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Talking With: Smoky Mountains Work-Campers are Paid to Travel

One way to see the world is by work-camping, sometimes called work-kamping.

Work-campers tour the country in motorhomes and recreational vehicles, stopping along the way to earn money to supplement their lifestyles. Some jobs pay dollars, and some pay in free campsites and utility hook-ups.

Irene and Jimmie Ray of Columbia, MS, have been dedicated work-campers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than a decade. They arrive in early spring and spend four months serving as visitor patrol assistants.

In exchange for working about 30 hours a week, they enjoy a complimentary hookup for their 40-foot motorhome on a site with a river view.

“This is a second home for us,” Irene says. “We love these mountains. When we get here, it’s like taking a deep breath.”

The scenic beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws Irene and Jimmie Ray year after year.

While on the job, the couple drives a Jeep through the park, looking for people to help. The days vary. They give directions and weather warnings, unlock locked vehicles, jump dead batteries, and help return lost items.

“A lot of these people don’t have money to pay a locksmith or a wrecker,” says Irene. “”If we can help get them back on the road, they have a little extra for spending. We’ve had many, many people say, ‘You saved our vacation.’”

A big part of the job is traffic control. They encourage drivers to keep moving when a bear sighting (called a “bear jam”) causes everyone to slow down or stop to watch and take photographs. They keep drivers and pedestrians out during synchronous firefly season except for those lucky few who win admission to the  natural phenomenon via an annual lottery.

Cellular service doesn’t work in the park, but they have a two-way radio to call rangers for backup when needed.

The couple also answers hordes of questions, some of which are more informed than others.

“We’ve had people being serious and asking ‘When do they let the bears out?’” Irene says. “‘Or ‘When do they turn on the smoke?’” in the Smoky Mountains.

Every question is treated respectfully. If the couple doesn’t know an answer, they’ll try to find someone who does, she says.

When I visited with the Rays at the park, springtime allergies had taken Jimmie’s voice. His enthusiastic nods and smiles showed he agreed with his wife.

A view of the Smoky Mountains from the trail leading to the Laurel Falls waterfalls.

For their efforts—nearly 5,000 hours of service to the park, the Rays have earned a Lifetime Achievement Award.

“The one downside of coming here is we don’t get to see our grandchildren as much as we would like to,” Irene says. “But it’s not that big of a downside because most of the time they come up here “

The Rays are long-time motorhome travelers. While they were working—both had careers in law enforcement, and Jimmie is a volunteer firefighter—they frequently hit the road. Their favorite destinations were national parks, and they’ve visited almost all of them.

In 2005, they both retired and decided to become work-campers to spend even more time in the parks. They served a couple of seasons at Yosemite, but have anchored at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They command 40-foot motorhome equipped with full-size clothes washer and dryer, shower and refrigerator. Three sides slide out to give them even more space. They also tow a car. The 600-mile trip to and from home takes about 11 hours. Jimmie does the driving.

“We wanted to give something back to the national parks because we love them so much and could never spend enough time in them,” Irene says. “Then we heard about the work-camp program. We didn’t just want to go home and sit down.”

Irene and Jimmie Ray of Columbia, MS, are long-time work-campers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The National Park Service offers a wide array of volunteer opportunities at national parks throughout the country for work-campers and non-work-campers. Find information and inspiration here.

(Many thanks to the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my visits!)

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