NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 14th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: What Do People Do All Day.
It’s understandable that Texans might feel giddy when the first cold front of fall blows from the Texas Panhandle to the Gulf Coast. That’s when it’s time to round up the camping gear and head out for a few nights under the stars.
EICHER: A small army of volunteers called park hosts supplement the work of paid staff at Texas State Parks. These are the people who help set up campsites and assist campers during their stay. WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett recently spent a day with a park host in the piney woods of east Texas.
BULLET WELCH: Number 40? OK. Thank y’all. Yes, sir. Somebody left their campfire going so we’ll need to go splash some water on it.
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Bullet Welch steers his two-seater Kawasaki Mule utility cart along the forested road toward the offending campsite. When he pulls into the parking spot, he lifts a small ice chest from the bed of the cart. The ice had long since melted and supplies him just enough water to douse what was left of the smoldering fire.
WELCH: My name is Bullet Welch and I’m a Park Host for Huntsville State Park.
Whether he’s tapping out abandoned campfires, cleaning out fire rings, or blowing leaves and pine needles from campsites and roads, Welch is one of almost 850 volunteer hosts with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The department waives the hosts’ campsite fee in exchange for 24 to 36 hours of work per week doing general maintenance, keeping the campsites tidy, and answering questions. Lots of questions.
CAMPER: Hey, is there firewood for sale anywhere?
WELCH: Yes, ma’am. It’s at the office.
CAMPER: We only have a bike. I don’t know if I can get firewood back on my bike.
WELCH: Well, I tell you what. I’ll bring ya some…
Think of it as a woodlands concierge service.
Like Welch, most park hosts are retirees. Some are university students or veterans. Still others have a job they can do remotely from an RV. They generally serve from 3 to 6 months at each park.
Welch volunteers year-round.
WELCH: That’s my trailer. Me and my chihuahua, her name’s Mitsy. She’s my traveling partner. When she turned one and I turned 60 we headed out on the road. I sold my house…
Welch has served as a park host since 2015. He returns to the same three parks as regularly as the changing seasons. He spends his summers in one of the hottest regions of Texas.
WELCH: There at Copper Breaks it gets really hot. It gets so hot you can’t open your door, you know, cuz the handle is so hot.
Welch pulls up the left sleeve of his khaki park volunteer shirt to show his tan line. It also reveals the bullet tattoos circling his biceps.
Yes, his parents did name him Bullet.
Living and working outdoors comes naturally for the 70-year-old Welch. And he doesn’t flinch when asked to remove uninvited guests from campsites.
WELCH: I was at my house – my trailer—and this guy come up to my door and says, ‘Will you relocate this rattlesnake for me?’ I said ‘Sure.’ So, I got my snake getter and walked down there to his camp and, by gosh, he had four arrows stuck in him. I said you can’t do that in a state park…
Camp hosts duties end where law enforcement’s begins.
AUDIO: ENGINE SOUND
Welch rarely has to call on park police or rangers for help. Usually, he’s the one responding to calls for help.
TRACY ADAMS: You know, he’s just like a little guardian angel for me around here. Like today, I was trying to get this set up and I was having problems and I heard the cart coming through and I knew who it was…
That’s Tracy Adams. The two met at one of the other parks where Welch hosts. Adams gratefully accepts Welch’s offer to help right his listing trailer.
WELCH: He’s at least 5 inches slanting toward the lake. So, he’s got to get his trailer up on these and that should level it…
AUDIO: [PLASTIC AND WOOD SLIDING ACROSS CONCRETE]
Welch shoves RV leveling blocks–they look like big, flat, yellow Legos–and sections of 2 by 6 boards in front of and behind the wheels on the trailer’s low-slung side.
WELCH: Tracy, pull forward about 6 inches. Whoa! OK, Trace, come on back. A little bit more. Whoa! Perfect.
It takes several attempts but the pair make sure Adams’ fried eggs wouldn’t slide to one side of the pan the next morning.
Welch then moves on to welcome new campers and bid happy trails to those heading out.
WELCH: Everything working. O.K.?
CAMPER: It is. We’ve been here since yesterday…
Outside Welch’s trailer is a screened canopy. Four camp chairs and a Chihuahua-sized dog mat encircle a propane-fueled fire pit in the center. It’s an open invitation for fellow travelers to sit a spell.
WELCH: You know. I like to visit with people. So, I have a lot of fun doing that.
PRITCHETT: Tell me about some of the folks you’ve met
WELCH: Aww, there’s many, many just, you know, good people. I’ve got some good friends right now. They’ll call me every once in a while, or I’ll call them just to see what they’re doing. And they’ll say, ‘When are you coming back to the park?’ It’s a lot of fun.
MUSIC: [CHRIS RICE, MY CATHEDRAL]
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Huntsville State Park.