‘Workampers’ make their way to Medora for summerChris and Jennifer Gardner have caught catfish in the Little Missouri River, hiked to the Petrified Forest and gone horseback riding in the Badlands since they’ve arrived in Medora as “workampers.”
By: Linda Sailer, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
Chris and Jennifer Gardner have caught catfish in the Little Missouri River, hiked to the Petrified Forest and gone horseback riding in the Badlands since they’ve arrived in Medora as “workampers.”
Workampers are individuals who go RV camping around the United States, while working as camp hosts. They are among the couples employed by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation who spend their summers — from Memorial Day to Labor Day — registering guests, cleaning rest rooms and doing any number of odd jobs in the Medora campgrounds.
“There are literally thousands of people in this country who work seasonal jobs after they are retired,” Chris Gardner said. “They are called modern-day Gypsy people who travel around the country.”
The Gardner’s home is Mortons Gap, Ky., where Chris was a radio news director and Jennifer taught first grade for 32 years until June of 2008 when they retired.
The Gardners traveled for the first two summers after retirement. During a trip to Alaska in 2009, they were introduced to workampers who were headed to Mount Rushmore.
The Gardners tell people they like to see America one job at a time.
“The first year we worked at Yellowstone National Park, then Bar Harbor, Maine, and this year, North Dakota,” Chris Gardner said. “Next summer, we’re looking at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Colo., or Alaska.”
Chris Gardner describes the work as an alternative lifestyle that pays for itself.
“We spend a couple months of the year — November and December — at home so Jennifer can make her Christmas cookies and we see our friends.”
They also spend time, visiting their sons living in San Antonio and Louisville, Ky., and relaxing on the beaches of Corpus Christi, Texas.
The Gardners learned about the Medora opening through an online advertisement.
“We made multiple applications — not just here,” Chris Gardner said. “We had conversations with the north rim, campgrounds in New York, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Medora sounded interesting to us.”
Chris Gardner said there’s tremendous competition for good people.
“If you’re a good worker, there’s work wherever you want it,” he said.
Gardner said the Yellowstone hired 660 people in the 2010 season.
“Their goal is to eventually to have most of their work force the senior workers because we show up, we work when we’re there and we don’t disappear — that’s not to say there’s an awful lot of good young workers out there too,” Chris Gardner said.
The couple lives in a 35-foot, fifth-wheel RV with three pull-out slots. Their symbolic roots to Medora are the tomato plants growing nearby.
“You really don’t have to have a camper because a lot of places provide dormitories and meal plans,” Jennifer Gardner said.
Each location provides unique attractions. They caught a 25-pound king salmon in Alaska. They followed a bear along the Yellowstone and they enjoyed the pitchfork fondue at Medora.
“We found a meat market in Belfield that sells fabulous bacon and sausage,” Jennifer Gardner said.
If a couple is considering a job in the hospitality business, they better be hospitable, the Gardners agreed.
“That’s part of the fun — seeing all these people and talking to them,” she said.
The Gardners tell people they are ambassadors for Medora. They may do minor repairs at a camp sites while promoting the attractions.
“We talk to people, asking them how they may have liked the Medora Musical or telling them about the fondue,” Chris Gardner said.
Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler described the Gardners as wonderful people.
“They are summer employees of the Foundation, but what they bring, because they live in the campgrounds, is a unique perspective of what campers want and need,” he said. “They bring a different perspective than the seasonal employee because they are living out of a motor home.”
He said the workampers bring experience to the job.
“They’re at a point in their lives, where they work maybe not out of necessity, but they want to work in places close to the national parks,” Hatzenbuhler said.
Linda Sailer is a reporter
at the Dickinson Press,
which is owned by Forum Communications Co.