A Day of Trail Volunteering in Albuquerque (Back When We Still Could)

When my husband and I were transitioning out of full-time camper life last summer, we made a list of things we wanted to do when we plopped down somewhere. On this list were travel goals like doing more intentional trips, creative goals like taking craft classes, and domestic goals like growing an edible garden. There’s are many things you can do while living nomadically on the road, yet lots of other things that work out better when you have a consistent home base.

A couple other goals on this list were doing some local volunteering and making new friends wherever we ended up. Over the past couple months, I started browsing meetup groups and event pages to see how we could break out of our little bubble and start building a bit of community here in New Mexico. An Albuquerque REI events page listing led me to discover a group called New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors, which is “an all-volunteer, non-political organization that is dedicated to improving trails and outdoor facilities throughout the state.”

This sounded pretty rad, so I signed us up for a trail-building project at Embudo Canyon, which is part of Albuquerque’s Open Space trail network. One of my favorite parts about the Albuquerque area (and New Mexico in general) is its wide-open spaces, so this seemed like a great way to spend a Saturday morning.

We arrived at the trailhead parking lot just before 8am and found a couple tables set up for volunteers. One table was packed with coffee, juice, and breakfast foods, while the other one had sign-up sheets and waiver forms. Compared to other outdoor volunteering projects I’ve joined in the past, this group really had its act together and was impressively well-organized.

There were about 20-25 volunteers who showed up this particular morning to build a new trail through the foothills terrain and close off an old trail that had become really eroded. Volunteer leaders from NMVFO and a few guys who worked for the Open Space Division briefed us on the different tools to use and where to collectively focus our efforts on various portions of the trail.

Before committing to this trail work project, I tipped the volunteer coordinators off on the fact that I was 33 weeks pregnant and might be taking it a bit easier than some of the other people who showed up. They reassured me that this was a chill environment and that there would be plenty of different assignments to do with varying degrees of intensity. I felt great working out there with a tiny human in my belly and largely attribute my easy and positive pregnancy so far to my staying active and getting reasonable exercise every day. Fortunately, there was also a port-a-potty at the trailhead for those frequent pee breaks that pregnant women around the world know all too well.

During the course of the morning, we used pick axes, McLeod tools, and shovels to remove brush, rocks, and cholla and prickly pear cacti from the new trail. Then we worked to level out and stamp down the terrain with a good slope to make it more hikeable. The most challenging part to me was figuring out the best slope/grade/angle for the new trail. Rather than stress about or waste time, I mostly just dug up stuff and left the planning work to the leaders who had done this countless times before. Other volunteers did “rock work,” collecting and carrying rocks to bank steep edges of new trail, and later transplanted removed debris to the old trail to block it off and discourage hikers from using it.

The group leaders and other volunteers were really friendly, welcoming, and just seemed like genuinely good people. They were patient while showing us the best ways to go about trail building and appreciative of even the smallest contributions during the day. Group shot!

By the end of the day, our group built 700 feet of new trail and closed off 600 feet of old trail in this beautiful open space. One of the volunteers, Kevin, made this great video that shows what trail work is all about. My interview even made the final cut – scroll to 1:09 to hear me blabbing about why I signed up for the project.

As the self-quarantine lifestyle has become our new normal, NMVFO’s upcoming volunteer meetups have been cancelled, along with pretty much everything else across the country right now. It’s necessary to keep people safe, but I’m just glad we were able to participate in one of these events before going on a more serious lockdown.

Although we can’t join any other meetup events for the foreseeable future, we’re already taking what we learned in Embudo Canyon and applying it to our own property. To make the most of our 2+ acres, we started building our very own trail around our house last weekend. There’s obviously a lot more work that needs to be done here, but once it’s complete, I think this will be an awesome place to take Monkey and Baby Boy out for walks – perhaps even being where the little guy goes on his very first hikes to explore the beauty of the New Mexico wilderness.

There are no safer places to be right now than in the outdoors at home, so while we wait for the next volunteer opportunity to get involved with, this little trail in our yard gives us a fun project to focus on while staying active and giving us an extra boost of hope for the days ahead.

Learning about Lemurs (and loving it) in North Carolina

I think I first learned about a community of lemurs living in North Carolina a few years ago while googling “monkey things” as a work distraction. Lemurs are the most threatened group of mammals in the world, and the Duke Lemur Center is home to the largest and most diverse group of the little critters outside of Madagascar.

