Magazine article Sunset

Happy Trails?: Sunset's Samantha Schoech Journeys to California's Big Sur to Find out Whether Volunteering Can Really Be a Vacation

Magazine article Sunset

Happy Trails?: Sunset's Samantha Schoech Journeys to California's Big Sur to Find out Whether Volunteering Can Really Be a Vacation

Article excerpt

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.

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.

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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. …

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