We came into this job this year full of excitement and high expectations. For the first time we were returning to the same place (technically a different property, but the same company and manager) for a second summer, and were willing to do that because finally I had found a seasonal job that I thought might work for both of us. The deal was that I would be the lead of 6 campgrounds, requiring a higher level skill set than previous years just cleaning toilets and picking up trash, and Lee would have a position where he wasn’t being micromanaged and had a lot of latitude and a wide variety of things to do. We both really liked the people we were working for, and I loved the fact that the work would be done for a corporation that had rules and benefits and felt similar to the places I worked in my previous life. Plus the money is much better than almost all other work kamp gigs. It really seemed like the perfect fit.
About two weeks in we realized that it would be much harder than we originally thought. We were faced with a mixture of about half brand new camp hosts and half an established team of veterans that were used to running the place with very little supervision, and not surprisingly they didn’t take too well to these new kids coming in from the outside with fresh ideas. And I get it, because change is hard, but despite my best efforts to be as collaborative as possible the majority of the “veterans” fought me at every turn. They didn’t pull any punches either. Comments were made ( my personal favorite was “Just ignore her because once we get rid of her we will train a new lead in doing things our way”) and coalitions were formed. About six weeks in a key couple who had been here for seven years went to our bosses and gave them the ultimatum either Lee and Tracy go or we go. Our bosses didn’t accept their ultimatum and the couple ended up leaving within a few hours of that meeting.
Once they were gone a huge cloud lifted, it’s hard working every day in an environment where people are actively hostile towards you, and the work started in earnest. We both focused on filling the labor hole they left the best that we could, and worked ourselves nearly to death to make sure as little as possible slipped through the cracks. I’m not kidding about that last part. Lee and I have worked 6 to 7 days a week for nearly every week in the five months we have been here, and many of those were 10-12 hour days. And it’s worth mentioning that we worked all of those hours without charging any overtime. I did it mainly because I was beating myself up over whatever part I might have inadvertently played in their leaving, and Lee did it because he just does what needs to be done and doesn’t pay much attention to the clock. The important part for both of us was that we kept things running well and did our best to take care of the people who remained.
Not that many of the people who were left were open to that. The couple who left were well liked and after they were gone stayed in contact with some of the remaining folks and made sure they poisoned the well. People who I had built a solid relationship with suddenly were cold and distant and in a couple of cases I had to face more open hostility. Since all of this happened in the beginning of July, Lee and I had two choices. We could leave, and we came really close at one point, or we could dig in and try to fix it. We talked about it and decided to stay. There were several reasons for that decision. About half of the staff was new like us, and to a greater or lesser extent had received the same sort of treatment from the veterans. I felt a responsibility to those people to make their season as good as I could, and didn’t like the idea of abandoning them. I’ve also never walked away from a job in my life, and yes, after some soul searching I know that for me at least that is not really a good thing, but I liked the people we worked for and since they had chosen us wanted to repay that by working as hard as we possibly could.
It wasn’t easy. Along with the personnel challenges, the campgrounds themselves were completely full almost every day during the summer and we had what everyone described as an unusually challenging season with customer incidents. Lee and I both got to hone our crisis management skills this summer, and dealt with things we had never done in our previous lives. Twice we had customers life-flighted out, and police and fire were called on numerous incidents. The main operator at our company control center (who I notified whenever I called 911), knew who I was when he heard my voice, and we actually became very friendly. He is a really nice guy.
Simultaneously, I was working to create a list of standards for the guests and our camp hosts, and spent lots of time talking through scenarios with our bosses to get their thoughts and direction. They were generally surprised by the types of incidents I brought to their attention, which honestly surprised me because some of them seemed relatively common. I started to understand that in the past the Leads who had run the place kept most of these incidents quiet, but since my communication style is more open we talked things through and came up with procedures instead of me just winging it. The SOP book I started with (which was built in 2010), grew over the summer, and every day I felt my foundation getting firmer. I knew I was taking a risk by being open about the challenges I was having (some bosses really just want you to take care of it and don’t want to be bothered), but I was looking long term and felt it was the right thing for the organization.