The center was founded on 80 wooded acres a couple miles from the Duke University campus, and today it houses nearly 250 primates across 21 species. This is all part of a non-invasive/no-harm research and conservation program that’s a pretty big deal in the lemur world.

1Unlike some primate sanctuaries, this one is open to the public if you take a guided tour. There are several tour options available, including the most basic “Lemurs Live!” tour, Behind the Scenes tour, Walking with Lemurs tour, Painting with Lemurs tour, and the Lemur Keeper for a Day experience (that one sounds awesome but costs $350 per person).

On a Saturday morning in late August, we checked in at the visitor’s center and browsed around the little gift shop for souvenirs. A lemur shot glass seemed like a necessary addition to the bar collection back home.

IMG_8290The Walking with Lemurs tour sounded pretty sweet, so that’s the we did. It’s offered between May 1 and October 26, starts at 10:30 am, and lasts 60 minutes. This one costs $95 per person, but tour fees do go towards the care of the lemurs.

To get started, we walked out with our guide and a small group to a wooded area to witness feeding time first-hand.

IMG_8294It didn’t take long for the lemurs to hear their dinner bell and come running!

IMG_8325There were two kinds of lemurs in the area that we walked in: coquerel’s sifakas and the ring-tailed Lemurs.

IMG_8398Their breakfast looks like a vegetarian’s delight (sign me up for this detox plan), and they neatly picked through the serving bowls to fill their bellies.

IMG_8386Well, some of the hungrier ones just put their faces in the bowls. Manners are overrated.

IMG_8509Unlike some of the tours that showcase lemurs that live inside cages, the Walking with Lemurs tour lets you get up-close and personal with the little guys. They’re incredibly used to humans, so as long as you don’t touch them, you’ll be just fine.


It was fascinating just to hang out and observe the lemurs here…eating, climbing, drinking water, and just stretching out their legs.

IMG_8548However, there are several other kinds of lemurs that live at the center, including nocturnal ones that live inside a dark building in another part of the woods.


Our guide ushered us inside, pulled open the blinds to their enclosures, and flipped on some dim red lights. They were a little hard to spot, but grey mouse lemurs, pygmy slow loris, and aye ayes were lurking about and lemur-ing around in here.

IMG_8637The tour was only an hour, and I wish I would have had a little more time to hang out with the lemurs, but I still had a blast on the tour. Having us around didn’t really seem to faze the lemurs, and I like to think they enjoyed the company.


These lemurs were so playful and friendly, and it’s really impossible not to smile and laugh when they’re running and climbing around you. I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever make it Madagascar, but only seeing lemurs in the wild over there would top this experience. What an adventure that would be!

So next time you’re planning to pass through the Raleigh/Durham area, consider giving the Duke Lemur Center a call to see if you can join a tour and start your day off with a dose of lemur shenanigans.

And since this is the time of year we’re all racking our brains for gift ideas, there’s an “Adopt a Lemur” program at the center that makes for thoughtful eco-friendly gifts. I made a donation last Christmas and my gift recipient received a really nicely presented “I Care” package with a certificate, photo, animal fact sheet, and window cling. And in my book, helping feed a lemur sure beats getting another unnecessary pair of socks.

And in other primate travel news, don’t miss: 

Dogs & Yoga: Wacky or Worth It?

I recently made acquaintance with the folks at DogVacay, which hooks dog owners up with dog sitters when they go out of town.

I don’t have a dog of my own – hopefully someday – but I have been volunteering at a local shelter in Chicago for a couple months now. Chicago Canine Rescue has a great volunteer program and I’ve started working with a couple “challenged” dogs: Emmy (the shy one) and Bobby (the hyper one).

Dancing with Spencer in play group

Dancing with Spencer in play group

But back to my original point…

These Dog Vacay folks are talking about “doga,” i.e. yoga for dogs. Proponents of doga say doing yoga with you dog can help relax your pet and enhance human-canine bonding. Learn more in the post, “Turn Your Pooch Into a Barking Buddha.”

If anyone has tried doga before, I’d be very interested to hear what you thought of it. Did your dog actually cooperate with the poses? What poses did you try? Have you noticed any changes in your dog’s demeanor after a yoga session?

