Although the summer hasn’t quite ended (it is after all still routinely 90oF and upwards here in TN), I can tell you that September has marked the fifth month of my work camping stint here at Piney Campground.
And while I have been conscious of time passing by, as it has a habit of doing what with the whole world rotating and such, it has really only now struck me what a long period of time this has been. I have been working here for FIVE months. In the ‘normal’ world, I would just be starting to feel like I’ve got a handle on whatever new job I was in, that people would have gotten used to my personality and quirks, and I would be thinking about long term career plans at whatever company I was in.
As it is here, the campground has started to wind down a little (having passed Labour Day), has become quieter, and I have just crested the hill of beginning to count down to when I leave; looking forward to the idea of not being constrained to a working week anymore (if only for five days before Amazon begins at the end of October).
With enough time passed, I can now look back on my experience here so far and recognise changes that have happened, both in the campground and within myself, and reflect a little on the pros and cons of being here and work camping in general.
So I think that’s a little bit of what I’m going to talk about today. Feel free to join me, or not. I won’t be offended.
If you recall, when I arrived here at Piney I was a little apprehensive about what I was getting in to. I had made a fairly long term commitment to work in a place that Loops and I had never been to or heard about, to do a job I had never tried before (although I guess you could count my stint as a Tesco assistant as prior experience in a way). It could have gone either way really. Thank the stars, as an overall experience it has turned out well for us.
As with pretty much any job I have ever had, the key to the best work environments are the people within it. And for the first half of the summer, we had a pretty solid team of folks. The people were very upbeat and positive, I got paired with a great intern who suited my personality well, and both my boss and the reservations lady working alongside us had enough energy and enthusiasm between them to launch a rocket to the moon.
As a result we ended up having a lot of laughter reverberating around the shop walls, we became friends who could play silly little jokes on each other, and enjoyed the company of one another enough that we would spend time in the evenings or on days off to go kayaking or boating on the lake.
As the summer has come to a close, sadly that dynamic has changed somewhat.
To begin with, our two interns left. Suddenly the youthful energy that had sustained even our slowest, boring days disappeared. I have to say, I was actually hit by a little wave of shock the first morning I had to open the store without Braden, I felt a little lost without him. I missed ragging on him about the amount of caffeine he had to drink in order to function in the morning, it was a little too quiet without his ever present collection of Christian rock and acoustic music, and I only had myself to debate the current state of affairs here in the US with.
Still, the days marched on regardless.
It was not too long after this that our shop computer system starting to ‘malfunction’. To be honest, it has been a temperamental piece technology since the beginning of the season, but for whatever reason it decided to begin being particularly cantankerous about a month ago, refusing to operate both the shop and reservations system as it previously had. As a result our reservations lady, Debbie, had to move off site in order to work, taking with her the jolly personality and infectious giggle I had come to know and love.
The good news was at least my boss Gina was still around to keep the mood afloat. Well, that is until she wasn’t anymore. It turns out that Gina was offered a fabulous opportunity to take up a Park Ranger role at the state park across the river from Piney. I think I could have eventually coped with the fact she was gone, after all I was very happy for her success, except that she left so quickly, it felt like she had instantly vanished in a puff of smoke.
And now I had definitely gone in to shock. Suddenly my working landscape looked very different than it had at the outset and I am really not a person geared for change, especially one as dramatic as losing four co-workers in quick succession.
Right now, I think things have settled back down. There seems to be a schedule and routine that will be stable until it is time to leave. I have just a single main colleague for the moment and I am glad that we seem to just work quietly beside each other. I feel right now that I’ve slipped down from the high of a busy summer to a plateau of the more mundane, and I suppose my current working persona reflects this; I am just quietly and efficiently doing my job.
What I have just described has been a lesson for me. I am currently working in an industry that appears to experience a high turn-over during the season. From what I can tell from working here, and from posts I have seen on workamping websites (‘We need someone ASAP to help us finish the season!), it is not uncommon for people to sign up for these roles and then leave part way through the season for one reason or another.
Additionally, I have also seen first-hand the difficulty of trying to bring together a random group of people into a workamping situation – something I had not given any thought to previous to taking this job.
