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A Volunteer Vacation Brings a Family Together

A Guideposts staffer and her family leave their daily concerns—and their obsession with social media—behind as they volunteer as trail crew for a national park on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Guideposts: Lenore's daughter Kalle gets down to work on the trail.

“Pack! Here’s the list. We need to leave at four-thirty tomorrow morning.” Exasperated, I smacked the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Trail Crew pack list onto the coffee table next to the couch, where my two daughters sat. I called it their office.

Fifteen-year-old Kalle looked up and took a picture of herself with her phone for  Snapchat. Her seventeen-year-old sister, Lisbet, had headphones on and kept watching anime on her laptop.

My daughters’ digital habits were one reason volunteering as trail crew for the National Parks over February break seemed appealing. With tools in their hands, they couldn’t use their phones. The second reason was that this volunteer vacation took place on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands—it was a cooperative venture between AMC and Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.

Not only would the warm Caribbean Sea be a welcome change from New York’s zero-degree cold snap, St. John was also where Dave and I had honeymooned almost thirty years ago. The trip would be an early anniversary celebration, I thought when I booked the tickets.

Now, alone in our laundry room, rolling up four sleeping bags and pads and packing shampoo and towels, I was not feeling love. “I have to take care of everything,” I grumbled.

By the next evening, my mood had changed along with the weather. We glimpsed sapphire-blue water from our taxi ride across St. Thomas, from the island’s airport to the ferry. While waiting for the boat, we took off layers and stuffed them into our bags.

Women in red dresses, holding roses and the arms of their dates, boarded the boat with us. It was Valentine’s Day. Dave’s and my eyes met, remembering our taking this same journey. I turned to mention that to Lisbet and Kalle, but they were busy taking selfies.

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Twenty minutes later, our ferry docked at St. John’s Cruz Bay. There, eleven of us crammed into a minivan with no side panels and rode St. John’s rollercoaster roads to Cinnamon Bay in the dark.

“Do you know where your campsite is?” a woman on the seat in front of us asked. As I began to look at the map, she offered to take us.

It was her 17th trip with the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.We stepped off the taxi. She snapped on her headlamp, and we followed her into the woods until we entered a dinner party in a clearing lit by the warm yellow glow of work lamps.

“Hi. I’m Brendan, AMC trail crew leader,” a young man wearing a headlamp said. “Have a seat. We’re just having dinner.” We were the last to arrive. While eating mashed sweet potatoes, fish, and Brussels sprouts, we met Pam, Mike, Chris, Gayle, and Barbara from Boston; Susan from upstate New York; and Emily from Maine.

As we lay on cots in our platform tent later that night, a storm blew in. “Mom, you have to pay for Wi-Fi here,” Kalle said. “It’s forty-five dollars a week.” Instead of responding to her, we listened to the rain on the canvas tent interplay with the crashing of the surf.

A scan of Rose's original handwritten essay“Good night,” I said. “I love you.”

The next day began a routine that we’d follow for the week. Breakfast was at seven o’clock, cooked by Brendan and Zach, our crew leaders. All thirteen of us piled into an air-conditioned minivan (with side panels) and drove thirty minutes along hairpin turns following the steep contours of the volcanic island.

We parked at the head of Lameshur Bay Trail and hiked two miles to our final destination: a washed-out rocky stretch of trail with a steep drop-off on one side. Our quest was to make a smooth path about three feet wide, on a slight decline so that rain would run across and off the trail, not wash it away.

Our leaders explained the daily schedule. Work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with breaks as needed. We’d have lunch on the trail and then hike to a spot to swim. At the end of the day, a van took us back to the campsite for dinner at 7 p.m.

Lisbet, Kalle, Dave, and I fell in to our spots along the trail. Dave worked with a handsaw, cutting down larger trees too close to the trail. Lisbet was given loppers to clear overhanging branches. I used a pick to dig out the larger rocks in the path, and Kalle took a McLeod, which looked like a cartoon rake, to cull out the smaller rocks and do final touches.

It was hard work, and the weather was hot. I looked in awe at three volunteers who were in their sixties, if not older. They were going strong. So were my kids, I noticed.

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Toward midmorning, I found myself on the trail where gray rocks surfaced like a pod of humpbacked whales. I scraped the sides of one of the larger ones. As I exposed an edge, I shoved my pick underneath and leaned on the handle, using my body weight to get the rock to budge.

It didn’t move. After several tries, I was ready to give up. I looked down the path and saw Brendan coming. Good, he’ll take it out for me, I thoughtInstead, he encouraged me to keep digging.

I felt the martyr mood I left in New York creeping back.

“Need some help, Mom?” Lisbet ambled over and took my pick. “I got this.” She swung the pick, wedged it under the rock, and pulled. Within minutes, it tumbled down the side of the hill.

“Thanks!” I said. Her brown eyes met mine, and we smiled.

The crew looked over when they heard the rock crash down the hill and cheered. “Good job!” called Kalle from where she was working with Chris.

None of us are really working alone. We are part of a team, I thought.

Our afternoon visits traced the history of the people of St. John. We saw petroglyphs made by the earliest inhabitants, the Taino. We sampled what draws visitors to the island today: snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, and swimming.

On one of these afternoon adventures, we had our lunch on a low circular rock wall in the shade of an enormous turpentine tree with deep-brown-red bark. A few feet from where we were sitting, hermit crabs the size of softballs skittered out of the wall. “What do they eat?” Lisbet wondered.

We watched them scramble in circles. Kalle took closeup pictures of the largest one. Dave and I leaned into each other. The hard work, camaraderie, and beauty had done us all good. We were each there, present, not distracted by side conversation or to-do lists. Our family was stronger and closer because of it.

A scenic shot of the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands

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