in Doing more, The State We're In, Things we do, Work Camping

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!


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12 Comments

  1. What an awesome way to give back to save/enhance the beauty of our parks.
    Thank you all for the work you provided.

  2. I enjoyed this blog. It was so interesting and informative. I got a real idea of your extraordinary experience. It was an amazing experience you had. Thank you for the work you and your husband did.❤️

    • We’ve since learned that it’ll be offered again next year, so now we have to choose: do it again because we loved it, or give someone else a chance — because we loved it.
      Hmmmmm.

  3. This is exactly the kind of tedious uber-focused task I would love!

    We spent a week last fall doing the Yosemite Facelift, and it was a great experience. I noticed that the times I was wearing a safety vest, I became a park employee in the eyes of the other visitors, and got a lot of questions about the park. I don’t think I steered anyone wrong! 🙂

      • It’s a great program organized by the Yosemite Climbing Association, so a lot of the evening presentations and sponsors are geared to climbers, but still offers plenty to enjoy for non-climbers (such as ourselves). The only catch for you might be that they comp camping in return for participating, but request that no one bring large vehicles or trailers because the sites are shared to allow as many people as possible to camp.

        That being said, you don’t have to be camping in their sites to join the Facelift, and there’s no minimum amount of time that you have to commit to. If I had any criticism of the program it’s that communication isn’t their strong suit, so let me know if you look into it and decide you want additional info!

        • I found their web site and Facebook page, so I’m all tuned in! I don’t think the 2020 event will line up with our plans, but I’m keeping an eye on it for 2021. We’d find a place to leave the RV outside the park, and either tent camp with the crowd, or just drive in for day work. Thanks for sharing this one. I’d had no idea!