Our country’s National Park System is truly one of its greatest treasures. Covering more than 85 million acres in every state across the nation and several U.S. territories, the 419 areas managed by the National Park Service (NPS) include national parks, monuments, battlefields, historical parks, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails.
The mission of the NPS is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” But the NPS’ annual budget doesn’t provide nearly enough funding for it to accomplish this goal—especially with the demands placed on the System by well over 318 million annual visitors, a figure that is increasing each year. That’s why the NPS relies on armies of volunteers to accomplish much of the necessary work.
As we were developing the Escapees Hangouts program last year, several members encouraged us to include an element of public service in our events. And because we as RVers tend to be frequent and enthusiastic patrons of the National Park System, it just made sense to seek out a project that would benefit one of our National Parks. Last month, this goal became a reality as 33 dedicated Escapees volunteered their time to help the National Park Service restore and preserve the wondrous formations of one of the world’s most famous (and most visited) caves during the Carlsbad Caverns Cleanup Hangout in New Mexico.
What did we do? Well, we cleaned lint.
Yes…lint. The half-million visitors to Carlsbad Cavern each year leave behind piles of it—tiny pieces of fiber, fabric, hair, skin cells, dust, and dirt. This grayish debris, which looks much like the lint you remove from your clothes dryer, accumulates on the trails and the cave formations themselves. Left unchecked, the lint can permanently damage the formations, while making them look gray and dingy when they should be bright and colorful.
But, cleaning 2 1/2 miles of underground trails (as well as the formations adjoining them) requires more hours of labor than the already-stretched NPS staff of Carlsbad Caverns National Park can provide.
And that’s where the Hangout participants came in. After receiving safety gear, tools and some basic training from the park’s rangers, we spent four hours each day hundreds of feet below ground inside the cool and dimly lit caverns. Working by the light of our headlamps, often on our hands and knees, we carefully brushed off the accumulated lint and collected it in zippered plastic bags. After we emerged from the cave each day—tired and grimy, but with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment—our supervising park rangers weighed and recorded our haul.
By the end of four days of work, we had contributed 746 hours of service to the National Park—almost equivalent to one full-time seasonal ranger position—and had cleared almost 28 pounds of lint from more than one mile of trails inside Carlsbad Cavern. Considering that the park’s other volunteers usually remove only about 19 pounds of lint in a full year, the park staff was thrilled with how much ground we covered and the dramatic improvement in how the cleaned areas looked.
However, even though the main focus of the Carlsbad Caverns Cleanup Hangout was on our service project, we found time for fun and fellowship too. During the weekend before our four days of work began, we enjoyed a campfire with s’mores, a potluck brunch, and a 5-mile hike in historic McKittrick Canyon of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. (Two national parks in one week…score!) Evenings during the week included casual dinners at area restaurants and a “baked potato bar” potluck in camp, an entertaining interactive game we played on our smartphones, and a tour of a local microbrewery. And the culmination of the week came on Friday, when we were treated to a private tour of the spectacularly beautiful King’s Palace section of Carlsbad Caverns, which is now off-limits to the general public.
By the end of our week together, we had bonded over the hard work, and we were all proud of the vital contribution we had made to preserving the caverns for future generations. We’re already making initial plans to have another Carlsbad Caverns Cleanup Hangout in 2021, and it may even become an annual event. Moreover, this event paved the way for other volunteer service Hangouts in the future.
But before we think about next year, there are many more Hangouts to look forward to in 2020! More than 90 Escapees will be joining us next week at our first Hangout outside the United States, in San Felipe, Mexico. We’ll reprise last year’s hugely successful Downeast Maine Hangout in Sullivan, Maine on August 17-23. We’ll visit the beautiful Gulf Coast of Florida during the Florida’s Forgotten Coast Hangout in Port St. Joe, Florida on November 9-16. And we have additional Hangouts in the works, including two in October—one to explore Williamsburg, Virginia and the other in partnership with a Texas bourbon distillery in Hye (yes, samples will be involved!)—and at least a couple more during the spring and summer.
Remember that we limit most Hangouts to about 30 RVs to encourage a more intimate social environment. But that also means that they often sell out quickly. So if you haven’t already done so, visit escapees.com/hangouts now and sign up to be notified when we announce new events. We hope we’ll see you at one (or more) of this year’s Escapees Hangouts!
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