KEY LARGO -- Commuters traveling south through Key Largo might have seen Kenny Bittner and Dee Balmer walking the bicycle path in the morning, periodically stooping over to pick up garbage,
Bittner, 75, carries a plastic Shell World bag, which he uses for the trash. His partner Balmer, 69, strolls by his side. Most mornings for the past 15 years or so, they've been following this routine -- walking a mile south from their apartment atop Shell World, then walking back.
Their walk, on either side of mile marker 97, takes them along the median of the Overseas Highway in what some call Key Largo's green zone. It's an area where dense hardwood hammock separates the northbound and southbound lanes, and where the litter would likely be pretty dense as well, if not for the efforts of Bittner and Balmer.
Through the years, Bittner said, they've picked up plenty of the usual stuff: bottles and cans, paper, cigarette cartons, random debris. A typical day yields about a plastic shopping bag's worth of trash.
But some mornings bring surprises. Bittner and Balmer occasionally find wallets, cash and cellphones along the trail, they said. They've fashioned carrying rods to haul tires away from the hammock and the roadway. Once they found a rotting fish in a bag. Another time, along a short road that cuts across the median near mile marker 97, they found a four-foot nurse shark. Fortunately the shark was fresh enough that it didn't smell.
Balmer said she sometimes thinks about how much trash must be strewn along the remaining 105 or so miles of the island chain's highway, considering what they find each day over one mile on one side of the road.
"In a day's time, for the whole length of the Keys, it would blow your mind," she said.
Asked what motivates them to get out on the path day after day and pick up trash, Bittner said that as a longtime fisherman, he's always been environmentally sensitive. But mainly, the duo shied away from the question.
"It's the only exercise we get," Bittner said.
But others on the path notice their efforts. A recent Friday morning was a light day, trash-wise, in the vicinity of mile marker 97. With their walk all but complete, Bittner and Balmer had collected a couple cans, a small plastic water bottle and some debris. The Shell World bag was maybe a third full.
Still, as a familiar group of four walkers went by, they paused to say hello and thank you.
In fact, Bittner and Balmer see many familiar faces along the path, some well known to Upper Keys residents.
For a while they regularly crossed ways with Jim Schmidt, the rail-thin homeless man who is recognizable to many in Key Largo for his head-to-toe white garb.
Schmidt now spends most of his time further north on the island, but Bittner and Balmer still encounter the barefoot Ron Zaleski, outfitted daily in his trademark sandwich board that calls attention to the veterans' suicide rate.
In case the whole exercise still sounds a bit too routine, Bittner said there's also the occasional crash, or wrong-way driver, to spice their walks up.
As for the litterers who they've picked up after for all these years, the duo was more dismissive than angry.
"They're lazy. They think it's just one can. It's not going to make a difference," Balmer said.
"Some people ain't never gonna change," added Bittner.