Temptation whispered in Nilay Vora's ear in the weeks before spring break: San Francisco, his friends said. Beer. Good restaurants. Girls and crowded bars, and no reason to get out of bed in the morning other than to do it all over again.
"I thought about it for a second," the 21-year-old USC junior said earlier this week, huddling at sunset against the wind on a desert mountainside as pregnant gray clouds boiled over a ridge to the west. But "it just doesn't have the same kind of feel as this."
Vora spent five days camping out in Death Valley National Park through USC's Alternative Spring Break program. He joined a crew of two dozen mostly student volunteers to nurture a native-species wetland near a rejuvenated desert spring, tear out nonnative plants in other areas and erase trails left by illicit off-road drivers.
There isn't a beer, or a beach, in sight.
"It's become part of how I like to travel," said Vora, who spent the last three spring breaks on similar trips. "I don't like doing touristy things any more."
Extending a decade-long trend, thousands of college students nationwide this year are traveling into the hearts of cities, the far reaches of national parks and foreign barrios in a seasonal blitz of community service projects that provide an alternative to the traditional week of sun, skin and sin.
Though altruism isn't likely to overcome hedonism as a rite of spring, the alternative programs have added thousands of temporary workers to human service and environmental projects while satisfying an urge among college students to involve themselves in events with more consequence than tans and hangovers.
"I'd rather do something productive than just sit around," said Anna Nguyen, 20, a USC junior and occupational therapy major from West Covina who joined the USC trip to Death Valley. "This is an opportunity to become more aware of how we interact with the environment."
The tracks of off-road drivers, she said, "show just how much society overruns nature."
Trips at Home, Abroad
Less a movement than a broad collection of independent acts, older programs at USC and Tennessee's Vanderbilt University date to the early 1990s and involve more than 100 students each year. USC organized six trips this year, including one to Uruguay.
Other colleges are relatively new at it, and pursue more modest programs. UC Irvine, for instance, will inaugurate its program next week by sending a dozen students to four sites in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including a Ronald McDonald House in the city of Orange and the Door of Hope in Pasadena.
"We hope we'll be able to take off into a larger project and the kids will take ownership of it in the years to come," said Edgar Dormitorio, director of the UC Irvine Volunteer Center.
Most colleges run the programs through on-campus volunteer centers, although a growing number are turning for help to Break Away, a Florida-based nonprofit that trains alternative-break organizers and now lists about 60 local chapters.
The program is adding about 10 new schools a year, said Dan McCabe, Break Away's executive director.
McCabe said the programs -- and the volunteers -- fall into two general categories: those who like to build -- anything from hiking trails in Appalachia to schools in Central America -- and those who prefer to deal with people in need, such as the homeless, AIDS sufferers and the elderly.
"Some people say they want to go experience something different," McCabe said. "A smaller percentage say they want to do something meaningful.... They don't want to go get drunk on the beach."
For years, classic destinations such as Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale in Florida have wrestled with the sought-after business and hard-to-take rowdiness that come with hordes of hormone-charged 19-year-olds.
Among the most popular in Southern California is Palm Springs, which began a crackdown after a 1986 riot by vacationing youths. Officers in riot gear were called out that year after rowdy young men ripped off girls' bikini tops and tried to overturn vehicles.
In more recent years, Lake Havasu has become popular, and officials there say they have seen little sign that the alternative spring break movement is cutting into their business.
"I couldn't tell you that alternative spring breaks have made a huge difference in the makeup of kids who come here," said Jennifer Shanks, promotions manager for the Lake Havasu Tourism Bureau.
Many students heading for service projects probably wouldn't have been heading for the party zones anyway, organizers said.
"Many of them would just stay home," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein of USC's Hillel Jewish Center, which co-sponsored the group working with the poor this week in Uruguay.
"The students who are getting involved have open eyes to poverty and an awareness that they have a direct role in fixing a troubled world. I think these students are looking for ways to make their lives meaningful and to do good works."
For Vora, a Texas native on his third alternative spring break to Death Valley, signing up accomplished two goals.
"It just seemed like a really neat way to take a vacation and to work for some causes," said Vora, who wants to become a human rights lawyer. "School is going to work -- for me. So this -- getting to work for a cause and traveling and meeting people -- it's a vacation."
Trying Something New
Others see the program as a chance to try something new.
"Last year, I just sat around and didn't do anything, which was not very fulfilling," Tony Phillips, 20, a sophomore biology student from Grand Rapids, Mich., said of his spring break. "Any time I get a chance to do something I know nothing about, it's a good thing."
The Death Valley trip gives students a chance to test themselves. Conditions are rugged and the work physically draining. The trip began Saturday with the drive to the national park, where the group camped the first night in Wildrose, a desolate site nearly a mile high and just north of soaring 11,000-foot Telescope Peak.
As a storm system passed through, the group's tents were buffeted by strong winds and rain squalls. Dinner was pasta and sauce heated on a propane stove. A single-seat outhouse served the entire campground. There was no running water, and the students couldn't expect a shower until they returned to Los Angeles. Still, they were eager to work.
"I really want to lift boulders and move trees," Nguyen said as storm clouds broke over a snowcapped peak behind her.
"You came here for the workout?" Phillips said, shivering into a too-thin sweatshirt.
On Sunday, the work began in earnest at Texas Springs on a mountainside above Furnace Creek, which lies below sea level near the bottom of Death Valley.
In a sense, the project touched history. In the 1930s, crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps diverted Texas Springs into a new water-supply system for Furnace Creek, cutting off water to a mature wetland of willows and other plants that seem incongruous in a place where summer temperatures routinely exceed 120 degrees.
In the years afterward, park rangers built a campsite where the wetland once was. Several years ago, Texas Springs was removed from the water system because the water was contaminated with E. coli bacteria, said ranger Tim Croissant, who is working with the student volunteer group.
When the spring began flowing, it drained through the heart of the campground, flooding a number of sites. The water has since been diverted around the campground with dikes and pipes, but the flow is so strong that it is eroding the land at an unnatural pace.
Park rangers hope to slow the flow and reestablish the wetland by moving in native cattails and bulrushes from another part of the watershed.
It's the kind of project, Croissant said, that the park probably wouldn't include in its budget for several years. Other projects of the USC group -- such as erasing illicit tire tracks to keep other motorists from believing they are following sanctioned off-road trails -- probably wouldn't get done at all, he said.
This trip marked the third time the USC group has worked in the wetland, and the results of their earlier efforts greeted them: densely packed cattail and bulrush beds grown out from the few dozen plants they put in on previous trips.
It's dirty work. The group quickly split up, about half digging up plants and placing them in plastic buckets to be carried downstream by truck to the campground, where the rest of the group waded in shin-deep white mud to dig holes and put the plants in place.
A mud fight was inevitable.
"I've got mud in my hair, in my ears, in my underwear," Jennifer Chung, 20, a junior from Princeton, N.J., said during a short-lived truce. "But this is really fun."