By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Nate Hallman is voluntarily camping in the sweltering heat of Mississippi’s summer. He’s been doing it for two months. But don’t feel bad for him. He prefers it.
“This is my lifestyle,” he said. “I have an apartment in Tucson, but I generally sleep on the floor or the hammock.”
Hallman co-leads a volunteer crew from the Southwest Conservation Corps that was assigned to help clean hiking and horse trails on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The members, ranging in age from 18 to 27, have worked through heat, humidity, rain, ticks and chiggers in hopes of improving six miles of trails by the end of the summer.
At night, they camp on the Trace and cook their own meals.
They are affiliated with AmeriCorps, a federal program that gets volunteers to address critical needs in communities across America.
Hallman’s crew wraps up its six-week tour today and starts the 25-hour drive back to Arizona.
“They’re a fun group,” said Natchez Trace Parkway Ranger Jeff Penney. “We’re going to miss them.”
The second crew arrived last week and will stay for a few more weeks. Amanda Gabaldon, originally from Los Angeles and now living in Flagstaff, didn’t know she was assigned to go to Tupelo until she arrived at the office the day of the departure.
“I’m a city girl gone outdoors girl,” she said. “This is the longest I’ve ever spent in the woods. I’d never had a tick bite before this trip.”
The crews were hard at work Monday, improving drainage along the Old Town Creek portion of the trail. Previously, they improved the trail tread by laying down limestone and crushed gravel. They’ve also been working on the trail near Chickasaw Village.
Unfortunately, last week’s rain ruined some of their work and they are having to do it twice.
“We’re not used to that kind of rain in the desert,” said Hallman, who has lived in Tucson since January.
The young people use hand tools, with the exception of a chainsaw. They wield shovels, pickaxes, pole saws, McLeods and rakes.
“We find ourselves frequently talking about if we were fighting zombies, what tool would we pick,” said Maine native Kailee Mullen, who co-leads the crew with Hallman.
The volunteers haven’t encountered any undead visitors, but they have encountered some unflattering perceptions.
“I think people think we are a prison crew,” Hallman said. “We had a crew member get spit on.”
But, Hallman said, for the most part, people in Tupelo have welcomed the volunteers with warm hospitality. They’ve also been able to see a bit of Tupelo.
Frequent destinations, Mullen said, include restaurants, the Tupelo Farmers’ Market, the movie theaters, grocery stores, the skate park, the library and Frisbee golf courses.
The majority of their interactions with locals have been on the Trace. The volunteers said they see a lot of the same visitors, and they were happy to see regular groups of runners on the Trace.
And, Penney said he’s noticed more visitors on the trail since the Southwest Conservation Corps started its work.
“The old adage – You build it and they will come – I think Tupelo is just craving recreational activities,” he said. “At least 50 people were here Saturday at 7 in the morning.”