“You were wild once. Don’t let them tame you. ” Isadora Duncan
Kameron and I just spent 6 months working at the Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park. The company we worked for is called Xanterra. They are a park concessionaire so they are unaffiliated with the National Park Service. I worked in the office as a senior GSA and Kameron worked outside as a campground attendant. For any RV’er considering doing this I’m going to give an honest account of the pros and cons of this experience.
Madison Campground is a beautiful campground right along the Madison Valley. Which leads us to the biggest pro of the overall Yellowstone experience… living in the park. Yellowstone is a magical place, in fact I often referred to it as Wonderland. It was not rare to have a bison or an elk hanging around our campsite. Madison is the only Xanterra campground where, as an employee, you live in the actual campground. Other campgrounds place you in an employee lot. Makes the commute to work nonexistent. As someone coming from city living the free entertainment of living in a National Park is like nothing else. To finish your shift at work and be able to go wolf watching is pretty incredible.
When we weren’t watching wildlife we were hiking or backpacking. We hiked over 300 miles in the park. They say if you just drive the roads in Yellowstone you only get to see 1% of what the park has to offer. I like to think we saw a lot more. We learned how to backpack, did some of the most difficult hikes in the park, and were inspired on a regular basis. We had adventures and encountered dangers and left the park a lot more wilderness savvy then when we arrived.
Meeting and bonding with your campground family is another pro of work camping in Yellowstone. We met people from all over and made lasting friendships. Depending on where you are working you may be spending a lot of time in the middle of nowhere with nothing but each other. Plan on getting to know your coworkers very well. There are pot lucks and campfires and conversations that will lead to tears at the end of the season when you have to say goodbye.
Something else you should plan on is having little or no internet or cell phone reception. At Madison we had to drive 14 miles to West Yellowstone to use our phones. In the beginning I struggled with this a little. We are all so attached to our devices it’s hard to be without them all of a sudden. However by the end of our season my phone was basically a paper weight. I was lucky it was ever charged. Not to mention I had to factory reset it once and I didn’t bother putting my phone numbers back in until after the season was over. Half the time I didn’t even know where it was. Is this a pro or a con of the Yellowstone experience? I think that depends on the person. For me it was a pro. It was nice to know I could live without my phone and disconnect for a while. Instead of holding this device and constantly texting or browsing I was looking up and taking in the world around me as well as paying attention to the people around me. I wish we could get back to doing more of that in our everyday lives. I already feel my dependency creeping back in now that I am out of the park.
We have to talk about it… the money. The pay isn’t very good. You also have to pay for your campsite. A lot of people think we got to live in Yellowstone for free but that isn’t the case. The site ran at about $300 a month, with electric, which was basically most of Kamerons paycheck. The rent was paid from his check and then we lived off of mine. There was no saving money. Initially we had thought the cost of living would be less so somehow even though we would be making just over minimum wage we could still come out on top. We wound up not spending much less then if we were living anywhere else. In fact, in some aspects we spent more. Food shopping was a big one. The only nearby grocery stores were in West Yellowstone, 14 miles away. Because it was a super tourist area the stores were really expensive and for low quality food. A crappy can of beans would run you double if not more then what it would in a normal grocery store. These stores know you have limited options so they know you’ll pay whatever you have to. You gotta eat! We tried whenever we could to drive the two and a half hours to Bozeman, Montana to get better quality and better priced food.
Going into this experience we expected the job to be fun and well, maybe easy. Sometimes it’s fun. Maybe occasionally it’s easy. But most of the time it is a difficult and very real job. As a senior GSA or even just a GSA, you are working on a complex computer system, managing and assigning 300 campsites, dealing with customer complaints and issues, handling money, booking activities throughout the park, communicating with the other campgrounds and lodging, answering questions, reviewing rules, and sometimes if not pretty often ripping your hair out when things go awry, and trust me they do go awry. Often you will find yourself having to move 5 people around the campground to appease one unhappy guest. Guest requests can be hard to meet. Putting parties of 5 sites together that want to be next to each other can be hard to do with varying types of equipment and limited site availability. It can be a very thankless job as the staff works extremely hard to make people happy and I don’t think guests realize how hard that can be sometimes. It often takes a little magic.
As a campground attendant your main responsibility, despite what they may tell you when they hire you, is cleaning bathrooms. At Madison there were 14 of them. It’s a dirty job but somebody has to do it. It’s a lot of work and it’s very tedious. Occasionally you also have to direct traffic, sell firewood, deliver notes to sites, ash, and pick trash. But mainly plan on spending hours and hours each day cleaning restrooms.
Looking back on the experience now that it’s over the pro’s outweighed the cons. I’m glad we did it. I really miss the park and I also miss the people. I’d much rather have coffee while gazing at a bison than while gazing at traffic. I’d much rather listen to the bugle of an elk than the slamming on a car horn. The wilderness clears the head and leaves you changed. Where I once thought moving back to New York eventually would be easy I now wonder if I could handle being without wilderness nearby. We’re still hunting for that perfect place to settle down. The more we travel the harder it seems to find.
“You were wild once. Don’t let them tame you. ” Isadora Duncan