A Volunteer Vacation in the Outdoors

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Families, singles, seniors, and kids find a truly low-cost bonding experience in the U.S.D.A. Forest Service's little-known "Passport in Time"

 If you like the outdoors and have an interest in history or conservation; if you're determined to take your children on an affordable but different sort of vacation with time for bonding and sharing; or if you would simply appreciate a vacation of learning and excitement in a safe and economical environment, then it's time to "cowboy up," as they say in Texas, and contact Passport in Time. PIT needs you. Who knows-perhaps you need PIT, too. People of all ages, from all walks of life, can participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service's Passport in Time program, which matches volunteers with projects of historic preservation, conservation, restoration, and archaeology throughout the United States. A biannually published catalog of current PIT projects lists so many activities, you're sure to find one that strikes your fancy. They range from archaeology (my own interest, and the source of my examples below) to surveys of Civil War sites, restoration of ranger stations or historic sites to laboratory analysis of artifacts or other scientific data. Most projects require at least a one-week commitment.

Will it dig into my budget?Volunteers are not paid, but unlike many other programs, there is no fee to join. Your expenses are those you incur traveling to the site and feeding yourself while there. Most projects offer campsites for your tent, space for your RV or car, water, hookups, and toilet facilities. PIT provides all the tools and instruction. Some projects involving intense laboratory work provide free housing for volunteers in dormitories at local universities or in barracks maintained by the Forest Service. Many sites are located close to towns, villages, or resort areas where motels or rustic cabins are also available at low prices.

Generally, you're on your own for food. On some projects, participants take turns cooking for their team. On others, everyone tends to their own grocery needs. (You'll work hard if you are on outdoor projects, so anything will taste good.) You live as simply or as lavishly as you like, but most volunteers opt for the savings and camaraderie of camping together and eating simple group meals.

My last stint as a volunteer cost me the price of gasoline to drive from Texas to Arizona and one night in a budget motel with a senior citizen's discount. I bought food and snacks for myself. And on the last day of the project, I chipped in to provide food for a good-bye luncheon. That was all. I spent less than $100 for food for the 10-day trip. On another occasion, I stayed with other participants in a cabin nestled in a pine forest. It cost $46 per night split four ways, with full kitchen and bath. Almost free!

Kids Can Dig it

Every archaeology project has its complement of youngsters, although each project director sets age requirements for his or her program. Some activities might not be suitable for the very young. Many projects carry specific minimum-age requirements, but most allow kids under 18 years old as long as they are accompanied by a responsible adult, making PIT a rare, inexpensive opportunity for all kinds of participants.

I recall a 13-year-old girl, Anna, who came to a dig with her single mom. Anna found evidence of a large pottery jar in a pueblo. Rather than calling on a more experienced volunteer or one of the staff to excavate it, the project director provided her with appropriate tools and instruction to excavate the find herself. Anna lay on her stomach for hours with dental tools and art brushes, meticulously freeing the piece from its resting place. When the jar was finally lifted out, the volunteers gathered with cameras as Anna beamed through a substantial coating of dirt.

Singles Can Dig itWhen I arrived at the Forest Service site for my first project, I was stunned at how many single people were there-retired singles, widowed or divorced folks, and younger ones, too. Not only is it a great way to make new friends of all ages, it's also suited to single people (especially women) who want an adventurous vacation but have reservations about attempting it alone.

The volunteers, bonded by the energy that comes from doing something selfless, quickly become a working "family," with all members looking out for each other. Solo travelers will seldom find a safer or more welcoming environment.

Seniors Can Dig itI was amazed at the amount of rock that one volunteer, Don, could move. He also had a grasp of engineering that frequently eased the tasks at the dig site. When the rest of us pooped out, he rallied us. He kept up a steady stream of jokes. He flirted endlessly with the ladies. He was Superman! He was also 80 years old.

For those who aren't as fit and athletic as Don, there are other gratifying things to do. I have met senior volunteers who were nurses, educators, pilots, and housewives. The one thing they had in common was their willingness to do useful work, be it in the laboratory or in the field. And since there's an application process, no one ended up on a project that didn't suit them.

There is no such thing as "too old" on a PIT project. PIT's costs also appeal to seniors-or to anyone on a fixed income.

Digging up the scoopTo obtain a copy of PIT Traveler, a newsletter containing upcoming projects along with the info you'll need to apply, contact: Passport in Time Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 31315, Tucson, AZ 85751-1315; or call 800/281-9176. This information is also available at passportintime.com.

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