No, not for Amazon, like we did in 2017.
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.
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.)
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.
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
What were your work hours and conditions?
Expectations were clear from the start. We weren’t scared.
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.
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 …
Twenty. Eight. Pounds.
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.
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:
- “Lint Pickers Clean Up Carlsbad Caverns,” Carlsbad Current Argus, November 2016
- “Volunteer ‘Lint Pickers’ Help Spruce Up Cave At Carlsbad Caverns National Park,” National Parks Traveler, October 2014
- “Fighting Fluff,” National Parks Conservation Association, Fall 2014