I drive across the country a lot these days, visiting family and friends and doing a little work travel too. When I’m not spending the night with friends or family, I always find a state park where I can camp. In the last two years I’ve camped at state parks in Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, and West Virginia, and every one has been a great experience. (Utah was a different experience because there’s so much BLM land, you don’t even have to find a park, just a piece of BLM land where you can set up camp!)
Every now and then it really hits me (and today was one of those days) – not only how awesome it is that we even have state (and national) parks to visit, but how great it is that people help maintain them and keep them safe, AND even help foster the little communities that pop up because of them. (If you’ve seen Nomadland you might have gotten a glimpse of how temporary/mobile communities pop up and people look out for each other even though they’ve just met).
The community that I’ve felt at state parks is great – sometimes built by the staff, locals, volunteers, long-time campers, or just by the people passing through, enjoying their time in nature. It’s experiences like these that have reinforced over and over again for me that most people are decent people and even would lend others a hand – and some people even go out of their way to help out strangers and make this world a better place for all of us.
For example, there’s the biology teacher and mountain biker who frequents Palo Duro Canyon State Park and keeps the mountain bike trails clean and safe – in his free time. Even when the park hired a company to do it, he would still go out and help. My encounter with him was an auspicious one.
I was hiking on a windy trail when a mountain biker came around the bend, hopping off her bike, clearly startled and breathing hard. I asked her if everything was ok, and she said that she had just ridden over a rattlesnake! As she was telling me this, another mountain biker pulled up behind us. While she and I pulled out our cameras and carefully rounded the bend to get a glimpse of the snake (and video proof), the other guy dismounted and started walking around looking for a stick. Afraid for the guy’s safety and feeling like that stick was WAY too short, I raised my concerns. He responded saying, “I’m a herpetologist.” As my brain registered his words, I couldn’t believe it. The day that I encounter a rattlesnake on a trail, I also happen to encounter a herpetologist at the same time!??
“You said herpetologist? Like someone who studies snakes?” I said in disbelief. “…and other reptiles and amphibians,” he responded. I approached him cautiously while he slowly and gently prodded the snake so it would move off the trail. Once the snake was hidden in the bushes (but still rattling up a storm in fear, the poor thing!), I proceeded to ask a million questions. (He was also a biology teacher and in grad school had actually milked snakes in a lab and knew how to tell male from female! It would take whole separate blog to share all the cool things I learned about snakes that day.
But instead, I want to tell you about my most recent encounter with another good-hearted state park volunteer, this time in the swamps of Louisiana.
This was my third time at this park, and I have always loved it. As you can imagine, it is extremely humid (think 100% humidity at night) and buggy in the summer – it is a swamp afterall. But it’s a quiet spot, and the night sounds of the swamp animals* sing me to sleep. (*Bugs and frogs? I don’t actually know what is in the swamp making those sounds, but I love the music!)
Since I had trouble reserving a site online I planned to pay upon leaving just like I had done the last two times. The website indicated that none of the sites were reserved so I should be able to have my pick of campsites!
I arrived past dark and there was not a single other person in the tent camping loop! I love a quiet camping spot, having my choice of sites, not being worried about disturbing anyone else, and enjoying those nature sounds without having to hear generators or car doors or other pesky human sounds. I quickly set up my tent and was surprised that the bugs weren’t quite as bad as I had expected.
But then when I tried to close my tent window, the zipper broke. Now I couldn’t close my tent window/door to keep the bugs out. As much as I’d love to just sleep with my tent open, I didn’t want to be a feast or an amusement park for the bugs that night.
Then I remembered that I had seen these yurts interspersed in the campsite. Once before I had peeked inside one of them and they had a bed and even a toilet! GLAMPING in the swamp. I had a plan B.
I walked over to the closest yurt, bent down to unzip it, and found it locked up tight. Dang. I could sleep under the stars in long sleeves and just hope not to be eaten by mosquitos. I could sleep in my car and sweat all night.
I could walk around to all the yurts and see if one happened to unlocked.
I checked them all, one by one, and I was about to give up when I found one open! Another auspicious camping day for me! I threw my sleeping bag on top of the bed and slept great!
In the morning two guys parked a noisy golf cart by my campsite as I was eating breakfast. “Good morning!” I greeted them. Their response was a little delayed and hesitant. Then the young guy asked if I had reserved the yurt. I explained that I hadn’t reserved it but planned to pay on my out of the park like I had done the past two times. I told him about my tent zipper malfunction and my unexpected stay in the yurt instead of my tent.
He got kind of agitated and began explaining that the yurts didn’t actually belong to the park but to a private company and that I had to reserve it online -and that since I hadn’t reserved it “I better leave right now”. I calmly reassured him that I was about to leave and that I was happy to pay for my unexpected stay. But that didn’t seem to calm him down, and he said gruffly that I better call and pay AND he added, “I’m going to make the circle and you had better not be here when come back around.”
I wasn’t used to running into people so stressed out at campsites, but I was feeling so peaceful that I just calmly moved myself over to a regular campsite to finish my breakfast and have my morning yoga. Afterwards, I heard the golf cart pull up again, but this time with only the older man and not the young, agitated guy.
“Hey there!” I greeted him again. “Hi! I just wanted to apologize about interaction earlier,” he said. “I don’t like the way he spoke to you. And I don’t want that to be a reflection on the park. He’s not with the park; he’s with a company in New York. We’re not like that here. You’re on a park site now, and you just take your time and enjoy yourself,” he added.
Now that just warmed my heart! I couldn’t believe this guy took time to come try to make me feel welcome! This was the kind of people I was used to encountering at parks! A skinny older man with long grey hair, he was a retired firefighter and he explained that he was the campsite host. I don’t know much about campsite hosts, but I have seen them in the parks and I understand that they are park visitors that stay for a while and kind of keep an eye on things.
He explained how he got to be camp host. When he retired in 2019 he and his wife bought a camper and did some traveling. They had stayed at this state park and really like it and were asked to be campsite hosts. They loved it so much they had been staying here for the last 4 months, even though they live just 14 miles down the road in a nice house on a few acres!
He commented on how he really loves the community – he meets so many people, even from other countries! (He had recently met folks from Germany, and others from Sweden.) As he headed off on his golf cart, I was left with such an appreciation for our parks and for all the volunteers, visitors, and staff who make them a welcoming place for whoever comes through.