I am living the dream…my life on my terms. Making a living, no fixed office and the freedom to move and work from wherever I like. So can you.
This Make Money and Travel series exists as a source of inspiration. By sharing examples of real people around the world making money from anywhere and living the lifestyle they want, proves where there is a will, there is a way.
Meet Judy Kerns. I first heard of Judy in an email from her son Ron. After Ron saw our HGTV House Hunters RV Episode he reached out: he began with flattery telling us how great we are….then he began to tell us about traveling in a station wagon and RV with his parents, and how his mom is still travelling and living the RV lifestyle as a 60 something single woman. My first thought….sounds like one cool woman that we need to meet.
So I sent Judy a note to say hello. Several emails later I found out she is a “mee-mee” to five grandkids, a cancer survivor, and she recently lost her husband at the young age of 68 (Judy was 64). Somehow through all of these hurdles she still lives in her trailer part time, travels all across the USA in her truck visiting family and friends and works from the road half the year in Mt. Rushmore National Park…all at age 66! After a year of “old school” style pen pal correspondence I finally found the perfect place to share her story with all of you: right here on make money and travel.
You see we feel Judy’s story is inspirational for all and worth sharing; however the major takeaway I’ve received after a year of getting to know Judy: Anyone, of any age, with any budget, against any odds can live the full-time travel lifestyle…it just takes a little outside-the-box thinking and a whole lotta guts. But I’ll let Judy do the rest of the talkin’.
A Brief History – The Colorful Life of the Kern Family
While raising the kids our life was what most people would consider “Normal”, We had a nice house in a good community, he worked for General Motors, and we put all three kids through college. Traveling was something we always enjoyed, so before the kids finished High School our family vacations included 42 states. We were young when we had our kids, so we were still young by the time they finished college. My husband was offered a chance to retire at the age of 48, all the kids had finished college and we still had a lot of living to do, we knew we were never going to be rich (in money), so we decided to be rich in living life to the fullest and making memories, so glad we did, as he passed away at the age of 68, so we had 20 years of living our life our way, and that was priceless. I remember how my husband would respond when we would meet someone new and they would ask “where are you from” we would get a silly grin on his face and say “Anywhere USA”. Greensboro is where my oldest daughter lived during when I had cancer. In December of 2007 we were traveling from Texas, after seeing our son, to N. Carolina, where our two daughters lived, they were about 100 miles apart, when we got a call that I my mammogram showed cancer, so we spent the next six months with my daughter in Greensboro, NC for my surgeries and treatment. Then when my husband got sick we were in Pigeon Forge, TN., when they said it could be cancer we were only six hours from my Cancer Doctors, and decided to go back there for him.
I’m actually from Michigan, and my husband was from W. Virginia, we moved to Michigan after High School to find a good job, I always told him, “He came there to find me.” So Michigan was where we raised our family, and where my husband retired from GM, and now that is where he is buried, so it is defiantly still HOME.Now that I’m alone, I’m still traveling just without the RV. My RV is stored in Florida and is now my winter home, I spend three months a year there, it is in a wonderful, friendly park and the people there have become my winter family. When I’m in my RV I feel like I’m home.
The rest of the year, I’m traveling spending time with my three kids, who live in three different states, my brothers, sister and husband’s sisters are in four other states, and now Mount Rushmore for about five months in the summer, and the people there are wonderful and have become my summer family.
People have asked me, don’t you want a permanent place to live and have a normal life, my response to them is
“Normal; is only a setting on a washing machine, it’s not life.” Traveling, that’s my Normal.
The job I have right now is in the Gift Shop at Mount Rushmore.
My Husband and I were full-time RVer’s for eleven years and during that time we worked at a number of different jobs; such as, Dollywood; Yellowstone NP; a 20 cottage resort in Estes Park, CO; a National Forest Campground in Oregon; the Sugar Beet Harvest in North Dakota; Amazon.com in Kentucky; and even the Talladega Nascar Race in Alabama. Each of these jobs and locations gave us a new place to explore, we love the freedom and the adventure.
