I always considered reading emails regularly as one of my good habits. I usually skim through the emails before deleting them just to make sure I haven't missed any important piece of information. It was this habit of mine that made me aware of the 2020 Alternative Spring Break program. That one email I read instead of deleting—along with my willingness to try out something new—connected me with 11 Aggies and 89 other student volunteers who traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, for spring break. Together, we cleaned up more than 47000 pounds of garbage from McKellar Lake, a body of water alongside President’s Peninsula in the Mississippi River.
At the beginning of the spring semester, I started making plans with my friends for spring break. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I had the urge to to do something new. In the past, I had taken opportunities such as these to roam around places with my friends and family. The idea of a road trip with my friends in the U.S. sounded cool, but the possibility of doing something new got me even more excited. One day, as I was skimming through my emails, I found an email from Lily regarding the Alternative Spring Break organization. The second I started reading it, I knew what I was going to do for the spring break.
Our trip to Memphis had everything that a person could dream of having during road trips: new friends, a long journey, and a purpose that made us feel proud of ourselves and cherish every moment of it. This was the first time that I was going on a trip with people I didn't know. I got myself acquainted with just the trip leaders, Mansi and Kaylee, a couple of weeks before the trip start date.
March 8th: For me, the trip started on an amazing note. It wasn't because I woke up on time and got ready with a few minutes left to make sure I had packed everything. It was because of my roommate Ritwik, who woke up and prepared breakfast for me while I took the time to get ready. It really made me wonder how lucky I was to have a roommate like him. By 7 am we were on the road. The feeling of being on a road trip made me feel nostalgic. I grew up watching Hollywood movies where people go on road trips and always thought it seemed cool.
It was exactly how I thought it would be. My childhood memories filled my head and the feeling of finally experiencing something I was only used to seeing in movies was overwhelming. I was finally living my dreams. We reached our destination by 5 pm and were greeted by the Living Lands and Waters crew at Central Barbecue in downtown Memphis. They hosted dinner for us and for other volunteers who had come from different parts of the States. While we were having our food, the Founder and President of Living Lands and Waters, Chad Pregracke went on stage. The second he held a mic in his hand, there was a huge roar from the audience. I didn't know what was happening, but I was sure of one thing- this was going to be huge! Chad was cheering for us and thanked us for being there and introduced some people from his crew. The energy exhibited by his team and by other volunteers got me excited after a long journey. After a thrilling introduction to the crew of Living Lands and Waters was over, we left for our hotel. We reached our hotel around 6 pm. We wanted to roam around the city a bit and were ready to roll in an hour. We were tired but were excited about the next day. It was all about meeting new people, boat rides, and cleaning the river!
March 9th, Day-1: We went to the boat ramp of Living Lands and Waters crew. Coming from Texas, one thing I learned of all was to check weather updates. It was supposed to be cold, windy and rainy for some parts of the day. Despite knowing the weather beforehand, I had just 2 layers on me and I took a chance. We witnessed a wonderful short skit by some of the crew members and we were promised that things would get weirder (in a good way, of course). We were surely the lucky ones amongst all the other volunteers since our boat was captained by Chad. We were soon aboard the boat and went to nearby riverbanks to start picking up trash. Before we knew it, it was lunchtime. We had our lunch timings from noon to 1 pm. Food was arranged for everyone on the Garbage Barge. The garbage barge was huge, and one might not get excited at first looking at it from the outside but once you're on it, it looked amazing from the inside. Our lunch area inside the barge was filled with all types of treasures. There were pictures of all the volunteers through the years, dolls picked up from the river, colorful bottlecap artwork, and tons of other things which made us feel like we were having lunch inside a huge treasure chamber. After lunch, we felt sleepy. We took a couple of minutes nap on the boat while we were being ferried to the riverbanks.
Once we reached the shore, we went back to cleaning. Chad told us he had some people from the National Geographic coming to take pictures with us. The news of National Geographic guys just turned us into crazy monkeys. We got so excited. We got a chance to get photographed by the National Geographic team while we planted a few trees and cleaned more trash.
At the end of the day, I had done a lot of work, but I felt like I had more energy than when I started my day. The weather turned out to be good. In fact, in the afternoon it got a bit humid and I was glad I had only 2 layers. When I learned that we had collected 17000 pounds of trash, I felt stronger and more accomplished.
March 10th, Day-2: The first thing I did after getting off my bed was some stretching exercises. The moment I started them was the moment I felt like stopping. Yesterday’s work had made me so sore! God, it hurt! I had been active in sports 6 months back, but grad life had me more sedentary.
It had rained the previous night, but thankfully it didn't rain in the morning and for the entire day while we were at work. Day 2 ended up being the toughest one for me. We had to shift all the filled trash bags we had filled the previous day to another place on the garbage barge. Some 30-40 of us were standing in an assembly line formation passing bag after bag loaded with trash until we had it all moved. Music, occasional inspiring some dance moves
, helped us accomplish this task in 2 hours straight. I remembered my days at the gym (which were rare, but still….) and this was more than what I had ever done in a gym before.
After lunch, we boarded our boat to go for more cleaning. This time, our boat captain was J.B. We gave him the nickname “Wall-E” and eventually he came up with our nicknames. By the end of day two, we had cleared another 34000 pounds of garbage from the lake. Even though we had worked hard, we were so energized by our accomplishment, so we went rock climbing.
March 11th, Day-3: Due to thunderstorm warnings, unfortunately, we couldn't do much cleaning. However, we got a wonderful opportunity to participate in an educational session held by Living Lands and Waters. We got to know some crucial points regarding the importance of having clean rivers and how maintaining its cleanliness affects the environment. I also got an opportunity to interact with Mike (a.k.a. Coach). One of the things that I have loved and cherished the most in my life is meeting new people and forming a strong relationship. It felt so good when I met Coach and he was really inspiring to me. The work that was being done by the crew every single day was an amazing achievement.
March 12th, Day-4: The weather was once again wonderful, and I was feeling a bit dull as it was our last day at cleaning. We got a chance to work with the entire crew of Living Lands and Waters. There was music inspiring our work and occasional dancing. I had never imagined cleaning a river could be so much fun. I felt like I could go all day and the feeling of getting tired could never enter my head again. At the day's end, we had cleaned more than 47000 pounds of trash from McKellar Lake. The day ended with an amazing skit from the crew and everyone dancing on the floor. We performed Aggie War Hymn on every day's end with the crew members and they were as excited as us to be a part of it. Saying goodbye got a bit emotional (I didn't cry) for me because I have always loved creating friendships with people who inspire me, and the Living Lands and Waters crew inspired me in every possible way.
, Day-5: We left for College Station in the morning. While I was reading the biography of Elon Musk in our van, I got an email notifying me that I had landed a summer internship at Tesla. The first person who came to my mind was our boat captain, J.B, who had given me the nickname “Cybertruck.”
Pavan Kulkarni is a Masters student in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering