Surprising Lessons Learned Working as a Maid in a National Park

By Kerry Hamby, MTI Contributor

We stood at the summit taking in the stunning view of the surrounding mountains and Yellowstone Lake. Pockets of snow poked through the rocky terrain at the summit, grassy patches of sunflowers dotted the sunny side of the slope. The view from the top of Avalanche Peak was well worth the arduous journey to get there (2.1 miles over a 2,100 foot ascent, ending at 10,568 feet above sea level). We walked over to the edge of the mountain to return to the base, but we didn’t start hiking down. Instead, we pulled out the plastic ponchos we snagged from the employee stash at our home base, then sat on them. We then went sledding and whooping down the mountainside. I never imagined I’d ever be sledding in July, much less on a piece of plastic in a national park, but here we were. It stands out as one of my fondest memories.

In fact, it’s one of many nostalgia wrapped memories from my summer of 2010, the summer I spent as a maid in Yellowstone National Park. Maybe it does not sound glamorous, and perhaps it is not your classic resume builder of a job, yet what I learned from that position and working amongst the mountains of Montana and Wyoming are something I’d recommend to any young person, or really any person who can spend a season away from their day-to-day lives. The lessons I learned were profound, both working a thankless, gritty hospitality job and living amongst the starkly beautiful, but harsh mountain environment.

These are only a few snippets of the lessons I came away with that summer. I can’t recommend it enough.

1) Humility

At the start of 2010, I was a classic overachiever. I was a freshman at a good college with a decent GPA, participating in a mix of extracurriculars. Many of my friends planned to work regular short-term jobs or intern at a snazzy role for the summer. I wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps and be a server at Yellowstone for the summer. Without telling her, I applied for a server position through the hospitality company servicing the park. When the application inquired if I would be willing to fill another role (hostess, maintenance crew, laundry worker, etc.) if not selected for the role I wanted, I checked “no.” I was a hard worker so I didn’t think it would matter if I had nearly zero legitimate work experience to my name.

The company didn’t think so. I received a nicely worded rejection email a few weeks later. I was disappointed, assuming my plans thwarted. Still, I replied back with a groveling email explaining how I had grown up hearing stories about working there and would actually be willing to work any job they could give to me.

They offered me a housekeeping room attendant (maid) job at the Grant Village location, a small lodging area with several buildings at the southern end of the park. I took it.

2)  The Other Side of Fear

At 19-years-old, I’d thus far followed the fairly straight and narrow. School was only about three hours away, and I’d never lived farther away from home. For me, Wyoming was halfway across the country in lands unknown. I was a brat the morning of my flight, lashing out at my mom and spilling coffee on the way to the airport. I wouldn’t admit it, maybe didn’t even realize it, but I was somewhat terrified of this next step that I knew so little about.

However, after chatting away with an elder gentleman who helped found the Yellowstone Foundation on my flight into Bozeman, Montana, who laughed at as I stared out the window completely in awe of the Rockies, everything started to feel a bit easier and more real. He introduced me to a mother-daughter pair on the plane, who lived inside of the park near its headquarters. They gave me a ride to employee check-in, and were equally fond of my awestruck reaction to the scenery, roving bison and big sky.  As things fell into place, I was more at ease. I began to think maybe I’d made an OK choice for the summer, as nervous as I was to the lead up.

3) Altitude & Unpredictability in the Mountains

On my second day at Grant Village, I opted to go for a run. Though I’d heard the altitude acclimation could be a doozy, I decided six miles would be manageable.

Wrong. My heart pounded the entire time, I was breathless, my legs felt heavy, and my head ached. To top it off, as I turned around at the 3-mile mark, it started snowing. Large flakes started falling from the sky, seemingly out of the blue. Maybe there was a weather report predicting it, but I hadn’t checked. I was dreading the return, and truthfully now slightly on edge.

Within minutes, though, a car of three fellow employees pulled up next to me and a voice called out “I heard you might need a ride.” My relief was palpable. It was a story we all laughed about later, but it was a fast lesson in the unpredictable and unforgiving nature of my new environment. Fortunately, it’s also the kind of place where people look out for one another.

