Surprise! We worked as pickers again.

No, not for Amazon, like we did in 2017.

Better.

Way, way better.

This time we were picking lint out of Carlsbad Caverns.

Yes, actual lint.

Like dryer vent lint, but 800 feet under ground, embedded in what you might think of as Mother Nature’s navel, for four days, with 30 other RVing volunteers who paid for a week-long excursion to get the job done.

It went like this.
And sometimes like this.

Like picking merchandise for Amazon, our task was tedious and repetitive, and it left us with surprisingly sore muscles, but this time? We earned far more reward. Our team was helping — really helping — one of our treasured national parks look better, and maybe even survive longer.

Are you still stuck on the lint thing? Fine.

How does the lint get there?

About half a million visitors walk through the caverns each year (that, and other cool facts about the park are here). The clothing fibers, hair, and skin cells that naturally fall off of their bodies end up collecting as wads of lint along the walkways, and also trapped on the sides and in crevices of nearby rock formations.

The lint makes the formations look grubby, and also causes them to break down over time, as it collects moisture and blocks air from their surfaces.

This problem was discovered about 30 years ago, and volunteers have been arduously and carefully removing lint ever since, at a rate of about 19 pounds a year. (Remember that number. There’s a quiz later.)

This poster in the Visitor Center explains it.
(Photo: D. Goldstein)
We looked just like the poster!
(Photo: D. Goldstein)
Sort of?

Fascinating. Now how did you get there?

We signed up to join the Escapees Carlsbad Caverns Cleanup Hangout as soon as registration opened back in October, knowing that 1) this Hangout’s mission was to spend a week in service to a national park, and 2) that we are already big fans of this particular program after having such a blast at the Downeast Maine Hangout last year.

Our Hangout directors made sure we always knew where to be, when to be there, and what to do, and they also coordinated some group events and meals outside of work time, so that we could all have fun getting to know each other.

Our welcome gathering on the first night, with directors David & Cheryl Goldstein (standing) describing the mission we were about to accept.
We went on a group hike to nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and…
… ate out at few locally owned restaurants.
And of course, as RVers do wherever they gather, we overindulged at more than a couple of potlucks at the campground.
(Photo: C. Goldstein)
We all stayed at White’s City RV Park, a quick 7-mile drive from the caverns.
No frills, but quiet and convenient, with access to a 3.6 mile hiking trail to the park, for those who might want a more strenuous way to get back and forth.
I climbed only the first 1/4 mile to get this photo of the campground from above.

Did you need special equipment?

Yes, and the park can provide all of it, but our group arrived prepared with a lot of our own gear. Our yellow vests with the Escapees logo were included in our event fee; the park has a stash of their own logo vests for other volunteers to borrow.

For safety: reflective vests, knee pads, head lamps, helmets, rubber gloves

For lint collecting: paint brushes in various sizes, plastic baggies

Who you gonna call? Lint Busters!
(Someday, I will forgive Hangout Director David Goldstein for implanting that ear worm. But not yet.)
Orientation, training, and gear issue took up most of our first morning.
After a lunch break, we were ready to get to work!

What were your work hours and conditions?

Expectations were clear from the start. We weren’t scared.

This screen cap is from our Hangout description page.
Click here for a more thorough document.

Our work hours in the cavern were from 10-12 and 1-3, Monday through Thursday, with lunch on site (brown bag or park concession).

At 9:30 a.m., we’d gather in our meeting room with our ranger (Jo Ann Garcia or David Tise, depending on the day), learn about our work location while gathering our equipment and putting on our gear, and then descend together to the cleaning area. At noon, we’d stop work, head back up to the meeting room to drop off our equipment and gear, and take our lunch break. Repeat the 9:30 routine at 1:00, and the noon routine at 3:00, only we’d go home instead of to lunch.

On Day 1, we descended through the natural entrance into the Bat Cave, and in just over 2 hours…
… this was what only half of our collection looked like. I took this picture before everyone had returned to our meeting room with their haul.
Daily amounts varied by individual, and by the areas in which we were picking. My bags weighed right around 2.5 ounces — after four hours of very diligent work.
Annotated map showing where we worked each day
(Credit: D. Goldstein)
Here’s our crew of triumphant lint pickers, with all the gunk we collected in that black garbage bag in front of us.
No, we’re not flashing gang signs. The Hawaiian shaka, meaning “hang loose,” is the official Hangouts symbol, greeting, and goofy pose of choice.
(Photo: random guy with a real camera and a lot of patience)

Did anything unexpected happen?

Well, one thing we were not prepared for was the number of cavern visitors who stopped to ask us what we were doing. We’d explain as briefly as we could, since we had work to do and they had exploring to do, and it was such a kick to watch their reactions.

They were astounded — and a bit grossed out — to learn that lint is such a big issue, and every person I spoke to expressed sincere gratitude for our efforts. I even got a few laughs when I’d joke in my best mom voice, “Don’t walk there. I just cleaned that!”

Get to the good part, Emily. How much lint did y’all get???

Remember the annual average I told you way up there?

I’ll save you the scroll.

It was 19 pounds.

Our crew of 32, putting in seven roughly 2-hour shifts over four days, right here at the beginning of 2020, collected …

… drum roll please …

28 pounds.

Twenty. Eight. Pounds.

Eeeeeeeeee!!!!!

Were you compensated for your efforts?

As volunteers, the only compensation we wanted or needed was the satisfaction of providing a much needed service, and we got plenty.

The park also thanked us with some nice material goodies, including certificates of appreciation, logo pencils, water bottles, and bandanas.

They also gifted us on our last day with a complimentary guided tour of the King’s Palace, a section of the cave that not many visitors get to see, as it requires an advance reservation and an additional fee.

