We now have two months under our belts of workamping at Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills National Forest, SD. I know you want to know all about it! What’s it like? What do you do? Is it fun? Is it your dream job?… Blah blah blah.
For those of you who don’t know what workamping is, let me explain. Simply put, you get hired to do a job, usually at a campground, national or state park, or a private business like Amazon. Your compensation is your campsite for free or a paycheck, or a combination of both. Many times there are extra perks like free laundromat usage, free WiFi, discounted store goods or propane, end of season bonuses, etc. These are temporary jobs usually lasting 3-6 months so there is no health insurance, vacation time, etc. For retired people, it gives them a little something to do and a little extra money while travelling. For not-old-enough-to-retire people like me, it gives me a paycheck (which I need) and the opportunity to travel and try new jobs, all rolled into one. I no longer own a house so I have less bills to pay meaning I can live on less money (I think).
We were hired as camp hosts by a concessionary company that runs 33 campgrounds in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We are working at Pactola Reservoir Campground. It’s an 80 site National Forest campground on an 800 acre reservoir about 25 minutes outside of Rapid City, SD. We are near Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, Deadwood and much more. There is a lot to see and do in the area.
Our main job duties include working at the main campground booth checking in campers and also collecting fees for the boat ramp. We were made lead hosts right after Memorial Day (the other lead hosts quit after two weeks on the job). I work 9-4 Mondays and Thursdays. Fridays-Sundays it’s about 8-5. I’ve put in 10 and 11 hour days on the weekends at times. Jerry runs around on the ATV checking on sites, assists parking the boat trailers in the parking lot at the boat ramp and works the beach and both boat ramps as needed. When we get done with our shifts, we are technically not done working. We have a ‘camp host’ designation so people come to us with questions or complaints and to buy firewood and get campsites after hours. I’ve had people knock on my door as early as 6:30 am and as late as 10:00 pm. There have been days when we’ve put in several hours doing these tasks after already working a 7-8 hour shift. This was really getting to both of us (and to the other workampers as well!) If we wanted to work 12 hour days, we would’ve kept our own damn campground instead of selling it a few months ago! Oh and did I mention that we have a curfew? Every day, even on our days off, we have to be back in our campground loop by 9pm so we can enforce quiet hours. We also have to enforce the other rules as well of which the biggest issue is with dogs on leashes it seems.
Fridays through Sundays, we are not allowed to leave the campground at all. This was a hiring stipulation. Actually, one of us can run to the store if we need something, but we both can’t be gone.
Our benefits here are: minimum wage for all hours worked plus a free campsite. We also were given an annual Black Hills National Forest Pass and a Black Hills VIP pass. The Black Hills VIP pass gets us into over 100 area attractions either free or at reduced rates. We went to Crazy Horse for free and had a great dinner at their salad bar. Dinner wasn’t free.
We rode the 1880 steam train from Hill City to Keystone, SD for free.
We did a gold mine tour and then panned for gold for free. Got 5 flecks of gold!! Didn’t strike it rich by any means, but it was fun!
We went with some of our fellow workampers to a chuckwagon supper show for free.
Luckily that one was free as they ran out of potatoes. Two of us are meat free and one gluten-free so the potato was our main meal and it was pretty upsetting that they ran out. I ate beans and applesauce. The show was pretty good, although not your typical chuckwagon show.
We’re spending four months in this area so I’ve made a South Dakota bucket list of sorts and we’ll try to knock off one or two things a week over the next 12 weeks that we’re here. Nothing like mixing work with travel and playing tourist!
The whole idea of taking on this lifestyle was more about what it allowed us to do than the money we’d make. To put it bluntly, minimum wage is shit compared to what I made as an RN. But…we wanted to travel. We wanted to explore. We wanted freedom. We wanted to be unconventional. And I wanted less stress than hospital nursing gave me. I’m all up for that. After 20 years of being a bedside hospital RN doing 12 hour night shifts, I can honestly say that I don’t really miss that job (ok, maybe I miss it a little bit.) For the first time in 20 years, I have gotten to sleep every night for the last eight months (I worked night shift for 20 years!). That’s golden!
Also, we don’t have any “rent” to pay monthly either as our site is free. No utilities to pay or property taxes either. See where I’m going here – little pay, but lots of savings! The view is also a nice added perk, along with the “company car”.
That’s not to say that this new job hasn’t stressed me out or made me want to quit at least once (or twice), because it has. Not having days off has been an issue. Memorial Day weekend management said nobody was getting a day off. In our contract it says we get one day off on holiday weeks. I made sure we got it! One week on our day off Jerry put in 4 hours alone and I was called half a dozen times during the day as well to answer questions and then had paperwork to do at the end of the night. This week we didn’t have that issue at all, other than still having paperwork at the end of the day. Since we took over as lead hosts we’ve been averaging 40-50 hours per week, which is more hours than we wanted, but it makes the tiny paycheck a bit nicer, although they pay no over time at all so my 52 hour week check was all at straight time. I won’t be doing that again!
The other un-fun stuff is that I get to work in a booth that’s basically a 4×8 shed.
