Volunteer vacation

Can hard work in the forest really be a vacation? Sunset's Samantha Schoech goes to Big Sur to find out

Sierra Club work crew volunteers

"We are dirty but happy. That's me in front in the blue cap. My mattock is my favorite new tool."

Photo by Alan Butts

Sierra Club work crew volunteers

"My trip mates, hard at work clearing the Alvin Trail."

Photo by Alan Butts

Limekiln Creek

"Why couldn't we have worked on something nice and flat, like this trail along Big Sur's Limekiln Creek?"

Photo by David Zaitz

It's cold and dark and I'm alone in a puny, mildewed tent nursing a blister and some seriously sore triceps. I figure it's as good a time as any to take stock.

When I decided to take a volunteer vacation, I thought it would be the best of both worlds: the satisfaction that comes from giving selflessly, coupled with the opportunity to spend a week on one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. But here I am in California's Big Sur, land of cliffs and sea and naked hippies, having just spent six hours clearing a hillside trail in Limekiln State Park, and something is not quite right.

More: Plan a great vacation outdoors

Here's my problem: I'm not exactly shining when compared with my 16 fellow volunteers, an enthusiastic bunch of Sierra Club members who have really good work ethics. I've never gone for the philosophy that says travel is about self-discovery. But on this trip, it's undeniable. And here's what I've discovered: I am a hopelessly and fantastically lazy person.

Getting to know you

By the time I arrive, two hours late, the group is on the beach playing a name game. I knew more or less what to expect from the many preparatory emails sent by our leader extraordinaire, retired ranger Dave Garcia. I knew that the Midwest was heavily represented and that the average age was 53. I knew that many of them had done service trips before. The rest I based on assumption: They would be friendly nature lovers, the kind of people who can name birds and own retractable walking sticks. From the look of things, I wasn't far off.

We all choose a word to go with our names ― we are a group of Shoveling Steves and Caring Caras. Mother Mary blushes each time someone remembers her name, and Energetic Eric bobs up and down in an effort to jog the memories of those who can't keep it all straight. When asked about their reasons for coming on the trip, they say things like, "I wanted to challenge myself" or "Relaxing is sweeter after a day of working."

When my turn comes, I'm tempted to be honest and tell them I'd meant to go to Baja to save sea turtles. Turtles, I reasoned, couldn't take much time. You wait till nightfall, escort the little guys into the sea, and then head back to your hammock, where a margarita and a good book are waiting. But that trip had been full.

Instead I mumble some nonsense about the chance to experience Big Sur in a more meaningful way. Then I frantically look around for a hammock but see only nature.

Off to work we go

For the first hour, I am enthralled. We are improving what had been a bushwhacked trail through a stunningly beautiful redwood forest, and it actually feels good. We can look back and see a vast difference between the sections of trail we've worked on and those we haven't. I am briefly amazed by my own utility.

By hour three, I am cold (the fog has moved in) and, well, a little bored. The novelty is beginning to wear off, and now it just seems a whole lot like moving rocks.

What keeps me going for the next three hours, besides the knowledge that there is a mini Mounds bar in my lunch, is the chatting. My team is composed of a stonemason from North Carolina, an oceanographer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a retired couple from Minnesota who can hoe like nobody's business. Despite the fact that I am so obviously the weakest link, they are all nice to me. Nobody brings up my frequent breaks, and they all politely ignore my grunting.

We are family

We eat in the park's toolshed, and by day two, meals are laugh-filled affairs. We tease Killer Ken, who has the palate of a toddler, and Chatty Cathy, who lives up to her name. There is wine at dinner and a round of games after. We have speakers on condors and elephant seals. I win a haiku contest. I don't want to get too syrupy, but it turns out I kind of like earnest, nice people — and, yes, everything is a little sweeter after a day of hard work.

Plus, the group is not nearly as serious as all that. They may not whine about the work as much as I do, but they are as excited as I am when ranger Dave announces that we're cutting out early for happy hour at the Lucia Lodge. The difference, of course, is that they deserve it.

INFO: Sierra Club offers 6- to 10-day service vacations throughout the West and beyond (from $295, many in the $400-$500 range; including meals and lodging/campsite, plus $25 membership fee; 415/977-5522).

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