Now that’s my kind of reward: a unique and memorable experience.

I’m not an RV’er or an Escapee. Can I pick lint too?

Yes. According to our rangers, the park welcomes scouts and other service groups, as well as individuals and families (ages 10 and up). Contact the volunteer coordinator to make arrangements, and you too can fill a baggie (or 2 or 6 or 30) with icky gray cave lint!


For further reading:

WheRVe we been? Our travels, 4th quarter 2019

‘Twas a rolling feast!

We pureed pumpkins near the Mexican border, got stuffed with turkey near the Canadian border, and baked cookies for Santa after a return trip south.

But that’s what happens when ya roll from a SoCal Halloween, to a PNW Thanksgiving, to a desert Christmas.

Yes, it would have made far more sense to just stay in the southwest for the duration, but then we would have missed out on Thanksgiving with family (hadn’t seen our older boy and his girl for more than a year), and that was important enough to us to make the schlep back and forth through the brrrrr.

Here’s the summary of our 4th quarter travels, from Escondido to Port Townsend to Tucson, thanks to a little help from Google.
RV miles traveled this quarter: about 3512
(Map does not reflect our exact routing, hence the mileage discrepancy.)

Escondido, CA, Oct 1 – Nov 4: What an orange blur October was. Our workamping experience at Pumpkin Station really deserved a blog post of its own, but I just didn’t get there. The quick facts:

  • We worked 10-11 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the entire month.
  • Service industry employment was basically new territory, since neither of us had worked directly with customers since college days. Quite a learning curve, that.
  • Although our job title was Assistant Managers, we really had our hands in all kinds of tasks necessary to keep the business running: hay rides, tours, petting zoo, sales, stocking, cleaning, decorating, phone calls, hiring, scheduling and more.
  • Our compensation included a salary and W/E hookups on-site with regularly scheduled tank pump-outs.
  • Errands like laundry and grocery shopping meant late nights out after the work day was done, since we didn’t have weekends off.
  • And that meant we used very little fuel and spent very little money during the month we were bound to the farm. Another bonus? Free home grown pumpkins after we closed for the season. I didn’t have to buy a single can of Libby’s for my holiday baking!
  • It was both exhausting and rewarding, and we haven’t ruled out a return in 2020.
– The pumpkin patch as viewed from the upper fields
– A hungry goat (they’re always hungry)
– One of many school field trip groups
– Our site management team
Tim can now add toddler entertainment, hayride driving, tent re-stabilization, and goat-proofing to his list of marketable skills.
I get to add sunflower gathering, cashiering, petting zoo maintenance, and price gun wielding to mine.

Las Vegas, NV, and Savannah, GA, Nov 4 -12: So what did we do to decompress after a month of working together day in and day out? We took separate vacations!

Tim held down the fort in the Las Vegas area (and even moved the fort successfully from one site to another without me) while I flew to Savannah, GA, to join the girls for our 25th annual gathering, which we call FriendFest.

The ten of us met when our husbands were serving as naval officers aboard the same ship in the 1990’s, and we’ve gone on our own “deployment” every year since 1995. We eat until our pants are tight, drink until we stumble, laugh until we pee, and we’re gonna keep doing it until we can’t keep doing it anymore.

– Tim’s boondocking site in the desert, near Lake Meade
– Front and back of custom made FriendFest t-shirts, and perfect party napkins for our crew of retired Navy wives

Port Townsend, WA, Nov 14 – Dec 2: Although heading north in the winter is not our favorite thing, we do it to spend time with people who are some of our favorites. Fun fact: This trip made it so that we hit all four corner states in a single calendar year. Bam!

We stayed on the Olympic Peninsula to be closer to our son and his girlfriend, which meant taking an early ferry across the sound to spend Thanksgiving with Tim’s sisters and their families, who live north of Seattle.
I used my challah dough recipe to make a turkey to go with the turkey!
Oh. And on the way north, I learned a good lesson about using other vehicles to judge back-up distance.
Spoiler alert: I got it wrong.

Southern AZ, Dec 7-31: We had no specific destination in mind upon leaving WA, so our goal was to head south until we could stand outside without coats on.

First stop: Ontario, OR
Nope.
Second stop: Hill Air Force Base, UT
Still no.
Third stop: Page, AZ
There was no snow at Horseshoe Bend, but we still needed coats.
And hats.
Success!
In southern Arizona, they know how to put the mmm in warm.
We stayed at Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction, Painted Rock Petroglyph Site near Gila Bend, and the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Famcamp in Tucson.
We celebrated Christmas by baking cookies like we thought our boys were still at home to help eat them, and by setting out our few decorative items.
And when I opened our blinds on Christmas morning, I realized I’d just missed Santa’s takeoff!

Where to next? Our experience at the August Escapees Hangout in Maine was so rewarding that we’ve signed up for two more in early 2020.

In mid-January, we’ll join a team of RVing volunteers in New Mexico at the Escapees Carlsbad Caverns Cleanup Hangout. Per the event description, we will “help the National Park Service preserve the wondrous formations of Carlsbad Caverns. On Monday through Friday of this Hangout, we will spend 4-5 hours each day underground, deep inside the heavily-visited parts of the caverns, cleaning lint and other debris from the formations.”

And to keep life in balance after our work time, we will then go spend part of February at play, at the Escapees Baja Mexico Hangout, with toes in sand, margaritas and tacos in hand.

Follow us on FacebookInstagram and/or Twitter for updates as we go.

¡Con sueños de la playa, hasta la próxima!


We started full-timing in August of 2015, but I didn’t think to do an annual review until the end of 2016, and it was just a listing on Facebook of places we’d visited. After that, I started using a quarterly format.