It has no electricity so sometimes you’re blazing hot and sometimes you’re freezing cold! This week the temperatures are high 90’s all week! Our first day open, it snowed! The only chair is a lawn chair which just broke the other day. We stopped at Goodwill and bought a bar stool for inside the booth and someone else brought up a new lawn chair. Otherwise we’d be standing 8 hours a day! The bugs, flies, bees, and wasps are pretty bad too. I think they spend more time in the booth than I do!
Sometimes it’s downright boring in the booth, aka Mondays and Tuesdays. Other times it’s crazy and there’s too much going on at once for one person to handle aka Fridays and Saturdays. Each day it seems more assholes come out to the lake. Yay. That’s fun!
There’s no bathroom close by so every time you have to “go”, you have to lock up the booth and head back to your camper. This is not ideal at all. Forget about lunch breaks too. You eat while you work, in your hot box with all your wasp friends.
But I can wear flip flops to work. That’s pretty special! And when it’s not busy, I can work on my tan.
I thought that part was great until lately when it’s 100 degrees out and I feel like I’m being cooked in a microwave while at work! Somebody gave me an ice cream once because they felt sorry I had to be in the heat all day. Someone else gave me a hard root beer. I think I would’ve preferred an ice-cold glass of water, but it’s the thought that counts, right?!
We were ready to quit because we didn’t want to be working 50+ hours a week. It was either quit or find a solution. We suggested to the manager that she hire an evening host so that those of us working booths all day could actually have our evenings off. Management was actually responsive! She hired Paul.
He just started last month and I’m happy to say it’s going great so far! We can now have our weekday evenings off to relax, do laundry, make dinner, etc! And now my yearning to quit every day has (almost) stopped.
There are 9 workampers here. We all get along well and have managed to have a couple get-togethers after hours. It’s nice to make new friends and share experiences of travelling and working on the road.
So once we all got the hang of our jobs and got into a routine, and once we got the evening guy Paul to work the booth weekday evenings, it really became much more enjoyable.
As for South Dakota, the Black Hills are beautiful! There’s tall grass blowing in the wind, creeks with clear water gently flowing, and beautiful rocks and hills covered in pine, birch and aspen. What’s not to love?
Rapid City is a small ‘big’ city with a population of 65,000 people. Traffic is nil compared to the big cities. There is no humidity (my hair loves this!) I haven’t seen any mosquitoes either and it’s July! It has ‘most’ everything you need. There’s a lot of stuff to see and do here whether you like outdoorsy stuff or indoor amusement. I love all the hiking and biking trails and the scenic views!
I do have some gripes though, but only a few. (C’mon…you know I have to bitch about something!)
First off, my biggest bitch – the grocery stores here are not so great. I’ve never seen such awful looking produce! I told Jerry that I could never live here just because the grocery stores suck! They need a Sprouts! Weather wise, It’s windy here. A breeze is nice, but there seems to be a lot of wind, especially in Rapid City….and hail – lots of hail, which I guess is normal for this area. We get hit with pop up storms quite frequently too here in the hills. It thunders and rains for a bit and then it’s done. We had a cooler than normal beginning to summer here according to the locals, but now it’s gotten to be blazing balls hot. Today’s high is supposed to be 102! Working outside all day in this heat is very tiring and starting to be not fun!
I’ve learned some things to look for/ask about for our next job. I think I’d prefer to be closer to town for groceries, laundry, gas etc. And I’d rather not have a host job as you’re on call 16 hours a day. I’d prefer to work my shift and then go home. I really would like to be able to leave on my time off instead of being told I have to stay at the campground and that I have a curfew. The one nice thing about this job has been that we are left alone here. Management is in Hill City, 12 miles away. They come once a day to collect the money we made the day before and drop off reservations and supplies. We see them for five minutes. Otherwise, the workampers run this place. That’s kind of nice. We haven’t destroyed it yet so that’s a plus! The downside to that is that we all really feel that the management company really doesn’t care…about us or about this place we’re trying to run. We tell them we need things fixed and they don’t do it. They don’t provide us with the tools we need to do the jobs we have. Our working conditions are harsh at times, to say the least. We even get to deal with their other hired help, like the septic pumper guy—he pumped the bathrooms at the beach one day then drug his (literally) shitty hose through the grass (dropping poo) and then into the dumpster where he left a huge pooey blob and then sprayed it all over the inside lid of the dumpster. “CODE BROWN” alert!! It took us about three weeks of complaining to management to get them to have the dumpster replaced. I’m just not real happy with ‘this’ company that we work for currently. I’m still not sure I’m staying for the whole summer.
So is it fun? It’s interesting. Parts of it are fun. It’s a job. Every job in the world has it’s good and bad. This is an experience, one that only lasts a short while, which makes it fun because it’s not long-term and it gives me something else to look forward to just a few months down the road.
Is it my dream job? Definitely not. But… I’m willing to try more workamping jobs so I can see what I like and what I don’t, and maybe where I’d like to settle down one day.
There is beauty in this lifestyle. We get paid. We get a free place to stay. We get to travel and explore beautiful parts of our country that we might not otherwise get to see. We get to meet new people and build new friendships. We can pick where we want to live every 3-5 months. It’s a fantastic lifestyle once you get adjusted and as long as you don’t let things get to you. There will always be good and bad times, challenges and struggles. Just go into it with an open mind and a smile on your face and you’re bound to live an adventure!