By Brad Hicks
As Frank Rice took his golf cart out for a spin around Rock Creek Park to survey the campsites in his charge, he encountered John, a visitor who was gearing up to head home to Jonesborough after spending a few days in the woods.
Like any good host, Rice asked John how his stay went. The reply was music to Rice’s ears.
“I’d live here year round if you’d let me,” John said.
For much of the year, it is Rice’s responsibility to ensure guests using the park to escape the everyday hustle and bustle have as pleasant a stay as possible.
Rice is in the midst of his seventh season as campground host at Rock Creek Park. In this role, the Erwin native makes himself available to campers 24 hours per day, seven days a week, answering questions and assisting them with any needs that may arise.
For those needing help, Rice’s Rock Creek abode is difficult to miss. Rice’s own recreational vehicle is located at the entrance of the first campground loop. His site appears to be more of a permanent residence than others around the campground. Orange and white chairs can be seen observed on a deck abutting Rice’s camper, fitting in with the University of Tennessee motif that can be seen around the site. Lawn gnomes and small bear ornaments adorn the lot.
Rice, who retired from NN Inc. around five years ago, has an affinity for spending time in the outdoors and away from the confines of his Erwin home. He and his wife, Margaret, are avid campers, and their hobby has taken them to locales throughout the region and places such as Ohio, Indiana and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
But it was his own stay at Rock Creek Park that led to Rice securing his current gig as the park’s campground host. One evening, Rice observed the then-campground host removing his camper from the spot reserved for the host. Rice called his wife Margaret to tell her what he had just seen.
Rock Creek Park is part of the U.S. Forest Services Unaka District, which is headquartered in Greenville. Margaret contacted the Greenville office to convey her husband’s interest in filling the campground host post. Margaret was advised by the woman she spoke with that Frank’s name would be added to the list of those wishing to take the spot, but she was told there were six or seven others on the list ahead of him.
“Well, it wasn’t two hours later she called my wife back and said, ‘Could you meet a ranger up here at 1 o’clock?’” Rice said.
Rice said he met with the ranger who inquired how soon Rice could move his camper into the campground host site.
“I said, ‘I can move over there today,’ and he said, ‘OK, move it,’” Rice recalled. “I don’t know what happened to the seven people ahead of us. I have no idea.”
Rice has been Rock Creek Park campground host ever since.
“If I leave, they’ll pick somebody else if and when I leave,” he said. “It’s mine until I want to leave.”
Oh, and it’s worth noting that Rice is not paid to serve as Rock Creek Park’s campground host.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it,” he said.
While he and his wife maintain a permanent residence in Erwin, as campground host Rice must stay in his camper at Rock Creek Park during camping season, which typically runs from May through mid-November. He is to always be available to the campers occupying the park’s 38 camping sites spread over three loops.
Rice said his role involves everything from helping to address power outages to answering questions on how to pay for a camping site. It is also his duty to open the campground gate each morning and close it at the end of each evening. He typically opens this gate around 6 a.m. and closes it at 10 p.m., only opening it once it has been locked for emergencies.
“The reason we do that, is 10 o’clock is ‘quiet time,’” Rice said. “That don’t mean you have to go to bed, but if you stay up, you can’t be hooping and hollering. So it’s quiet time for everybody. And the reason we close the gate is just to keep the traffic out. You’d be surprised on weekends how much traffic we get through here, just riding through. People from town will ride up here just to see what the temperature change is.”
Rice said the temperature is usually 4 to 5 degrees cooler in the park than in town. And while this may attract locals, Rice said Rock Creek Park’s campground is a popular destination for out-of-towners and those in nearby states looking for an enjoyable camping experience. He said the campground typically fills up each Thursday and remains so through each Saturday.
“From Memorial Day to Labor Day, every weekend we’re full,” Rice said.
Among Rock Creek Park’s 38 campground sites are 33 powered RV sites and 5 unpowered walk-in tent sites.
“Everybody that comes in here says this is the nicest campground around anywhere, and I’ll tell you why – because the sites are not on top of each other,” Rice said.
Many campers who come to Rock Creek Park know the procedure, limiting Rice’s interaction with them. Still, he gets to know many others who come to spend some time in the park, such as the Auburn University graduate who quit his job to camp around the country and the group of college kids from Indiana who stayed at one of the tent sites as they were in the area to work along the Appalachian Trail.
Campground host at Rock Creek Park is not the only volunteer gig Rice holds down. This winter will mark his 30th year on the ski patrol at Beech Mountain Resort.
“So I like those volunteer jobs,” he said.
Rice said one big reason he enjoys serving as Rock Creek Park’s campground host is it gives him the chance to enjoy his own “quiet time,” adding that many mornings he begins the day with a cup of coffee and cigar while among the wilderness.
After the camping season ends each November, the process is the same for Rice.
“I shut the gate and go back home and rest,” he said. “In the years past, they have asked me in October or early November, ‘You going to come back next year?’”
“Call me in February and I’ll let you know.”