It was exhausting though, and really took everything that I had to give, and this is where Lee came in. Objectively he was absolutely amazing. He did two jobs for the rest of the summer, and importantly he allowed me to be in two places at once. His focus was always on giving the camp hosts what they needed, and he didn’t care what that entailed, as long as he was helping. He was part security, part traffic cop, part bathroom cleaner, and part maintenance man. And in the middle of all that he found time to design the inside of the new workshop, taking an empty shell and turning it into an organized and efficient work space. And he wasn’t the only person who stepped up. Other team members saw that we needed help and stepped in wherever they could. Not everyone of course, we still had some holdouts, but most of the people recognized that we were trying and helped us in return.
Despite many people feeling that we had turned a corner, I still felt uneasy. I knew I was doing the right thing, and I knew we would leave this place better than we found it, but I didn’t feel secure in my position. I still felt as if I was on trial, and although part of me understood why, I never felt comfortable. Nothing short of my bosses looking me in the eye and saying “You did a good job and we want you back” was going to make me feel secure even though lots of people were telling me things like, “They would be crazy not to have you back.”
Finally the rush of the season ended and we started to make preparations to close down the campgrounds. I was pretty nervous about this because the only guy who knew exactly what to do had left earlier in the season, so I spent a ton of time interviewing people and putting that information into End of Season checklists. One of the campgrounds closed early, on Labor Day, because it is being remodeled over the winter, and then two weeks later three more closed. Since three campgrounds closed on the same day, I had three distinct teams working in three locations, and thankfully it all went off without a hitch. Camphosts started leaving, and I was pleased that most said they wanted to come back, which is the ultimate referendum on the job I did. I also found some space to breathe, and started putting together some end of season documents and scheduled a meeting with our bosses to review the season.
Finally, I was in my wheelhouse, and had the time and energy to apply to the project. The first thing I did was to put together a season timeline because I needed some context to talk about the season. I went back through all of the incident reports and my weekly summaries and my HIGH level timeline was three pages long. No kidding, this was super high level, but we had that many major incidents. And what became clear, which I really didn’t realize at the time, is how many of these incidents happened in batches. For example in one weekend I had the horse fall off the cliff, a camp host break her ankle, and a major customer incident. By any objective measure that is a lot of stuff.
Once I finished the timeline I started to work on my recommendations and ended up with four pages of those. Many of the items I had already been talking about through the season, but I organized the thoughts and put them together into categories. Finally I put together a plan to ensure that going forward our bosses would never get stuck if any couple left mid-season. Prior to my coming up here, folks mainly had their own lane and guarded their individual knowledge pretty zealously. My plan was to document everything, cross train as many people as possible, and have backups for every position including my own. I viewed it as a football team, where we would have depth at every position. The idea being if one man goes down someone else steps into their place. I know that is hardly an original concept, but it is not the way things worked up here, and I felt really good about making sure that no going forward there wouldn’t be a single point of failure. Once I was ready I scheduled my end of year review.
There was one interesting wrinkle to this meeting though, because Lee wanted to come. It made sense because we had been acting as a team all season long, and as my boss said I was just going to tell him what happened anyway. But this was uncharted territory for us and we had several conversations prior to the meeting to make sure we were on the same page. Essentially he loved his job and I thought it could be a good job for me, but I needed assurance on a few things before I was willing to commit. They weren’t really anything outrageous, by the way. I wanted a commitment on cross-training and not having a single point of failure. I needed assurance that we would all be trained on the companies code of ethics and violations would be dealt with quickly and decisively. And finally I wanted to talk through all the returning personnel and have some input into what positions they would be placed in. Lee and I felt very strongly that with the right mix of people we could build a very solid team and we wanted the placement decisions to be based on skill set rather than years of service.
That last one was admittedly a little tricky and I was prepared to get some push back there. To be clear, I am a person who thinks years of service matters, all things being equal, but I don’t think it’s OK when folks rest on their laurels just because they have seniority. That may be an unpopular opinion, but for me it’s about what is fair. Anyway, we went into the meeting and it started out really great. Not only had they read my recommendations, but they marked them up with comments and I saw a ton of “I agree”. That made me feel really good, although an hour in I had to shift the conversation to talking about next year. Again they mostly agreed with our thoughts, but towards the end one of the bosses stopped us and said, “I need to throw a bombshell in here.” I went from pretty relaxed to alert in an instant, and he basically said that I had shown how challenging the job was, and because of that they had decided that the best thing to do was hire a permanent full time employee for next year. They felt it would solve most of the problems if they had a permanent staff member running the lake and they had some additional tasks in the off season they could have that person do to round out the full year.
