#28: The Tiger King of Black Rock and Other Strange Characters

Living in a campground – especially a short term stay one – means witnessing the many different types of people who arrive here.  As we are beginning to learn, each park has its own individual vibe which, in turn, attracts different clientele.  At Tugaloo we found the clientele to be rather middle of the road sorts: mostly working class, mostly families, mostly folks that came for the lake and didn’t care much for hiking or fitness but enjoyed the good cell service and cable TV.  Vogel, on the other hand, attracted a different group: lots of families, many of whom had been coming to Vogel for generations; lots of fitness fanatics; many families who were looking to escape wifi, TV, and cell service, and most of whom were somewhat higher income than those at Tugaloo.

Then there’s Black Rock Mountain.

Perhaps it’s the park’s isolated and somewhat ominous location at the top of a mountain peak, often hidden in the clouds.  Perhaps it’s the fact that novice hikers, or even intermediate hikers, are often deterred by the fact that everywhere is uphill and akin to cliff climbing rather than gentle hiking.  Perhaps it’s even the current pandemic that has turned the world upside down, shaken it around, and landed all the strange characters here.  Either way, we’ve seen some interesting folk here in the last few weeks.

Despite the “stay at home” order, our Governor has bizarrely insisted that campgrounds and trails should remain open and actively encouraged visitors to the park.  It’s baffling, but that’s southern politics and businessmen as politicians for you.  So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic where every other country in the world has shut down non-essential travel, and Georgia is vacation central.

There’s been significant frustration from all the volunteers and park staff surrounding this issue.  We have constant anxiety about the campers that are flooding into the park.  We are operating on a skeleton staff too.  Seasonal employees have not been allowed to return to work (and have been blocked from filing for unemployment – totally unfair) because of the stay at home order, many housekeepers have quit for fear of exposure, and we’re seeing summertime levels of park traffic.  The increased traffic amongst the madness has led to arrests at other parks of people intentionally coughing in rangers’ faces, and parks being temporarily shut down after being overrun by lunchtime.  Images from Cloudland Canyon showed over 130 cars lined up on the highway waiting to get in.

Our biggest fear, and that of our fellow hosts, is the campers and their refusal to adhere to social distancing guidelines.  I’ve had people walk right up to me, within a couple of feet, and start talking to me.  Even as I step backward away, they keep coming until I tell them to stop and step away from me.  It’s not a nice feeling – I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable but in this new world we have our health to think about.  I’ve also had one man walk straight up to Junior in his stroller, tickle him, then pick up his cracker and give it to him.  No matter how many signs are out, people don’t seem to care to obey – it’s business as usual for them.

We also had a camper staying for a week or so on one site that raised some issues.  After a few days, our fellow hosts remarked how they had seen no one come or go from the camper since its arrival and there was no water hooked up to the camper.  They raised the rather morbid but very possible point that the campers could be dead inside the camper and we wouldn’t know.  

So, out of concern for their wellbeing, one of the rangers went and knocked on the door.  The occupants refused to open the door, simply calling out from inside that they were ok, everything is ok, but that they didn’t want to open the door.  This was not comforting.  At the next meeting we raised concerns about the fact that these people could be sick and self-quarantining at the park.  But with no water hooked up to their camper they must be using the bathrooms – the same bathrooms we were cleaning everyday.  This raised our anxiety significantly, but with strict orders to remain open, we had no choice but continue on with our regular duties.

Another set of campers spent 2 days camping here from middle Georgia.  For their short stay here they packed 2 large SUVs full of – what I assume to be – everything they owned, and then spread it all out around their site upon arrival.  There were make-shift clotheslines with underwear and such pegged out, a tent with make-shift shelters built around it, and even a wooden rocking chair.  The two very large women occupying the site laid out for 2 days in skimpy bikinis at the front of their site waving to passersby.

There was also a family that came camping; a father and 3 children.  They were tent campers and occupied a site near Jesse and Kaci.  At 5am Jesse awoke to the sound of doors slamming and children screaming.  Concerned that it could be a bear or campers in danger, Jesse went to investigate.  Outside he found the father and the children running around their site with the fire smoking.  Jesse asked if everything was ok and the father told him that they were just cold.  So Jesse informed him that there’s a quiet time policy between 10pm and 7am so asked that they be considerate of people sleeping.

