Yes, I am “that girl” who decided to go to Utah after reading Aron Ralston’s “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and watching 127 Hours – I was mesmerized by the slot canyons, the vast expanses of empty desert, the hoodoos – it just looked other-worldly. I would occasionally pop online to see if there were any guided trips to Moab or the surrounding areas – I was smart enough to know that I really shouldn’t trek alone since I have quite a fondness for my limbs, but everything was out of my budget or just not at the right time. This past February, I was visiting my parents and going on about Utah when my dad pointed out that I’d been talking about taking a trip out west for years now and I just needed to “make it happen already!” On a whim, I Googled “Utah volunteer trek” and lo and behold, the WV site popped up in my search results. Little did I know that this Google search would change my life.
For the months leading up to my departure date, I got a ton of “You’re going WHERE? To do WHAT?” from friends, co-workers, really anyone who I told I was going to Utah to chop down Russian Olive trees. But I also got a lot of “wow – you’re brave!” I spent my lunch hours searching for gear online and around my office, and thankfully had friends to lend me a sleeping bag and one adventurous sister to lend me a tent. Yes, I was nervous and had no idea what to expect, but just knowing that I’d really wanted something and made it happen gave me the boost I needed to make the solo journey to Escalante.
Upon arriving after a 6 hour car trip with one of my fellow volunteers, I was pleasantly surprised to see that our camp site was complete with bathrooms and showers, a fresh water pump and a glorious, sparkling albeit freezing cold reservoir. Hardly what I’d call “roughing it” but it was a good way to ease back into outdoor life. After all, I hadn’t been on a real camping trip in over a decade. I was immediately welcomed into the group, who were also a bit astonished that I had just hopped on a plane and left Boston for a week in the desert without knowing a soul. These folks would soon become my dear friends and confidants for my week long adventure and I could tell by the first dinner that I was going to have the best week ever.
The work is hard. Really hard. 6 or so hours a day in the desert heat sawing, loping, hauling and chopping these beasts of trees with thorns so sharp they’ll go right through your shirt (I have a few battle scars to prove it.) But after my first day, I felt more relaxed and at ease than I had been in years and apparently left some of my inner aggressions out by the banks of the Escalante River. I wasn’t thinking about my job or my personal life or Facebook (although, I was a little relieved to have wireless at night to post some stellar pics!). Every day, though the hike to and from the worksite got a little longer, the days seemed to fly by. I spent one whole morning in and by the river working on deconstructing a massive snarl of Russian Olive trees, river debris and probably a few other types of plants and trees. When the Russian Olive was finally cleared out enough for the sawyers to take down, it was the most exhilarating and satisfying feeling in the world. To quote one of my other favorite books, “I swear we were infinite.” (The Perks of Being a Wallflower)
After a week of sawing, chopping, exploring slot canyons, searching for pictograms, staring at the night sky and falling asleep to the LOUDEST frogs ever, it was time to go home. As I made my rounds of hugs and goodbyes to my new friends, including my fearless leaders Dudley and Chris, I couldn’t help but feel a little heaviness in my chest. I grew so close to this group of strangers in such a short amount of time and had a feeling that although we may be scattered around the country, we’d keep in touch and even see each other again on a future WV trip. Even now, as I write this, I must admit, my eyes are tearing up a bit remembering what an incredible time I had.
Within a week of my return, not only was I offered a new job at a new organization, but many of my friends remarked that I seemed much more relaxed and happy. I came home with such a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that I really can do whatever I set my mind and heart to. I truly felt as if my life had been changed and I have WV to thank for that. I don’t know if any WV trip will top my first one, but I will certainly do my best to try!
The 2014 Wilderness Volunteers spring schedule is available now, including service projects in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and along the Escalante River in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We invite you to join us in giving something back and experience the loudest frogs ever.