really respect and admire someone who has the initiative and the passion to take something on like this, never expecting, never asking for any kind of recognition for the work that he does to benefit the community,” Leavitt said.
Upon receiving the award at the Jan. 24 City Council meeting, Huntoon simply said, “I’d just like to say thank you, very much.”
Huntoon’s wife credits the man’s selfless actions to his quality of character.
“It’s his integrity.” Kimball said. “If you have that you almost don’t need anything else. That is his No. 1 most admirable trait.”
Still, Huntoon insisted he was undeserving and that awards like the Bill Andrews Award belong to “altruistic” members of the community.
“I’m not that altruistic,” he said. “I’m serving my own selfish need to keep in good physical shape and I need something to do. The damn thing just worked.”
No plans to stop
Huntoon does not plan on stopping anytime soon either.
“He’ll be doing this until he can’t do it anymore,” Kimball said. “He’s still very strong.”
There has been an improvement over the years, according to Huntoon. Less people are dumping their waste in the desert and people have been using the trails more often these days.
“If you’d have been here five years ago, you’d have gone home holding your nose. But now, it’s nice,” Huntoon said. “What you see is a lot more people are driving out here on their Sunday four-wheel-drive trip and the best part is that the beer cans aren’t going out the window anymore like they used to.”
And even Huntoon himself takes time to appreciate the work he has done. He and his wife continue to be avid hikers and sometimes go for a ride in the ’66 Chevy in the desert he loves so much.
“I cleaned up my backyard,” he said. “Now I enjoy coming out here.”