Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Can you hear me now?

It doesn't look like a dead zone. It looks like a perfectly nice state park, Johnson's Shut-Ins, near Ironton, Missouri. But it's a dead zone. Turn on a cell phone and what do you see? Nada. Nothing. No bars whatsoever. It's like one of those spooky Verizon commercials from a few years ago.

We were not expecting much in the way of either the Internet or cell phone service when we arrived to start our month of campground hosting. After all, we've gone down this state park route before. Life at Montauk State Park demonstrated that wifi can be sporadic, coming and going on a whim. The busier a campground gets, the shakier the wifi turns. Too many users crowding too narrow a bandwidth. And we know that anytime you drop into a holler, a valley, a low spot between some hills, you're risking dropping into a dead zone. Cell phones are, after all, radios and radio operates by line of sight. We did not, however, expect Johnson's Shut-Ins to be quite as much of a black hole as it's turned out to be. It's rather disconcerting. It's so. . . .so. . . twentieth century! It's like we're trapped in the 1990s.

Other than that, it does seem to be a nice park. Its claim to fame is a natural feature, a section of the East Fork of the Black River that has "shut ins," a section of river bed where the water has carved pools, waterfalls, and what amount to natural water slides. It's extremely popular for wading and swimming in the summer. There's also a trail system for people who want to hike or bike, and there's apparently one section of the river close to the shut-ins that allows scuba diving. Why someone would want to scuba dive in a section of the Black River is a mystery to me, but maybe it'll make more sense after we've had a chance to tour the Visitor Center or to actually see the river. At this point, we haven't been over to that side of Highway N. We were on duty in the campground so were kind of limited in just how much exploring we could do. (And we are now on our days off, which we are wisely spending outside the park, back in civilization where the Internet still exists.)

The campground itself is a nice one. It's new -- less than 10 years old -- although the park itself has been around since 1955. The Missouri DNR had to build a new campground, as well as a new visitor center and a lot of other facilities, after a massive flood wiped just about everything out in December 2005. A huge pumped storage hydroelectric reservoir breached; close to 2 billion gallons of water came down the mountainside and went through the old campground, which was located easy walking distance to the shut-ins.

Oddly enough, the DNR decided that maybe putting the campground right back where it had been wouldn't be a particularly good idea. They built a totally new one that's at least 3 times the size of the old one and (to anyone who never saw the park before the flood) one that's probably a huge improvement over what got washed out. There are five loops: 1 set up for equestrian camping (the sites have water and electric), 1 that's full hook-ups (water, electric, sewer), 1 that's just water and electric, 1 basic (no hook-ups), and 1 walk-in loop that's really a walk-in loop: tent campers get to carry their stuff far enough from the parking lot that they can pretend they're doing old-fashioned backpacking out in the real woods. Of course, that illusion is probably easily shattered when the campground hosts go tooling by in the golf cart.

The S.O. riding Ol' Paint; the golf cart bucks and is trying to throw a shoe.
There are also half a dozen camping cabins: nicely rustic buildings that are furnished and will sleep six. The cabins come with a microwave, small fridge, and are air-conditioned but don't have plumbing. You have to bring your own bedding and kitchen supplies. They rent for $80 a night, which I tend to think is rather steep when you're going to have to walk several hundred feet to get to a lavatory in the middle of the night, but obviously other people don't mind. Every cabin was rented this past weekend.

Taum Sauk reservoir. The sucker is huge.
As for the RV sites, they're almost all so level that there isn't much work involved in setting up, especially for folks with newer rigs that have self-leveling systems and electric landing gear. Every loop in the equestrian area is a pull-through; the other loops with electricity each have several that are pull-throughs. They're nice. But, again oddly enough, I've already heard complaints from people who are unhappy about being forced to camp someplace that is not in a flood plain or located nanoseconds away from a disaster. Personally, having seen the reservoir from a distance (it looks like a giant spaceship landed on top of Profitt Mountain), I'm quite happy to be camped a couple miles away from where the water would go if that reservoir ever breached again. But maybe because there wasn't a massive loss of human life when it breached ten years ago the people who do the complaining figure it wouldn't be that bad if it breached again. They're conveniently forgetting the breach happened in December, not a time of year that's real popular for camping anywhere and especially at a campground located next to what amounts to a natural water park. If it had breached in July, they'd still be finding pieces of destroyed cars and RVs downstream.

I will say that after only a few days at the park, I'm happy with our site. There are two sets of campground hosts: Host 1 (us) gets to sit in Loop 1, the Equestrian loop (one reason the golf cart gets referred to as Ol' Paint). Horse camping  has not proven to be as popular as planners thought it might be. There is an equestrian trail, but it's "only" 14 miles long. A trail that would keep a person on a horse for at least half a day strikes me as more than long enough, but apparently not. You know how many horse campers were in the park during our first four days in the park? None. There were a couple campers in the loop, but they were overflow from the other loops, which were basically totally full. It was great. There are only ten camp sites and because the loop was planned to include horses, the sites are widely spaced. It was almost like having our own private campground. Definitely a nice change from the fishbowl at Montauk State Park. Not that Montauk was that bad, but it is nice being able to keep the blinds up and not feel like I'm living on a stage. And it was especially nice this morning. No other campers in the loop (the two who were there left Sunday afternoon), no one else wanting to get into the showerhouse. Lots of hot water (endless hot water!) and no worries about someone flushing a toilet and the water temperature changing dramatically, which did happen at Montauk because the showerhouse there is an older one.

It was also, I must say, rather nice this morning to be able to amble to the showerhouse in my bathrobe and bunny slippers (figuratively speaking; I was actually wearing Tevas). I know I saw ladies ambling to the showerhouse at Montauk who were dressed in the equivalent of flannel jammies but I never felt particularly comfortable doing it myself. No worries at Johnson's about an unwanted audience, at least not during the week.

The one thing I'm not too thrilled about is being tasked with selling firewood, ice, and camp sites when the camp store and check station are closed. I don't like handling money. And I don't like the idea that campers will know that we handle money. It's not huge amounts of money, but it's still enough to attract potential thieves. The having to handle money at our own camp site (it wouldn't bother me at all to work a register in a camp store or in the check station) is the main reason we've already decided we won't apply for Johnson's Shut-Ins for next year. We like the physical layout of the park; we're less than thrilled with the assigned duties even if in some ways they require a lot less work than what we did at Montauk last year. The life in a dead zone would be annoying but tolerable. But add in the handling money part and the park slips over the line into been there, done that, time to explore other places.


  1. Ya know, before cell phones and the internut I didn't miss them at all. The internut is pretty amazing in some ways though, like when you want to know something, like how to do something or fix something.

  2. sounds good and bad at same time..surprised the horse riders aren't more plentiful.

  3. Sounds like you and the S.O. have discovered a wonderful way to travel on the cheap.

  4. We just bought a Class C RV, used of course - 98. I see in your pictures a car behind your RV. We can't tow our car because it is an all wheel drive, but I see the car parked behind your unit in the picture. Do one of you drive the RV and the other drive the car?
    the Ol'Buzzard

  5. Sounds like a great park. Is there a land line for emergencies?


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