Friday, April 29, 2016

Back in civilization?

Our month in the Dead Zone has ended. The way the on/off schedule worked out, we were off the last three days of April so we left Johnson's Shut-Ins yesterday. The park manager was at our site bright and early to pick up the 3-ring binder, keys, and radio so we were actually in Farmington well before 10 a.m. I was moderately amazed. We don't normally move quite that fast.

Of course, it helped that we'd done things like take down the patio lights and retract the awning a few days earlier. The weather forecast had called for possible thunderstorms while we'd be away from the park on our days off. We closed the awning then because we had no desire to come back and discover it had been shredded by high winds. It was probably a good move to keep it closed -- on Tuesday the park got hit by hail big enough to punch holes in two ceiling vent covers (time to invest in the metal ones Billy Cook recommended) and put a few dings in the car roof. If the awning had been out, the combination of high winds and large hail would have trashed it.

The awning is short by a foot or so now because winds ripped it while the previous owner had it. One of these days we'll get a replacement. I'd like to get a custom one -- one of the regulars at Montauk was a guy who had a Mizzou awning for his RV (he also had all the trim painted in the school colors). It struck me then that doing the proud alum thing and having the Michigan Tech logo on the awning would be kind of neat. The cost would be about the same as just ordering a regular replacement. The big drawback to doing that would be that then the rest of the Guppy wouldn't match. We'd have to have the stripes on it repainted so they'd be black and gold. That could involve more work or money than we're willing to invest. Maybe we should go with just an ordinary awning and stick with my original plan of getting a giant peel and stick guppy decal to slap on the driver's side of the beast. No repainting required, just the possibility of fielding questions from fellow campers who might be curious as to why there's a large picture of a fish on our motorhome.

But I digress. We're back in civilization, free again to see news clips of the Republicans calling each other names and to be bemused by the spectacle of one of the least likable humans on the planet picking a woman who makes the Wicked Witch of the West look warm and fuzzy in comparison to be his "running mate." And just what does Ted Cruz think he's running for other than "obscure footnote in history?" Trump's nomination seems inevitable at this point -- how do you stop a candidate who's managed to scoop up most of his party's delegates? I'll be honest: Trump scares me a lot less than Cruz does. Trump may be an egomaniac, but he's also pragmatic. He's not driven by religious ideology the way Cruz is.

As for the Democrats. . . Bernie seems to be adjusting to reality. His campaign staff is shrinking, the numbers are against him when it comes to the nomination, but he still has strong enough numbers to be in a position to help dictate what goes into the official party platform. I think he would have done better if the media had treated him seriously from the beginning, but then again. . . I've had qualms all along simply because of his age.

Of course, I have those same qualms about Hillary. The Republicans managed to find young candidates -- assholes, granted, but young -- while Democrats failed miserably at finding anyone who wasn't already eligible for Medicare. I sincerely hope that whoever the Democratic nominee is, that person pushes for a vice president who hasn't found the AARP letter in his or her mailbox yet.

We're also free to watch morning television, back to seeing "Kelly and Michael" and wondering how Kelly Ripa could sit next to Michael Strahan day after day and yet not talk with him enough offstage to know that he was leaving the show? Just how cold is their off-stage working relationship? And why should anyone actually care who is or is not on that show? It beats the alternatives at the time of day, but that's not saying much. And will Michael Strahan moving to "Good Morning America" make that show any more worth watching? I doubt it. Still, there seems to have been quite the kerfuffle over who was going where and when. Kudos to the publicists for both GMA and Kelly and Michael for being able to generate a bit of a buzz on Twitter and elsewhere over happenings that no one actually cares about.

Friday, April 22, 2016

"All kindsa shit for sale"

I have mentioned more than once that Johnson's Shut-Ins tends to be a bit of a dead zone, a black hole for cell service, the Internet, over-the-air reception of almost anything with two exceptions: two local FM radio stations, Froggy 96 and the 98 the Boot. I'm not sure just how local they are, as in where their studios are, but one of them proclaims it's proudly serving Ironton, Farmington, and Fredericktown. That's about as local as it's possible to get. Both play country, although one tends to play more old stuff -- Tom T. Hall, the Statler Brothers -- while the other does contemporary -- Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert. We kind of alternate between the two when we want some background noise.

Both stations are also typical of small town, rural radio. Every morning the Boot wishes people happy birthday and does birth announcements. Naturally, then in the evening we're treated to the Boot telling us who all has a funeral coming up in the next day or two: they do death notices and funeral announcements, if not full-blown obituaries. Both stations carry farm reports: announcements from sales barns, how much beef cattle are selling for, how the market looks for dairy products and other commodities. We figured out one is better at local news than the other -- one kept mentioning a local high school being sanctioned (their basketball team had to forfeit the last half of the season so lost their district title) but never said why; the other station tossed in the fact that sanctions resulted from alcohol violations by a couple players. And both radio stations have a Trading Post, which air at different times in the day.