4)  Do the Thankless Jobs First

If you’d told me I would learn more from this job about leadership than any other role or job I’d ever held, or would ever hold, I would not have believed you. But it’s the truth.

Housekeeping is as unglamorous of a job as you would expect. There are a lot of gross humans out there in the world, and some folks are worse when they know someone else is going to clean up their mess. Still, I brought a level of enthusiasm to the shower scrubbing, towel hanging, and speedy bed making. My efforts were rewarded with a promotion to a Team Leader within a few weeks. Now, I would be given a team of 3-4 room attendants and a lodge I was responsible to have cleaned by the end of the work day. The faster we cleaned, the faster we could enjoy the park.

It was certainly easier to motivate and have the respect of the teams we led if we had started as room attendants, doing the thankless and monotonous jobs first (though rogue chipmunks in the hallways, bear sitings and a charging mother elk occasionally broke up this monotony). It is no small part of the reason I chose to enlist in the military prior to becoming an officer.

5)  Adaptability & Motivation

The small teams I led were diverse with a wide variety of motivations. Leading a work team was new to me. About a third of the staff was international, some with little English language capabilities. I had to  quickly learn and adapt to the new challenge of motivating people with such vastly different aspirations and skills. Some liked racing to make beds, others just needed to be given music as they cleaned, and some wanted to drag out the day to make money with the hourly rate (these were the most challenging teammates). Everything got easier as time passed, and my fellow Team Leaders and I would compete to finish our entire lodge with our teams first – a healthy rivalry in itself.

On a another note, I rarely leave a hotel room without stripping the sheets or leaving a small tip now!

6) Trust But Verify

This is one of the oft-repeated phrases in the military/tactical fields. There were several realizations of this, but one particularly harsh reminder occurred when a few housekeepers hiked into the Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon with the restaurant staff to camp overnight. The servers were asked to bring the iodine tablets to sanitize the water we would refill our bottles with at the base of the canyon’s river. Sometime after camp was setup and the night underway, we discovered no one brought them. The steep hike out the of the canyon in the morning was a rough one.

7)  Calm amongst the chaos

Yellowstone is a wild place, as is the surrounding area. It often tested our limits in staying calm amidst stress. There were many things we could never have anticipated: moments of getting lost in the back country, an injured hiking partner 14 miles away from the trail head, a run-in with a grizzly, two escaped convicts racing through the park – these are only a handful of the higher stress moments. The more we faced these challenges, though, the better we could prepare for and meet them in the future. We were bound to run into a fair share of these stressful moments, living for three months amidst 2.2 million acres of wild land.

In the off season, outside of the park, these experiences made many of the obstacles we faced in our day-to-day seemingly insignificant.

8) The Best Things Meet You on the Other Side of Hard

Lone Star Geyser erupts nearly as regularly as Old Faithful, and the “show” is sometimes even more spectacular. The crowds are typically thin and there are not any boardwalk or barriers. So why does it remain in the shadow of Old Faithful? Because it’s a 2.5 mile hike through the woods to get to it. As with most hikes in the park, as long as you traveled more than a mile, you’d shake most of the crowds and get to see some incredible things.

We completed a lot of longer treks into the backcountry, sometimes staying overnight for a few days. Those times where we felt we had the park to ourselves, were the best.

9) Loneliness of Adventure & Independence 

Adventure is alluring and satisfying. Yet, it has a tendency to be one of the lonelier roads. Lonely and difficult are not always bad things, especially for a young adult. It certainly helps reveal your own independence and self-reliance, important things to lean on when we face the world on our own.

Being a housekeeper in a park, with a largely transient group of people, was one of my greatest adventures – but it was also hard. It became a source of strength to draw upon for many years after.

I liked it so much, though, I went back the following summer.

….. Six years later, I sat for an Officer Candidate School panel following three years of enlisted service. My interviewers laughed as they asked me about my time being a maid. I laughed with them, and then launched into some of the above. I could see the answer took them aback. I got the job.

Now, I have a son. I hope he has the chance to work a tough job in a National Park in the future, and that you too find yourself doing something thankless someday, in a beautiful and challenging place.

Kerry is an active duty Coast Guard officer and accomplished multi-sport endurance athlete. 

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