When Jesse got up a few hours later he saw that the family had left and their fire pit was now completely ablaze.  He also noticed that the door to the trash complex was wide open so he went close it.  Inside he found all of the family’s camping equipment; 4 chairs, blow up mattresses, sleeping bags, 4 person tent, camping stove – all of it brand new, the packaging in there too.  It seems the father, probably growing increasingly desperate having been stuck in the house with his kids for weeks, had attempted to take them camping.  It seems he likely didn’t know what he was doing at all and abandoned his venture – new equipment and all – before sunrise.  We all had a good chuckle at that, and Jesse got some free camping gear out of it.

Then the Tiger King arrived.

Of course, it wasn’t THE Tiger King (or Joe Exotic), he’s in prison.  But this guy could easily be from the same circus.  So we referred to him as Joe Exotic because we didn’t know his real name and it seemed to fit him well.

The first time I saw Joe Exotic he was out by his rig.  His rig was a large Discovery motorhome that looked like a decommissioned tour bus.  The thing was bigger than my last apartment.  It was an older model bearing a few small dents and rust spots here and there, but he seemed to take reasonable care of it.  The first time I saw him he was outside pressure washing the camper.  This is not unusual for RVers so I didn’t pay him much attention, just drove on by and went about my business.  

When I came back by, however, I had to stop.

He was around the side of his rig before and I had barely glanced in his direction.  This time though, he was out front pressure washing the gravel on the site next to him.  This bizarre act and his attire caught my attention.

He wore old brown leather cowboy boots – creased and scuffed from years of wear.  Between the boots and the black basketball shorts peeked his white, pencil-thin, smooth, veiny legs that seemed to get lost in the excess material from his oversized shorts.  On top he wore not just one, but two long sleeved acid-washed denim shirts.  The outer layer had the sleeves torn off and black lettering on the back referencing some motorcycle company or club in Florida.  On his head he wore a dusty brown felt cowboy hat over his straggly brown hair which was pulled back into a ponytail.  His approximate 5 day stubble and John Lennon-style glasses really finished off the look and, as I watched him standing there on the top of a mountain in the middle of a pandemic washing gravel I knew… this guy does a lot of cocaine.

He seemed pretty harmless, after all he wasn’t bothering anyone.  He certainly wasn’t achieving anything, but washing gravel wasn’t exactly a reason to be afraid of or angry at the guy, so we let him be.

A few days later I was talking to Jesse and Kaci, the other hosts, and it seems that Joe Exotic was getting a little lonely and was often seen roaming around with a leaf blower, blowing off campsites.  He had made several attempts to try and befriend Jesse – a bearded, tattooed, ex-military fella with a kind heart and a somewhat intimidating physique.  Jesse is a great guy with a wicked sense of humor and an easy-going attitude once you get to know him but – at least under current circumstances – he tends to vibrate on a high frequency and has a significant fear of getting sick.  So he doesn’t take kindly to being approached by random members of the public right now.  But, like us, they are stuck here until things open up again.

When Joe Exotic approached him for the 4th or 5th time and got too close, Jesse had stopped holding back and firmly told the guy to remain on his own site.  Joe failed to heed these warnings from Jesse and things escalated somewhat when Joe came over to Jesse’s site one day to tell him that he had unplugged the Christmas lights from the trading post in an effort to be helpful.  What Joe failed to consider is that his attempt to be helpful was causing more anxiety than good; he was walking around touching everything, breathing on everything.  Though he just wanted to be friends, he was going about it all the wrong way and at the totally wrong time.

So Jesse laid into him a little and told him to stop f****** touching everything and stay on his site.  Like a lost little puppy Joe apologized  profusely and returned to his site.  Jesse felt bad, but also didn’t at all because this guy was jeopardizing everyone.  This seemed to work fairly well and although he could still be found some days wandering around with a leaf blower, he mostly kept to his own site after that and out of trouble.

Until he found new ways to irritate Jesse and the other park staff.

One weekend we had a pretty big storm come through.  The storm swept across the south from West to East, dropping tornadoes as it went and killing dozens of people along the way.  The worst of the storm, and the worst threat for tornadoes, arrived in the dead of night around 2am.  Spring storms are pretty scary anyway, but at night, in a camper, on the side of a mountain?  That’s pretty darn scary.  So I stayed up that night watching the news in case there were reports of tornadoes in the area.

