Our First Work Camping Experience (Might Be Our Last)

Our first work camping gig didn’t go quite like we expected, but does anything go as expected during a pandemic? We could write a novel about our experience, but we’ll just share some highlights.

First, a disclaimer: this is our personal experience, and our personal opinions. We are not speaking as representatives of Kamp Klamath, its owners, managers, or other workers. This is specifically our experience as temporary volunteer campers at this campground during the summer of 2020. This isn’t a review of the campground itself, or a discussion of the kind of experience a guest can expect to have. This post is only a personal account of our first work camping gig on our personal blog about our full-time RV life.

This opportunity at Kamp Klamath in Klamath, California came at the perfect time: David was struggling with the altitude of Questa, New Mexico and we knew we needed to get to a lower altitude quickly. We had decided to “just head south” so that once we were below 4500’ elevation, we’d stop, regroup, and figure out our next steps for the summer.

We applied for this work camping gig on a whim. We’d talked about work camping someday, and even applied to a few jobs over the past year or so, but none of the offers were quite what we were looking for, so we’d put it on the back burner, choosing to focus on David’s Mobile RV Service and my tax prep work. But this job was in the Pacific Northwest, a place we’d always wanted to visit. (We’d never been north of Napa.) And it was at sea level.

We were offered the position the very next day, during our interview. We liked what the manager had to say about social distancing (everyone was to wear a mask in the office and with 33 acres of campground, it was easy for everyone to keep their distance outside), so we decided it would be as safe as any other service job during a pandemic.

We discussed the fact that David is an RV tech and would be taking calls when he wasn’t work camping, and that I am a tax preparer and things are extremely hectic for me as the end of tax season approaches (thanks to the filing deadline extension from April 15 to July 15). The manager was fine with this and understood. We were told we’d work the same shifts so that we could have the same days off, and this was perfect, since we typically keep the same work schedule for our regular jobs, too. We were also told the campground especially needed office help, so we thought we would both be working in the office.

We accepted the position instantly, and headed straight for Klamath, California, with the intention of getting there before July 4 weekend, while also still logging hours at my tax preparer job, because this was the peak of (covid-extended) tax season.

It was brutally hot in Arizona and Southern California, until we reached Tehachapi. The weather was better, but the trailer broke down again! (You can read about that elsewhere.) Once we got back on the road, we weren’t going to make it to Klamath in time for July 4 weekend, but we’d get there within a couple days. We felt terrible but we couldn’t help it.

We arrived a few days after July 4, and they were still happy to see us, albeit a couple days later than we planned. We were a little surprised that the staff weren’t being very careful about wearing masks near us. But we wore ours and did our best to keep our distance.

Because we had no T-mobile service in town (despite coverage maps indicating otherwise, but we hadn’t factored in the effect of those amazing, tall redwoods) the day after we arrived we drove nearly an hour up to Brookings, OR to purchase Verizon cell phones.

When we returned from the Verizon store (a several-hour ordeal due to the distance the time it takes to set up new cell service), I was immediately expected to go into the office and get a general orientation. At the end of the night, the manager told me, “I only got one day of training, so that’s all you need, right?” I thought she was kidding.

If that first night of “just drop in and we’ll chat about what you’ll be doing” counts as a shift, then my third shift was my first shift closing alone, without anyone to help or answer questions. After that first solo shift, I had a few days off. My next day working, there was a note waiting for me from the manager, listing all the things I’d done wrong closing by myself. I’m not sure why this wasn’t emailed (and instead all the workers could see and read this note that was waiting for me), or why we couldn’t have a conversation about it, but it is what it is. The majority of the things in the note were things I hadn’t been trained to do yet. I didn’t take offense, I just made an effort to do these things going forward.

For the next few shifts, the manager would come in to help close, but she’d never teach me. She’d lose patience with me like I was a child, then take the task from me and do it quickly by herself without explaining. Or she’d tell me to leave and that she didn’t need my help any more. When she did this on her birthday, she was especially passive aggressive when I told her “I want to learn this, if you are willing to teach me,” because she replied “no, just go. It’s only my birthday, what else am I going to do tonight?”

David and I did not end up working the same shifts. Unfortunately, I would also be scheduled for 50% more hours than David. Since I didn’t get a chance to explore the area, I never knew how to answer questions when guests asked for help finding services or things to do. I listed to what my fellow work campers said, and repeated that to guests. I heard from other work campers that they were given between 3 days and over a week to settle in before beginning work. Since most of them are retired, they also had plenty of time to explore the area during their days off.

We understand that the campground was in a tough situation with a recent transfer of ownership and an extremely busy season, but between scheduling us for different shifts and scheduling me for more hours than David, this wasn’t a great start. When I asked about the schedule a couple times, and about David training in the office so he could work some of my shifts, I was ignored. I think if we’d been given some kind of acknowledgment like “I’m sorry, this is just what we need right now,” that probably would’ve gone a long way. It also would’ve been better if she would’ve scheduled David for more hours than me, as we’d discussed when she offered us the position.

