So You Want My Job: Red Bus Jammer

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 1, 2009 · 19 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

redbus

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

If you’ve been watching Ken Burn’s new documentary about the history of our National Park system, you’ll probably be envious of this week’s job. Matthew Nagy spends his summers driving a 1937 convertible bus around Glacier National Park in Montana in his position as a “red bus jammer.” The guys who drive these buses as tour guides are referred to as “jammers” because until 1989 all of the buses had un-synchronized manual transmissions, meaning the drivers had to double-clutch up and down the hill. This apparently made a lot of noise, so they started calling the drivers Gearjammers as a result. And that name was then shortened to just “jammer.” Whatever you call the job, it’s a dang cool one.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it).

My name is Matt, and I am 24 years old. I graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2008 with a degree in Tourism Management. This is my first season working as a Jammer up at Glacier National Park, and I enjoy every minute of it. My job basically entails driving a 1937 White Motor Co. convertible bus around one of the best parks in the country. I provide commentary about the history of the park, geology, as well as interesting anecdotes related to the park and the surrounding areas to my guests as we ride along the “Going-To-The-Sun Road.”

2. Why did you want to be a red bus jammer at Glacier National Park?

After a few months testing out a poor job market in New York City after graduation, I ended up back at home working at a grocery store just for some income. Spending a cold and miserable winter in Pennsylvania, the concept of driving around in a cool old bus with sunglasses on and the top down sounded highly appealing – so I took a shot and applied for a job. I grew up in a car, taking long road trips up and down the East Coast and also in California, so lots of seat time was natural to me.  Now I drive between 1000 and 1400 miles a week.

3. How did you even hear about this kind of job? How did you land the position?

Getting this job was a matter of pure chance, really. After college, a close friend of mine moved to Missoula, MT and began to work out there for a while, hiking and kayaking and enjoying the outdoors. He mentioned what a great area Glacier was and how it would be great to work up here for a summer. So with a few clicks of the mouse I was looking up jobs and stumbled across the tour driver position.  I was fortunate that a few drivers were unable to come out this season to work, and after a few back and fourth phone calls with the transportation manager the job was mine, and I was on my way to Montana.

redbusThis is Matt’s ride.

4. How competitive is it to get a job as a jammer?

It can be fairly difficult to get a job as a jammer because there are so many returning drivers each year who come back season after season. We have folks here who have been driving for up to 20 seasons, as well as a lot of drivers who drove once when they were young and then came back at retirement age. It is an interesting dynamic, with all the different ages and experience combined with all of the drivers, and we end up with quite a fraternal spirit after training, driving, and living together for such long periods of time. Being up here at times is like summer camp for adults.

5. Being a red bus jammer is a seasonal position. What do you do during the rest of the year?

During the rest of the year I work as a winemaker for the vintages in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. I will work this northern vintage in Long Island, NY until December, take a month or so off and then head to Australia to work the southern vintage. Then it will be back up here to Glacier to celebrate the park’s 100th birthday driving red bus #99.

6. What is the best part of the job?

The best part of the job is being able to be out in the park every day and see the amazing scenery that is contained in it. When there is a good group of guests and it is a beautiful day outside, the job is unmatched. It is a lot of fun to show people around this unique park and all the wonder that is around us every day. Just about every day that I am out and working I still have at least one “wow” moment where I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have a job in a place as surreal and breathtaking as Glacier.

glacierThis is Matt’s “office.”

7. What is the worst part of the job?

The worst part of the job is two-fold. For one, the hours can be very long, and we end up going fairly long stretches without much time off (for instance, 8 days in a row of 11 hour days). On a hot day in August, it can be tough to focus and give commentary to grumpy tourists asking the same five questions that you have heard for the past 3 months while you are sweating through your long pants and tie in 85 degree weather. It does get a bit repetitive, and as long as you are around the bus, you are always in the spotlight, always answering questions and acting as an ambassador for the park. Driving itself can be stressful on our narrow road with a wide and long bus. Right now the Sun Road is under heavy construction and that can provide us with a bit of stress, too. Every year there are broken mirrors and scrapes with the wall for many of the drivers, and it never ceases to be an embarrassing moment among both passengers and peers when one hits the wall. So far this year, I have been fortunate – although many drivers have had a run in with the wall.

8. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

Most people seem to think that this job is lucrative, and it is far from it. The job is definitely a labor of love, and if you do not enjoy it then it will be a miserable season for you. Between the heat, the long days, and some of the tour directors that we have to deal with on a daily basis, the job is not without its share of pains. We do get a fair bit of tips on occasion, but we are far from being able to retire at season’s end with our earnings.

9. What is the work /life balance like?

The work and life balance can be a hard one to juggle at times, and sometimes a social life has to get cut shorter than I would like.  An average day can consist of getting up at 7 in the morning and finishing anywhere between 6:30 and 8 that evening, after dropping off the guests, fueling, and washing the bus. After a few days in a row of that schedule it can leave little time and energy for social pursuits, but you learn to manage your time and are still able to enjoy your time off without putting yourself in too bad a way for work the next morning. The park is an outdoorsman’s and photographer’s paradise, and most of my days off are full of hiking around the over 750 miles of trail that we have in the park. Nothing is more stress reducing that spending a day getting to the top of a 9,500 or 10,000 ft peak with a few good friends and seeing some of the most amazing sights you could ever imagine seeing in a lifetime. I may not have had as much time off as I would like, but it is easy to maximize that time in a place like this.

10. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

I feel extremely blessed to be able to live the kind of lifestyle I am right now, and coming up here was one of the best decisions that I could have ever made for my life. After even just a few short months of the rat race in New York City, I knew that it was something that I was not quite prepared for, and getting out of it to a place like this was exactly what I needed. I don’t intend on traveling like this for the rest of my life but I think that it is important to not be afraid to think outside of the box if you are not sure what you what to do or where you want to end up. I have so many friends who left school only to get tied down to a desk job that they don’t enjoy. They always mention how they envy me for going out and doing something different, and they wish they could do the same. The fact is, it is as easy as putting yourself out there and looking around – that was all it took to end up in one of the greatest places and jobs in the world. So if you are thinking about doing something like this, just stop thinking and do it. It is never too early or too late to try something new and great.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jonny | thelifething.com October 1, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Dude nice. Not a job I would necessarily follow but you seem to love it so I wish you all the best. Ignore grumpy tourist, they are all grumpy. I think it is something in the water.

2 Ryan October 1, 2009 at 6:33 pm

This is a fantastic post. The “So You Want My Job” series is such a great idea and an aspect of this blog that I so enjoy and look forward to.

Thanks.

3 Mary October 1, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I’m not a man, but I used to be a Jammer as well! 1997! Best job I ever had in my life. :)

4 CEOmum October 3, 2009 at 9:50 am

Oh if I were younger. I love you made it clear that women are Jammers too Mary.

5 Andy October 8, 2009 at 1:57 pm

This young man sounds like he’s living an interesting life.

6 herbes October 9, 2009 at 6:26 am

I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

7 Dave Eglsaer October 29, 2009 at 1:28 pm

I love the article and agree with everything about loving what you do. As Matt’s boss in Glacier however, I will have to remember a few of the comments about long hours when he comes back up here next summer.

8 Melissa Fouch February 9, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I worked as a housekeeper at the Many Glacier Hotel for two Summers in college (’91 & ’92) and it was the most magical experience ever. I loved the Jammers and it was always fun to hang out with them at their dorm. Some of them were musicians and they’d sing and play guitar for us. This article makes me realize its time to plan a trip back to see the Weeping Wall on the Going To The Sun Highway. Aaaaaaaaah, sweet sweet Glacier!

