Careers


My Story: From Desk Jockey to Ranger Rick

Matthew Mahon/Redux

After Richard Rynearson, 63, was laid off, he left office life for good to become a seasonal worker in the national parks.

Kiplinger: You took early retirement?

Richard Rynearson: In 2009, my employer, Halliburton, "retired" me at age 59. I felt as if I had been fired. I had worked in information technology and project management for 34 years.

How did you get into seasonal work?

I recalled visiting with some older workers at Yellowstone National Park when my wife and I vacationed there the summer before. I re­trieved a business card that one of them had given me. The card was from CoolWorks.com, which posts job listings for seasonal work in great places. I went to the Web site and picked out a few jobs.

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What was your first job?

In Yellowstone, I worked as a clerk for a private concession company on Yellowstone Lake. I put in 40 hours a week from May through September 2009. It was one of the best summers of my life.

What made it special?

I made it a point to see the entire park, and it's huge! It's like unpeeling an onion. In several months, you can go down many more layers than you can in just a few days of vaca­tion. And although many people visit during the season, you can get away from all that during your time off and be out in the wild­erness pretty much by yourself.

Was there a downside?

When the posting calls accommodations "rustic," it means they're run-down. At Yellowstone, I lived in a men's dormitory where you had to get up early to get a hot shower.

You've also worked as a park ranger?

I've worked two summers, in 2011 and 2012, as a park ranger in Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado. After my first summer, I realized that if I worked directly for the National Park Service, I would receive better pay, benefits and housing. But competition for the tour-guide jobs is fierce. I didn't have the training in natural sciences, so I went after a job collecting fees.

What does your wife think?

Irene trusts me to go off and be on my own for a few months, and I feel the same way about her. She works as a substitute teacher at a school in Houston.

Can you make a living?

I do it because I enjoy it, not to make a lot of money. The best you can do in these seasonal jobs is break even. Concession companies generally pay minimum wage, but they offer inexpensive room and board. As a GS-4 with the Park Service, I earned $13.41 an hour, but I paid higher rent at a government-owned apartment and had to shop for and cook my own meals. I did receive paid sick leave and vacation.

Do you have other income?

Yes, I started taking Social Sec­urity at age 62. Until I turn 66, I must pay back the government $1 for every $2 I earn above the limit, which is $15,120 for 2013. Six months of work fits the bill pretty well. I also have income from retirement savings. (See our story: The Social Security Catch-22.)

Where will you go this summer?

I'm short-listed for a Park Service job in Seward, Alaska.

Do you like your new life?

I've found my niche as a park ranger. During the season, it's just pure joy to go to work every day, and it doesn't feel like work.

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