Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Year After Roosevelt

It's getting late here.  Truman fought sleep tonight and has taken to commandeering my laptop for his own personal use during his waking hours.  Recently, plans to write seem to get waylaid until he is asleep.  But I must write, as today is an important anniversary in our journey.  One year.  It's been one year since we walked away from our volunteer commitment with the US Forest Service, after just 6 weeks.  It left a deep wound in us and has taken this long to want to revisit our time there.  Looking back it feels like a series of bad decisions encouraged by string of misinformation...and maybe a little naivety and lack of research on our part.
Truman watching "How to Train Your Dragon" on my laptop for the millionth time.
From the time we left Pittsburgh until we arrived in Roosevelt, AZ we had been traveling in the pop up we purchased before we left.  Just $700 and paid in full, it had become our home.  The Arizona Spring was the perfect climate for living in such a way.  Warm days, cool evenings...the ability to leave all the windows open to reveal starry nights that rivaled Texas.  And the sunsets...just WOW!
Pop up-Sunset-Four Peaks
We first learned about camp hosting during our stay in Alabama.  The idea was sparked and we began looking into options for camp hosting.  This quickly led us to sites with information regarding volunteering with the US Parks and Forest Services.  And that's where our research stopped.  It was the best of both worlds...free camping in exchange for giving back by acting as volunteers.  We submitted e-mails of interest with several locations throughout the western United States.

Our first call came from Northern California.  The Red Woods National Forest was looking for volunteers beginning in late June.  It was only mid March.  We submitted our application, but remained open to other options.  Approximately two weeks later we received a call from Roosevelt.  At the time we were camped in a place called Corney Lake, a primitive site near Bernice, Louisiana.  Corney Lake was tough.  It was cold and we were worn.  We had been using the opportunity to try out a solar panel battery combo Brian had built.  The weather was insufferable.  We were plagued with bitter cold temps, wind, and rain.  Truman maintained a wonderful temperament throughout and kept Brian and I grounded.
Corney Lake, Louisiana
We felt like our call from Roosevelt Lake was a bit of fate.  You see, Truman's middle name is Theodore in honor of Theodore Roosevelt.  Before Truman we were avid back country campers and hikers.  We enjoyed the national parks and forests, many of which were protected by legislation passed during Roosevelt's term.  In addition, this forest utilized solar power.  Brian's experience in building and maintaining solar made us a hot commodity.  They wanted his skills.  They needed his skills.  Flattery got them everywhere and we left Corney Lake the very next day to begin the 1200 mile journey to Arizona.
Solar Panel / Battery Combo aka Brian's Baby
But we couldn't have been more wrong.  In hindsight, this is where we made a serious error in judgment.  We should have resumed research and investigated reviews of volunteer experiences with the Tonto Basin National Forest (Roosevelt Lake).  It was only later we found blog articles recounting similar experiences to our own.

We arrived on April 1st, 2013.  The joke was on us, when we realized no one knew we were coming.  Our two points of contact were out of the office.  Oddly, this mattered little.  We were handed keys and advised to set up camp in the host site located in the camp ground named Schoolhouse.  This was followed by almost no interaction with the Forest Service for about a week.  During this time we made ourselves at home.  This included scrubbing and stocking the bathrooms.  It appeared it hadn't been done in months and since we had to use them, it was important they be usable.  When someone did finally arrive, we were scolded for doing so.  It seemed to go down hill from there.  

Our first glimpse of Roosevelt Lake
Part of our compensation was free camping which was to include power, water, and sewage.  We had usable water half the time and power arrived after 3 weeks in the form of a solar power trailer, not even strong enough to brew a pot of coffee.  We were continuing to feel pressure from Forest staff to purchase a camping vehicle with air conditioning and to move to a different camp ground with shore power.  Believe me, we weren't opposed to actual power, but we were a bit hesitant to move to a place were our view was a parking lot.  And I can't say we were comfortable with creating new debt by purchasing a camping vehicle with AC.
Schoolhouse Campsite
During this time Brian was working the equivalent of  a full time job and I was putting in close to 20 hours in the camp ground cleaning bathrooms, picking up litter, and monitoring campers.  While Truman and I were holding down the fort in camp, Brian was maintaining solar panels, mucking out pit toilets, collecting water samples, and riding co pilot for garbage duty.  In addition, we were given equipment to maintain the campground landscape.  Unfortunately, this equipment didn't work properly.  Before it was repaired, we were advised the department of corrections crew would complete the landscaping tasks.  To be honest, we really didn't give the landscaping another thought after that.

Then came the decision to purchase an RV for $1800.  The Executive was a 1977 luxury RV...in it's day.  But it needed a new brake master cylinder and only had one working air conditioning unit.  We figured it was still a steal of a deal.  And at the time we had  been considering staying with the Forest Volunteer Program through the summer giving us time to make the necessary repairs to get the vehicle road worthy.  What were we thinking...we were thinking it was getting hotter by the day, we had a toddler, and we needed air conditioning STAT.
The day we bought the RV (bird not included)
Driving The Executive was a challenge.  A brake master cylinder is to brakes what power steering is to steering.  I'm still grateful Brian was the one who drove from Mesa back to Roosevelt.

When we got her back to camp we found more issues.  The kitchen faucet needed replaced, it was out of propane (stove and oven inoperable), the generator didn't work, there was no water heater (and later when we were given a water heater we found there was no plumbing for it either).

Again, feeling pressured, we decided to move to the alternate camp site.  The one with shore power and consistent water.  The new site was in a campground just 6 miles away.  On the way, The Executive stalled and would not restart.  A fellow volunteer stopped to help.  It turned out the RV just needed some gas...$60 to be exact...to get it going again.  As a thank you, we bestowed upon this good Samaritan our beloved pop up (free of charge).

Brian continued his previous workload and I began maintaining bathrooms at our current location as well as our  previous campground.  And that is why we were surprised that less than a week after our move to the new site and less than 2 weeks after purchasing an RV to get us through our volunteering commitment that we were approached regarding our performance as volunteers...or lack their of.  We were told we were not doing what was required.  In fact, we were told we had done nothing.  When we listed what we were doing our "supervisor" said, "but you didn't complete the landscape tasks at the Schoolhouse campground".

This made both of us very angry.  So angry that we decided to break our commitment contract and leave the Forest the next day.  We weren't there because we were desperate, we were there because we wanted to be.  Because we loved our national recreation lands and we felt compelled to give something back.  We were left feeling deceived and discouraged.   It had not been the experience we had imagined.
What we'd imagined!
We wanted to make sure what happened with us did not happen to future volunteers.  Following the chain of command up to and including an in person meeting with the Forest Ranger, we placed our complaints and concerns out there.  All we received was an apology.  Over the next few months, multiple volunteers broke there commitments and moved on as well.  I can't help but wonder if we started a chain reaction.

After leaving the Forest, we moved into an RV resort located in the town of Roosevelt.  We may not have been desperate enough to stay with the Forest Service, but unfortunately our RV was not capable of traveling without major repairs.  In the end, we saved money and had more time for wandering after we parted ways with the the Forest Service.
See ya!


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