Shortly after our arrival, the new owner was visiting from the Sacramento area, and hosted a BBQ for everyone. During a pandemic. I worked in the office the evening of the BBQ, and I went home for a decontamination shower (to get rid of potential gluten and allergens). I was starving because it was late. So we ate our own safe dinner, at home. We had considered stopping by to wave hello, but between my exhaustion (I’m still a chronically ill person with a spinal cord injury), the risk of covid, and the risk of me getting glutened, we did not feel comfortable attending.

A couple days later, the manager berated me for not going to the work campers’ BBQ, claiming that it was part of our job to attend these functions. When I told her about my gluten concerns, she said “I don’t eat that stuff normally either, but I go and just have a little bit,” so that told me she did not understand celiac disease, and she did not want to learn when I tried to explain. I also pointed out that expecting a group of recently-travelled strangers to hang out together in such close proximity during a pandemic was unwise, and thankfully that was enough to end the conversation.

Since we felt “stuck,” between me needing a stationary place to work remotely during my busy season, and needing a place to park while we waited for a replacement axle to arrive by freight, we did not feel comfortable advocating any further for our needs. The experiences with the manager that were piling up made me regret this work camping decision very much. However, the work wasn’t difficult and it was a short season (we were to leave October 1), so we tried to stick it out.

I witnessed the manager treat certain guests differently than others, bending rules for the ones she liked, and refusing to accommodate guests she didn’t like as much. When one well-armed guest fired his gun at a bear in the middle of the night because the guest had left their food outside and the bear was looking for a snack, the guest was rewarded with a free stay, but the guests who were understandably afraid of the gun-toting guest were given an ambivalent shrug.

Another bizarre problem was that her tone towards me would change completely whenever David was around. She was always a lot nicer to me when he was within ear shot. She was also a lot nicer to me when any other work camper was around.

At one point, the owner came up to visit and baked enormous cookies (with gluten) to give away to guests. Which is a fantastic gesture and I hope everyone enjoyed them! But the airborne gluten in my workspace meant that I got glutened (yes, even though I was wearing a mask). I don’t blame anyone for this, but it was my understanding that I would not be involved with any food service. I’d been very open about my celiac disease. I was also extremely disappointed that the owner was attempting to joke with me about eating his “gluten-free sugar-free fat-free vegan paleo cookies” because I guess he thinks it’s funny that I have an autoimmune disease? I don’t know what that was about. Whatever he was trying to tell me, the takeaway was that this guy could not care any less about my personal safety.

He also didn’t care about my safety because he hated wearing masks and never wore one, even in the office. I understand that wearing a mask is inconvenient, but we work campers are exposed to the public during our entire shifts, and we deserve to be protected. We deserve a safe work environment. If the owner doesn’t wear a mask because he doesn’t want to, what message does that send to the other workers and to guests?

I’d made several requests that we get some disposable or reusable masks (perhaps with the Kamp Klamath logo?) that we could sell to guests in the store. All requests were ignored.

When one worker got sick enough to warrant a covid test, David and I thought this would be a wake-up call for the manager and owner, that perhaps they’d start taking masking and social distancing more seriously. Nothing changed.

At the end of my final shift, the manager came in around closing time, but instead of helping us with the rush of Labor Day weekend guests shopping and the usual closing procedures, she stood around watching us with her arms folded across her chest. When we finally closed the doors for the night, she said to us with an accusing tone, “is there a reason you let that guest in here without a mask?”

We office workers had been diligent about masks during my tenure there. I’d say I personally am more diligent than most about masks than others, because I try not to let maskless people stand at the door and yell at me to communicate, which everyone else was okay with. (Yelling/singing/voice projection sprays more droplets than normal talking, and therefore is a more risky behavior for covid exposure.) I also did not remove my mask in the office when there were no guests around. But some folks do slip through the cracks, especially if they enter when you’re on the phone or helping another guest. It’s also difficult, especially as people get “pandemic fatigue” and either don’t want to wear a mask or are adamantly anti-mask. This needs to be a team effort: we need to help each other out, we are all in this together. I wanted to reply to the manager, “is there a reason you waited until now to say something, instead of pitching in to keep us all safe?” But I did not.

The irony here is that early on in our time here, I had lost track of the number of times the manager was less than 6’ away from me while not wearing a mask.

To be perfectly clear: I’m not saying the owner is a bad person. I’m also not saying the manager is a bad person. What I’m saying is that they did not prioritize our safety, and it was obvious.

