When Work and Camping Combine
For RVers, Workamping is a Ticket to Travel
In 1987, Greg and Debbie Robus founded Workamper News, a publication that later expanded into numerous services including a job hot line, a resume service and a bookstore to serve RVers who want a ticket to travel. Notice, I didn’t say a “free” ticket, but a means to pay one’s way on the road. That’s exactly what my photographer husband, Lee Smith, and I did to spend six weeks in the midst of Maine’s spectacular autumn.
When I read an ad on the Workamper News hot line from Coastal Kayaking Tours and Acadia Bike in Bar Harbor, I mentioned to Lee that New England was a place I’d like to spend the fall. But the ad appeared in mid-August, and we had commitments through mid-September. Lee pointed out the mantra that I’ve shouted over and over in my presentations about Workamping: “It never hurts to ask!” Upon inquiry, I discovered the company’s season runs to the end of October. Cruise ships dock in the harbor and customers come ashore to rent bicycles and kayaks. We were hired over the phone to begin work in the middle of September.
For six weeks, we stayed at Smuggler’s Den, a wooded campground in Southwest Harbor, a village on Mount Desert Island only 30 minutes from downtown Bar Harbor. Two other Workamping couples from Coastal Kayaking were our neighbors. The first day I reported for work, Billy Nettles, attired in a formal morning coat with tails and a top hat, greeted me in a pronounced South Carolina accent. I felt right at home.
Billy and his wife, Molly, garbed in a long dress and white apron, guided Victorian walking tours around Bar Harbor. In between their scheduled tours, they worked the customer service desk for Coastal Kayaking and Acadia Bike. The two immediately began training me on answering phones, renting bicycles and booking ocean kayak tours. Another co-Workamper whisked Lee away to the depot, an area about a mile from the downtown shop where kayaks, a bus and vans were stored. Lee started driving vans that pulled trailers of kayaks to launching points around the island. From the start, we began absorbing the history of Bar Harbor, Frenchman Bay and the mountains of Acadia National Park that surround Bar Harbor on three sides. On our days off, we picked up a couple of mountain bikes — a bonus for our work contract — and set off to explore Acadia’s carriage roads. The roads, designated for hikers, bikers and horses only, make up a 45-mile system of well-engineered crushed stone roads financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated them to the national park. We bicycled through deep forests and alongside natural lakes carved centuries ago by glaciers. At last, I could impart information to customers that I had actually experienced.
If we had gone to Bar Harbor earlier in the season, we could have hiked more trails, taken more boat excursions, eaten more lobster and pocketed more income. However, in the six weeks we lived and worked on Mount Desert Island, we experienced the beauty and wildness of Acadia National Park, worked with great people, and watched maple leaves turn flaming red and then drop to the forest floor. Workamping made this opportunity possible.
Workampers, a name the Robuses registered, come from all walks of life and with diverse talents. The jobs they seek are equally different and fit a wide range of requirements, lengths of employment and compensation. Lee and I have met dozens of people hired for numerous jobs, some as mundane as cleaning restrooms in a campground, others as challenging as running away with the circus. In annual sessions of Workamper Rendezvous, an event hosted by Workamper News’ current owners, Steve and Kathy Jo Anderson, I present “Faces and Places of Workampers,” featuring RVers doing real jobs in actual places. The scope of opportunities for RVers who want to work or volunteer is vast and the places they stay are often in nature’s best environments. I tell my participants: “Workampers get to live and work on America’s prime property.”
Lee and I have chosen a few opportunities; some jobs pay, and others are volunteer positions that provide a campsite and hookups as compensation. One May, we volunteered to sell firewood at Cape Lookout State Park on the coast of Oregon. We parked a sand dune away from the beach; together, we worked 20 hours a week and spent the rest of our time exploring Oregon’s lighthouses.
Following our six-week assignment at Bar Harbor, we traveled to Kansas and spent another six weeks with a temporary workforce in a fulfillment center for the online retail giant, Amazon. Located in the southeast corner of Kansas, only 75 miles north of Tulsa, Okla., Coffeyville is not necessarily an RVing destination. A friendly but economically strapped town of about 10,000, Coffeyville’s bottom line to Workampers was good wages for a short period of time.
Ten-hour shifts, day and night, ran for four or five consecutive days. With people sleeping and working in shifts, the typical potlucks and get-togethers around campfires happened less frequently. Amazon’s focus is on “working hard, having fun and making history as the Earth’s most customer-centric company.” We can personally attest to the working hard part. However, I count the experience of an assembly line job alongside approximately 400 other Workampers as one that stands out in my career.
Other Amazon facilities took note of the productivity of Workampers at the Coffeyville center. Since 2008, the company has recruited Workampers during the Christmas rush at additional locations in Campbellsville, Ky., and Fernley, Nev.
At Amazon in Coffeyville, we met scores of fellow RVers and created a few lifelong friends, including our RV park neighbors, Richard and Reta Averill. At Amazon, Richard and Reta worked in the “picking” department, meaning they used hand-held computers to select merchandise from bins to place in plastic totes and send down the assembly line to our stations in shipping. While Lee and I chose to work that following summer for Opera in the Ozarks, a nonprofit training camp for aspiring opera artists, Richard and Reta took jobs at a campground in Branson, Mo.
We served as support staff for the opera camp; Lee did jack-of-all-trades maintenance and occasional set building. I cleaned restrooms in the girls’ dormitory and helped at lunch and dinner in the kitchen. We parked our motorhome on Opera in the Ozarks’ campus a few miles from Eureka Springs, Ark., ate all our meals in the dining hall and, as a bonus, received complimentary seating to all four operas staged that summer.
Over at Compton Ridge near Branson, Reta took reservations and checked-in guests, clerked in the campground store and filled orders for pizzas. Richard did maintenance at the campground and escorted RVers to their sites. They, like us, lived on their workplace property. While Lee and I pick and choose our Workamping jobs, sometimes not working for a full year, Richard and Reta stay busy with wage-earning jobs and volunteer positions in state and national parks. For two winters they served as gate guards for companies in Texas, primarily opening and closing the gates for traffic onto properties on which gas or oil rigs operate. Those jobs are 24/7, requiring one person to be on duty every hour of every day. While this work is confining, the pay is good and the jobs typically run for two or three months.
Workamping is a fitting option for numerous RVers with varying agendas. Some folks need a paycheck to stay on the road. Others merely want to be productive. Some add to their retirement income, possibly to afford a few luxuries. Most Workampers are couples, but the lifestyle works well for singles, too.
If Workamper News made a poster to encourage solo Workampers, Joy Ethridge’s face would be front and center. After the end of her 31-year marriage, she began eight years of Workamping jobs. New to RVing, she purchased her first travel trailer and started as a waitress in an almost deserted town outside Texas’ Big Bend National Park. Next, she drove to Iowa and ran games for Adventureland, a family-oriented theme park. Joy has since worked at mall kiosks in Texas and Louisiana, handed out samples for See’s Candies, bussed tables for a concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park, staffed offices of KOA campgrounds from Niagara Falls to Bozeman, Mont., and worked two seasons at Amazon. Her summer job for 2013 was in the bookstore at Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota.
Joy credited Workamping for allowing her to travel to different places and do things she would never have been able to otherwise. For Joy and thousands of other RVers in America, Workamping is indeed a ticket to travel.