Volunteer Vacation

July 13, 2009

By Susan Middaugh

WaterBars2Photograph © 2002  Gretchen Sacotnik.

At least once a year, go someplace you’ve never been. One fall I went to eastern Arkansas for a volunteer vacation sponsored by the American Hiking Society. (They sponsor summer trips, too. For complete information click the AHS link in the sidebar blogroll.)

Although the week long trip would be work instead of play, it appealed to me for several reasons. Physical labor was a complete change from my office job. Being outside in the fresh air, in the woods, away from email and telephones seemed like heaven. Encouraged by a positive experience during a Sierra Club service trip to Maine a few years ago, there was the prospect of meeting nice people from all over the country. The trip also suited my budget; preliminary expenses consisted of a round-trip airline ticket to Memphis and a modest registration fee. Finally, there was a sweetener. Not all AHS volunteer vacations include free transportation between the airport and the work site, but this one did.

Gretchen Sacotnik, the enthusiastic and outgoing superintendent of Crowley’s (pronounced Crow-Lee’s) Ridge State Park, picked us up herself. In our airport party was Ben, a chiropractor from Ottawa; Sarah, a young professional woman from Washington, DC; and myself. Before heading 90 miles west across the flat Mississippi delta to Arkansas, we stopped for lunch. For this Yankee, that meal offered an introduction to Southern cooking: gravy automatically goes on top of the mashed potatoes — whether you like it or not.

The rest of our party of volunteers drove in from the South and Midwest: Dallas, St. Louis, Louisville, Beloit, WI, Edinburgh, IN. We ranged in age from 30’s to 70’s; several of us, including myself, were grandparents. Eight of the 12 members of our group had been on AHS volunteer vacations before.

Our accommodations, built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930’s, were luxurious by backpacking and tent camping standards. We had heated cabins, indoor showers, and a spacious kitchen equipped with a commercial stove and refrigerator. Everyone took turns cooking and cleaning up after meals. Great grub!

Our day started shortly after 8 A. M. The work, repairing and rerouting hiking and access trails, was often strenuous. I used arm and upper body muscles I never knew I had. (One night in bed before 8:30 p.m.!) We lifted and hauled rocks, raked away leaves and topsoil, and created swales and water bars to prevent erosion. Usually we worked in teams with the more experienced volunteers leading the newcomers.

“Pace yourselves,” the parks superintendent advised. Snacks, water breaks, an hour-long lunch, and leaning on rakes helped. So did the two half-day field trips Gretchen planned.

At night we had campfires, conversation and the occasional board game. There were some surprises, too. A pet deer in a neighbor’s goat pen. And as the park’s law enforcement officer, Gretchen had to carry a gun. Working alongside a woman with a firearm on her hip was a new experience for me.

Also unexpected was the opportunity to experience new language and new meanings for familiar terms. I learned to use a “Pulaski,” a two-headed tool similar to a pickax. The Pulaski helped in removing roots to prevent hikers from stumbling up or down the park’s Dancing Rabbit Trail. When our crew leader told us to “ugly it up,” that meant covering the original trail with downed tree limbs, old logs and underbrush for diversion purposes, then creating a new path in its place.

The best part of the trip? Surveying our handiwork at day’s end. Although many of us were strangers at the start, it was heartening to come together for a common purpose and feel a sense of accomplishment, things one doesn’t usually expect to experience on vacation.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog. To find them, check out the archives in the sidebar, beginning in April of 2009. Also in the sidebar under the Blogroll, Business and Writing labels, there are links to Susan’s website, Have Pen Will Travel.