Life on the Merry-Go-Round

It’s a tale as old as time: the lifelong game of chaos and uncertainty called seasonal work. Since I started mowing lawns as a kid, I’ve worked the seasonal circuit, bouncing from landscaping jobs to waiting tables to trail maintenance to wetland restoration labor to conservation jobs. Lately, I’ve managed to settle on some sort of seasonal routine (if you can call it that) working one guiding job in the winter and another in the summer. In between, I fill in where I can—freelance writing, as a test subject in medical labs, and wildlife research grunt.

It keeps the edge on life. What could be edgier than getting up at oh-dark-thirty, driving 80 miles on deer-infested highways, and dodging oversized Winnebagos driven by octogenarians? Folks seem to think I have the greatest job in the world. “You must love what you do!” they bray. Sure, I love parts of it, like seeing amazing wildlife every day and having Yellowstone as my workplace. I hate other parts of it, such as rising before dawn, negotiating bison jams, and babysitting adults. Overall, it equals out to: this job kinda sucks but it kinda rocks. Ask me if I like it after a week off and I might give you a rational answer. Other than scenery and the envy of your friends, there are no actual job benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan.

The off-season is where it can get really weird. While most Americans get maybe three weeks off, you get three MONTHS. How awesome is that? Pretty awesome—until you start looking at the price of airfare and gas and fixing your 20-year-old Subaru so it doesn’t bounce so bad on the washboard back roads of Utah. Now and then you pull together enough money for that trip of a lifetime to Alaska or Patagonia, and it gets you through the rest of the year, giving you boast material for beer parties—until you realize everyone already saw your pictures on Facebook and their eyes glaze over as soon as you mention the Tatshenshini River.

But remember that feeling of total liberation when you got out of school, and it was summer vacation? Or when you walked out of that last final in college? In seasonal work, you get that same feeling twice a year on your between-season breaks. Except it’s early spring or late fall, there’s slushy snow everywhere, and the trails are solid mud. If you’re a hunter, you are living the dream. If not, you search the closet for blaze orange and try to think which trail you are least likely to get shot on.

As the weeks of your time off drag on, you begin to dread the thought of 12-hour workdays, tourist questions, and the employee meal plan. So you poke around on Craigslist, pretending that this time, you are going to get a REAL job with actual benefits. Let’s see what’s available… housekeeper. Breakfast room attendant. Software engineer. Diesel mechanic. Well, you’re either overqualified or underqualified, and the Bakken sounds like hell on Earth… so you scuttle off to the gym, blow off some steam on the StairMaster, and try to reduce the beer gut.

You hang around the house some more, while the “honey do” list grows longer and the depression sets in, and after a month you can hardly recall how desperate you were to not babysit tourists ten hours a day and sleep in cabins with mysterious stains on the rugs.

Then you have that day when the wolves show up on cue, you get them in the scopes as they nip at a grizzly’s butt, and your guests are stunned into silence as they watch one of nature’s great spectacles play out before their eyes on the grand stage of Yellowstone. And you think, by god, I’ve never had a full-time indoor job, and I AM living the dream.

Until the end of the season rolls around.