The best job in the world
With Labor Day approaching, one man feels his 'labor' hardly qualifies as work
Its a dirty job, but someones got to do it.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Michael Johnson spends five days a week in a lawn chair that serves as his tree-shaded office, next to a sparkling river, reading interesting books.
Sometimes hell take a little break from all that hard work to photograph his wildlife friends or chat with the occasional human visitor.
Officially, Johnsons job title is security guard. Unofficially, its a way for me to retire without actually being retired, said the former English teacher, who has masters degrees in education and English and a chartered property casualty underwriter designation from the Insurance Institute of America.
Im the most overeducated security guard youre ever going to meet, he said.
Its the kind of work Johnson dreamed of back in 1988, when he left his fast-paced, high-pressure job as corporate spokesperson for Transamerica in the Los Angeles area.
Nearing 50, Johnson wanted to slow down. When he and his family left Simi Valley, he told his 15-year-old daughter, Elyse, Im going to drive north and you tell me when you see a place youd like to live.
When they arrived in Portland, he says, Elyse took a look at Mount Hood and said, This is the place.
After moving to the Forest Grove area, Johnson and his wife, Shirley, got their main income from a stable they run and from the insurance underwriting done by Shirley. But they needed home-improvement cash so after a short-lived attempt to be an insurance agent, Johnson picked up the newspaper to scan the want ads.
I just need something to keep me busy but thats real easy, he thought, and would give me plenty of time to do what I want to do, which is continue my education.
At County Protection Service (now Spartan Security Services), Johnson patrolled everything from construction sites to stores, industrial plants and even the World Forestry Center. Then about eight years ago, his boss called him and said, I got this new account that you would love.
The city of Hillsboro needed someone to keep people away from its water-treatment plant in the Coast Range near the upper Tualatin River.
On his first trip to inspect his new workplace, Johnson couldnt believe his commute: Down a tree-shaded gravel road, along a small, sparkling river, past a beautiful waterfall.
The first several miles of the road are open to members of the public, who come to fish or hike or cool off on hot days or admire Lee Falls.
Occasionally, visitors wander farther up the road to the gate marking the beginning of Hillsboros property.
Johnsons job is to make sure those visitors dont go past the gate, partly because of liability concerns but mainly, he said, because plant workers dont want to be distracted by intruders.
In eight years, Johnson has encountered only a half dozen people who gave him any kind of trouble. Hes more likely to radio an alert when a tree falls over a power line or if someone injures themselves jumping into the river at Lee Falls or if a fire starts although he said hes put out several small fires on his own.
Shirley, now a teaching assistant at Poynter Middle School in Hillsboro, has visited her husbands work site. Its a very nice place to be, she said. Its very good for him.
Johnson is sure some people might get bored or lonely, but he loves the outdoors and reading.
On the job, he reads a couple books a week, he said, and loves biographies, having read a five-volume series on Thomas Jefferson and a three-volume series on Winston Churchill.
Among the books hes read so far this summer are Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, the Holy Quran, the Complete Idiots Guide to the U.S. Government, Unbroken and Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, Ulysses by James Joyce, Youre Not Even Close (a comparison of the economic performance of Democrats and Republicans since 1910), and a book on the philosopher Spinoza.
Because he spends most of his day reading quietly, Johnson gets rare glimpses of local wildlife and keeps his camera ready for such moments. Hes seen bobcats, bear, coyotes, elk and deer almost everything except a mountain lion. I know theres one up there because Ive seen a couple of kills, he said.
The weather doesnt bother him. If its too rainy, he reads in his truck. If its too hot, he visits a little stream that tumbles out of a side canyon into the river. Its like youre sitting next to an air conditioner, he said.
The only possible downside to the job, he said, is the pay. Its better than minimum wage but only a quarter to a third of what he used to make.
But hes not about to complain to his superiors, he admits: I would probably pay them to let me go do this.
My jobs better?