Date of Trip: May 2014
Back in my grade school days we usually had to write a story about how we spent our summer vacation. If they were lucky, some may have written about a road trip to a national park. It’s been a long time since I was in grade school, but I do love a good road trip, especially if it includes one or more of our beautiful national parks.
Since my so called retirement over 8 years ago, I have been taking what might be called “working” vacations otherwise known as seasonal jobs. More and more of us boomers are discovering the benefits of this kind of work. Although the pay is usually quite modest, most offer room and board. The biggest benefits are being in a really good place (like a national park), and rather than just a vacation of a few days, I can really experience the place over several months and instead of spending my retirement dollars, I am still earning them. I can pick and choose where I want to go, I contribute to the local economy and I meet many like-minded people with whom to exchange stories of where we have been and ideas of where we want to go next.
This summer I was lucky enough to have worked in Yellowstone National Park for four months. Yellowstone is our country’s first national park and it is a vast place. The amazing thermal features, waterfalls and wildlife draw 3 million visitors a year from all over the world. I worked in retail at the gas station in Mammoth Hot Springs, just 5 miles from the north entrance in Gardiner, Montana and it is the park’s year-round headquarters.
A job like this meant learning a lot about the park because even though I didn’t have a cool “ranger” hat, my uniform seemed to make people ask me a lot of questions besides directions. Some days I opened the station, sometimes I had a mid shift and other times I closed at night. Most people these days pump their own gas, however the foreigners often needed help. Mostly it was selling beverages, snacks, ice, firewood, etc., stocking shelves and coolers and cleaning, including the restrooms of course.
People working in Yellowstone range from college students to the “older & bolder” generation and work many types of jobs from hotel positions of front desk or housekeeping to gift shops or food service, things I’ve done in the past. Working a 40 hour week can be challenging to some, but to most of us it is worth it to be in a great place to hike, explore the park and cool neighboring towns or just hang out with new friends. We enjoyed music, art walks, hot springs, eating out, etc. In July I was able to get my work schedule arranged to drive down to neighboring Grand Tetons National Park and to drive up to Glacier National Park and adjoining Waterton Lakes International Peace Park in Canada.
Whenever I looked at the steam rising in the early morning, I was always reminded that beneath Yellowstone is the world’s biggest volcano. The thermal features of the park were so fascinating to me especially the colors of all the springs. On Sep 3 the Steamboat Geyser erupted, the last time it erupted was 7/31/13 and before that it had been 8 years. I was able to get down there right away and it was roaring like a tornado, misting water all over and the steam plume was 400 ft high. It is the highest geyser in the world and was very thrilling to see.
I had a favorite park ranger (who did have a cool hat) that stopped by the station store all the time and I loved to see him in action dealing with traffic and animal control and the tourists. What I learned working in Yellowstone this summer is how ill prepared some people were for this kind of vacation. GPS and many cell phones may not work in the park so maps are helpful. Make sure you have plans on where you are staying as places fill up including the campgrounds. Be sure to not let the gas tank get too low as the park is indeed very big and it takes hours to get around, especially as there are many bison who like to walk down the middle of the road. Many vehicles are pulling over to photograph the animals they see along the road, including the bears. Please observe the rules and do not crowd the animals as they are very dangerous.
I saw grizzlies, one with a cub right by the road as well as black bears and cubs. We had many mama and baby elk in Mammoth and they are also very protective of their young. The bull elk in the fall are very menacing and chase cars and people. If you do go hiking in the back country, don’t go alone and carry bear spray which is sold all over the park. There are many dangers and we had several deaths in the park due to accidents, drowning, falls, etc. If you are looking at Yellowstone or any national park as a vacation, read up on it ahead of time and be prepared. Car problems do happen and AAA does not come into this park. Although we did not have a repair center at our station, others within the park did. Bring rain gear, sunscreen and a jacket as the weather is ever changing. Get an early start to the day to not only avoid traffic but to get a better chance to see wildlife. Save money by bringing your own water bottles and coffee mugs to fill as you go. Consider packing a lunch to save time standing in long lines. Don’t forget to pack memory cards, chargers and batteries you might need. It’s best not to drive after dark for many reasons, hitting a big animal causes big damage to both your vehicle and the animal. Savor the flavor of the local towns outside the park. Take time to walk around, there’s so much more to see than Old Faithful.
My best advice for Yellowstone (and elsewhere) is to not just view it through a camera lens. It’s better to put down the camera and pick up the binoculars and just watch the wildlife in it’s natural environment. Your photos won’t be any better than the hundreds already posted on Google. If you didn’t take a picture, you still saw it and can always look at the excellent photos already on-line any time you want to. Or just get a postcard and write your feelings about what you saw on the back of it and date it. I know many people have photography as a true hobby, but I just had a small camera that fit in my pocket, and the few pictures I have along with some great experiences tell a story worth so much more to me than hundreds of photos.
If you are looking to work a seasonal job like this check out the website www.coolworks.com I have used them for most of my jobs over the past 8 years and have worked summers at lodges in Alaska, Colorado, and N.C. I have chosen to lead a life of celebration, service and community involvement so I have also worked non-profit volunteer jobs in Georgia, Kentucky and Massachusetts, some during the winter months as well. Even my shorter term experiences elsewhere have led to my long term way of life. Another reward of doing these jobs all over the country is planning the road trips that will take me to and from them. I have crisscrossed the USA many times over the years, This time I left from Tucson in mid May and I made a return trip to the beautiful landscape of Bryce Canyon in Utah, then went to pay my respects to Hemingway in Sun Valley before going to the lava landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.
After completing my Yellowstone work contract in late September, I drove the spectacular BearTooth Highway and went from there to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Then from Custer’s Last Stand it was on to Custer, S.D. where I saw the annual Buffalo Roundup. Then I headed to Estes Park, Colorado to see friends I worked with last summer. I finished up at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and enjoyed sledding down the snow white dunes. Everyone has something to contribute whether it’s with their people skills or just their willingness to do what is needed. But yet, it is not for everyone. It is spending lengths of time away from family and being out of their “comfort zone” that bothers some people. I am used to living “outside the box” so no TV, spotty or no cell service is not an issue for me. I am blessed to also be in healthy shape to be able to do this and for that I am extremely grateful. This kind of work makes me feel alive and keeps me active and fit. I take something away with me every time and these experiences will stay with me forever.
Some retirees are meant to proudly wear that baseball cap that states “I’m Retired” but others like me are not yet ready to go there even though we have left our jobs. But then somebody has got to grow tomatoes in their garden and bake cookies with the grandkids, whereas I’m trying to save something for my “old age” and that may be helping the great-grandkids grow tomatoes. I may have left my “real job” several years ago, but I’m proud to be part of this alternative workforce. Besides, the money I earn pays for my “real travel”. Last year I earned enough to go to South Africa and other places and next month I leave for Cuba and the Galapagos Islands. This lifestyle also gives me the opportunity to pick where I go next. Last winter I enjoyed living in Tucson for 5 months and so for the first time in many years I decided to keep an apartment even though I was away from it for almost 7 months. But it gave me a place to come “home” to for another winter. By the end of the year I will be checking out www.coolworks.com once again to see how I will spend my summer vacation and that will be the next new story in my life.