One of our vague intentions when hitting the road almost 18 months ago was to engage in volunteer activities along the way, and our planned summer in Colorado offered a perfect opportunity to make that a reality. We signed up for a stint volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in the small resort town of Pagosa Springs through Habitat’s RV Care-A-Vanners program. The standard work commitment is for two weeks, and the local Habitat affiliate secures spots for the volunteers to park in a local RV park at affordable rates. Our site at the San Juan Riverbend RV Park wasn’t the fanciest we’ve ever experienced, but it was spacious and green.
Habitat for Humanity of Archuleta County builds one house each summer with major input from Care-A-Vanners, and through dumb luck we ended up volunteering on weeks where some of the most interesting work was completed. When we arrived, the foundations and crawlspace of the home were built, but there was nothing at all in place above the grade of the floor. Our group framed the exterior and interior walls, attached the main exterior sheathing, and installed the roof trusses. In just two weeks, we went from a flat floor surface and an enormous pile of lumber to something that looked very much like the outline of a house. How satisfying is that?
Along the way we participated in trenching, laying in a sewer line, carting dirt around the site, compacting soil, measuring, cutting, and nailing/screwing about a million pieces of lumber and OSB (oriented strand board), building temporary support braces, setting up scaffolding, and helping the group with daily setup and clean up of all the tools and materials on the site.
One of our goals in participating in this program was to improve our construction knowledge and skills, and the Habitat build did not disappoint. We are now much more comfortable using a variety of power tools, including a chop saw, table saw, skill saw, and pneumatic nail gun. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Ken mostly used the nail gun, while I fell in love with the saws. Suffice it to say that by our last day, one of our team leaders christened me “The Saw Babe.”) We gained experience using impact drivers, extra-wide spade bits for boring, and different sizes of hammers. We are now familiar with many of the basic principles of framing and much more conversant in the names of different types of lumber products. We appreciated the patience and kindness of the many experienced hands on our job site who took the time to explain things and train newbies like us.
Our Care-A-Vanner group initially totaled 10 people including us, though people kept mysteriously disappearing (or leaving for other commitments — at least that’s what they claimed). Our colleagues were from Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas, and from a variety of interesting professional backgrounds ranging from mental health to IT to agriculture. We even had two (unrelated) music teachers in the group, who provided lovely musical accompaniment during happy hours at the campground. Some of our coworkers were experienced Habitat volunteers who had traveled for multiple domestic and foreign builds, and others were almost complete novices like us. Above all, they were uniformly kind and friendly people who chose to donate their time and talents to a community where they don’t even live, so it was no surprise that we got along well with everyone. These are some good eggs. We had a cohesive and hard-working group, and it was remarkable how much we accomplished in just 8 days on the job site.
Our work schedule was pretty reasonable — from 8 a.m. until about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday each week — and having only two consecutive work days at a time gave us plenty of time to recover. We also appreciated having a good mix of group events (happy hours at camp, Taco Tuesdays after work at a local bar, group dinners) and time on our own. We would have been pretty annoyed about having “mandatory fun” every day of our stay, especially since we were often mentally beat after long days of learning new things and doing manual labor in the hot sun.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much the local Habitat affiliate did to make us feel welcome and valued. We started our visit with a pot luck dinner provided mainly by the members of the board, and during our stay we were treated to several truly excellent lunches on the job site as well as support like receiving mail for us at the office and providing endless ideas for activities on our days off. Every build is different, with different local affiliates, different volunteers, and different team leaders, but we were very pleased with our initial experience — it was pretty much exactly what we were looking for from a volunteer stint with Habitat. Plus, we had the good fortune to be stationed in an interesting small town in the San Juan Mountains.
The town of Pagosa Springs was initially founded to capitalize on its extensive hot springs, which disgorge mineral-rich waters into the San Juan River. Today multiple spas in town offer the opportunity to soak in the spring waters — from the deepest hot springs in the world — ranging from the historic The Springs hotel to smaller operations like Healing Waters and The Overlook Spa. Over time a significant tourism industry developed around the hot springs, and visitors to Pagosa Springs can enjoy a wide range of activities from river rafting and horseback riding to golf and hot air ballooning. Being an energy geek, I was particularly interested in the extensive use of the geothermal resources to heat downtown buildings including a group of community greenhouses.
Like many resort towns, Pagosa Springs has a plethora of expensive, mostly-empty vacation homes and a major shortage of housing that’s affordable for the people who work in support of all those vacationers. Habitat helps fill that gap in a small way by building homes that are sold to needy residents at affordable prices. The homeowner-to-be for our Habitat project is a single mom with three teenage kids who works for the local school district. In addition to paying for the home, the owners are required to put in volunteer hours during the build. It was a pleasure to meet Brandy and several of her friends who worked with us on the weekends, and to get more of a local perspective on this fairly touristy place.
The town of Pagosa Springs is along the grueling Race Across America bicycle route, and we were lucky to have our stay coincide with individual and team riders passing through town. The people we cheered on for the Ironman in Miami are, amazingly, less tough than these riders who will bike 3,000 miles across the continent. It was fun seeing and hearing them whiz by on Highway 160 at all hours of the day and night, with the support teams occasionally stopping for photos, especially at the bottom of Wolf Creek Pass.
One day we stopped for a snack at a small cafe that grabbed my attention as we were driving around town since it offered a new-to-us food experience. Mee Hmong Cuisine is a simple counter-service restaurant with a limited menu, but the items we tried were excellent. Even though to my untrained taste the food was basically identical to Vietnamese cuisine, everything we tried was fresh and delicious and we enjoyed finding a little gem of an Asian restaurant in this tiny mountain town.
Always Time For a Hike
Since we were spending the majority of our time doing fairly intense physical labor, on our days off we dialed back our normal hiking activity significantly. However, we still wanted to get out and experience the stunning scenery surrounding Pagosa Springs. One day we checked out the Piedra River Trail in the San Juan National Forest. This relatively easy trail runs alongside a scenic river, including through some towering canyons and across meadows filled with wildflowers. It was a perfectly relaxing hike, and the drive out to trailhead brought us through dramatic countryside that reminded me of Switzerland: craggy, snow-covered mountains towering over lush green meadows filled with cows. On another day, we checked out Treasure Falls near the base of Wolf Creek Pass — a locale popularized by a 1970s novelty song (YouTube link here for the curious). The falls were not quite as impressive as Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge but part of the trail brought us right into the spray of the falls, which was a unique twist.
Next: We head further into the Rockies to explore the area west of Colorado Springs, near Pike’s Peak, where we hope to get back to hiking after this very informative but also physically taxing stay.