Around 2:45am Jesse and Kaci were awakened – not because of the powerful wind howling away and rocking the camper side to side – but rather because Joe Exotic was sounding a deafening air-horn from his camper, just 40 feet from Jesse and Kaci.  It seems that old Joe Exotic was up all night too, but probably for substance-related reasons, and decided to warn everyone that there was a storm.  Jesse did not find this amusing.  Furthermore, Joe called Jessica, the park manager, at 3am to tell her there was a storm coming.  Jessica, at home in bed, also did not find this amusing.

Tiger King only stayed a few more days after that.  I was a little sad when I saw his rig pulling out one day, knowing I likely wouldn’t see him again.  He was an odd character but had provided some entertainment for us through this dark time and, in other circumstances, I’d have loved to learned more about his story.  Jesse was delighted to see the back of him, of course, though I think he’ll miss him a little too.

We’re glad that we aren’t in the campground and don’t have to worry about possibly infected strangers coming up to our site and interacting with us.  I do miss people-watching and interacting with people from all walks of life.  A couple from New York has been staying for a few weeks now and told Jesse that they left out before the lockdown happened hoping to escape the madness.  I can’t help but wonder what compelled them to come to Georgia, how they feel about that decision now, whether they’d make the same decision again, and where they’re planning to go next.

There are many stories to be told in the campground, now more than ever.  I hope that when things calm down I’ll have a chance to hear some of them and maybe tell them.  For now, though, I’ll stick to my own campfire a little longer.

#26: From a Nightmare Comes a Dream

I don’t know exactly how many days it’s been since the “lockdown” began as we’ve not had to change much about our lifestyle.  Remembering social distancing when I do come into contact with people was a little difficult at first, but now I’m so acutely aware of people and the possibility that each one is sick so it’s impossible to forget. 

Otherwise things are pretty good.  I’m most anxious about it in the mornings when I know I have to head up to the campground to clean the bathroom.  There are 3 bathrooms here: 2 at the main campground (RVs and tents) and one at the lower “walk-in” sites (tent camping with no power or water on site).  On one of my first days here we had a meeting with the other hosts, the manager and assistant manager.  We talked about how to handle the current pandemic as it pertains to park duties, and who would have what duties.

Jessica is the park manager.  She’s a petite woman with a big heart and a big sense of humor.  She instantly seemed to be easy going and down to earth.  I had been anxious about management at the new park; camp hosting with an almost 2 year old can be challenging and doesn’t lend itself to a park with strict scheduling expectations of hosts.  I was relieved when I found a manager that was genuinely understanding and sympathetic to, not just our specific situation, but each team member – employee and volunteer alike – and the difficulties of navigating the pandemic from our perspective.  It was relieving to find that she was aware of it and cares about it.

So when we had our first meeting to discuss concerns and come up with solutions. Jessica took a minute to express her fears and anxiety.  She talked about seeing body bags on the streets on the news in Africa and her voice began to break. She talked about her husband and her daughters and the fear that they may get sick.  Her sincere compassion and eagerness to be truly good at her job – both on paper and in practice – makes her a wonderful person to work for both now and under normal circumstances.

So I agreed to clean the bathrooms at the walk-in sites to help ease the burden placed on Jesse and Kaci, the other campground hosts.  They’re a couple in their early 40s from Missouri and they’ve been covering the whole park for the lat month or two on their own.  By cleaning one bathroom block Monday through Friday it eases their burden a little and makes me feel less guilty.  

They’re great people too.  We’ve had them over a couple of times to hang out.  There’s enough space down here where we can sit our chairs a good 8-10 feet apart and just chat.  They’re fun, easy to talk to, and we have a lot of similar interests.  It’s nice to socialize from a safe distance in person and be distracted from all this for a little while.  It’s only been a couple of weeks but I already feel like we’ve made some solid friends here.

Aside from hosting, life is pretty good.  The weather has been beautiful so, when it’s quiet during the week, I’ve been taking Junior and Devon on some little hikes around the park where the trails are quiet. On a busy weekday we might encounter another person, but we’re able to pass at a safe distance.

Black Rock Lake trail.

We’ve come to love the lake trail.  It’s a good way to kill an hour or two on a beautiful day when the sun is warm on my skin but the mountain breeze is crisp.  It’s beautiful and peaceful down there.  The short, flat trail is easy, but the budding forest floor and the increasingly active wildlife provides plenty to enjoy for all of us.  Junior gets a real kick out of the two ducks and now quacks to coax them out of hiding, exclaiming “DUCKY” and laughing maniacally when they appear.  