Then two years ago I lost my husband to cancer, which changed so many things. I still have my RV, I keep it stored in Florida where I spend my winters, I just don’t tow it anymore, however I have not let that stop me from my traveling. Our three children are in three different states, so traveling is something I will continue to do as long as I can. Working here at Mount Rushmore is a way for me to keep busy.
There are so many jobs like those I listed, but so many of them you need to have your own RV; you can easily find them through workamper.com or cooljobs.com. But, when doing this without an RV, like I am, your choices are a bit more limited. Most of the National Parks offers housing and they are some of the most beautiful places in the country. The same web sites will provide you these listings.
I work for Xanterra, they have the contract at Mt. Rushmore and many other locations around the country including many National Parks. In fact, if you chose to work for Xanterra, as the seasons change you can transfer from one location to another and experience all the parks in their system. After just one year you are able to get health care and other benefits.
As far as always having a job, we could find a job anytime we wanted one, there are so many out there in the tourist industry for those who are looking to work and travel.
The Good, Bad & Dirty
Here’s where Judy dishes the real dirt on her jobs mentioned above. It takes a lot of guts to share all this information with no real benefit to herself. Nikki and I must have read over this information a dozen times; to learn from Judy’s experience and heartache is a blessing for anyone looking to make money and travel.
Working at Yellowstone National Park with Delaware-North
My husband and I worked at Yellowstone, and as far as I know there are three companies you could work for at Yellowstone: Park Service, Xanterra and the one we worked for was Delaware-North.
Our experience working for Delaware-North was by far the worst one of all. We were charged $38 per week for our campsite, plus we had to pay for our electric and propane. We chose to buy the meal plan mainly because the closest super market was 85 miles away, and the meal plan was $48 per week, per person. If I remember right our ending balance was $250 each, and no rebate was given for living expense.That was bad, but not the worst of it; the staff/management was a very “clickish” group of people. The management was awful. They would mostly hire foreign kids, in the beginning we wondered why, but it didn’t take long to realize: the treatment of these kids was unbelievable…there wasn’t a day that went by that management didn’t have those kids in tears. My husband and I stood up for the kids, so of course we never made the click, not that we were trying. We have never kissed up to anyone in our life, and we weren’t about to lower our standards to their type of behavior. American kids would have packed up and went home, but the foreign kids couldn’t; they were treated like slaves that couldn’t escape.For the rest of us, the ones not in the click, were treated with the attitude: we have done you a favor by letting live and work in Yellowstone.Don’t get me wrong, we loved living and working in Yellowstone, it’s a wonderful place; it could have been paradise with different management.After leaving Yellowstone, one of the floor managers and I sent letters to Corporate about our experience there. The following season things continued the same, but not knowing that they were being watched, at the end of the season Corporate fired the entire store. It shows one thing, we should all stand up for what we believe in.
One very important thing I learned: whenever you are given a written evaluation KEEP IT! I made the mistake of not keeping ours from Yellowstone, only to find out at a much later date that after we signed our evaluations the store manager changed it…because of this we would never get hired back at any Delaware North location. I guess that means we didn’t make his click!I used to think it was only the Delaware North management at the Yellowstone location, but a lady I worked with at Mount Rushmore last year worked for Delaware-North at a different location, and had nothing good to say about her experience either.
Working at Amazon Fulfillment Campbellsville, KY
We worked for Amazon at the Campbellsville, KY Location, it was long hours and fast pace work, but we knew that going in. Amazon was so good to work for, and they appreciated all the RV’ers for their hard work. The shifts were 12 hours, the pay was very good, over $10 per hour, plus time and a half over 40 hours, and our campsite was paid in full by Amazon. They would have you do stretching excises before we started work and after our dinner break. During our training we were told: they didn’t care what the box weighed, if we felt it was more then we could safely lift we needed to ask for help.Amazon always had cases of fresh fruit in the break areas for the taking. If we reached our goal at the end of our shift a manager would be standing at the time-clock with a grab bag of gift cards all worth $5 to local business, as a thank you.One night we were working a half shift, on a night we would have normally had off, and they had a lot to get out that night so they asked us and others to stay the rest of the shift; as a thank you each person received a $25 gift card to Kroger’s.Our completion bonus from there was about $600 each.On the other hand the people I have talked to who worked at the Amazon in Coffeeville, KS had nothing good to say about their experience, where as our experience at the Kentucky location was nothing but good.
