As husband and wife Bernie and Julie Vigil toured their property near Highway 99 and the Mokelumne River on Wednesday, the two scooped up trash while envisioning the land's potential.
"This could be a great place for a wedding and reception once we clean it up," Bernie Vigil said as Julie Vigil poured out stale beer from a can and placed it in a discarded ice bag.
The landscape, once a bustling transient camp covered in broken bottles, hypodermic needles and soiled clothes, is undergoing a transformation.
While spray-painted swastikas still scar trees on the property, weeds need to be pulled and mattresses and broken tents need to be hauled to the dump, the land is slowly being reclaimed by a group of concerned neighbors.
In time, property owner Bernie Vigil, who purchased the 11.2 acres of land from Arnaiz Development Company, Inc. in February, wants the land to be a place for some families to picnic and fish, and for kayakers on the river to stop and stretch their legs.
The makeover began immediately after purchase. Bernie Vigil, a former corrections officer and Vietnam veteran, and a collection of neighbors evicted the transients and began hauling out trash as soon as the deal was done.
"We've had some transients try to come back in recent weeks," Bernie Vigil said. "I remind them it's private property, and when they don't comply, I cut up their tent."
Several neighbors and friends of the Vigils, including Stockton residents Rick and Gail Braley, have assisted in the cleanup.
"On one Saturday alone, we hauled six pickup loads of nothing but trash from the land," Rick Braley said. "It probably cost us about $300 because the transfer station in Lodi is more expensive than the county dump."
Volunteers wore coveralls and thick rubber gloves while cleaning the property to protect themselves from infections and disease, Braley said.
More cleanups are planned in the coming weeks.
During the winter, a temporary lake on the property will dry up and the residents will use the opportunity to clear out trash and remove the cattails growing in and around it.
For Bernie Vigil, the effort not only benefits the community, but himself as well. Having undergone knee-replacement surgery in March, the exercise from walking up and down the pathways and bending to clean up debris has served as rehabilitation.
To prevent people from trespassing at Vigil Acres, the property is protected by gates with separate padlocks. One lock is for residents and friends who help the Vigils clean up the land, the other is for emergency personnel and city workers who need to access the property.
Public access points to the river are a hot topic in the community, and Bernie Vigil attended the Aug. 30 forum about opening a piece of property on Awani Drive to the public. The people at that meeting who want to prevent the access point are going about it the wrong way, he said.
"They are ignoring the 500-pound gorilla in the room," he said. "If they want to have the land, then they need to come together, pay for it and police it themselves. You have to make an investment."
As Bernie and Julie walked back to the gate, Bernie reflected on the improvements and estimated the neighbors are about halfway to having the land cleaned up.
"One person can't save the world," he said. "But they can save a little corner of it."
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.