Trail work at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

March 7-11, 2024.

Photo album

When dreaming up this big 2-year road trip, I wanted to make service projects, specifically trail work, an essential part of our travels. What I didn’t realize way back then was the difficulty of lining up our route with trail projects, especially since we rarely knew where we’d be a week out from the present day. So when I saw an opportunity to register way in advance for a project in Southern Arizona during March, I jumped at it. I knew we’d be roughly in that area anyway and the weekend dates meant Aaron could participate, too.

Prologue: Arrivaca Creek

Aaron had to work the day of check-in, so we parked at a trailhead near the campsite and I took a hike that had been on my mind since December. While exploring the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge back then, we did a couple of short hikes we saw on the map. What wasn’t on the map: a trail extension to the top of a highpoint called El Cerro.

The forecast called for rain, so I got an early start. I hiked quickly to the junction I had seen before and continued up towards the mysterious highpoint. It was more green than it was a few months ago, but not nearly as lush as I hoped it would be. I saw a few purply onion flowers and some four-petaled yellow thingies and plenty of cactus. At least the sky was mostly blue.

A flash of fluffy white streaked across my field of vision: white-tailed deer. So white, so fluffy. I followed the trail as it took the most windy and non-intuitive route to the summit. It maintained its elevation for quite a while, leading me to a gorgeous tunnel of blooming ocotillo. If you’ve never seen ocotillo before, picture this: wiry limbs fanning up from a single point in the ground, as thick around as your thumb and taller than you, covered in spirals of small leaves and sharp thorns. At the top of each limb, a burst of orange-yellow flowers. As I walked underneath the scraggly stems, I admired the brightly colored blossoms over my head.

Just before the summit, the easy trail suddenly angled straight up and in a few minutes I was at the top. I plopped my stuff at the handmade bench and took in the view. Right before my eyes, the sky changed from a clear, cerulean blue to an ominous mass of gray storm clouds. I could tell they were moving quickly and straight in my direction.

I scarfed down my snack and headed down the hill. Was that thunder? I moved more quickly. And then: ping! ping! ping! Hail. At first, it wasn’t too bad. I had a light wind-shell on that repelled most of it. Then PINGPINGPING it started coming down more intensely. I giggled and walked as fast as I could without rolling an ankle or doing something stupid. By the time I got back to the van, I looked and felt like a drowned rat, but I felt good for getting out and closing that mystery chapter.

Meeting the team

After work, we rolled into the group camp. Almost everyone else was already there. The event was hosted by a truck-top camper company, so everyone was their with their special truck-top rigs except for us. We slinked to the back of the campground in our van, then joined them for dinner and an orientation.

I was surprised at just how large the group was. There must have been 25 or so people there. Most folks were retired or nearly so. Most were part-time travelers. And most, like us, were couples. They were from all over the country. We chatted with as many people as we could to get a sense of who we’d work with over the next couple of days.

Trail work

Our project took us to the trails just outside the visitor center, where we’d be doing erosion control. Water management, in the desert? You wouldn’t think that would be a big issue. But, as I just learned, when water falls in the desert, it falls hard and fast. And when it hits the dry soil, it funnels into the path of least resistance. In this case, it flowed down the trail.

Thus, our plan included strategically building rock structures that slowed down the flow of water on the trail. That, in turn, prevents the trail from being dug out by water during a heavy rain. A trail expert showed us where the problem areas were and taught us how to stack and align rocks to make the water move in a way that would preserve the trail surface. Armed with buckets, wheelbarrows, shovels and of course, big piles of rocks, we broke into teams and got to work.

The work was intense and the 70 year olds who signed up for some light trail brushing and trash cleanup got way more than they bargained for. But everyone gravitated towards the jobs they could do and took rest when they needed it. With so many hands on deck, we made quick work both days and ended ahead of schedule. I enjoyed learning new trail building skills and working on small teams with other people. It was more challenging than I thought it would be, especially the part where I had to line up certain size shapes and sizes of rocks like a puzzle; that broke my brain a little!

Final notes

Everyone on the project was friendly and had lots of great travel stories. That’s one huge benefit of signing up for a large project like this in advance. The coordinator even lined up two nights of catered dinners, which were delicious and free! Working hard never tasted so good. I got to use our lunch break on both days to do some painting, which was fun and also garnered some attention from other participants. I love sharing art in the field with curious onlookers and aspiring artists!

I wish I could find more opportunities to chip in as we travel. Alas, I will do my best to keep my eyes open. Perhaps when we are in Alaska with much more free time I can plan our route around interesting projects. If and when we return to a stationary lifestyle, I will immediately get on the local trail volunteer list and start giving back on a regular basis. Oh the irony of having so much time but not being able to put it to use as a nomad!

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