FAIRBANKS - At age 40, Karen Hawes felt it was time to launch a trashy new lifestyle. And what better place to start, she figured, than her birth state of Alaska.
So Hawes packed her Honda Element in May and headed north from California. During the next 10 months, the budding "trashtronaut" plans to seek out Dumpsters, salvage yards, landfills and trash pits on two continents, learning something about people and the garbage they leave behind.
The trip began two weekends ago on June 20/21, when she traveled to Prudhoe Bay for a peek at the local landfill. After a week in Fairbanks, she left on Monday for Dawson City, the next stop on a southward journey she is planning all the way to Argentina. Hawes hopes to complete her trip back to the U.S. by spring 2010.
Trash is an odd obsession, the personable Hawes said, but the thought of spending the next year immersed in it is thrilling.
"It's more personal curiosity than anything," she said. "I enjoy meeting people too, so this fills that need."
There's no master plan behind Hawes' junk journey, although she intends to chronicle her adventures on a Web site, www.trashtrip.com. Hawes has pondered a book about the trip, but she has no solid plans other than to hit the road and explore.
Hawes has been living a minimalist lifestyle since quitting her engineering job with Lockheed Martin in 2005. Her vagabond approach consists of "couch surfing" with friends while traveling the country in her Element.
Hawes was born at Fort Wainwright, which she felt made Alaska an appropriate place to begin her trip.
She said her fascination with trash began during a trip near Olympia, Wash., in 2006, when she found a seemingly remote site to set up camp. But after finding beer cans strewn across the area, Hawes said she realized how hard it is to get away from people and their junk.
The spark for a trash trip smoldered for a few years. Since everyone leaves garbage behind, she figured an objective "observe and report" approach to junk would be a good way to glean something about various cultures along the way.
The early stages of her trip have already made an impression. Hawes was interested in the struggles that come with disposing of trash in Prudhoe and said the fans of Fairbanks' transfer stations were fascinating to behold.
Checking out the yards of a handful of local garbage hoarders also made an impression, she said.
"It's just amazing what people will amass," she said. "Acres and acres of useless junk, but they can't give it away - it would be like giving away a child."
Hawes plans to continue her garbage reports through podcasts, photos and musings on her Web site.