- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

Janell Keyser has a picture of herself that five years ago would have sent her into gales of laughter. The photo shows the 5-foot-1-inch Miss Keyser standing next to a horse in the foothills of the Kay El Bar ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz. The cowboy hat nearly hides her eyes, but she is wearing a huge grin.

She’s come a long way, baby.

Three years ago, Miss Keyser was a social worker for the Casey Foundation in Missoula, Mont. She had a nice office in a brand-new building, with a state-of-the-art computer system and lots of space.

By Montana standards, she was making good money — about $30,000 a year.

The job was a good step in Miss Keyser’s career, but she was miserable. Bureaucratic entanglements and strict regulations prevented her from the hands-on attention she wanted to give clients.

Miss Keyser, an outdoors person who loves to travel and meet people, felt that something fundamental was missing in her life. The 9-to-5, carefully regulated day with short, paid vacations once a year seemed unnatural.

She packed up everything she had and left it at her parents’ home in Nebraska. A few months later, she was living and working at the Skyland Lodge in the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

“I don’t take the work home with me at night,” she said. “I don’t spend the night thinking about the kids, wishing I could have done more to help them.”

Miss Keyser has joined the ranks of “seasonal workers,” members of the work force who call no place home for longer than about eight months. In any given year, they may work in a lodge such as Skyland, at a desert dude ranch, or on an eco-tour cruise ship.

Some find permanent work, but the nomadic existence for the most part suits a need to travel and to be unrooted during the job search. Seasonal work can be a natural next step after college.

For others, a seasonal job in a relaxed setting offers a way to retire from the pressures of the professional world. Miss Keyser sums it up: “I’ve lived in a national park and on a cruise ship in Baja. I have the best back yard in the world.”

Michael Thornber, who has been retired from the Air Force for about five years, now tends bar at the Skyland Lodge. Serving Coors Light and margaritas is a nice change of pace, he said, adding that his wife, Margaret, is the driving force behind his career move.

“Before marriage, it was 90-10 percent me,” he says, referring to the division of authority in the relationship. “After we were married, it was more like 80-20 me. Now, it’s more like 75-25 her,” he says with a laugh.

After the Air Force, Mr. Thornber worked as a consultant. It was a high-stress, busy career, and “Margaret said I needed to relax.”

With the sun sinking below the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance and the scent of cottonwood wafting into the lodge after a day of rain, it is hard to imagine a better place to relax.

Bill Berg runs CoolWorks.com, an Internet job board with links to “adventure jobs” around the country. With nearly 8,000 clients and boasting “75,000 jobs in great places,” there is virtually no shortage of employment for those seeking this kind of work.

He started his company about eight years ago after a “midlife crisis” of sorts. He had worked various outdoor jobs throughout his 20s and 30s, including stints as an instructor at the national Outdoor Leadership School and as a ranger in the Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska. But it was his job as director of business operations for Yellowstone Park Service Stations that gave him the background and experience that later would become CoolWorks.com.

He was getting restless in an “‘Oh, I’m 40’ kind of way,” he said. “I needed to find a respectable job.” He enrolled in the University of Washington’s master’s degree program in environmental management. His “epiphany,” he says, came after seeing the first browser-based Web in an information systems class. “I realized that millions of students have free Internet access and free summers. And I knew dozens of recruiters at the primo U.S. national parks.”

Mr. Berg said CoolWorks works with people spanning the age spectrum, but generally between 21 and 50. In addition to the expected post-college, pre-career crowd, his clientele includes a large group of retirees and people seeking to escape the cubicle. About 30 percent of the job applicants are foreigners.

The biggest attraction of seasonal work for most people is the ability to take long, working vacations in locales they otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit.

Another perk is lodging. Living quarters generally are included in the compensation package, though some places charge small fees.

“That’s one of the things that appealed to me when I was looking for work,” Lisa Young said. Miss Young, the office manager for the Elkhorn Ranch near Tucson, Ariz., completed a degree in hotel management while she was working at the ranch. “I knew I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before, and it’s so much easier if you’re not having to look for an apartment and get your utilities. It’s one less thing to worry about.”

She took the job at Elkhorn to complete an internship requirement but ended up staying full time. “I came here and fell in love,” she said.

Katie Krasselt, the head chef at the 7D Ranch near Yellowstone National Park, likes the ability to change jobs twice a year. At 29 and in her 10th season, she has been working at seasonal guest ranches for most of her adult life. She works in the office of the Elkhorn Ranch seven months of the year, and the 7D ranch for four. She leaves a month to “play around.”

Seasonal work is not a way to get rich. Pay is usually minimal for positions like dishwashers and servers. Some decent money can be made on tips, but for the most part, “it’s a lifestyle,” Miss Young said.

Seasonal workers choose ranch and national park jobs because they love nature, and there is no shortage of outdoor activities. “If you need to be near a mall every day, then this isn’t for you,” Miss Krasselt said.

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