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How They Spend Their Summer Vacation: Volunteering

A retired Arizona couple volunteers at national parks, sharing their knowledge while basking in America's natural beauty

By Karin Winegar

After an hour and a half of tennis and pickle ball (an outdoor game blending Ping-Pong and tennis) in the Arizona heat recently, Bonnie Parsons, 68, was icing her knee — which gave her time to start making departure plans for her upcoming summer job as a volunteer at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

The park work has become part of the retirement routine for Bonnie and her 77-year-old husband, Al. After the couple sold their house in Chesterbrook, Pa., in 2008 and began tooling around the country in their 35-foot Winnebago motor home, they paused to visit Petrified Forest Park in Calistoga, Calif., where they began their annual summer adventure as park volunteers.

“We realized we could help the parks and get a lot out of it as well,” says Bonnie. “We are loving it.”

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What They Do As National Park Interpreters

At the moment, they're Volunteer Rangers in Interpretation at Mount Rainier National Park, which Al calls "a magnificent and wondrous place." As "interpreters," Bonnie and Al talk to visitors there about the park — Bonnie focusing on its ecology, Al on its geology.

"We're also visiting other parks in the area when we're off-duty," says Al. "So far, we've explored Olympic National Park, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and the Columbia River Gorge. It is all too good for mere mortals."

What Their Retirement Calendar Looks Like

The Parsons' retirement life works like this: From November through March, they live in a 700-square-foot prefab cottage Park Model RV in Tucson's Voyager Resort RV Park, a community of about 3,500. During the other seven months, they volunteer four days a week as interpreters in Western-state national parks, driving in their motor home with a canoe on the roof, towing a car and two bikes.

Although the parks prefer volunteers to make at least a four-month commitment, it’s possible to negotiate a stint as short as two months, says Bonnie.

“The parks jobs targeted for us are not too physically demanding,” Al adds. “You tell the parks what you can do and they match you with the job."

As interpreters, their preferred jobs, Al and Bonnie write the 30- to 60-minute talks they plan to give, pending park approval. "The average age of a park visitor is 54, but there are also young children, so you have to tailor the talk to adults and kids," says Al.

Sometimes, their work takes a different turn. “At Yellowstone," says Bonnie, "Al took care of seven horses and a mule that belonged to the rangers and I worked in the office selling fishing permits, inspecting boats and registering campers."

“We have worked in Yellowstone, Yosemite and Petrified Forest, so we have a great set of ‘creds’ now,” says Al, who spends his summer days off as a photographer and mountaineer. “Arthritis impedes me a bit," he concedes.

Their Pre-Retirement Lives

Before retirement, Al had a 25-year career in electrical engineering, followed by a stint running a venture capital firm and then 15 years as a financial planner. Bonnie was a physician's assistant and Al's first financial-planning client.

The couple, who married in 1992, have four children from previous marriages and three grandchildren. During the summer, their daughters bring the grandkids to the parks to visit their roving, outdoor-loving grandparents.

“We made my three-year-old granddaughter, Faye, a Junior Ranger last year in Yellowstone,” says Al. “When we went on hikes, she was in front yelling ‘No bears on this trail!’ to scare away bears.”


How They Keep Expenses Down

The Parsons' approach to retirement keeps most of their expenses relatively low. They spend roughly $80,000 a year, with money coming from their retirement account, Social Security and their pensions.

They paid $55,000 for their used 1999 RV and shell out just $4,500 a year for the land they lease in the RV park, including gas and sewer privileges. In the national parks, the site and hookups for their motor home are free.

Gas is a key consideration, however, since motor homes are costly to fuel. “So we pick an area of interest, park the Winnebago and then use the car to do the sightseeing,” Bonnie says. “We are careful about how far we drive the RV.”

The couple makes a point of continually scaling back. “Our legacy to our kids is to get rid of all the junk,” says Al. “We have a storage unit in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and we will diminish it significantly when we visit there next.”

Advice for Other Couples

Their advice for other couples who might like to follow in their tire tracks?

Save as much as you can before you retire, work with an adviser to plot out retirement finances, and be sure you research RV life before you commit to it. Bonnie read four books on the subject before hitting the road.

If you can retire young, they say, do it. “My best advice is to retire at 55," says Al. "Then you have good years while you are healthy.”

Bonnie offers one more tip: If you're thinking about living out of an RV, be sure your spouse is onboard with the idea.

“For us, the way we live is a win-win, but the nomad part has to be something you are both enthusiastic about,” she says. The same applies to living in tight quarters. “Al’s the most wonderful person to travel with and he is so interested in everything, as am I,” Bonnie adds.

Karin Winegar Read More
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