“What is that?” I could hear Mia saying nearby—half disgusted, half intrigued.

I chuckled as I snapped a photo of Sara in her element—the outdoors, a moment of service. We all agreed; she just looks good there.

We were nine women. Donning trash bags. Wearing creepy blue rubber gloves.

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Mere moments ago, the majority of us had been strangers, either members of Wild Wilderness Women who hadn’t met each other yet, or new ladies who had heard about the event and come along to forge friendships and show our local forest some sweetness. Yet, despite having just been strangers, there we were—laughing, swapping stories of life, love, and day jobs, and engaging in healthy competition to find the grossest and/or coolest litter we possibly could.

But it didn’t start this way. It started as a mischievous, somewhat self-interested plot. I can explain.

After interviewing Ariel Trahan with the Anacostia Watershed Society about how we can restore our polluted urban rivers, I learned about just how much of the river’s garbage comes from the storm drains around the city. She told me about river clean-up events that were taking hundreds of pounds of garbage out of the river within the course of a day. Hundreds. And yet, there was still garbage coming into the river. Hundreds of pounds of garbage.

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So, at this point, I was basically having nightmares every time I saw trash in Rock Creek Park. I imagined it washing into the creek. And then into the Potomac River. And then into the Chesapeake Bay. And then into the Atlantic Ocean. And then ultimately causing the end times for us all.

I devised a plan.

I was to trick a group of gal pals into swapping their post-work happy hours for a trash pick-up in the park. With their added labor, I was sure we could have the park smiling in no time—and save the world from its impending demise.

I framed it as an “After Work Walkabout,” and promised things like: relaxing post-office into the beauty of our local nature, good feels from fulfilling our duty to the planet, and a chance to reach your 10,000 steps goal for the day. Eight women (plus me) totally fell for it.

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Before heading out onto the Soapstone Valley Trail, we gathered in a circle to share our names, how we’d come to find ourselves in this moment, and what our intention was for the walkabout. My shadow side’s intention was to trick adventurous gals into cleaning up the park. My exhausted post-work-self’s intention confessed to the ladies that I was just really looking forward to simply being. As other outdoor women shared their intentions—including some who said they were specifically there because they were excited to be a part of cleaning up the park (one woman even brought her own gigantic trash bag, as she was determined to be the biggest picker-upper of garbage)—I sensed something happening. It felt like community. But, I couldn’t be so brazen in my analysis yet. I jotted down my initial findings in my mental field notes, and we headed into the forest.

The natural setting felt instantly calming. The company was superb. I was so lost in the joy I was finding in this group that I forgot this was some loaded scheme. I looked around and saw empowered, beautiful women taking the task in front of them seriously. No cigarette butt was left behind. No plastic bottle was missed. We scoured the creek beds clean. We combed the trails for forgotten potato chip bags.

Sara with the trash pick-up's most creative find- Turtle Finger Puppet

We found really questionable dark plastic Ziplocs filled with who knows what. We found every forgotten soft drink one could ever think to imbibe. We grumbled at the pet owners who had indeed bagged their hound’s feces, but had then decided to just leave the bag there on the trail. Sara, again in her element, found a turtle finger puppet. We took this out of the park too. Because we all know—turtle finger puppets belong on the finger, not in the river.

However, the moment that sealed it for me that my plan, though in many senses working, had taken on a whole life of its own, was when I unearthed a pair of age-old, dirty boxers from one of the park’s tributaries. Tara happily ran over to snap a photo together with them flying proudly in the air between us.

The boxers that created a community

I’d wanted to have a trash pick-up to clean up the park and help our watershed. We did that. But smack dab in the middle of this, we also fostered and nurtured community. I found the ability to meet my intention and “simply be” while laughing over rotting undies in the open air. This is why our urban parks are there. This is why they need our service, our care. Urban parks provide a strung out city population the chance to take a deep breath and reconnect with the power of community.

So, at the end of the work day, I encourage you to try swapping your dress shoes for your Tevas, grabbing some gal pals, and hitting the urban trail for some clean-up — you never know exactly what you might find there.