Neil Adams — Protect a National Treasure
At Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades, Neil Adams wowed children with facts about alligators, such as that they've existed from the time of the dinosaurs.
At Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, he gave virtual dissertations on how sulfuric acid was hollowing out the limestone, and guided tourists through cave holes "the size of a toilet seat."
In southern California's Mojave National Preserve, he greeted visitors in 120-degree temperatures, routinely reminding them, "Drink water!"
And that was just the start.
Since ending his 34-year career as a weapons engineer six years ago, Adams has lived and volunteered at 15 U.S. national parks and historical sites. It's his dream retirement, he says, and he's not settling down anytime soon.
"I feel so free, free as a bird," says Adams, 67, who packed up his apartment in suburban Washington, D.C., and bought an SUV so he could roam.
Currently he's in Canaveral National Seashore in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and he says he's getting as much from the experience as he gives. (In July 2011 Adams will be reporting to Cape Lookout National Seashore in Harkers Island, N.C., to continue his volunteer experience.) "I've learned more in these past six years being out here than from all the books I read in my first 60," Adams says.
And the things he gets to do—from issuing permits to delivering lectures—satisfy him in unique ways. "Wherever I go, I hit the books hard and heavy, and by the end of the first month, I'm ready," he says. "People think you're a ranger, so when you tell them you're not, they're amazed at how much you know."
And they often show their gratitude. "A lot of people thank me out of the blue just for being a volunteer," says Adams. "The rangers themselves say that without us, a lot of things would not happen."
Consider the common challenge of making sure visitors obey the rules. Once, at the edge of the mile-deep Grand Canyon, a hiker ignoring the marked trails and carrying no water began an unsteady walk down a dangerously steep slope.
"I asked him not to go, but he kept yelling, 'This is my park!' " Adams says. "I said, 'Fine, but before you go, I need your name, address, and next of kin.' "
"When I said 'next of kin,' he came to his senses."
How it works. Pick among the nearly 400 parks and historical sites run by the National Park Service. Then sign up for one of more than 175,000 volunteer opportunities — from counting rare birds to working at a visitors center.
Time it takes. As little as a few hours or can be an ongoing commitment.
Contact. Go to the National Park Service online.