The ducks of the lake have become friends that we visit often.
Devon resting in the sun on Turtle Rock.
The dam where we had a memorable day.

The grassy dam on the West end of the lake is a great spot to stop and let Junior run around chasing Devon, quacking at the ducks, and throwing rocks in the lake.  Earlier this week Chris picked up some pizza and came and met us on the dam where we sat in the sun, ate our dinner, then fed the crusts to the ducks.  It’ll remain a warm and happy memory from a time of darkness in human history.  It made me feel very lucky.

Junior running off into the sunset to find mischief on the dam.
Feeding the ducks with Papa.

Earlier this week Junior and I hiked the Tennessee Rock trail.  This fairly short hike will remain a favorite of mine in North Georgia.  It’s a somewhat unique trail in that in it’s short (approximately) 3 miles it traverses a variety of landscapes; starting as a dirt trail scaling the steep mountainside, tracing the narrow, rocky ridge of the park’s highest peak for a half mile, then dipping back into the canopy, winding through mossy mountain springs surrounded by mountain laurels, and passing through a 10,000 year old Appalachian Boulder field.  

The rocky ridge of the upper part of the Tennessee Rock trail.
The soft green spring grass is a beautiful sign that spring is arriving.
A poor picture of the 10,000 year old boulder field. It was almost dinner time and Junior was in no mood to wait for a photo shoot.

The views from the summit are spectacular; looking out to the North across a lush, fertile valley and onwards to the 80 miles of peaks in North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina. While spring is a little slower to make an appearance up here at 3,500 feet, the wild violets and seas of emerald ferns flooding the forest floor are early signs of the mountain awakening after a long, grey winter.  

The view from Tennessee Rock, enhanced by the perfectly timed appearance of a little yellow butterfly reminding us it’s spring.
Junior looking less than impressed – but he actually had a great time.
The wild violets that hug that speckle the trail in purple.

After a few hikes I saw how abundant the wild violets are here.  Their vibrant pops of purple hug the banks of the lake, surround the campsites, and speckle the grassy hillsides.  I decided to harvest a few one afternoon with Junior and used them to make a batch of homemade wild violet jelly.  Junior loves being outside and is equally fanatical about trying to help (even when he does more damage than good most of the time).  So this was an activity that combined two of his greatest loves and, even though he spent most of the time bringing me rocks and sticks instead of flowers or laughing at Devon rolling in the grass, we all had a lot of fun.  The jelly came out great and tastes like sweet spring in a jar.

Our haul of wild violets. Don’t worry – they were harvested responsibly and plenty were left over for the bees.
The violets have to be soaked in boiling water then steep for 24 hours. The violet tea ends up a beautiful, deep, bluish-purple color.
The finished product; homemade Wild Violet Jelly.

We’ve all enjoyed having Chris around more.  Even though it carries financial implications for him to be home, it sure makes family life a lot better.  On days when Chris is gone, Junior often spends his time walking around calling out “Papa!” And patting his leg like he’s calling a dog.  Junior awoke from a nap in a cranky mood a few days ago and, despite pulling out all our usual tricks, we couldn’t get him to calm down from his tantrum.  So we went outside onto the grassy hill and Chris and I threw a ball back and forth until Junior’s tantrum ceased and he joined in, giggling uncontrollably every time he threw the ball down the hill to me.

Junior goofing off with Papa on the tractor.
More fun with the tractors.

We’ve used our newfound time productively too.  Making use of our sunny, private site, we’ve planted a small container garden.  Soon we’ll have tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, cilantro, and basil – all a few feet from our door.

Chris and I have also spent a little time (mostly Chris) on a few “camper-improvement” projects adding a little storage for Junior’s clothes and our shoes.  This has freed the cupboard under Junior’s bed up to become a toy cupboard, though he now uses it as a reading-cave.  Devon has also taken to laying in the 4 foot deep cupboard, and Junior practically dies laughing at this and repeatedly slams the door then opens it again to see if Devon is still there.  

While there are days where I feel like a ball of anxiety from all this chaos in the world right now, I’ve found some fun and productive ways to silence it for a while and tune it all out.  Though there are many things that make this time seem like a living nightmare, I find that when I turn the news off and focus on what’s right in front of me I am at peace.  It’s those moments that make me wish that life this way would never end.

