A Memorable Place Working vacation in a state park By...

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

January 19, 2003|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Working vacation in a state park

By Susan Middaugh

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At least once a year, try going someplace you've never been before. This fall, I went to eastern Arkansas for a volunteer vacation sponsored by the American Hiking Society.

Although the weeklong trip was work instead of play, it appealed to me for several reasons. Physical labor was a change from my office job. Being outside in the fresh air, in the woods, away from e-mail and telephones seemed like heaven.

Inspired by a Sierra Club service trip to Maine a few years ago, I was looking forward to meeting nice people from all over the country on this trip. The vacation also suited my budget -- preliminary expenses consisted of a round-trip airline ticket to Memphis, Tenn., and a modest registration fee.

Gretchen Sacotnik, the enthusiastic superintendent of Crowley's Ridge State Park, picked us up at the airport. Our party included Ben, a chiropractor from Ottawa; Sarah, a young professional woman from Washington; and me.

Before heading into 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. We ranged in age from 30 to 70; several of us, including myself, were grandparents. Eight of the 12 members of our group had been on American Hiking Society volunteer vacations before.

Our accommodations, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, were luxurious by tent-camping standards. We had heated cabins, indoor showers and a spacious kitchen with a commercial stove and refrigerator. Everyone took turns cooking and cleaning up.

Our day started shortly after 8 a.m. The work -- repairing and rerouting hiking and access trails -- was often strenuous, and one night I was in bed before 8:30. We lifted and hauled rocks, raked 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 park superintendent advised.

Snacks, water breaks, an hourlong lunch and leaning on rakes helped -- so did two half-day field trips.

At night we had campfires and conversations, and I learned new jargon 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, then creating a new path in its place.

Susan Middaugh lives in Arbutus.

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