Former Park Ranger Shepherds Volunteer Vacations
Dave Garcia says true retirement is about as appealing as standing in a long supermarket line. There's no action. No greenery. (Unless you count the celery wilting in its plastic bag.)
For the former California park ranger, retirement has simply meant refocusing his passion for the outdoors. Now a sought-after leader of volunteer vacations for the Sierra Club, Garcia, 59, keeps busy by leading several trips a year to exotic locations such as Big Sur, Colorado's Green River, and Florida's Cayo Costa Island.
For the uninitiated, volunteer vacations provide applicants with two major benefits: a chance to do something to help the planet and the opportunity to revel in its natural splendor.
Volunteer vacations are not a good option for those seeking R&R on their time off but are great for those who, like Garcia, crave the satisfaction of manual labor and the thrill of nature in one happy package.
Garcia came by his love of the outdoors from his family. He grew up outside Livermore, in California's Central Valley. His uncle had a ranch with livestock and horses, and he learned to love hiking in the rugged hills. He went to San Jose State University and got his B.S. in biological sciences with a focus on park ranger studies. His career--which spanned 28 years--took him from Hearst Castle to Lake Oroville, where he was a boating safety officer, taught defensive tactics, first aid and diving, and led kayak trips and bike patrols. His career ended in 2007, but that did not lead to retirement.
SecondAct caught up with Garcia during a rare moment at home in Yankee Hill (a tiny town in the foothills of the Sierras) to find out what motivates him to continue the back-breaking work of a volunteer trailblazer.
SA: Why didn't you decide to put your feet up after 28 years in the rugged outdoors? Haven't you earned it?
DG: (laughs) I know--I'll be 59 this summer! Pretty soon I'll be a sexagenarian. I don't know--it's hard to sit still when there's so much to do. And leading volunteer vacations has been a natural progression. You meet a lot of interesting people, and I get to pick where I go, and I get to go for free! And then I get to share this amazing place with other people. There are manatees in Florida, the incredible view from the highest peak of the Channel Islands, the coastline of Big Sur...so much to see and share.
SA: So you get to choose the trips you lead?
DG: The policy on that, when I joined Sierra Club as a volunteer vacation leader in 2005, was that you're given trips based on seniority. But if you create a trip, you get to lead that trip for five years. And since there weren't too many on the existing list that I wanted to do, I created four new trips: "Secrets of the Big Sur Coast"; "Gold, Ghost Towns, and Sierra Gambols," which does work in the Plumas-Eureka State Park; "Barrier Island Bliss," which goes to Cayo Costa Island State Park, Florida; and the "Galapagos of the California Coast," which went to the Channel Islands. I'm also doing one this summer in Colorado, where we'll be rafting the Green River and removing salt cedar from along the shore.
SA: It sounds like pretty rugged work. But I'm sure you're getting paid a lot for this, right?
DG: This is all volunteer. The Sierra Club does pick up our mileage or our flights. And we get a per diem for food. If I figured out how much I get paid, it would be around 25 cents an hour. But I don't care. Sierra Club is a really great cause, and I get my satisfaction from sharing my knowledge with excited people in these fantastic places, and seeing their joy.
SA: What kind of work are vacationers required to do?
DG: Clearing brush is a big one, as is creating trails. But it differs all the time. Once we even cleared out the rubble of a former radio tower!
SA: Do you do the work yourself or just stand there cracking the whip?
DG: (laughs) My philosophy is to lead by example, so I'm out there working shoulder to shoulder with everybody else. My slogan is work hard, play hard, make new friends and have fun. Yes, I'm the leader, but I want to facilitate getting them to work as a team. This is people's vacation, and I want to give them the best experience for their money. I want them to feel like they've accomplished something.
SA: Do you ever have a problem with city slickers going out and hurting themselves trying to keep up with the demands?
DG: My biggest concern is safety. It's important to keep people safe. I encourage people to take breaks when they need to because accidents happen when people get fatigued. And I try to make it fun! I tell them the harder they work, the sooner we'll be done and can have cocktails.
SA: How do you make sure they are up for it?
DG: If I don't know them already--and we get many repeat customers--I talk to people about what they're able to do. With people who are questionable, you have to paint them a very clear picture of what will be expected. One of the women who wanted to come on the Channel Islands trip said she had asthma, and I had to tell her there would be a ton of dust. She backed out. I've had to turn people down. One guy said he was having heart surgery and wanted to come two weeks later! I said, "I don't think so!"
SA: You must get people with varying degrees of skill...
DG: Oh yes, you get a mix. Older women who are gardeners and 19-year-olds who never tire! I tell them we all work at different levels, but I expect you to give the best you can. Some people develop blisters, they're working so hard. I usually break up people into teams of four. Create a little competition and that works pretty well. It's easier to manage than a large group of 16.
SA: There are young people on these trips?
DG: We do get the occasional young person, though I'd say the average age is 55 or so. There are dentists and teachers and nurses--you tend to get medical people. Psychologists. Lawyers, three at one time. But not everyone is professional. We just had someone who worked at Costco, another who worked at the Census Bureau. I've had mothers and daughters, brothers and other family setups. We have a scholarship for people under 25 who want to go on a trip; we're trying to encourage younger attendees.
SA: I've read that these trips are a good way for single nature lovers to connect.
DG: That's true. Every now and then, we have people who meet and have love affairs and even get married. That's a nice benefit. The first time I did the Cayo Costa trip, we had 20 people, and there were only three males, counting me! And only four of the women were married. So there were something like 13 women who were single. And some of them now have become good friends and do other trips together. The following year, six of them went on other trips with me.
SA: If you could pick a moment that was truly the most amazing or rewarding on one of these trips, what would it be?
DG: Last year we were going to hike up into the Plumas National Forest. When we were hiking, we got into snow that was around knee-deep. And for the first time, I saw what they call "watermelon snow." I'd only heard of this but had never seen it. There's a bacteria that gets into the snow and turns it pink. It was amazing--very unique. I'll never forget that. Nor will the people who were with me.
More info: The Sierra Club offers 6- to 10-day service vacations from $295; many trips are in the $400 to $500 range. Price includes meals and lodging/campsite, plus $25 membership fee; 415-977-5522. A full list of available trips is online.