The travel bug bit when I was in high school and my family and I took our first vacation “out west.” During our vacation from Kentucky to Idaho and back, we crammed 13 states, a few national parks, thousands of miles and a lifetime of memories into those 10 days in 2000.
We made two more trips to that part of the country as a family, and I officially fell in love with the western United States. In the gift shop at the Grand Canyon, at the front desk of the hotels in Glacier National Park, and in the dining rooms in Yellowstone, I noticed there were young adults my age from all over the world spending their summer working in national parks. I wanted to do that, but it seemed impossible. It was 2,000 miles away from my home, my family and all I had ever known.
An interest in hospitality and tourism had taken hold, but there weren’t tourism job opportunities in rural Kentucky, so I took the safe route and studied accounting in college, even though I really couldn’t picture myself working in that field. I muddled through and was lucky to get a job right after graduation.
After a year or so, while all my college friends were still looking for jobs, I did the irresponsible thing and gave my notice. I simply had no passion for the job and no long-term interest, and I just wasn’t happy. I started another job search, but nothing else looked appealing.
I started thinking “what if”? If I was going to be changing jobs anyway, why not spend the summer working in Yellowstone, and then find a real job?
So that’s what I did, and it put my life on a path I could never have imagined. What I thought would be one summer turned into three years, and I made lifelong friends and lived in a place for years that most people only dream of visiting for a week.
I grew up. I matured. I became braver and my world widened. There is something about tackling crazy adventures and climbing to the top of mountain peaks that make you realize you’re much more capable than you thought.
I worked in the reservation department for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the official concessionaire of Yellowstone. That first year, I helped guests with their cabin, camping and sightseeing reservations. The second and third years, I sold small group packages. It was a job I did have a passion for, and it introduced me to the hospitality, tourism and travel world.
Ultimately, I believe, those family vacations and my work in Yellowstone led me to NTA. I don’t think my resume would have stood out nearly as much without that work experience, and now I truly believe I am where I’m supposed to be.
In September, I went back to Yellowstone with my new husband, Josh, on our honeymoon. I showed him the place that was so special to me. We spent the last five days of our honeymoon in Paradise Valley, Montana, which is just north of the park. It is now the place that is special to us.
After the first day of floating and fly-fishing on the Yellowstone River, which flows through the stunning valley, Josh started saying he could live there. My first thought was that we would have to settle for repeat vacations because we could never live there.
But then I started thinking “what if?” again. What if I could work remotely? Josh is self-employed and can work from anywhere. Maybe when we retire?
While I can say with certainty that we won’t be moving to Montana anytime soon, the dream is there. And it’s there because travel opened my eyes to the possibility.
Through our day-to-day jobs in this industry, we allow guests, clients and customers to dream, and we open their eyes to things and places they may never have thought were possible.
And sometimes, those dreams rub off on us.
Laura McFadden is NTA's events and meetings manager.
Top photo: Laura in 2009 during her first year as an employee at Yellowstone National Park.
Photo by Laura McFadden