“Man, you have the dream job! Can I have your life?” a girl said. We were in one of many pool clubs in Las Vegas.
“Haha, I know. I’m really lucky,” I said, scanning around for my passengers, making sure they were all happy, safe, and having a good time.
“So you just travel and have fun as a job!” I winced. Sure, in the photos it looks like all I’m doing is having fun, but there’s a lot more to being a tour guide than driving a bunch of tourists around and showing them a good time.
I have never seen or believed I would experience half the things I have this summer. I have never been so spoiled in my travels like I have this summer. I have never danced under no light but those of the stars and the moon, in the middle of a tribal nation, with a handful of other human beings. But… on the other hand, I have never been as exhausted as I had been these past 4 months, yet still had to maintain an insane level of enthusiasm. I existed on a task-by-task basis. Sometimes each day was just a giant checklist, a marathon, and the finish line bedtime.
Before a Tour
In the summer season, the schedules are always changing so typically we won’t know for sure what tour we’d be doing next until three days before the end of the current tour.
Once we know which tour we’re heading out on next, it’s time to start organizing! Headquarters (how cool does that sound?) would forward us a spreadsheet detailing the dates and prebooked accommodations of the trip. They usually did this for hotels, specific campsites we have agreements with, and holiday dates because, well, try booking a campsite on Labor Day Weekend 3 days in advance.
We would then book the remaining campsites—and hostels, if you’d rather—and reconfirm their previous bookings. I learned the importance of double-checking someone’s work this summer.
If it’s a place you’ve haven’t been to yet, you have to learn more about it so that you can describe and explain the place to your passengers. If it’s a place that you’ve been to, there’s always room to learn more about it. The best case scenario is knowing a place to the extent that you customize each visit to your passengers’ interests.
No matter how many times you’ve been to a place, you still have to plan a bit. To make it a unique experience, we often check to see if there are festivals or special events that coincide with the dates. Sometimes, like in Austin, there will be Pun-offs, ACL, countless live shows to go see. Gives tourists more of an idea what the vibe is in a city.
Though a lot of the itinerary is already pre-made, it’s technically still very general. The websites only detail where we’ll be that night and one major sight that we’d see that day but not specifics like that special something we have as a surprise for that night. Each leader does different things and that’s what makes them unique. Our personalities inevitably leak into the way we handle our tours.
During a Tour
6:00AM: wake up & breakfast prep
Sleep is not high on the list of what’s included with the job. On a typical night, I’ll get from 5-8 hours. In the beginning, I spent so much time with my passengers that I was getting 4 hours/night regularly, which is not sustainable at all. As time went on, I learned how to say no to the fun parties around the campfire and just turn in. After all, I was the one responsible for getting them to the next destination!
I’d wake up and do the typical morning rituals that we all do (some things don’t change). Afterwards, I’ll set the kettle onto the stove because no matter how much passengers want coffee in the morning, they never think to wake up early enough to boil the water!
Then, I’d turn into the van to do a pre-trip inspection—a P.T.I. for short. This meant checking the fluid levels and making sure nothing was leaking. In addition to that, I would spend some time in the van (while everyone’s packing up their tents, loading up the trailer, and having breakfast) finalizing my itinerary for the day and making sure that my paperwork is all up to date.
7:30: Leave camp
“Ok,” a passenger said with a look of dread on her face. We were sitting around the campfire at the end of a big hiking day, all drained yet completely happy. “Tell us. What time do we have to get up tomorrow?”
I smiled. “8:00.”
A sigh of relief passed through the group. 8:00 AM departure is actually considered late for me. Keep in mind that when I tell them 8:00 AM, I mean everything is packed in the trailer and ready to go by 8AM. Typically, that means that they’ll have to start getting ready around 6:30AM or 7:00AM if they’re speedy about it. Some groups, I have to fudge the departure time a lot, knowing that we’d actually leave 30-45 minutes after the time I gave them.
Between departure and lunch, I’d be driving, stopping every hour or so for bathroom breaks and gas station snacks. This gave me a chance to fuel up the van and myself with a spurt of caffeine. If it’s not a long drive day, during this time, I’d be able to have one scheduled sight/activity stop for them so that they didn’t get too bored in the van. On one of my trips, we were able to visit Salvation Mountain before a quick lunch stop.
Lunch had to be around 12-1PM because everyone, including me, would be hangry if it wasn’t. This usually meant getting the lunch coolers out and making a sandwich with some vegetables, fruits, or chips as a side.
6PM: campsite arrival & dinner prep
I usually liked arriving to the campsite pretty early. Earlier if we were in a city and heading out that night to enjoy the nightlife! This meant that we had at least 2 hours to set up camp and be able to cook while the sun was still up.
Usually, this gives me a chance to catch up on my work, like fixing up my accounts and keeping track of all my receipts. I’d stay in the van while they unloaded the trailer to see if my logbooks were all up to date and perfect. If it was a particularly long drive day, I’d tell them that I was going to take a quick little nap in the van.
For me, setting up camp either meant pulling in my sleeping bag and pillow from the trailer and putting it in the backseat of the van, where I would set up later that night. Or, if I was feeling a bit more open and social, I would string up my camping hammock between two trees.
Those who were on ROTA to cook dinner would cook while the others would hang out or take a shower. Though first days are especially exhausting for tour leaders, I chose to cook the passengers dinner because they’re exhausted and not used to it.
By this time, I would start to relax a bit, knowing that my duties would soon be over and I could just hang with my passengers as just friends and not as anything more. During this time, I usually liked to give the briefing for the next day—a little rundown of what they would need to bring, what we were going to see, get them hyped to wake up in the morning. Those that didn’t cook would then take away the dishes and utensils and clean them while those who did cook would lounge or go shower.
8:30/9PM: going out/campfire bonding
After giving my briefing, that signaled the end of my duties as a tour leader for that day. That’s why, even though I love what I do, waking up with a full checklist of things you have to get done before this moment is hard.
I would crack open a beer and plop myself in a chair around the campfire and swap stories, jokes, and advice with all my passengers. If I was running the tour in a popular area, there’s usually another tour group (and leader!) hanging around and we would merge groups. It’s during these moments where I look up at the stars, clearer than they’ve ever been before, and feel this gratitude emanating from me like warmth.
If we were in a city, we would just be gearing up to go enjoy a night out on the town!
After a Tour
Once I’ve dropped them off at a designated hotel and said our tearful goodbyes, I would drive off to the motel they put us up in and collapse in exhaustion, knowing that I’d be able to sleep in until 8 AM the next day.
Trip Reports & Financial Accounts
Within 24 hours of a trip ending, we have to submit a trip report as well as all the accounts that were used for the trip. Trip reports are basically there for you to communicate with management what problems you may have had or technical issues that might’ve gone wrong.
The accounts and receipts all need to be mailed back to headquarters so the finance department can make sure everything matches up.
Cleaning & Maintenance
In addition to making sure everything was there and accounted for, I’d have to clean the van, the trailer, and all the equipment to make sure it’s in top shape for yet another tour! This included intense vacuuming, carwashing, and shaking and checking out all of the tents.
Was this any different than you thought being a tour guide would be like? If yes, how so?