9 Elmer Gaudet March 22, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Excellent article! I too was a 21 year old jammer in 1959 during dental school driving Red Bus #84. The manager of transport was Lyle McMullin,a fine gentleman. This was truely a magical time and the most fantastic summer of my life. I am excited about returning to Glacier September 8,9&10, 2010 to the Gearjammers reunion at East Glacier Lodge to celebrate the 100th year of Glacier and the 1959 jammers 51 reunion. I have traveled worldwide and I have not seen anyplace more beautiful than Glacier. I too had the oportunity to hike the beautiful backcountry. I highly recommend if you can get a jammer job, take it. It will be the best experience of your lifetime. My favorite drive was Going to the Sun Highway. Too bad we can not live on Logan Pass. I did scrape my bus on the hairpin turn some 6 miles out of Lake McDonald heading east on Goint to the Sun.
Elmer

10 Elmer Gaudet March 22, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I forgot to mention the Glacier National Park Gearjammer reunion is for ALL jammers from all years. Check the website http://www.glacierjammers.com for information and to register.

11 Bill Schuler April 12, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I was a Jammer for 5 Seasons throughout the 1980′s. Some of the guys I trained are still working there My Ride was #91, not a great cruiser on the flats but she could really pull on the hills, The Chevy engines and tranies seemed to work that way. I would still be doing it if I could afford it. I am luckier than most. During the summer months I work as a tour director. I generally get into Glacier several times each summer. A lot of the guys that have driven never get back. I do miss the old days before the conversion. I spent a few weeks in 1990 driving the connverted buses. That, by the way was the first conversion to a modern frame, not the one done by Ford. That was when the corrosion problems started. That first conversion was so badly concieved and the workmanship so poor that we almost lost them perminantly. I am really looking forward to the Jammer reunion. No matter when you worked there you are part of a very exclusive fraternity.

12 Jason Wood April 18, 2010 at 11:54 am

The summer of `80 will go down in the book of my life as one of the best ever. That was the summer I headed west from Massachusetts where I was going to college (UMass Amherst) to work as a Jammer at Glacier. #104 was my ride. I used to keep a sleeping bag in the back luggage area of the bus so if the snoring got too loud in the bunkhouses, I could crash there. Bob Steele was the transportation coordinator that year – the greatest guy ever. He loved fishing. When asked, “hey Bob, what’s the best way to clean these trout”?, he’d reply, “ya just stick a knife in the ol @#!hole and go north!” So many great Glacier memories from that summer… toga parties included ;-) Would love to reconnect with other fellow Jammers from 1980, especially Annie who I think was the first woman Jammer ever and who I was crazy about but it took me all summer to realize it and then I let her get away. Damn!

13 PJK August 5, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Jason:

Man up! Relive how real men lived in one summer. Come to the Jammer Reunion and see 1980 revisted!

http://glacierjammers.com/index.html

PJK #84

14 Doug #79 August 5, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Jason, Patrick and my other fellow 1980 Jammers – No kidding, that was one HECK of a summer, not to be duplicated! In that summer alone: Mt St Helens blew and we were coated wih ash, the year of the first woman jammer (Anne), and tragically, the grizzly mauling/killing of 2 of our fellow GNP employees in late July. I’m trying to figure out if I can somehow make it to the jammer reunion in September. Undoubtedly one of the best times of my life! If I could do it, I’d love to do it again. Doug #79

15 Dale Nothey November 17, 2012 at 9:24 am

I am semi retired and have always wanted to go to Glacier and be Red Jammer driver, can anyone tell me the pay scale and how much you can save for a full season.

16 Owen Cole December 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I really do enjoy reading this section I’ve stumbled across. Im a 14 year old kid and it is very insightful towards where my future career might take me.

17 Natalie Barley August 6, 2013 at 9:27 pm

We were the customers on the red bus in June. I was wondering what the bus drivers were doing for living the rest of the year to match the season. Thanks for letting us know the hard work and know more about the red jammers’ job. We enjoyed the ride!

18 justin October 10, 2013 at 7:06 pm

eight 11 hour days?

y;all dont have to obey the same hour limits as truckers?

70 hours in 8 days?

19 Ian B. Tippet April 20, 2014 at 3:30 am

For nigh on 40 summer seasons I was the Personnel Director for GPCo/GPInc., in Glacier National Park Montana – as well as running one of the historic Lodges there in Summers etc ec. There was something “kind of special” in those days when the majority of the Bus Driver/Tour Guides were College Students (they had to be 21 or over to qualify for the License) . Jammer to Guest Relationships were Great.

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