Working at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN
Dollywood was fun, but your campsite is your responsibility, so we would just break even. If you want to do most everything in the area for free, it is a good way to do it.
Our family and friends loved us working there, they all got into the park free, and all the shows on the strip were free to us, and we could each take one guest free each time we went.
Working a Sugar Beet Harvest in Stevens, MN
Sugar Beet harvest, now that was a whole different experience, we worked it four times, and we made very good money there, but we earned every penny. Straight time was over $12 per hour, anything over 8 hours was time and a half, and we worked 12 hour shifts. For the weekend pay: all day Saturday was time and a half and all day Sunday was double time.
To give you an idea, the first year was a small crop so we were in and out in 12 days, and together we made over $3400. I was a relief person and went around doing everyone’s job giving them breaks; my husband was a sample taker. The hours were 12 hours shifts, 8 A.M. to 8P.M. or 8P.M. to 8 A.M., 7 days a week unless the weather wasn’t right. It couldn’t be too hot, too cold or too wet. The most we ever worked was 7 days without a break, do to the weather, a heavy rain, would be a welcome relief.
The next three years we harvested beets it was a bumper crop season, we were there about 30 days. During that time I was the pillar operator and chew chief making over $15 per hour on straight time, my husband liked being the sample taker, because it gave him time to talk to the truck drivers. We did not work all 30 days, the weather would not permit it, but at the end we made over $7500 each year.
The company paid for our campsite, our completion bonus was a percentage of our hours, which added up pretty good.This job depends so much on the weather, the next year we decided not to do it, but friends of ours went and the weather was so bad, the crop had to be turned under and nobody even got 40 hours that year, so it cost them more to get there in their RV’s then they made for their hours.
For the sugar beet job we were hired by Express Personal for the Crystal Sugar Company. Express was in Grand Forks, ND; from there you would be assigned to a drop station somewhere along the Red River Valley between Fargo and the Canadian border. We were always sent to Stevens, MN.
Working at a Private Cottage Estes Park, CO
For six months in 2009 we helped run a 20-cottage resort in Estes Park, Co. The couple that managed it was wonderful to work for. The work was hard, cleaning cabins (the cabin were all top notch and kept spotless). Our campsite was on the property, a beautiful location with the Thompson River running through it. The pay was $7.75 per hour and we paid nothing for our campsite. Electricity, propane, cable, WiFi, a landline phone and laundry were also free to us. The only expense we had was our food, and a number of times Carol (Manager) would have a meal fixed for us!
Besides cleaning the cabins, I worked in the office a couple days a week, to give the managing couple time off. My husband also helped with watering flowers and light grounds work. They appreciated our hard work, as our completation bonus was more the twice what we had been promised, a very nice surprise. We would have gone back, but our goal was to spend time in all 50 states, and we only had Oregon and Washington to go, so that would be our next destination.
National Forest Campground Manager Klamath Falls, OR
In the summer of 2010, we ran a National Forest Campground between Medford and Klamath Falls, called Lake of the Woods. That job paid very well, as Oregon minimum wage is more then most, if I remember right it was about $8.70 per hour. We were paid a salary based on 32 hours per week, whether we worked it or not, so our income per month was a little over $2,000 together. Our site was free, water, electric and sewer, plus they supplied us with a 100 lbs. propane tank, at no cost to us. So, our only expense was our food and on our two days off: sightseeing.
We really wanted to work there, as Oregon and Washington were the last of our 50 states; this was a very big part of our bucket list. At that time the park was run by Thousand Trails, not sure if they still have it.
Working at Talladega NASCAR Race Lincoln, AL
The only other job we worked together was the Talladega NASCAR race in 2006, very short term, just four days, but it was a good way to go to the races. Not only was it fun, they were good to us, a very good experience.
