This couple is always on the move

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

SIBLEY — Phil and Susan Emmons live in the same home year-round, but the scenery outside their front door changes every three to four months.

Currently, the Emmonses front — and back — yard is a tract of land known as St. Catherine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Their home is a recreational vehicle.

The couple, retired educators originally from Stillville, Mo., is volunteering three days a week at the refuge in exchange for a full hook-up for their RV, in which they have traveled around the country for the past three years.

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“What we do is called workamping,” Susan Emmons said. “This is our first refuge. We worked at private campgrounds, and we worked at a leather retail shop in West Yellowstone.

“We worked on the coast of Maine; we’ve worked in New York, and our first workamping job was at an elk research facility in Oregon.”

Workampers are sometimes paid for their part-time or full-time services, but some, like Phil and Susan currently, simply volunteer their time in exchange for a place to stay and plug in their vehicle.

Phil has done carpentry work and handyman jobs around the refuge, and Susan has worked in the office one day a week. Both have also worked on sprucing up the refuge’s guest house, which is expected to be used for interns this summer.

“They don’t have a lot of people here to do a lot of things,” Susan said. “To get this house ready would have taken the guys off the work that they have to do that nobody else can, like bulldozing and welding the pens together to catch the wild pigs.”

In their days off, the couple has toured Mississippi and Louisiana, visiting antebellum homes and historic and nature sites.

“We’ve been to the Louisiana Prison Museum — that was interesting — we’re going to Vicksburg and back down to New Orleans to Laurel Plantation and to go on a swamp tour. And we’re going to Pilgrimage.”

The couple, who have been married almost 45 years, have been at St. Catherine Creek since Jan. 5 and will hit the road again March 20.

From here, they will head to Michigan to visit their son Brian’s family.

The workamping program is new for St. Catherine Creek, and the Emmonses are essentially a test couple.

“They’ve had local volunteers all along, but they haven’t had anyone come in and stay on the campsite like we are,” Phil said. “They’re interested in continuing the program, and after we get out of here, they’ll grade this road and put some gravel down for the (RV) pads. They’ll probably set up two or three sites down here.”

The couple first became interested in workamping when Susan retired, and when her husband retired a few years later they started considering it even more.

But it wasn’t until a friend died that Phil and his wife decided to hit the road.

“We’ve had (friends) our age become incapacitated and not be able to do anything,” Phil said. “About three and a half years ago a friend of Susan’s had (pancreatic cancer) and she finally said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this, we best be doing it while we still can.’”

Although they are from Missouri, the workampers’ are currently legal residents of South Dakota, a state that does not tax retirement income, has a 3 percent sales tax and no personal property taxes.

They travel to different camps for about three months at a time, and in between they visit Brian or their daughter Heather’s family, near St. Louis.

“I’m born and raised in this little burgh in Missouri. My dad and mother had a drugstore there. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do this, you’ll never leave,’” Susan said. “I was happy in that little burgh, but it’s changed a lot.

“I thought, ‘There’s nothing here.’ I was the last person from my immediate family to leave the town. It was a little traumatic because we’d been there for generations.”

But they haven’t regretted a moment of their decision, which has allowed them to see wolves in Yellowstone and the world’s highest tides at the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

And yet, the people of the Miss-Lou are some of the nicest the couple said they’ve ever met.

“I would recommend this to anyone who would want to come here,” Susan said. “It’s been nice. I haven’t met anybody that hasn’t had a smile on their face.”

The couple doesn’t know where the road will lead them after their Michigan trip is over — it’s the first time they’ve never had anything planned — but no matter where they go, Susan said they know they’ll find something interesting.

She said she’s always wanted to see foreign countries like Austria and Switzerland, but she’s been amazed at what she’s seen on her own home soil.

“I’m really starting to get into this,” she said. “There are so many wonderful places here in the United States. There’s always something interesting to see.”