Getting ready to walk Jason at the shelter

Getting ready to walk Jason at the shelter

At the moment, I’m really into dogs and really into yoga. Perhaps Emmy and Bobby have some downward dogs in their future…

Working on a Farm, in the Middle of the City

CityFarm 1For the past few months, I’ve been writing for an organic farming company that produces all-natural nutritional supplements based in San Diego. Basically, this means that my days are spent sitting on a couch in front of a computer reading about productive things going on outside. I recently wrote an article about urban farming, and how cities are turning vacant lots into miniature farms to provide locally and sustainably-grown produce for city dwellers.

Although I grew up in Southern/Central Illinois with farmers in my family, I never had an interest in the business when I lived there. But my new line of work has piqued my interest in seeing what this urban farming business is all about on the other side of my laptop.

CityFarm 3I decided to volunteer at Chicago’s City Farm to see for myself. The organization turned a vacant lot at the corner of Clybourn and Division into a green space to provide organically-grown produce to local markets and restaurants. Lots of the city’s top restaurants attract environmentally-conscious diners because of labels like “locally grown” and “farm fresh.” If you see those labels at a restaurant in Chicago, there’s a good chance your produce was grown here.

CityFarm 2The group, One Brick, had actually organized a volunteer event on the day I decided to check out the farm, so there were about fifteen volunteers there to help out. The day began with a tour of the farm, to get everyone acquainted with the growing phases of the in-season vegetables and how the urban farmers maintained each crop.

The volunteer work mostly consisted of picking the flowers off of basil plants and pulling weeds from the fences. Basil plants are harvested for their leaves, not their flowers, and the flowers steal the nutrients away from the parts people want to pay for and eat. The work was easy and mindless, allowing volunteers to strike up small talk with each other as they picked. My hands smelled like delicious basil even after several washes and a shower!

CityFarm 4The outer fence bearing the City Farm sign had become tangled in weeds that blocked sunlight from the crop and created a less-than-attractive appearance. The coordinator gave us each a pair of gloves and a couple wheelbarrows to pull and discard the weeks. The work wasn’t glamorous, but it needed to be done, and that’s farming for you.

The folks at One Brick were really welcoming and I’ve since signed up on their mailing list to see what other similar events I could learn about through them. It seems to be a really casual, non-committal way to volunteer, usually ending in a restaurant or bar stop. But you can stop by City Farm on your own to volunteer as well: Wednesday and Saturdays at the Clybourn Farm and Saturdays and Sundays at the Perry Street Location.

CityFarm 5I suppose since I showed up in the middle of August, the crops needed more maintenance than anything else. It felt therapeutic to get up early on a Saturday morning, bike to a farm, get my hands dirty, and feel a little sore biking home at the end of the day. It also felt right to split my work time between the computer and the field.

My research has led me to several other urban farms throughout the city including Urban Habitat Chicago, Chicago Lights, and Growing Power. If any of you have an experience working on an urban farm (positive or negative, Chicago or elsewhere) I’d love to hear from you and get more involved.

Urban Farming: Not Just an Urban Legend

There are at least 61,777 residential and community gardens that are part of the “urban farming global food chain.” Urban farming is doing more than just providing city folk with a way to grow their own salads. Today’s version of urban farming establishes organic gardens in vacant lots and unused spaces to grow crops for people that have trouble accessing healthy foods. When city-dwellers notice urban gardens springing up in their neighborhoods, they become more aware of their own health and inspired to help others eat healthier too. Not only do urban farms help cut grocery bills, but they also provide communities with jobs and bring people together for the common benefit.

Situated in the agricultural mecca of the Midwest, yet far removed from it, Chicago has embraced the concept of urban farming in unprecedented ways. The city’s poverty-stricken South Side is being transformed into an urban farming district, known as Growing Home, which will make use of thirteen square miles of unused space and at least 11,000 vacant lots. Chicago hopes that the farms will bring healthier food options to a notoriously obese community, create jobs, and attract new businesses to the area. Another local organization, City Farm, offers volunteer and internship opportunities for residents to get their hands dirty and learn about growing and selling produce to local markets. But urban farms aren’t just limited to vacant lots around the city. Entrepreneurial businesses like FarmedHere have been financing vertical farms in cities, hoping to grow millions of pounds of chemical and pesticide-free leafy greens to feed local communities.

But Chicago isn’t the only city jumping on the urban farming bandwagon. Rio Grande Community Farm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California, Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham, Alabama, and Brooklyn Rescue Mission in New York are making a huge impact on their communities as well. The urban farming wave might seem like a new concept, but it actually dates back to ancient civilizations in Egypt and Machu Picchu. Since more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, where millions of hungry people are struggling to live every day, urban farming holds a lot of promise for the future. So if you live in a high rise apartment with little more than a balcony amidst a jungle of steel and concrete, do a quick Internet search to see if any urban farms are growing nearby. Do yourself and your community a favor and get involved!