People call in with really odd combinations of items they're trying to unload: a box full of VHS tapes, a dozen 2-week old bronze turkey poults, and a 2015 Mercury boat motor valued at about $3,000. Each caller is limited to 3 items and they're allowed only 3 calls a week. Which means the callers to the Boot show up on Froggy's tradio and vice versa -- after you've listened a few times you start to recognize the same ads repeating themselves: the antique dining room set and cabinets, the shotgun that's a really good deal (it tempted me and I don't even have a use for it), the VHS tapes that no one's ever going to want. And now that it's definitely gardening season, some time before we leave the park I expect to hear a call similar to the one in the clip below:

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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Once again, I need to stop asking how stupid people can get

We're in kind of a black hole at the park while we're campground hosting. No cell service worth mentioning, no Internet access, no television (although to be honest we haven't tried connecting the tv to the antenna so for all we know there are over the air broadcasts available). We do, however, have a radio. The station selection is rather poor -- the All Bluegrass All the Time NPR station from Rolla won't come in but a gazillion Bible-thumping Christian stations will -- but we did manage to find one local station that plays innocuous country music and does local news and weather.

Which means that we haven't escaped hearing about Missouri's proposed anti-LGBT legislation. It's been presented as a religious liberty issue, of course. Unfortunately, one of the bill's supporters is relatively local so we've gotten to hear her blathering on about it way more than we'd like to. Her talking point is that "no one should be forced to perform a ceremony" that goes against his or her religious beliefs. WTF? Just how does selling someone a cupcake or serving them a meal constitute "performing a ceremony?" When did a commercial transaction become a religious ritual? As I noted in a previous blog post, people who are actually ordained ministers, priests, whatever, have always had the right to refuse to marry anyone they want to and for any bizarre reason. Ministers enjoy religious freedom. They always have. No one is threatening to take their rights away. And does anyone actually believe that gays and lesbians are going to want to have their wedding ceremonies performed by clergy who consider same sex marriage an abomination?

The truth is that what the folks preaching religious liberty are doing is exactly what they're being accused of doing: trying to wrap religion around their bigotry so they can pretend they aren't the ignorant, hateful asshats they really are. Then when they go public with their bigotry, they bitch about their rights being violated or they're being persecuted when people stop shopping at their bakery or stop renting out their private banquet halls. One of the poster children, so to speak, of the religious liberty movement, is a couple from Iowa who owned a de-sanctified church (i.e., a building that had once been an actual church but was now in private ownership). Neither of the owners were clergy, the "chapel" was not a real church, it was a hall they rented out the same way a local hotel, VFW, or other secular organization or business might rent out a banquet hall. As a commercial for-profit business that dealt with the public, their refusal to lease the hall to a same sex couple for a wedding constituted discrimination under the law. They got fined. They also got boycotted. A whole lot of people looked at them and said, "holy wah, those seemingly nice people are actually hateful bigots. I don't want to do business with them." No customers, no business. That's not persecution or a loss of freedom. It's market forces in action because the business owners were stupid enough not to realize that there are more people appalled by discrimination than there are people who support it.

The same thing happened to a couple out in Oregon who had a bakery and were dumb enough to go public with their dislike of gays. Once the frosting hit the fan, their business withered and died. Why? Because most people, the majority of people, are not homophobic asshats or religious fundamentalists. And we don't want to do business with people who are. We're not trying to suppress your right to practice your religion. We just don't think that selling us a cupcake or serving us a meal constitutes a religious practice, and we think that if you think it does, you're way too fracking nuts for us to want to do business with you.

What did I do before computers?

We're back at the Younger Daughter's place for our days off from campground hosting, busily indulging ourselves in watching vacuous television programs and wasting time staring at the computer. I was doing some minor grumbling about the lack of Internet access at the park when The Kid asked a question: what did I do before personal computers, specifically first thing in the morning? My routine now (assuming Internet access) is to get up, turn on the coffee, turn on the computer, and then wander around the Intertubes while working on becoming sufficiently caffeinated to tackle other stuff. So what did I do before I discovered online Sudoku?

Good question. I can't remember. That could be because until a few years ago my routine consisted of getting up, getting dressed, and stumbling out the door to work. Granted, there were a couple days a week when that didn't happen, but I have a hunch those mornings resembled every morning now: get up, hit the on switches on the coffee pot and computer, and then stare at a display screen for awhile. Sometimes I'd do more than stare -- I'd write a letter -- but in general I wasn't real ambitious. What I did and how fast I got moving on doing it depended on what it was needed doing that particular weekend. But now that every day is Saturday? No rush, no worries, lots of time to waste.

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.