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‘Trash lady’ walks (and cleans) 4 miles a day

There are a couple of obvious reasons why someone would walk four miles a day: for exercise and because of a love for the outdoors.

Doris Hennen admitted those are the main reasons she has walked four miles a day in Willmar for the past 10 years, but there is also another objective.

Doris Hennen has always loved walking and the outdoors. She has walked four miles nearly every day in Willmar for the last decade. When she noticed all the trash laying around on her walk, she decided to start collecting trash, and now collects trash every day on her walk. Photo by Scott Thoma

“When I first started walking from my home on the southwest side of town, I would marvel at all the litter and think to myself, ‘Can you believe this?’” she explained. “It occurred to me that the garbage wasn’t going to pick itself up. So, I grabbed a plastic bag one day and started picking up trash as I walked. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Depending on the day, Hennen may have to empty her bag of collected trash several times during the 75- to 90-minute walk.

“There has never been a day where I didn’t find any garbage at all,” she said.

Because she walks nearly every day, Hennen has been seen by numerous passers-by, especially since a portion of her route takes her parallel to well-traveled 19th Avenue that runs through the city of Willmar east to west.

“Someone will recognize me from out walking and say ‘Hey, there’s the trash lady,’” Hennen laughed. “But I guess it’s better than being called the trashy lady.”

Hennen, 60, grew up outside of Richmond and graduated from Rocori High School in 1976. She is employed as an emergency nurse at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar. In June, the personable Hennen will have been a nurse in Willmar for 40 years.

And as a nurse, Hennen knows the value of exercise and began walking to maintain her health. She has walked in humidity, heat, rain, cold, wind and near-blizzard conditions.

“I walk every day except when it’s pouring rain, very icy, or if the wind chill is in excess of 10 below,” she noted. “In the midst of a cold spell when I’m feeling really cooped up and I haven’t walked for a few days, I’ll sometimes walk even if 10 below or more. It does help considerably if it’s sunny; then it doesn’t feel as cold as the actual temperature.”

And she has walking attire for each type of weather. By the time summer is winding down, she has developed a good tan from walking in shorts every day.

“In the summer, I try to walk in the morning when it’s not so hot,” she said. “And I won’t walk if it’s really icy out. It’s not worth breaking my leg. I usually look at the weather forecast before I walk to make sure it’s not going to be pouring out on my walk.”

But as we all know, the weather changes at the drop of a hat in Minnesota. One day, Hennen checked the weather, and it wasn’t supposed to rain until her walk would be completed.

“I was halfway through the walk, and it just poured,” she said. “I was soaked. I walked the rest of the way home with my shoes going ‘squish, squish.’”

Doris Hennen said she has been referred to as the “trash lady” as she picks up garbage during her daily walks. Photo by Scott Thoma

Hennen is nearly unrecognizable when she walks in the winter with several layers of clothes and a hat with earflaps. But as soon as she bends down to pick up a wayward piece of trash and tuck it into a plastic bag, you know it’s her.

“I don’t have a favorite season,” she responded, when asked. “Each one offers something I like. There is nothing as pretty as walking in the evening when the snow is slowly falling.”

Hennen has walked an average of 350 days a year for the past 10 years; meaning her feet have taken her around 14,000 miles so far.

Among the most common items Hennen has come across and picked up on her daily journeys are fast-food wrappers, aluminum pop and beer cans, plastic pop and water bottles, single-slice pizza trays, receipts, and newspaper advertising inserts. Some of the items come from litter bugs, while others arrive from a wind-swept journey.

“There does seem to be more garbage on windy days and on garbage pick-up days,” she noted. “With the hydraulic arms they’re now using to pick up and empty garbage cans, the garbage that isn’t secured often blows away on windy days.”

Sometimes Hennen will wander off her walking path to corral some of the litter.

“I have chased paper and things down a road on a windy day,” she admitted with a smile.

She’s also found items, such as dog toys and tennis balls, that she passes along to her brother, who is a dog owner. And on occasion, she’s even found a few hubcaps that have spun off a traveling vehicle.

Every now and then a dog might bark at her or run toward her.

“Most of the dogs are nice, and I don’t worry about them,” she said. “One time a bulldog came at me and looked like he wanted to take a bite out of me. I just stopped and turned my back to him, and he eventually went away.”

Hennen hasn’t discovered any items of extreme value, such as a rare and valuable coin or a lost wedding ring, but she was surprised at what she discovered when picking up a small piece of paper one day.

“It was a $1,700 payroll check,” she said. “The person it was written to was from out of town, but I knew someone that worked for that company, so I passed it along to them to give to the person. I was told later that the man had put the check on his dashboard, and it must have blown out the window when he was driving.”

She has picked up a few coins and once found a $20 bill, but nothing that would lead to an early retirement.

“I haven’t found enough money to pay for my shoes,” she joked. “I found a $5 bill that had gone through a lawnmower. There has to be over half of it left for the bank to give you a new one. And there was just barely over half of it left.”

While walking on a sidewalk along a busy road one day, Hennen came across a used upholstered chair that was damaged after it had apparently fallen out of a truck. Because of its size, Hennen disassembled the chair and took approximately one-third of it with her to the next receptacle that she came across. She set the rest of the chair against a street sign in hopes someone would pick it up.

“The next day on my walk, it was still there, so I took another third of it,” she said. “And I got the last of it the day after that.”

Hennen has met a lot of people along her walking route, and many of them are appreciative of what she is doing.

At the end of her walk, Doris empties her trash bag. Some days, she has to empty it halfway through the route. Photo by Scott Thoma

“If my bag is full, people have taken the trash off my hands and put it in with their own garbage,” she said. “Several homeowners have told me I should feel free at any time to put the trash I’ve picked up in their garbage can along their house.”

Sometimes when her trash bag is full, a mail carrier or garbage man passing by will take it off her hands.

One of the homeowners along Hennen’s daily route is a retired school teacher.

“She stopped me one day to tell me that she thought I really should be wearing gloves to pick up trash,” Hennen said. “She did speak to me like I was in the second-grade. I thanked her for her concern and assured her that I was very careful what I picked up, and if there was any question, I didn’t pick it up.”

And not all the trash is a pleasure to pick up, especially if a plastic bottle or aluminum can has been used as a spittoon by someone.

Hennen passes by two schools on her daily four-mile journey, too. And often, she will find corrected worksheets or notes from the school that have found their way into the grass or caught against a tree across the street.

“One day I found a writing assignment of a young boy, who used to live in Seattle,” she said. “He wrote that he didn’t like living in Seattle and described how the kids at school there weren’t very nice to him. I felt bad for him and hoped the kids in this school here were being nicer to him.”

There’s certainly nothing trashy about this lady.

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