Our sweet, goofy, happy boy.

#23: A Plea for Action

The world has watched as, over the last few weeks, the outbreak of COVID-19 has grown to become a global pandemic.  For many like us, these are uncertain times that spark significant fear over what may be to come over the coming weeks.

We’ve all seen the warnings: wash your hands, distance yourself socially, stay home from work, schools and daycares are closed, and avoid all unnecessary travel.  For those who are adhering to those guidelines – I applaud you.  But unfortunately I’m not seeing that.

Here at Vogel State Park I watch everyday as more and more spring breakers pour into the campground.  I watch as children swarm the playground.  I watch as people line up outside the bath houses in the mornings.  I watch as people pour into the visitors center to check in, get maps, and buy firewood and souvenirs.  I am seeing car tags from Florida (by the dozens), Tennessee, North and South Carolina, nearby Georgia counties, and even from Wisconsin.  

I spoke to a camper this morning (from a safe distance) who said that they had planned to go to Disneyland for spring break but when Disneyland closed they decided to come here instead.

I think there is something that these people are fundamentally overlooking or ignoring.

Disneyland and other places are closing because we, as a country, need people to stay home right now.  That doesn’t mean that you should change your plans and find some other place to crowd.  It means that, if you have a home to stay at, then stay home.

For us, these crowds are extremely troubling.  We have no sticks and bricks home to go to.  We live in our camper – a <200 sq ft space in which we depend on campground hosting to have somewhere to stay.  To ensure our placement I must fulfill my daily hosting duties which includes cleaning the bathrooms that hundreds of campers are using daily.  I cannot opt out of this or we will lose our placement at this park and will have no other place to go.  Furthermore, with daycare closed, I am now required to do this with my 18 month old son with me full-time.

Sure, we are young and healthy and will likely overcome the illness should we contract it.  But if we do, in fact, contract COVID-19 we will be forced to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  I think (or I hope) it’s probable that the staff at the campground will be compassionate and allow us to stay during that time, if it should come to that.  But my husband is self-employed and if he doesn’t work then we have 0 income.  With little savings, a 2 week self-quarantine would leave us in significant financial turmoil.  We’re already facing significant financial turmoil as the markets continue to plummet and unemployment continues to rise as it is likely that, over the coming weeks, Chris’ customers will begin to cancel the home-improvement projects for which they had him scheduled.  So a 2 week quarantine would seriously diminish our chances of getting ahead of any future dry periods of work.

Aside from us, I worry about the other folks here at that park that are being placed at risk by the influx of spring breakers.  Most of the women in the visitor’s center are over 50 or 60 years old.  The other campground hosts here, and for the vast majority of state parks, are over 60 years old and therefore in the high-risk group.  The park cannot operate without us; as volunteers we are the only people responsible for maintaining the campground facilities and if we all decided to leave then it would place a massive burden on the park staff who have become like our family.

I understand that, particularly for families with young children, canceling spring break plans can be devastating. But I am urging people to consider the wider consequences of their actions. Overnight I watched the number of confirmed cases in Georgia jump from 197 to 287 and the death toll leap from 3 to 10; numbers which continue to grow by greater margins daily. I have watched the local stores empty of ALL toilet paper, canned goods, bread, meat, cleaning supplies, and now fresh produce.

I am NOT suggesting that this is a time to panic.  The stores will refill and officials are working to mitigate the effects of the shut downs on citizens.  There is simply no need to panic right now.

There is, however, a need to very strongly and carefully consider the impact that your actions will have on EVERYONE around you when you make the decision to leave your home.  Now is not a time to go on vacation, now is the time to collectively sacrifice for the most vulnerable in our society; the elderly, the immunocompromised, the low-income, and the self employed.  You may think that this is no big deal and that this will blow over – but that’s likely because you have little to lose in this situation.  For folks like us, there is so much at stake and we are surrounded by uncertainty.

So, while it may suck to have to abandon your spring break plans or let those cheap flight and hotel prices pass you by, please help your fellow humans who are dependent upon your responsible decision-making during such turbulent times.  By all means, get out and take a hike on a trail, or explore the great outdoors, but only if this can be done without visiting public areas where the risk of the spread of the virus is high.

We will all pull through this and one day look back on it and be glad that it’s over.  For now, though, let’s do what we can to help each other out.

Please share and encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to abandon all unessential travel plans.  Thanks!