Marooned in the Bells
Everyone retires, some just don’t stop working.A handful of these folks can be found toiling about U.S. Forest Service public areas and local campgrounds; they’re the friendly faces that pop out of RV doors to point you to your campsite, sell you a bundle of firewood or offer you advice about nearby trails.The Aspen Times Weekly recently paid a visit to the Maroon Bells and Difficult Campground to find out what life as a camp host is really all about.
Irv Rabinowitz and Ruth Schooler are homeless – and loving it.The couple met 15 years ago on a Sierra Club hike near Las Vegas and, looking for a life of adventure and simplicity, took to the road full time in 2004.Everything they own fits in a modest, 23-foot RV and the sedan they tow behind it; this summer, they’re parked near Maroon Lake at the base of the Maroon Bells.Rabinowitz, a native New Yorker, is a retired chemist for Pepsi. And since Schooler quit her job as a prison psychologist three years ago, the two have been “full-timing” – or living year-round in their RV.”We’ve been all over the country,” Schooler said.It was an easy decision for the pair to make. Schooler said they looked at retirement and said, “Now what do we do? You can’t just twiddle your thumbs. You gotta stay busy.”Their mobile life is first and foremost economical, with their volunteer work earning them free hookups most places they go. They’ve also found multiple-month stays all over the States, from Arizona to Idaho to California.Schooler, who was raised in a military family and lived in Okinawa, Japan, Korea and the Philippines before marrying a military man for more years of wandering, is used to the itinerant life.”We’ve been a lot of places, but this is probably the most beautiful,” Schooler said of their perch in the Bells.In winter, Schooler and Rabinowitz go south. But not just anywhere; Rabinowitz said the pair is selective, looking for places where they can meet people, learn something new and explore nature.”We heard about this place and we were lucky enough to get a space,” Schooler said while taking in a panoramic view of the Maroon Bells from a cozy lawn chair. “People back East would spend a lot of money to come out here and look of what we do.”The pair belong to the Escapees (www.escapees.com), an online RV club and support network, and use the Internet to find volunteer opportunities and affordable lease spaces.”The Internet is almost crucial for this kind of lifestyle,” Schooler said.While on the road, Rabinowitz will sometimes pick up work teaching chemistry at community colleges, and both make regular visits to their extended families.”We intend to keep going until our [RV] falls apart or we fall apart. Hopefully they happen simultaneously,” Rabinowitz said.”Wherever this is, is our home,” Schooler said, pointing to their RV, which is considered small for full-timers. But the couple has pared their lives down to just the essentials; the compact trailer is immaculate, with a cozy sleeping area above the cab of the vehicle, an efficient kitchen with propane-powered stove and refrigerator, and an inviting sitting area with a table full of books, magazines, their all-important laptop and a TV with VCR/DVD player.”Everything we have is in these two vehicles and in various banks and retirement funds,” Rabinowitz said. “We’ve got all the comforts of home, just in a smaller space.””We don’t really lack anything. We don’t get TV; that’s a blessing,” Schooler said, but with on-site solar electricity (and a generator for backup), the pair can check out DVDs from the library or listen to NPR.But the endless stream of visitors to the Bells is the real attraction.”It’s fun meeting all the new people,” Schooler said.Schooler sometimes does yoga at the Aspen senior center, and they both take day hikes around the Bells or elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Their unique pied-à-terre affords Schooler and Rabinowitz the chance to be in nature while enjoying the convenience of nearby Aspen, with its cultural offerings and nuts-and-bolts necessities like grocery stores, library and Laundromat, the couple said.And their rent: Three days on and three days off caretaking the Maroon Bells public areas, which means everything from scrubbing public restrooms daily to weed-whacking, mowing and light maintenance.”We’re not punching any clocks here. If something needs done, we just do it,” Rabinowitz said.Rabinowitz said that without the some 20,000 nationwide volunteers on public lands, there wouldn’t be as many facilities.”We feel we’re making a contribution,” Rabinowitz said.”We enjoy it. They never overwork us. They always treat us well. They need us, and we need them. It’s a very symbiotic relationship,” Rabinowitz said.>”I think [our children and grandchildren] think we’re nuts,” Schooler said.”They never understood us when they were kids, and they don’t understand us now,” Rabinowitz added. But both make regular visits to their respective children – Schooler has three and Rabinowitz has two scattered across the U.S. – and they send digital pictures of their travels and communicate via e-mail.Life on the road is not without its challenges, of course. But Schooler and Rabinowitz find no stress living in tight quarters. “We just kind of accept our differences. We give each other space,” Rabinowitz said.Rabinowitz is the problem-solver – “I’ll either figure it out or break it.” Schooler does all the online work – “The hardest part of this lifestyle is to decide where to go next.”But like most things in their now-simple life, Schooler and Rabinowitz try to just roll with it.”We’ll see what turns up. You don’t want to plan too far ahead,” Rabinowitz said.
