Alternate Reality #4: Tales of a Ditch Miner

When Kate and I were kids, returnable bottles commanded a hefty two cents apiece. One of my early memories was of she and I sitting on the tailgate of Dad’s 1949 Dodge pickup as he drove slowly up East Sennebec Road. Each time he saw a bottle, he’d stop and we would retrieve it. When we had a sufficient amount, he’d take us up to Appleton where we’d wander around the store as Merton Wadsworth counted our booty. The money was split and usually immediately invested in candy or soda.

Not long after, Maine did away with deposits. By that time I was earning better money raking blueberries or taking care of Berta Dirion’s laying hens after school and on weekends, so I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I returned to Maine after graduating from college that I resumed my career as a ditch miner.

I’ve always loved the idea of treasure, whether in reality, a story or in a computer game. It’s a big part of the allure in entering sweepstakes, but that same feeling exists, albeit on a smaller scale, when looking for returnables. Most people don’t bother, especially younger ones. Old farts like me, however, get a sense of satisfaction at picking up something discarded and turning it into cash. Heck, five cents is five cents, more if you find a liquor bottle (then it’s fifteen cents). The government can’t tax what you take in, the roadsides are a tiny bit cleaner and exercise is generally involved. Over the years, I’ve developed a ritual: Pick up one can/bottle a day and good luck will eventually accrue.

When Sara and Lisa were little, we replicated (with a safer seating arrangement) what Dad did with Kate and I. We’d make out like gangbusters right after snow melted, revealing all the ones tossed over a three month span. The money accumulated, coupled with money from refunding, went into mutual funds for the girls. By the time we needed to tap it, there was enough (thanks to a bull market) to cover a significant part of their undergraduate expenses.

Caps, Ya Say?

Caps, Ya Say?

I still try to snag one a day and now that I’m retired, I sometimes park my car and walk a ways on both sides of a back road. For every one I see while driving, there are generally four more I can’t see. During my forays, I’ve been kicked off I-95 three times by state troopers, found a wallet with no identification, but containing a dollar bill, found more working disposable lighters than I can count and even found a couple music CDs.

Sometimes, I come across something that’s more valuable than meets the eye. Twenty years ago, I found a V-8 can that had a contest form on the inside. I filled it out, sent it in and a month later got a check in the mail for $1,000. Another time, I was taking care of Mom after eye surgery. When she took a nap, I grabbed a plastic bag and worked the road from one end of the property to the other. Halfway down the road, I spotted a baggie sticking out of a pile of leaves. Inside was a large plastic needle and a note informing me I’d found a needle in a haystack. Birds & Blooms Magazine had sent people in all 50 states out to deposit these along roadsides to see how many would be picked up by people cleaning up trash. I mailed mine in and got $50.00 for my effort.

Over the past fifteen years, bottles from Coke and Pepsi products have included something above and beyond the nickel deposit, codes that can get cool stuff. Coke started it with their My Coke Rewards program. Codes were printed under caps that could be entered online for prizes. Pepsi jumped in and codes from their products could be redeemed for movies on VHS (this was the late 1990s). Library patrons got behind the idea while I was working in Boothbay Harbor and we were able to add close to 100 new videos to the collection.

Coke points got tickets to Loudon twice for Mr. Roger and me.

Coke points got tickets to Loudon twice for Mr. Roger and me.

When I started at the Hartland Public Library, the codes could be used to enter sweepstakes for better prizes. One summer, we were able to give young readers over $1000 worth of bikes, MP3 players and music CDs thanks to Pepsi. Best of all, one cap entry netted Beth and I a weekend trip to Jacksonville, FL., where we had luxury box seats for a Jaguars/Browns football game. We also spent a morning at the beach and another at the Jacksonville Zoo. More recently, we used Coke points to get magazine subscriptions for the library.

