Local man hunts for suburban treasure while on walks

PEACHTREE CORNERS - First and foremost, Byron Gilbert, 59, wants you to know he's no white knight. But he remembers his doctor's visit of a year ago all too well.

He hadn't been feeling healthy in years; his weight had risen to 279 pounds, his glucose level, after fasting, was 120, his cholesterol 268. When heart disease is in your family's history, those numbers aren't good. When Dr. Darryl Gross asked Gilbert what he planned to do about it, Gilbert's reluctant yet sincere reply was, "What do I need to do?"

"I took this as the bell tolling for me," Gilbert said. "I work with seniors through health, life, annuity and long-term care tools. I know where this leads ... This may be my last shot."

The lifestyle changes began almost immediately, one thing at a time. The doctor wanted him to lose some weight, then start exercising gradually. By mid-November, Gilbert had already dropped more than 20 pounds through dietary changes; then he began walking, 20 minutes at first, just in his subdivision of Peachtree Station.

He'd get dizzy after just a mile. In no time, though, his stamina increased as did his mileage. When he hit the two-mile mark, that's when he noticed litter on the sides of roads.

"I think we train our eyes to ignore it," Gilbert said. "It got there for many reasons and it spoiled what is normally a very manicured subdivision. So I started picking up a few things."

What an understatement.

Gilbert refers to his walks removing trash as his suburban treasure hunt. Over the course of four hours on a recent Saturday morning, Gilbert collected four garbage bags full of trash while walking one of his three routes of more than seven miles. All the trash was removed from state-maintained medians along Peachtree Parkway between the split from Ga. Highway 141 and to the county line border with Johns Creek.

His other routes cover different areas of Peachtree Corners. He's found Dumpsters along the way where he disposes of the trash he garners. He doesn't touch much by hand anymore, instead opting to use one of the four PikStiks he's purchased. That could be because he's uncovered dirty diapers in the past.

On one foray into the woods across from The Forum shopping center, he removed 20 trash bags full of garbage. When the weeds on a median near Dreamland Bar-B-Que got "chest-high like sugar cane," Gilbert chopped them down, "because it needed to be done," he said. He jokes that his methods are a "conservative's way of being green."

Gilbert has found $100 bills, which he kept. Some of the other typical trash items he's removed: drink cans, cups, restaurant aprons, pornography, cardboard, car parts, banana peels, baseball hats, pocket knives, pruning sheers, cellophane and cigarette butts, which pervade the roadsides on well-traveled streets like Peachtree Parkway.

"It is hard to imagine that cars all come with an ashtray," he said.

He's even come up with an idea for those who get into trouble with the law and are ordered to do community service.

"Have someone pick up 1,000 cigarette butts," he said.

As Gilbert's walking mileage increased and those walks became almost daily, the thank-yous from strangers began. Drivers honk their horns as they pass. A woman walking her three golden retrievers on that Saturday thanked him. One time, a man got out of his car and hugged and blessed him. Another gave him an envelope with $5 in it.

"I get the nicest, warm thank-yous I've ever gotten," he said. "I am touched by the appreciation that has been expressed daily."

The United Peachtree Corners Civic Association, the mouthpiece for Peachtree Corners, can't say enough good things about Gilbert's actions. For years, the group has collected voluntary donations from businesses and community members to maintain the landscaping on those state-maintained medians themselves. But as the group's Debbie Mason pointed out, with the recession ongoing, donations have been down and maintenance hasn't been as easy as in years past.

"We have people who care about their quality of life," Mason said. "I don't know anyone who does what Byron does. He did it himself and just kept coming back ... You might drive by and say 'Oh that looks bad,' but who gets out of their car and does something about it?"

"I wish we had more people like him," said the UPCCA's Wayne Knox of Gilbert. "He's inspirational to this community because he's showed us what one person can do."

Gilbert said if people want to get involved, adopting roads like he has is a great way to do it.

"The blessings of our natural environment are rich here," Gilbert said. "There's lots to do to get healthy while fixing up the messes we make."

One year after his transformation began, Gilbert has dropped 12 inches from his waist while losing two inches in his neck. He's completely worn out one pair of shoes and is working on the second. His weight is 184 pounds, his cholesterol 125 and his glucose 91. He said the doctor told him he's added 10 years to his life. But he adds that the changes he made weren't all done solely for his health.

"All the doctor asked for was one hour of walking four times a week. The trash pickup is ultimately the distraction in my exercise program," he said. "My soul and heart are happy. I know I'm doing something to improve the community I live in."