The skull, the trash and the challenges of maintaining urban wild areas

A sunset view of Turkey Mountain. (Tulsa River Parks Authority photo)

A sunset view of Turkey Mountain. (Tulsa River Parks Authority photo)

It was a somewhat eventful weekend at my local trail running haunt. Much more than I let on with Sunday’s post about my long run.

The big news, which came down Friday, was that some hikers on the far north end of the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness found a human skull. Yep. That happened.

The reports I’ve seen have said that so far, the skull is all that has been found. They’re narrowing in on an identity, and they haven’t yet seen any signs of foul play. They also say that the remains have probably been there for a couple of years, which might explain why no other bones have been found yet. There are a lot of critters in those woods, so there’s a pretty good chance that the rest of the deceased is scattered all over the place.

A screen shot of human remains found at the north end of Turkey Mountain. (KJRH photo)

A screen shot of human remains found at the north end of Turkey Mountain. (KJRH photo)

I’ve written enough crime stories to know that what probably happened is that the person involved here was a homeless person who likely died from pre-existing health problems, maybe a drug overdose, or from exposure. There is a good possibility that it could be a combination of all three.

Last year, during a cleanup day at Turkey Mountain, a group of us cleared out a one-tent homeless camp. Folks aren’t allowed to camp there, but people do, and there is new evidence of more camps on the north end of the park. That north end is pretty close to Interstate 44 and is easily accessed on foot from a nearby Pepsi bottling plant parking lot.

So that’s one of the potential hazards of having an open wild space inside a city. Not everyone there is hanging out just to get a run, hike of bike ride in.

Needless to say, that was the biggest news out of Turkey Mountain in quite some time. But later that weekend, a more mundane subject came front-and-center: Litter.

A group of us got together to do a trash cleanup day. As the weather has warmed, the volume of garbage has increased, much to my dismay. Plenty of people walk in with water bottles, sports drinks, soft drinks and beer. And apparently, a good portion of them feel OK with leaving their empties in the woods, not far from the trails.

That's about a dozen trash bags full of garbage we hauled out on Sunday. (Tulsa River Parks Authority photo)

That’s about a dozen trash bags full of garbage we hauled out on Sunday. (Tulsa River Parks Authority photo)

This bothers me, mostly because the bulk of us go to Turkey Mountain to be in a natural setting. Other people’s trash degrades that experience and pollutes the woods.

But there were a couple of finds that disturbed me even more.

First, a discarded Gu packet. Most of you know that Gu is a nutrition product used by endurance athletes to pop in some quick calories and energy while on a run or ride. It’s not something your average person eats as a snack.

I can somewhat understand a lapse of judgment from a newbie dayhiker who carelessly discards some trash. But a regular trail runner or mountain biker, who I assume would appreciate Turkey Mountain’s wild nature, leaving behind an empty Gu packet? Someone needs a good smack upside the head.

Then later on, we found a Whataburger cup thrown into the weeds within 100 yards of the trailhead parking lot, and in plain sight of a garbage can. As much as the Gu packet earned my ire, this particular find got to me.

How lazy is this? Whether this person was 100 yards into their walk, or 100 yards from finishing it, would it really have been such a bad thing to hang on to that empty 44-ouncer for just a few seconds longer and deposit its Styrofoam goodness in the trash? I’m not kidding when I say I’d like to punch that person. Hard.

Looking at the topics at hand – the human remains, the homeless camps, the litter – you’d be hard-pressed to link them all together. Urban homelessness and littering are not related.

But what these things point toward are the burdens that come with maintaining urban wild spaces.

The discovery of the skull sheds light on Tulsa’s homeless, which in turn would, I hope, gets people thinking about how to better help the displaced. Some people will want to stay outside, sleep under bridges or camp in the woods rather than seek help. But I’m sure the person who died at Turkey Mountain did not envision her life ending that way (investigators think this was a woman). Most homeless people would rather not be homeless.

An urban wilderness is no place for people to live. But I can see, given the lack of other decent options, where someone might just want to pitch a tent in a quiet part of the woods and be left alone. Perhaps this might get a few people thinking about who the homeless actually are (long-term jobless, mentally ill, recent war veterans, just to name a few) instead of treating them as out-of-sight, out-of-mind, or worse, as some weird, lazy 1930s-era hobo caricature.

As for the litter, it again goes back to what it means to keeping a slice of the wild within a city. It’s hard work. Just the sheer number of people living around Turkey Mountain, as well as the numbers of people who visit it, mean that there is going to be a few maladies that come when human beings interact with nature. In this respect, people need to be taught – and the earlier in life, the better – that trashing natural places is morally wrong.

In summary, the two lessons from the weekend’s events are 1) it looks like we need to find ways to treat people better, and 2) we need to find ways to treat the land better. Maybe then I won’t find empty Bud Light cans in the grass, and hopefully, no one’s bones in the weeds.

Bob Doucette

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6 thoughts on “The skull, the trash and the challenges of maintaining urban wild areas

  1. Trash on the trail really does make me cringe…but wow, a skull on the trail is pretty nuts, and yes also pretty sad. Sometimes everyone forgets how even little things we do impact others. Good of you to lend a helping hand.

    • Ashley, the way I see it is that place gives A LOT to me. If it wasn’t there, I’d have to drive 30-40 minutes more to find trails, and that just won’t do. So it’s a no-brainer to show up and pick up trash for a couple of hours. I’m bummed people litter there.

      As for the skull — the saddest thing for me is that the person who died out there probably died alone. It’s a sad way to go.

      On a brighter note, I hope your training is going well! I’m sure you’re gonna kill it on your next race.

  2. A couple of things. In a way, homeless camps and litter are very much related. There is probably a full dump-truck of litter and filth around the two tents and surrounding area on the north end of the mountain. It is a mess. There is evidence of at least one or two other campsites there where the trash is thick.

    I am not convinced that the person died there. If there were a dead body there, I am sure the smell alone would have called attention to the remains. Or it may be that the body was buried and an animal unearthed it and the rest of the body is still partially or completely buried. I am also very unimpressed with the “search efforts” by the authorities. I have driven by the area a few times, and have ran the area twice, and other than seeing where a few people have walked through, I see absolutely no evidence of any further searching going on. I personally do not think they see this as a fruitful endeavor, and we will probably hear very little more on the story. Yes, it is indeed sad that people have hard times in life and are destitute and living in a tent is the best they can do. I do not know a good answer to what is a serious problem.

    • Pretty good take, TZ. You may very well be right. I do agree with you on the state of those caps. They are really, really bad in terms of trash. I think we might need to get a trash posse going and clean them out. Hate to roust folks out of their camp, but Turkey Mountain ain’t the place to do it, and if you’re gonna sneak a camp in there, you’d think they’d at least keep it somewhat tidy and discreet.

  3. I like to tell myself that the Gu packets were accidentally dropped. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost one on a race before (fell out of one of vest pockets, probably when I was pulling my next snack out), and I know I’ve picked up a full gu someone else had lost. No one would willingly lose their treasured gu to a competitor. 😛

    • I can see this, but it was an empty packet. So it was either accidentally dropped, carelessly stowed or just tossed. The latter two possibilities don’t make me too happy. But you could be right.

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