The majestic Teton Mountains appear and disappear behind now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t clouds, enchanting retirees who work seasonally near the Moose Entrance of Grand Teton National Park north of Jackson, Wyo.
“I love this park,” said Richard Rynearson, 68, a Teton park ranger who mans the Moose Entrance booth. “A few years ago, I was crazy enough to fly here on a long weekend from southwestern Colorado, just to ride the paved bike path between here and Jenny Lake. The view of the Tetons is spectacular the entire way.”
Michael Cloherty, 77, a retired teacher and volunteer bike path ambassador for seven years, understands the tug of the Tetons on Rynearson and others.
“Years ago, a friend who grew up around here and bikes a lot told me, ‘Everyone should ride around the shore of Jenny Lake regularly. It’s good for the soul.’ He was absolutely right. After my shifts end with a lot of laughs, I go home reminded of people’s basic goodness.”
At the nearby Dornan’s Moose Trading Post, David Bodine, 53, a retired New Jersey State Police patrolman, never tires of his routine when he takes a break as a store employee.
“I go outside just to look and make sure the Tetons are still there,” he said, grinning. “After work, my wife and I jump on our bikes or hike and explore.”
Nationwide, the National Park Service relies on retirees like these to fill vital seasonal jobs at more than 400 sites. Lured by the park’s postcard-perfect scenery, wildlife, and recreational opportunities, retirees agree their work is play and say they feel blessed to live from May to September in a place where most tourists stay for a only few days or a week.
“The value and experiences retirees bring is wonderful,” said Denise Germann, the park’s public affairs officer. “They’re enthusiastic and have an attitude of ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ It’s great to be around people who love what they do.”
They come from all walks of life.
“We have former CEOs of corporations, an architect, police officers,” she said. “Many live in their RVs and work here in summers and winter elsewhere.”
Seasonal retirees often pick a different park to explore each summer and winter, then apply to work for the park service, or contractors, or private business nearby. Jobs include desk clerk, waiter, housekeeper, bartender, or hiking leader and interpreter.
“They’re an awesome segment of the park service’s workforce nationwide,” said Germann, who also worked with retirees at her previous jobs at Glacier National Park in Montana and Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.
Before applying to work at a specific park, many retirees visit first, using their Senior Pass. Seniors 62 or older gain entrance to any site within the park service with a $20 annual pass or $80 lifetime pass.
Doesn’t feel like work
After his eight-hour shift had ended, Rynearson locked his tollbooth door and still looked energized. He grinned and his eyes gleamed with contentment, despite having answered countless questions and calculated admission for hundreds of tourists.
“It doesn’t feel like work when I’m taking admission and visiting with people,” Rynearson said. “It’s like that saying about when you love what you’re doing, you never work a day in your life.”
Before being hired at Grand Teton this summer, Rynearson had worked at several other national parks, including Yellowstone, Acadia, Denali, and Mesa Verde.
His stints working seasonal park service jobs started after he was invited to take an early retirement at age 59 in 2009. He had worked 20 years as a project manager for Halliburton in Houston when the corporation reorganized its workforce.
“In hindsight, I’ve realized my early retirement was a blessing, because I had been having some health issues due to work-related stress. I’m relaxed now.”
As part of a severance package, Rynearson and other employees completed several weeks of workshops, refreshing their skills for writing resumes and cover letters and interviewing for their next job. He stunned a career coach when he told him of his future plans.
“He assumed I wanted to work for another corporation. I told him I was going to bag groceries at a general store in Yellowstone National Park. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t,” he said. “The summer before, we were in Yellowstone, and I got to talking with some retirees working at Lake Lodge, and it sounded like something fun to do.”
On his days off, he biked, hiked and kayaked.
“That was the best summer of my life. I explored Yellowstone thoroughly. By the end of the season, I decided to apply to work at another park.”
Rynearson said he feels a personal and special connection with the National Park Service.
“My birthday is August 25, the date the park service was established in 1916.”
He offers advice about the competitive application process to work at a national park. Most employers begin hiring about six months before a park opens.
“You can apply at usajobs.gov and do some networking to find out who is in charge of hiring. At Mesa Verde, I was told about 300 people applied for three jobs. Thanks to the grace of God and good luck, I was one of the three and sold tickets for tours. I was in the Air Force, so having that veteran preference helped, too. Apply and cross your fingers.”
Rynearson said his wife is supportive of his seasonal summer work. “During summer, she stays home in Houston to help take care of our grandchildren and to work as a substitute teacher at a year-round school. I hope to be back here for a future season,” he said
Still teaching as a bike patrol volunteer
Cloherty, tall and gregarious, swapped his classroom at nearby Wilson Elementary School for a room without a roof, one with bluebird blue skies, birdsongs, and breezes.
“I’m still teaching, but now tourists instead of children are my students,” said Cloherty, who taught 26 years. “They ask me about natural history, the glaciers that formed the valley, wildflowers, and hiking trails.”
The number of students he interacts with has skyrocketed. His new classroom happens to be in the ninth most popular national park in America, with 3.3 million visitors annually. Neighboring Yellowstone is sixth, with 4.1 million visits, according to NPS.
One of his most memorable questions came from three women hiking the Taggart Lake Trail.
“At the trailhead, one lady stopped me and reached into a pocket of her cargo pants and told me to turn around while she pulled out a surprise,” he said. “I was afraid she’d picked wildflowers and wanted them identified.”
She cradled what looked like a handful of malted milk balls or chocolate-covered coffee beans.”
It was moose poop. “When I told her what it was, she still kept it.”
Cloherty carries an emergency kit with Band-aids, bear spray, and bike repair tools, including a wrench, patch kit, and pump.
“I’m glad a friend talked me into doing this,” he said. “The hours are flexible. I’m exercising and socializing and meeting people from all over the world.”
Goodbye state police, hello parks and CamperForce
At Dornan’s, Bodine and his wife, Sherry, 52, landed jobs while touring the park last summer. They had retired from the New Jersey State Police, where he worked as a trooper, and she was in administration.
“We sold our house, bought an Airstream, and hit the road,” Bodine said. “We’d always encouraged our kids to explore, so they did. Our daughter lives in Missouri, and our son is in Tennessee, so we didn’t feel tied down to any particular area.”
After touring national parks last summer, they were smitten with northwestern Wyoming.
“We decided instead of paying for a two-week stay in an RV slot, why not find a job and live here for the season. We talked to the owner of Dornan’s and were hired. We get a meal plan at the restaurants here, a free place to park, and a completion bonus for staying through September.”
After their season ends, they will wander to their next temporary job. Last fall, they worked at an Amazon warehouse in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“They needed extra help to fill holiday orders and gave a completion bonus for staying the entire time of our commitment.”
During winter, the Bodines park their Airstream in Melbourne, Fla., where they own a slot at an Airstream community.
“We’re flexible with where we go and what we do,” Bodine said.
They check websites for seasonal work that varies from the park service to grain harvests to Amazon.
He offered advice to other retirees pondering the next chapter of their life.
“Get out and explore,” he said. “Go for it.”