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86-year-old man patrols road for litter
Helton cleans up trash on road named after his father
Ed “Red” Helton picks up garbage along the side of Jess Helton Road in North Hall Monday morning. Once a month, Helton picks up garbage along the road named after his father.

He'd be easy to miss if it weren't for the orange vest. When driving on the tight bends of a windy road, Ed "Red" Helton is just a blur.

He's there once a month, walking down the grassy shoulder of a North Hall road, picking up trash along a 4-mile walk. The 86-year-old Helton has kept the tradition for nearly nine years.

"I enjoy seeing the place clean," Helton said Monday as he pulled on the long metal claw in his right hand to pick up a gum wrapper. "My wife and I will be driving and she'll say, ‘You need to pick up trash here,' on the other roads."

But there's a deeper motive for Helton. He's cleaning a street — Jess Helton Road — that's named after his father and built on land purchased by his uncle in 1936. On Monday's monthly trip, he points out a small green house along one curve where his family moved when he was 12. He once plowed for cotton and corn on the land where a neighborhood of large homes now sits.

This stretch was once a country trail. More than 30 years ago, Helton persuaded the county to level and pave the road.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he said with a laugh.

Because with the paved road came the traffic.

And then came the trash.

He watched it pile up and in 2003 decided to do something about it. On that first trip, he filled 26 bags.

The next time, it was seven or eight. Each trip, he gathered less and less as he walked between Cleveland Highway and Odum Smallwood Road. Now just two or three white trash bags do the job.

In the summer months there's a lot less, he said, as fewer students travel down the road on their way to North Hall High School. The street's been a lot cleaner since the recession started, too, he said, and he barely sees the half-full bottles of soda and water that once littered the road.

The street has stayed cleaner because of his neighbors' efforts as well, as others followed Helton's lead and started picking up the street in front of their own homes.

On Monday, it was on the long stretches of the tree line that Helton filled up his bags, picking up an empty cigarette pack, a broken beer bottle and a small wooden fire engine from a child's puzzle.

It's rewarding, he said, to know his monthly ritual has made others take more pride in the street that bears his father's name.

"I have learned in my short lifetime there are a lot of good people in the world," he said. "... There are a lot of people that would like to do this but they don't have time. They work. So I have the time."

Monday's monthly trip came with perfect weather, but even in the winter Helton simply grabs some gloves and a warm coat before heading out his front door.

The orange vest and his garbage bags were provided by the state Department of Transportation. When he fills a bag, he ties it up and leaves it by the side of the road. After walking both sides of the road, he'll head home and pick them up in his truck. Then he sorts through the bags, separating the recyclables before taking it all to the dump.

As he walks from the road into the deep trenches past the shoulder, up the embankments to reach small cans and scraps of paper, Helton hardly looks like a man of 86. He plans to keep doing this as long as he can. If his father, who died at 103, and his mother, who died just a few hours before her 99th birthday, are any indicator, Helton will keep the tradition a while longer.

He knows his father would appreciate it.

"He would like it," Helton said simply. "I'm quite sure he would."