I have spent my summer with (mostly) retirees who have come from all different types of backgrounds. Like me (I assume) they are here for the purpose of a free site, modest wage, and a pleasant campground environment for the summer. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these people have come from this type of working industry i.e. hospitality, customer service, recreation. I myself, come from a teaching and animal background – generally nothing to do with working in a campground store. My personality lends itself to the industry in which I chose to work, and as a result I met many like-minded people in those jobs – people very different to the ones which I find myself working with now.
And it might just be my pondering and not reality, but I think that there may be a huge problem when it comes to the workamping world – you are trying to mesh together people with totally different backgrounds, experience and personalities, and hope for the best that they will work well side by side with no problems.
I have been surprised this working season at the number of personality clashes that I have seen, problems that have arisen from people just not being able to get on with each other. And again, I don’t think this is an uncommon thing within workamping roles, for I have seen (no lie) job adverts that clearly state: ‘Applicants who are FRIENDLY and ABLE TO GET ON WITH OTHERS are invited to apply…..’ as well as ‘We are seeking campers with NO DRAMA to work at our campground’.
I am currently experience a totally different scenario than I saw at my previous Amazon role, and I think it has to do with the fact that here, people need to be a team for the campground to function, whereas at Amazon you are your own little entity, you are not working directly with others and what each of you do doesn’t directly impact on another (well unless it’s someone taking the last trolley or tote and then you have to walk 4 miles to go find another).
If I were to sum my whole summer experience up in to a short list of positive and negative aspects it would look something like this:
Pros – good work payoff (40 hours moderate work for site and $600p/m), nice atmosphere in campground setting (slightly unique with the seasonal campers who have been coming here for 20+ years – feels like a real community at times), some flexibility in work rota (bosses happy if you need time off here and there, occasional early home time if slow in shop), fairly large amount of autonomy (bosses very happy to let you run things how you feel works best, very low amount of supervision when you are up and running), opportunity to meet diverse range of people (both campers and staff).
Cons – regular staff turnover (can be hard when you have a good team that is disbanded and need to get used to new people), personal dramas (other people’s – there has been some negative energy, gossip, and people not getting along) lack of communication (you tend to learn things by osmosis here, both work wise and changes in the campground itself).
Hopefully from the list you’ll be able to see why, overall, this has been a positive experience and a valuable learning curve for me. It has suited me well in some ways, being quite an independent worker who is happy to just get on with things, but in other ways I have struggled a little, especially when changes take place and I’m not quite ready for them or haven’t been told about them.
With all that said, that covers the working side of my education for the summer, now on to the personal revelations.
It would be an understatement to say that I have struggled over the past two and a half years while traveling in the USA. Various aspects of coming to this country have challenged me – not only have I suffered from culture shock and the physical difficulty of being so far from home, but also the mental aspect of full time travel –constantly on the move, a total lack of consistent personal relationships (i.e. making friends) coupled with no real gainful employment (therefore a lack of structure, work colleagues, steady income).
I have also found myself constantly feeling out of place by virtue of every time I open my mouth. People can’t help but point out that I’m not American every time I speak. You’re right, I’m not. And it seems that I will always feel like I’m a foreigner, a misfit, and not part of this place should it continue to be pointed it out to me, all the time, by every single person I meet.
So really it would be fair to say that over the time I’ve been here, I’ve had a fair amount of frustration and self-pity bubbling away under the surface. Yes, I’ve been feeling sorry for myself. Quite a lot really. And sometimes that all explodes forth, much like a geyser blowing its top. Especially on days when things are happening back home; people are sending me pictures of get-togethers I’m not present for, a friend of mine has health issues, my mum is having cat issues, my best friend graduates from his army training, my other best friend tells me she’s pregnant. All of these things I want to be around for but I’m not. All of these special people in my life moving forward with their conventional lives, lives that I would be a part of if I were home. But I’m not. I’m here living a very unconventional life.
So it is very easy for me to be frequently led to a place where I am comparing my current life situation to the one I would otherwise have at home, and sadly I am often letting myself be dragged down in misery rather than opening my eyes and thinking about my life now in positive terms, seeing it for what it is and on its own terms. But, quite unexpectedly, it so happens that my summer here at Piney has allowed me to do just that, view my life with a different set of lenses.
