Monday, April 18, 2016

Musings on the hosting life

That title kind of makes it sound like we're harboring alien life forms or I've decided on a career as a surrogate mother despite my advanced age. Nope. I've just been thinking about the way one park can manage to get so much right and another one get so much wrong. Being campground hosts three times at Montauk State Park definitely ruined us for hosting at any other park that hasn't managed to corral its fecal matter as efficiently.

I probably should cut Johnson's Shut-Ins some slack. The guy who took care of the campground side of the park and dealt with the hosts changed jobs sometime between January and when we arrived. Maybe things would be different if he was still around. Or maybe not. Because if he supervised the campground side, then he would have been supervising the person who works in the check station (fee booth, campground gate house, whatever). Brief suck and stab on her: she's a really nice person, but, holy wah, she does some strange stuff. She's been working in that booth for a number of years now, and in the time it takes her to check in one camper, Brittany or Lori or the typical campground host at Montauk could get a dozen or more done. Whoever trained her either didn't know what he or she was doing or didn't care. It does not help that she is, and I quote, "very territorial about the check station." Translation: she doesn't want the hosts doing anything while she's in the booth. Doesn't matter how long the line is waiting to check in; Linda wants to do every step of the process, from asking the campers if they have reservations to handing them a campground map. Definitely different from Montauk where as one person would be chatting up the camper at the window, someone else would be assembling the bundle of goodies to hand the camper (park newspaper, campground map, flyer advertising the naturalist's talks, etc.). It definitely puzzled me, the intense desire to keep the hosts out of the check station, because it's not the direction the state parks system as a whole seems to want to move. They recently scheduled a training rally for campground hosts that focused specifically on how the registration system works so obviously this is an area where they'd like to see hosts helping. Apparently Johnson's Shut-Ins hasn't gotten that message yet.

But inefficiencies in the check station are a minor quibble even if they're symptomatic of larger problems. As long as the park is happy with Linda's work -- it is getting done, after all, without any egregious errors; she's just doing it in a way that would drive Frederick Taylor crazy. And how the check station does or does not function has little to do with why we're not too thrilled with Johnson's Shut-Ins.

I've already mentioned the fact the campground is an electronic dead zone. No cell service in most of it, although if you're a horse you might be in luck. When you get down to the end of Loop 1, more or less in the parking lot for the equestrian trail head, multiple bars occasionally appear on some cell phones. This bothers me -- several times while we were at Montauk emergencies serious enough to require an ambulance occurred, which were no problem because there was decent cell service there, but how do you call for an ambulance quickly in a dead zone when the nearest land line phone is several hundred yards away in a locked building? I mentioned this to the other hosts at Johnson's and they reported that there is a connection at their host site for a land line, but there currently is no active phone with it. Apparently a previous host had insisted on its installation, but the park management decided that if that phone is turned on, it will be configured in such a way that every time someone tried calling the park after hours, all calls would be forwarded to that number instead of to voice mail. Holy wah. Instead of realizing that having a reliable phone for the hosts to use to call out would be a really good idea in a pit where cell phones don't work, the park administration decided that it made more sense to set it up in a way that guaranteed hosts would want it turned off. Once again, someone has heard the challenge implicit in "how stupid can you get?" and decided to provide a demonstration.

But the phone thing was a recent discovery. The disillusion with Johnson's actually began on Day 1, March 31, when we arrived at the park a day early so there'd be plenty of time for an orientation. Except there was no orientation. The park superintendent (although that's apparently not his title on paper) dropped by the host's site very briefly, dropped off a 3-ring binder that included a key ring, suggested we read it, and said he'd be back the next morning at 9 a.m. On April 1, the other host showed up at 9 and said Jeff (the superintendent) would be there shortly. We got told what the keys would open, a maintenance person showed up with a radio, and then Jeff told us to work out a schedule with the other host and that was that. No orientation whatsoever to the park, no mention of who to contact if something bizarre happens after normal business hours, no description of our specific duties. He left a stack of paperwork for us and said he'd be back the following day to pick up the forms we needed to sign.