Based on the jobs we’ve had the norm is 32 to 40 hours a week. Here at Mount Rushmore it is about 40 hours; I work the mid-day shift, so I go in about noon, have lunch in the EDR (employee’s dining room) and punch in at 1:00pm and punch out about 9:30pm, during that time we have two paid 15 minute breaks and a 30 minute dinner break that I punch out for.
I like the mid-day shift as it gives me time three mornings a week to attend a line-dancing class, and plenty of time on Sunday to attend church. I have two days a week off together, so there is plenty of time for sightseeing, hiking or just being a tourist.
The pay varies from state to state, as most of them will start you with minimum wage, with a small raise for returning each year. Most of the jobs we worked at over the years provided our campsite and full hook-ups for free, and a few others had a small charge. Here at Mount Rushmore there is an employee campground they charge $6 per day for full hook-up.
My housing is in a dorm and the charge for my room is $10 per day, this includes utilities, Wi-Fi and transportation to and from work. My meals are also provided for $21 per week and I get 21 meals (3 meals per day). So out of my paycheck they deduct $91 per week, for my housing and food.
My situation is quite different; I get a pension and social security so my working is out of need for something to do, but during the time we were RVing, that little extra money came in handy, it gave us extra “fun money” as we would call it.
My husband retired young at the age of 48 from General Motors, he had his 30 years in, and I’m so glad he did, it gave us 20 years to do full time what we had only done part time before: Travel Together.
When he retired, some friends asked him, “Do you have enough money?” He said, “What’s enough? Just remember life is short and money is replaceable.”
In October of 2010 we toured our 50th state, a big check off our bucket list, not knowing he had cancer at the time, then in July of 2011 he passed away, so I continue with no regrets just wonderful memories…and those memories are priceless.
The only tools you need when working in the tourist industry is a computer for your job search and applying for the job; if you don’t have one you could use a library computer for free. A cellphone, but everyone has one these days. Most important is being dependable and a people person, being willing to go the extra mile for the guest you are serving.
I guess I will call my “clients” my employer; in the jobs I’ve had it is as easy as making a couple phone calls, giving your employer a 110% when you get the job, then you’ll have no trouble getting the next job.
The main thing that comes to mind is that its keeping me busy; just giving me something to do other then sitting in a rocking chair waiting to die. After traveling for so long with my husband, I don’t think I would be happy buying a condo and looking at the same four walls day after day.
I love visiting with the guest and I get to meet so many interesting people everyday.
Last, the friends I have made from the seasonal co-workers, plus the full time employee’s; they have become my summer family.
The only thing that comes to mind is doing this alone, without my husband and without the RV. Dorm life is do-able but nothing compares to having your own home on wheels to go home to each night.
The one thing that comes to mind is how we let the bad experience at Yellowstone prevent us from trying to work at other National Parks. Since I have been alone, and now working at Mount Rushmore, I have come to realize you can’t assume anything in life. As my experience at Mount Rushmore couldn’t be better, my husband would have enjoyed it there, wish we had done this one together.
Another small thing: As we traveled, there might be an added attraction to see with a fee, I would be the one to hesitate and my husband would come back with his little saying,
“Just remember life is short and money is replaceable, so let’s enjoy life.”
As Judy likes to say “Normal is nothing but a setting on a washing machine” and we’d sure say her life is nothing like normal. If you want to learn a little more about Judy and her Husband there is a great article written in the paper from her “hometown” of Greensboro North Carolina: Judy: Normal is for Washing Machines.
If you know someone like Judy, or you find her story compelling please share your thoughts in the comments below. The concept behind this Make Money and Travel segment is to inspire others to live life the way they want! And if you should find yourself in Mt. Rushmore National Park swing by the gift shop and say hello! Safe Travels Judy, hopefully we’ll see you soon…you are one inspiring lady! Thanks for sharing your story with us.
We finally had the opportunity to meet up with Judy at Mt. Rushmore, swap travel stories and share a meal together. She is indeed just as vivacious and inspirational in person as she is in this interview. The love for her children, the tenderness in the stories of her husband and her insatiable desire to keep traveling left us with a renewed faith and a greater appreciation for our nomadic lifestyle. If you get the chance to meet Judy, don’t pass it up!