It was an interesting moment for me, because from a strictly business sense I thought it was a good solution. But I also realized that I had basically talked myself out of a job. By being so open about the challenges, I had impressed upon them the need for a strong manager, and his natural conclusion was to hire a full time person to do that work. He stressed several times what a terrific job he thought I had done, even going so far as to say that given the circumstances I was the best lead they had ever had, and that he couldn’t think of anyone who could have done a better job. My other boss even said that they wanted us back, and in whatever capacity we wanted. My natural reaction was to say very little and try to absorb what had just happened. It’s been a long time since I was caught off guard like that in a meeting and I was very quickly running through the different scenarios.
Lee, on the other hand, had a very different reaction. He was mad. Don’t get me wrong, he did a great job of locking it down, and it didn’t show as far as they were concerned, but when you have been married to someone for 30 years you know when they are upset. He started to talk it through with them and I started to get uncomfortable. My lizard brain impulse was to flee, and I just wanted to get out of there and find a quiet space to think it through. Lee’s impulse was to fight for the jobs we wanted, and he gave it a try. He talked about whether I could do the winter activities remotely (this company has pretty strict policies on remote workers), what his job would look like with a new unknown boss (they seemed genuinely confused about the issue until I reminded them that Lee had been pretty clear about not being interested in being micromanaged), and why it was necessary at all. One of our bosses seemed surprised by his reaction (the other one knows us better and was not), and eventually they turned to me.
I decided in that moment I should just be honest. I was polite, I was respectful, but I also didn’t worry so much about my future with the company. It wasn’t lost on me that they didn’t even ask if I would be interested in coming off the road and applying for the position, and it was equally clear to me that they wanted to have access to my skill set but in a seasonal appropriate role. Again, the logical business side of my brain totally got that, but the other part of me felt very sad. And it was difficult for me to really talk through it, because more than anything else I had just gotten the answer to a question I had been praying to receive. Basically what I said was I took the job because I wanted to see if it was possible to have a seasonal job that had some of the elements of what I loved about my jobs in the past. I said I appreciated his honesty very much (I truly do), because he handed me the answer I was looking for, it was just unfortunate the answer was “No”. I elaborated that I didn’t quit my job because I hated it, but rather took the buyout because I wanted to simplify my life. It had been a rough season, but we had worked so hard and stuck it out because we both wanted to show them what we could do, and we were very interested in having a long term summer gig. And my long term goal was to take my skill set and find ways to help them in a larger way. I knew that would require us thinking outside of the “seasonal box”, but felt that over time I could really provide them with a ton of value.
At that point he seemed… well surprised. And I think that, more than anything else, really bummed me out. I think he really thought I would be fine with it. And here’s the thing; it’s a really good offer. They are paying $18 an hour next year, which is an incredibly high wage in the work camping world, especially for a job with full hookups. A year ago we probably would have jumped at the chance and it might have even kept us happy for a few years. He tried three more times in that conversation to sell me on the position, stressing that I could still work on all the types of special projects that I liked and the job would be what I made of it. He really didn’t seem to realize that he had given us both something very valuable to us, and was now taking it away. Finally I said that Lee and I both needed to time to process and we could talk again when he got back from his vacation.
We talked a ton about it on the way home and well into the evening. For a variety of reasons we just didn’t feel like it would be the right thing for us, but we decided to sleep on it and see how we felt in the morning. Here’s what I woke up with. There is a scene in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere offers Julia Roberts an apartment, and and lots of money to live with him, and her response is “I know. It’s a really good offer for a girl like me.” If you watch the clip, look at her face. That’s how I felt in that meeting.
The character, Vivian, goes on to say. “You made me a really nice offer. And a few months ago, no problem. But now everything is different, and you’ve changed that. And you can’t change back. I want more.” That’s what I woke up with. That’s how that moment made me feel.
As I often say, we went to a lot of trouble to change our life. It’s been scary and painful and amazing and beautiful. We wanted to explore new places, experience new things, and have more freedom. After four years both of us were willing to give up a fair amount of that freedom for some stability, to find a place where we were valued and frankly not treated as second class citizens because we were seasonal. We had a taste of what that could look like here, and as Vivian says, I want the fairy tale. And it’s really OK if it doesn’t exist. The journey to find it is the important thing, and I’m just not ready to settle.
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