Stemming partially from a latent resentment for never having gone to summer camp as a child, and mixed with my love of the outdoors, I booked a Volunteer Vacation with the American Hiking Society. Their Volunteer Vacations are a week long and can be found all over the United States through partnerships with trail associations, state parks, conservancies and park services.
Back when I worked the 9-5 I told myself, One day, when I’m writing full-time, I’ll take a volunteer vacation. When my one-year writing anniversary came around I realized I hadn’t done one! Every November the new trips are posted, so last winter I reserved my spot in Maine for a week in August at the Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge about an hour north of Bangor, which was offered through the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
For the first time since resigning from my job in the spring of 2010 to write full-time, I’d have no computer for a week. A break from computer screens, keyword analyses, blog writing, writing class promotion, and I’d be in a Thoreau-esque remote cabin in the Maine woods. I’d be “on vacation.”
The trip was more work than I expected, and equally rewarding. Much like freelancing. Every day we were picked up around 8:30AM and driven to the trail head for the work sites. There we carried tools and lumber out to an observation deck and footbridges that had been frost-heaved and needed repair. After we hauled as much as we could carry, we went back and did it again. And again.
We’d break for a half hour lunch and kept going: Swinging hammers, digging and cutting out roots, leveling beams—and spending just as much energy slapping relentless mosquitoes. Around 4:30PM the park crews brought us back to our cabin, which was on a locked 2.5 mile dirt road. It had no electric (save for a generator we used for a short time each evening), no running water (we filled buckets at the river and carried them back to the flush the toilet), and a family of very loud mice that emerged every evening to play percussion in the kitchen, pretend to be beavers in the walls, and run around my room.
I didn’t have to ponder the cadence of a sentence, check the word count on a press release, read about making money from book review writing, or send out invoices for completed projects. The simplicity of hard physical labor took over. Most nights when the sun was still setting, I was in bed by 8:15PM, limp and exhausted from trail work.
We spent the days building temporary braces on boardwalks and rebuilding them to be stronger. As a writer, we sometimes need to break our work—and ourselves—apart for a short time in order to make it better than it ever was before. The work we did on the trail we did together. Doing it alone is possible—but it takes much longer. (I was astonished when Roger, one of the park’s crew, explained how he repaired decks by himself.) Writers need this same community to improve: Tear out the rusty nails and nouns, clear away the rotten logs and verbose prose, and replace with new footings and words that everyone can stand on.