Anyone can set up an account to use Coke caps and codes from 12 and 24 packs of any of their products. My current favorite redemption is for gift cards,

In the course of ditch mining, I’ve learned a few interesting things. The best time to work a roadside is Sunday morning because all the drunks toss more redeemables on Saturday night. Interstate off-ramps are good too as are dirt roads any time. People are creatures of habit. When I used to work the property in Union, I found the same contents in a paper bag in almost the same spot every weekend: 2 empty Bud bottles and a Big Mac wrapper. Another thing I’ve learned, don’t ignore discarded instant scratch tickets. A guy named Leroy clued me in on the fact that many people are a bit too hammered to know whether they’ve got a winner. (He said the best places to look for them is in convenience store parking lots on Sunday mornings.) I’ve found a few winners myself.

Looking for a funky revenue stream, exercise and an occasional surprise? Ditch mining might be for you.

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11 Responses to Alternate Reality #4: Tales of a Ditch Miner

  1. Brian Thiem says:

    Love this trip back on memory lane. Great image of you and Kate as kids in the back of the pickup.

  2. Kate Flora says:

    I love found things and free money, but I will continue to rely on your luck in contesting, since I obviously have none. Once I won a size 14 blouse. Not very useful. On the other hand, you’ve won me $500 in free gas.

    I think growing up poor was good for us in many ways. I still pick up pennies because I believe, as you do with bottles, that it brings me luck.


  3. Gram says:

    If I wanted to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon I ditch mined bottles for the 11 cents I needed plus another 5 cents for candy/licorice, etc. I may start this again.

  4. David Plimpton says:

    Great story, plus it sounds like the luck of the Irish helps.

    My son used to hang out near Joe’s Smoke Shop on Congress Street in Portland. As a variation on your scratch ticket technique, he noticed a phone booth there frequented by some who had one too many and who often threw away lottery tickets just before entering. He picked some up whenever he came by and within a day found a $50 winner. I wish I had that kind of luck.

    I gather up all my returnables plus those my relatives don’t want once a month and cash them in. I usually get $8 to $10 even after tipping the attendant. Hell, it’s a bottle of wine or a few bets at Scarborough Downs and, best of all, it does feel like found money.

    Another similar technique at the big horse racing tracks is to search for discarded parimutuel tickets just after an objection against a winning horse is allowed. Many people whose horses have apparently lost, in a fit of pique, throw away their tickets. But, presto, they become winners when the objection is allowed. I noticed this once when I saw men scurrying around looking down at the concrete and picking up tickets after such an occurrence. My mother explained, calling them “stoopers”.

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Love this post! I went through a phase of entering contests — dozens (hundred?) or them. Won a few minor things — toothbrushes or (the best) a $25 gift certificate to be used at a supermarket. John, you’ve taken the quest to another level!

    • John Clark says:

      Lea, Believe it or not, I’ve been at it for almost 60 years. Got a $100 gift card in today’s mail from Coors beer. Kinda makes going to the mailbox a lot more exciting when you know there a possibility that something awesome is hidden in the junk mail and bills.

  6. Monica says:

    Back when I was a teen, probably about the same time as yourself, my friends and I used to gather bottles from the side the road to redeem for the junk my mom wouldn’t finance.

    The owner of the local store used to refuse our returnables under the guise of ‘the money came out of his pocket and he never saw us buy any of those sodas’.

    I think someone’s parent stepped in because we were suddenly able to turn them in as long as we washed the mud and bugs out of them.

    We always turned around and gave the money right back through our junk food purchases so I never understood the point of turning us away.

    I found out years later the store owner died from stress-related coronary disease. It must have had something to do with how grumpy and deceitful he always was.

    Next time I pick up discarded bottles from my front lawn I’ll keep in mind it’s good luck for the day.

  7. Beth Clark says:

    We certainly have had fun with your finds and wins. You didn’t mention that bottle and can money can also be donated to the Hartland Children’s Christmas fund as you are presently doing, and many of your wins have gone there. Your’re never afraid to share the profits.

  8. Amber Foxx says:

    Much as Maine’s weather tormented me, I loved the bottle and can deposits and actually profited from my litter-collecting habit. In Virginia and New Mexico, I just do it to keep trash out of the waterways and eventually the ocean. I’ll have to start looking for some of those rewards. I’ve never found a discarded lottery ticket. Yet. I’ll be looking.

    • John Clark says:

      Amber, I hope you do. The last winner I found was on the floor in a WalMart (I think it fell out of someone’s pocket) and was worth ten bucks.

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