Mike McDaniel spends most mornings in downtown Sonora cleaning up after others.
The 53-year-old sports a bright orange vest and carries a five-gallon cat litter bucket on training wheels up and down Washington Street.
“I figured I didn’t need (the training wheels) anymore, so I might as well put them to a good purpose,” McDaniel said.
He uses a grabber tool to pick up cigarette butts and other trash that people toss on the ground.
McDaniel began his quest to make Sonora clean again earlier this year and typically goes out to pick up trash three to four days a week for two to three hours at a time.
The idea came to McDaniel when he was walking to a restaurant one evening with his wife, Elizabeth, and noticed how there seemed to be more trash littered around town than when he first moved to Sonora in 1989.
“When we were kids and would go camping, we would always take out more garbage than we brought in,” McDaniel said. “I thought, you know what, I can transfer that same practice to the streets, and it wouldn’t take much.”
McDaniel said at first people sometimes gave him odd looks.
Some have even stopped to ask McDaniel if he’s on probation.
“I’m like, do you really have to be in trouble to do this?” he said with a laugh. “I just thought it was kind of a funny assumption.”
McDaniel wants to be clear that he isn’t doing it to make people think he’s “cool.” He isn’t the type to preach either. He said he would rather just lead by example.
“If I could do something, it would be easy for anybody to something,” he said.
McDaniel spent 25 years working in manufacturing and now works part time as a janitor at Sierra Waldorf School, where his wife teaches seventh grade. He considers Tuolumne County home because he’s lived here more than half his life.
During the summer, McDaniel enjoys going camping with his wife to Yosemite National Park, Kennedy Meadows and other spots in the Stanislaus National Forest.
“No place specific, I just think it’s all beautiful,” he said.
Many of the shopkeepers around town started to take notice of McDaniel after a few months and sometimes offer him a free beverage. One gave him a new grabber tool. He’s currently on his third.
McDaniel doesn’t believe the problem with littering is unique to Sonora. He also doesn’t blame the city government for not doing more, because he doesn’t believe they should have to if everybody took a little more effort.
“I don’t want to analyze people’s thinking,” McDaniel said. “It’s not necessarily a small town problem, I think it’s more of a worldwide problem. We’re kind of devolving as a culture, and it’s sad.”
McDaniel will often pick up pieces of trash right next to one of the dozens of trash cans throughout the downtown area, The most disturbing items he’s come across were a couple of hypodermic needles.
The most common items McDaniel picks up everyday are cigarette butts.
McDaniel said he’s been approached by city leaders, who have indicated they would like to open discussions about a possible ban on smoking in the downtown area.
Despite having a lifelong issue with smoking — both of McDaniel’s parents were smokers and died of illnesses associated with it — he doesn’t believe a ban is necessarily the answer.
“My issue isn’t smoking in public, it’s the littering,” McDaniel said. “I think if people were a little more respectful, we wouldn’t have to make it smoke free.”
Acting Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said littering, which includes tossing cigarette butts, carries a possible fine of up to $1,000.
However, catching people littering isn’t exactly commonplace for officers on the beat.
VanderWiel said he could think of a number of times when someone would litter in front of him and he would tell them to pick up whatever they tossed, but there was only one time he could recall when someone refused and he had to issue them a citation.
“It’s not something that happens in front of us too often unless they’re not paying attention.” VanderWiel said.