One week later we got tired of waiting to see Jeff again and took the golf cart down to the River Center where the park offices are located on the day use side and brought the paperwork to him. Part of me wonders if he ever would have noticed that those forms hadn't been filled out. Maybe we should have just waited until our last week and just turned them in with our time sheets? The contrast with Montauk was stunning. On our first day there, we got a complete tour of the park, a thorough explanation of what was where, a sheet showing the work schedules for the month for park staff, a separate schedule for the law enforcement ranger's days on and off, and were told that both the superintendent and assistant superintendent lived in the park and so were reachable after the office closed for the day. And when I say tour, I mean tour. It wasn't just the campground -- it was the entire park.

In any case, we worked out a schedule with the other host that worked for both couples, and that was basically that. We found out we had to share the golf cart and the pickup truck so agreed to do the hand-off the evening before our days off started so that the person who was about to enjoy some time off could sleep in. The first time we actually did that hand-off, the other hosts explained what was involved in selling firewood and ice. If we sold anything, we were to bring the money to the check station the next time it was open. And that was basically that.

The other hosts signed up for 3 solid months and started in March. I have no idea how much of an orientation they got, but they do seem to be more focused on peddling firewood to the campers than on doing things like checking sites when campers leave to make sure there are no problems (trash in the fire ring, forgotten items like grills or chairs). Maybe they got told when they started at the beginning of March that they should load up the golf cart or truck with firewood and cruise the loops actively peddling the stuff; Jeff didn't mention it to us other than saying the hosts sell firewood and ice when the campground store is closed. Having experienced the Valley of 10,000 Smokes at Montauk, we figure that if people want firewood, they'll come looking for it. We have had firewood customers, but the demand doesn't seem to be high enough to merit turning into peddlers. This is the other hosts' first time volunteering at a Missouri state park so they have no basis for comparison. If they had a lousy orientation, they don't know it.

Of course, it turned out that firewood and ice weren't the only things we were expected to collect money for. We also sell campsites. If someone comes in as a walk-in after the check station closes, we collect the payment for the site they select -- cash or check only, of course. There have been a number of people who came in after the check station closed (5 days a week it's only open from 3 to 6), stayed for one night, and left long before the check station opened again. I wound up selling a campsite or two at Montauk, but it was a remarkably rare occurrence. The coverage there between the park office and the fee booth was so good that it wasn't something hosts had to deal with very often. At Johnson's it happens all the time. I don't know what their summer hours are, but I sincerely hope they're less weird for Saturdays once it gets to be May than they are now. This past Saturday was a gorgeous, gorgeous day; the check station closed at noon. Granted, the park is one that's 100% advance reservations so maybe during the busiest season they don't need the check station to be open because everything is already sold out, but it still seems weird that the hours are 8 a.m. to noon.

Then again, there are many odd things about Johnson's Shut-Ins. The park naturalist was scheduled to give a talk Saturday evening; there was no notice up at the check station advertising it and there were no flyers to hand out as campers arrived. The naturalist also did not bother informing the campground hosts she had the talk scheduled nor was it advertised on the bulletin boards at the showerhouses. If it wasn't being advertised, how much of a surprise would it be if when she arrived at the location, there was no one there to hear it? I had a camper ask me a few days ago about church services in the area. He wanted to know about a specific denomination. I had no clue, of course, not being from the area, but it struck me as being the type of general area information that's usually available at the check station. Nope. There is no list of local churches, how far away they are, or what times services are.

What about other common questions, like alternatives if the campground is full? No list of those either. I have no doubt Linda can rattle them all off without thinking twice (she's from the local area), but that doesn't help the hosts any when the check station is closed. We were able to tell some tent campers about a nearby commercial campground only because we've driven past it and know it exists. We couldn't accommodate them at Johnson's because there was only one basic site left and they had 11 people in their group. The other hosts told us they'd probably refer tent campers to Taum Sauk Mountain, which apparently has tent sites, but didn't realize that a private campground just a couple miles up Highway N existed. Nor did they know that Johnson's might actually be closer to a couple of Forest Service campgrounds than it is to Taum Sauk Mountain when you're driving. In contrast, Montauk had a list of campgrounds that included geographic distance and phone numbers so people could call ahead to see if they still had space. Once again, stuff like having the information on hand to answer questions like churches, other campgrounds, and grocery stores individually falls into the category of a minor quibble, but a whole lot of minor quibbles add up to one huge one. 

Bottom line: Johnson's Shut-Ins is a lovely park, I'd cheerfully recommend it to anyone looking for a place to camp for a few days (just try not to have a cardiac event while you're there), but it's now off our list of places where we're willing to be campground hosts.


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