#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.

3 thoughts on “#28: The Tiger King of Black Rock and Other Strange Characters

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