Schooler and Rabinowitz share their caretaking duties with David and Billie Lillie, who stay in an adjacent campsite and are spending their fourth year at 9,000 feet.RV-living is David’s blood; his parents packed up and went mobile in an Airstream trailer during their retirement, and both of David’s children have taken to the road, he said.Billie, a native of Philadelphia, and David, who grew up in Iowa and Nebraska, have been married 23 years, with two children each from former marriages.And while the couple maintains a home in Denver, they’ve been traveling in their RV for the bulk of the years since 2003. They enjoy making new friends, and say RV people are their community; Billie remembers their first time setting up in Florida and the neighbors popping by with food.Their plan: “Go as long as our health allows,” David said.Both retired psychoanalysts, the couple’s skills come in handy when greeting people and handling any problems around the campground. In fact, Billie remembers distinctly helping a young man whose friend died in a tragic fall at the Bells last summer.But the Lillies are not necessarily there to work, but to enjoy life in the outdoors.
“We’re living our dream,” Billie said. “What other town offers as much as Aspen?”The Lillies hike, fish and enjoy the summer music in town. This summer they plan to volunteer to earn free tickets to the Aspen Music Festival, as well as take in some Theatre Aspen plays. “There’s a lot of opportunities like that in this area,” Billie said.But more than that, the Lillies like living simply out in nature.”We discovered we really could get by with a little,” David said, quoting his son who is fond of saying, “If you buy something, you’ve got to get rid of something.”And if they need anything, the Lillies hit a local thrift store. (They recently found the required white shirts and black trousers for their volunteer gig at the Thrift Shop in Aspen.)”This is really the way we afford to be out like this. … And no matter how much money you spend on a hotel you never get this,” Dave said, surveying the steep talus slope leading to the high ridges of the Maroon Bells that surround them.”We love it here. … We could never afford to live in Aspen,” Billie said, but volunteering gives them “just enough” to be able to spend summers in the area.
“When it gets really rainy, that’s when we hit the movie theater,” Billie said.”I don’t think we’ll ever not work here,” Billie said, adding that Forest Service officials are great bosses.The daily work is hard, but the pair called it “kind of fun.” They’re also doing small improvements projects here and there, such as hanging posters in the public bathrooms and painting restroom doors.The Forest Service staff provides them with a small red truck – called the “mule” – to make their rounds.”It gets pretty busy,” Billie said. But the couple gets what Dave called “vicarious pleasure” from the many visitors awed by the stunning scenery. “People take good care of and respect the Bells,” Billie said. The Lillies usually only have to pick up the “incidental trash” that falls out of people’s pockets, not cigarette butts like in other campgrounds. And Billie was almost excited when talking about finding her first chopstick recently.And while there are no major bear troubles at the campsite, the Lillies have cordoned off the base of their trailer with chicken wire to keep porcupines from gnawing at their home.”Sometimes we can’t believe our good fortune,” Billie said about summers in the Bells and their hope to return year after year.But like all travelers, the Lillies hold one pipe dream: a real-deal African photo safari.
Flags from Colorado and Texas as well as an American flag adorn the door of the tidiest campsite in the valley.With an outdoor shaded breezeway complete with woven plastic matting, a table covered in an American flag and surrounded by flowerpots, Angie and Don Fry have it wired at their host site at Difficult Campground east of Aspen.And while volunteers at the Bells work for the U.S. Forest Service, the Frys work for Thousand Trails Management Co., the Forest Service’s private subcontractor. As such, they earn an hourly wage on top of the free hookups for their summer in Aspen.The Frys have been camp hosting for six years and are in their first year at Difficult. They head for the mountains to escape the summer heat on the Front Range. But that’s not the only reason they go by RV.
“We meet a lot of people,” Angie said, and that’s what she likes most about the job of checking in campers (the only drawback being when folks don’t pay their fees, which is a rarity).Originally from Texas, the couple moved to Colorado in 1984. And when they retired in 1994 – Don from work with industrial engines and Angie from a job as an office manager in the medical field – they bought a Laundromat in Leadville where they met lots of campers and camp hosts. A seed was planted.”It’s a good life,” Don said of summers in the mountains. And after a few years spent at very rural campsites without hookups, he called Difficult the “full package” – complete with electricity and a designated phone line where they can be reached.Angie does most of the paperwork, and Don spends his days tidying 32 campsites, checking fire pits and cleaning bathrooms.”I’m retired, but I’m not ready to stop working,” Don said, adding that he picks up regular work delivering new cars for an auto dealer in Greeley during the winter.”My husband’s a real ‘Type A’ personality,” Angie said with a smile, surveying their spotless campsite.The pair work about five hours per day, five days a week; they also work on-and-off hours helping campers check in.
“We’ve met a lot of fine people doing this, and it keeps us healthy,” Don said.”We want to see a lot of Aspen – and there’s a lot to see,” Don said. And though they once lived nearby in Leadville, he admitted they rarely made the drive over Independence Pass and are thus enjoying exploring towns like Redstone and Marble or going up to the Maroon Bells.Angie reads and sews in her off hours, and the couple drives downvalley to do essentials like laundry. And Don, who as a Texan said he is more of a lake fisherman, plans to get out on Ruedi Reservoir to sink a plug or two.”We try to stay at a different campground every two years,” Don said. But never outside Colorado: “We still haven’t seen all of the state.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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The Roaring Fork Valley has, by-and-large, avoided the mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle infestations that have decimated parts of the state. However, a 2019 aerial survey showed the Roaring Fork watershed has an outbreak of Douglas-fir and western balsam beetles.