Celebrate Caribbean Culture in Los Angeles

Island cuisine, colorful costumes, steel-band music, and creative crafts make the Los Angeles Culture Festival a truly authentic Caribbean experience. One of the festival’s most popular events is the “Back on the Boulevard” Parade. The parade starts on Hollywood Boulevard between Vermont and Cherokee Streets.

The theme of the 2013 festival is ‘Expressing the Colors of Culture and Freedom’. International Groovy & Power Soca Monarch Title Winner and Trinidad & Tobago native, Machel Montano, has been chosen to be this year’s Grand Marshal.

Even though Southern California is nowhere near the tropical islands, there is a large Caribbean population in the area. The festival lasts for six full days and features a variety of events to celebrate National Caribbean-American Heritage Month. Fiftieth Independence Anniversaries tributes will be made to The Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, the mecca of Caribbean Carnivals, and Jamaica, the birthplace of Reggae.

If you can’t make it to the islands, the L.A. festival is a great place to experience what you’re missing out on. ‘Caribbean Carnivals‘ take place annually throughout the region with focuses on folklore, religion, and tradition.

Other festival events include a calypso competition, yellow & white party, and arts gala. A paint and powder party, band performances, and craft fair will also take place on scheduled days. Join local filmmakers and aspiring actors for the Los Angeles Caribbean Film Conference and Festival on June 19th through 21st.

Regulaz Entertainment organizes the L.A. Culture Festival and sponsors the events that take place. Regulaz is a non-profit organization that supports the cultures of West Indian communities. By offering events like this festival and other arts events, the organization aims to educate Southern California about the rich Caribbean culture.

The festival is free to the public and kid-friendly. Volunteers are always needed to help with the production of the festival events as well. If you would like to volunteer your time, you can complete the festival’s online form, call the Caribbean Heritage Organization at 818-605-1478, or send an email to [email protected] for details.

Volunteering at Dunning Read Forest Preserve

It was 104-degrees on the fifth of July and there I was….covered in dirt, sweating profusely, and pulling weeds.

You can’t be a nature lover without giving back to nature from time to time. Although I admittedly don’t make the time to volunteer as much as I should, putting in quality time with the environment is important to me.

It was a holiday weekend and I had the day off of work, so I signed up to volunteer at the 23-acre Dunning Reed Forest Preserve on the Northwest side of Chicago. I read about the need for volunteers in this preserve in a monthly REI newsletter. Finding environmental volunteer opportunities in the city of Chicago can be hard to come by, so these REI newsletters have definitely pointed me in the right direction a few times.

While waiting for a few last volunteers to arrive, the Park District coordinator Mary Eileen Sullivan, told us about the history of the preserve and the work that Friends of the Parks is doing to transform the preserve into a recreational area. The preserve consists of second-growth woods, a variety of wildflowers, and a large wetland area. Since 2007, Friends of the Parks has organized community members on a weekly basis to clear invasive species, replant native breeds, and attend outdoor education events in the preserve.

Shortly after 9:00am, Mary Eileen told our small group of volunteers that our project was to pull weeds and downed tree limbs from the overgrown trails to make them more accessible for visitors. We were provided with shovels, gardening tools, work gloves, and wheelbarrows, and we quickly spread out along the trail to get to work.

One volunteer working next to me was a young woman pursuing her doctorate degree and another was an elderly gentleman who drove in from the suburbs every week to volunteer in this preserve that his late wife loved spending time in. A small group of students from Muchin College Prep also joined the volunteer efforts later that morning. As we worked, we exchanged stories about our lives, our backgrounds, and what brought us to the trail that day.

The other volunteers and I spent most of our time using shovels and spades to pry stubborn weeds from the trails, piling them up, and hoisting them into wheelbarrows for disposal. After a couple hours and much to our relief, Mary Eileen presented us with a well-deserved feast of Cliff Bars and Gatorade to get though the rest of our shift.

Our workday ended around 1:00pm, and I was glad to rest my muscles and seek some shade. Even though I only contributed to a very small part of one very small trail, I felt good about spending my day off in the preserve instead of on my couch. For people like me who live in urban environments, I recommend contacting local park districts and outdoor gear retailers to learn more about opportunities to give back and truly fulfill the role of “nature lover.”