Adding insult to injury, about a week before our replacement axle arrived, the cellular service became nearly unusable. My work (my real work) was suffering, and the campground’s wifi had been unusable all along. (It’s probably fine for checking email, but it’s entirely unreliable if you need to remote into another computer or if your company uses a VoIP telephone service.) As the mistreatment and bad behavior was escalating at the same time, we made the decision to leave once we replaced the axle and our rig was safe to drive again. That happened during Labor Day weekend. We decided we would work through Labor Day weekend, so that we would not leave the campground in a lurch during their busy holiday weekend.

When we emailed our resignation, we gave two days’ notice. Our contract did not specify any resignation period, only that it was considered “at-will,” and that either party could end the contract at any time.

We knew that our departure would be an inconvenience, but we were surprised when one of the work campers showed his true colors, taking this opportunity to be extremely inappropriate towards us.

As we were hitching up to leave, a worker approached David who was throwing trash in the dumpster, acting sweet as pie, “I wanted to thank you…” but then it turned ugly, as he accused David of deliberately screwing everyone over with our departure. He made a lot of inappropriate (and some untrue) comments, and wouldn’t let David walk away. He followed David back to our RV, his voice rising, yelling “HO HO HO” over and over like some kind of asshole Santa Claus. He walked towards his RV, saw me looking over at him, and started screaming at me, too. While not my proudest moment, I have zero regrets about what I did next: I flipped him off and told him to go fuck himself.

I said it loudly several times, because he would not leave us alone while we were trying to hitch up and depart. At this point with the way he was acting (refusing to let David walk away, screaming at us, carrying a walking stick in each hand, which could’ve been used as weapons), I did not feel like we were safe with this guy near us. We just needed to hitch up and go, but every time we tried to tend to our trailer hitch, he’d start screaming again.

THIS IS NOT SAFE. RVers should know this: never, ever, EVER distract someone when they are hitching or unhitching an RV. This is how deadly mistakes happen. This is not an exaggeration. NEVER hitch or unhitch when you are distracted or emotional, and don’t let anyone distract you when you’re hitching or unhitching. You’re about to drive several tons of killing machine. DISTRACTIONS KILL.

I called the manager and held the phone up for her to hear him yelling. I told her one of her workers was harassing us and we’re trying to leave as quickly, safely, and peacefully as possible. She said she’d be right there, but she took 15 minutes to arrive. By then, another worker came out of his RV and told the guy a few times to leave, which seemed to do the trick. We were fortunate, because I’m certain the manager would not have helped us. In fact, she looked thoroughly tickled and amused when she arrived, and did not go to the worker who harassed us.

When David and I decompressed and talked about this incident later, we realized we both half-expected this guy to come back out with a gun and start shooting. That’s how hostile this guy was behaving. If he’s got such a hair trigger when he feels slighted that he starts screaming at someone like a toddler having a tantrum, he should NOT be allowed around guests, especially guests driving RVs.

We were sorry that our departure was going to inconvenience people, but the fact is that we have jobs outside work camping, and we were extremely forthcoming about that from the get-go. I was willing to endure the abuse of a manager in order to keep the peace and enjoy living and working in such a nice area. But as each interaction became more unbearable than the last, the last straw was my inability to perform my permanent job when the cell service worsened and the internet remained unusable. All else being equal, my permanent paying job needs to take priority over my temporary volunteer job.

There were certainly some positive aspects to the position. There were a few work campers we really enjoyed working with. We love chickens (even if we don’t eat their eggs), and it was fun seeing them wandering the park. It was really nice to help guests have fun in a safe way (the office might have been a Petri dish, but camping in and of itself is one of the safest ways to have fun right now). The location was outstanding: in the middle of the redwoods, where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean.

The location had a bit of a downside too. The town of Klamath is Yurok tribal land. Before the campground reopened in June, the Yurok Tribe had approached the campground and specifically asked them not to open. The Yurok people have closed the reservation in order to keep their elders safe from covid. The tribe has been very transparent about the fact that they have many high-risk members, and they do not have the medical facilities to care for them if they get sick. I learned this shortly before we resigned, and that was when it really hit me that we were putting vulnerable indigenous people at higher risk for no good reason. I wish we had known this before we accepted the position.

Consequently, we do not regret our decision to leave when we did.

Epilogue: We found out from other work campers that the person harassing us had a doctors appointment that fell on a work day after the schedule was changed due to our departure. Also, other work campers offered to take his shifts that week so that he wouldn’t be inconvenienced, but he would not accept their offers. He claimed that because it wasn’t their fault, they shouldn’t have to help him out. This conversation happened before we departed, before he made the conscious decision to scream at and harass us as we were hitching up to leave.

I am not sure if we will ever work camp again. Personally, I will definitely need time to recover from and process this traumatic experience. As things stand right now, I have no interest in doing it ever again, but things (and people) change, so we’ll see what the future holds.

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