About a mile into the woods at Hillsborough River State Park, the smell of fudge cookies baking wafts from a toaster oven outside Jack and Mary Lou Smith’s air-conditioned motorhome.
As reported by the St. Petersburg Times, a plastic windmill rendered motionless by the Florida heat decorates the campsite. There are a few tables, popup chairs and a radio. For the summer, this is home.
“You can do anything here,” Mary Lou, 73, says, passing a plate of cookies to visitors. “You just better like doing it in the outdoors.”
The Smiths are campground hosts, volunteers who serve the park 32 hours a week in exchange for free utility hookups and a place to park their home on wheels, a 34-foot Fleetwood Bounder purchased in 1987.
Hosts keep the grounds clean, act as guides and help novice campers settle in. They scrub the restrooms, shoo off wild raccoons and round up visitors for campfire parties.
About 600 people applied to fill four rotating campground host positions within the last year, the park’s volunteer coordinator, Patrick Potts, said. Many were unemployed and looking for a place to stay. Some were families. Others, like the Smiths, were retirees living on the road full time.
Because so many people are applying as a result of the struggling economy, the parks service screens and interviews applicants to make sure they are serious about serving others.
Volunteers are what make the Florida parks system what it is, Potts said. “You can have the prettiest trees, but if you don’t have someone to keep the bathrooms clean, campers aren’t going to have a good experience.”
Few people used to camp during the summer, but in the past few years, Potts has seen that change. More families are taking “staycations” to save money. The cost to camp is only $27 per night.
Campsites are booked full in the winter months and to near capacity from June through August.
Visiting campers are allowed to stay for two weeks at a time to prevent squatters from using the park as a temporary residence. Hosts can live onsite for months.
The Smiths, who spend the winters at their home in Ocala, are acting as camp hosts for the first time.
They brought their three shelties, a favorite among children camping nearby.
Jack, a retired electric test technician, and Mary Lou, who owned a decorating business, spent years vacationing at Florida parks with their three daughters, who are now grown with children of their own.
The Smiths like having young families around. They consider themselves parents of the park. Mary Lou has people to bake for, and she feels good keeping busy.
The dogs stay in the camper while the couple check items off their daily to-do list.
“The work isn’t too hard,” Jack, 69, says on his way to scrape out used fire pits. Mary Lou sits her cookies down to help him negotiate his tools.
On their off time, the Smiths take hikes or pull canoes out onto the river. They are accustomed to insects and snakes. In this life, alligators occasionally show up in unwanted places, like under motor homes. Hawks dive down to the river to feed on water moccasins. Raccoons sniff for food and come around at night.
“It’s a different kind of life, but it’s nice,” Mary Lou says. “We love it.”