For a start, I have had five glorious months of company, people other than just Loops to talk to! New people. People with stories and life experiences different to my own. People from different parts of this country. People who I haven’t just met for one day and are gone the next. People who hang around. People who I’ve made friends with, who wanted to be friends with me.
And that in itself is a fabulous thing. An uplifting thing. After two years of despairing that it may never happen, I have finally found that it is possible to meet new people I can be friends with. People who I can not only work with, but with whom I might go and hang out with on the odd evening or two, maybe go kayaking with, or boating, or even sit around and drink moonshine with while attempting to play corn hole. People who have spent time getting to know me and moving past the simple novelty fact that I sound a tad different from them.
Additionally, after a substantial time away from the workplace, and here in a different country, I have proven to myself that I am able to secure a job and that I haven’t forgotten how to get up to go to work in the morning. I am still able adapt to a workplace, learn new skills, and step outside of my comfort zone. I still have a professional work ethic and will turn my hand to anything I am asked. That part of myself hasn’t just drifted away as I’d feared.
Obvious fact I know, but I’m British. And for the first time in a long time, I don’t mind that people point that out to me. In fact, it’s turned out to be my best feature this summer. It makes me instantly recognisable. It’s a conversation starter, which is fabulous for a socially awkward Brit like myself. People pop in to the store just to hear me talk. Campers love to tell me their England stories (mostly that they’ve visited London) and in turn I encourage anyone I can that they should make a trip across the pond. Some kids think I’m related to Harry Potter (a thought I fully encourage with my newly acquired disappearing penny trick). I get asked a lot about the Royal Family, people make quips about my tea drinking, and of course I am slowly converting everyone to the use of ‘bin’, ‘till’ and ‘cheers’.
I am currently living and working in a campground in a foreign country. I know that is incredibly apparent, but hands up out there, how many of you have done the same thing in your life? How many of you have stepped away from the routine ideas of school, college, work, house, children, pension, and retirement, and are trying a different lifestyle instead? Not only that, but trying this lifestyle somewhere that is not your home country? As the summer has progressed, rather than worrying about missing out on a ‘normal’ life at home, I find myself getting on my bicycle every morning, cycling to the shop, and as I do so I look around me. I mean, really look around me. I see tall, strong trees and greenery everywhere; camper and trailers that are still, dark, and quiet; a couple of early birds tending to their breakfast fires. I breathe deep, the fresh clean air in my lungs. I focus my hearing and listen to the natural sounds of campground – squirrels chattering and chasing each other through the limbs of the trees, birds with their morning chorus and fluttering flights, even the tiny clip clop of deer hooves as they scamper across the road in front of me. I let my mind relax and fill with this simple thought – I’m currently living in a campground in Tennessee, how lucky am I to be able to experience this?
And I am lucky.
I think of everyone back home having to get up in the ever decreasing daylight hours, sometimes in rain and chill weather, getting in their cars and slogging to work. Having to work through 8 hours of a job they may not enjoy, just for the money to pay the never-ending bills (and hoping they can save enough for a holiday or a pension). Having to endure another commute back home before collapsing at home and wondering if they have enough energy to make dinner and watch TV before bed.
Obviously that might not be everyone’s scenario. But honestly, that’s how I used to feel. That was my life overall. There were some highs of course, but on average, that was how I spent my days.
I miss home. I miss my family and my friends. I miss the nearness of them and the experiences we used to share. I miss the comfort of the known. I miss the physicality of the British countryside. I will always miss that. I have come to accept that. Half of my life will always be at home. It will be there waiting for me when I need it, when I want to resume it.
But this summer I have learnt that half of me is here in the US too. The half that has Loops in it, the half that wants to study for a degree, the half that enjoys having time to explore new places, meet new people and have time to work out just who I am as a person. Rather than fight this half, bemoan it, or wish I could neatly wrap it up and take it home with me, I have come to accept it too.
I will just be a person of two halves. Both equal.
And this was possibly the most important lesson for me to have learned this summer, the lesson that I have most needed to learn since I set foot here in America.
And I learned it right here at Piney Campground, snuggled in the Land Between the Lakes, in the heart of the country of Tennessee.