NEW MEXICO -
Life as a 78-year-old retiree couldn’t get any better for Pauline Smith and her 76-year-old husband, Clyde, who volunteer as camp hosts at Cimarron Canyon State Park’s “Ponderosa Park Campground.”
For the 12th summer in a row, the Smiths have taken on the roles of “friend,” “caretaker” and “guide” to thousands of new and returning visitors to Cimarron Canyon. Just after 6:00 a.m. every day, Pauline heads out of her RV (recreation vehicle), set against a backdrop of pines and palisade cliffs, to ensure that receipts or park passes are visible on the dashboard or mirror of each vehicle in the park. Throughout the day she and Clyde greet visitors and direct them to available spots or assist park staff with other tasks as needed. The Smiths’ live at the campground from May through September, and then return to their hometown of Arlington, Texas in the off-season.
“We initially came out here 12 years ago because we love to fish but we ended up falling in love with the climate and the mountains, and here we are,” said Pauline Smith. “We love the rangers, we love being busy and as long as our health is good enough, we’ll stay here as long as we can.”
The Smith’s careers as camp hosts all started at the suggestion of Marshall Garcia, Cimarron’s Park Manager, who knew the Smiths would be a great asset to the park especially since they had previous host experience with national parks in Texas.
“They had the type of charisma and willingness to help that’s necessary for a position like this, so I knew they’d be great,” Garcia said.
The Smiths, like most camp hosts, strive to maintain the natural beauty of the parks, and benefit from nurturing relationships they’ve developed over the years with visitors.
Despite the responsibilities of camp hosting, Pauline doesn’t refer to the job as “work” since work is defined as “the production or accomplishment of something.” Though Pauline feels she provides a service to State Parks, the job has actually produced more for her in the way of rewarding relationships with new friends, and new experiences that she will cherish the rest of her life.
“We have some of the nicest campers who come back year after year; and some tell us we are the reason they come back,” Pauline said. “Many visitors have said they feel a sense of security, knowing there is a constant presence in the park.”
Though the Smiths miss their family- seeing them less than one week each summer - they recognize that busy schedules would prevent their families from visiting as often as they’d like, even if they lived in Oklahoma year-round. Assisting park visitors is enough to occupy most of their days at the park.
Often, retirees struggle with loneliness or feeling like their lives lack purpose; especially after a lifetime of defining themselves by their work. Camp hosting can provide a valuable sense of purpose and an outlet for socializing with new people. In addition, it is an economical means of volunteering and living, since New Mexico State Parks supplies a campsite with electric hook up, water and septic at most parks.
According to anthropologists, Dorothy and David Counts, who have studied the effects of RVing on seniors and published their findings in a book entitled, Over the Next Hill, seniors who travel via an RV claim to feel healthier, both physically and mentally, than they would if they led more sedentary lives. In the United States, RVing has become so widespread that an estimated two million retired Americans own an RV.
Like the Smiths, 73-year-old Jo Ann Robertson and her 75-year-old husband, Jim, say they are living the life they dreamed of upon retiring. The couple is working for the seventh summer in a row at Coyote Creek State Park as the park’s sole camp hosts.
Jim, a retired hospital administrator in their home state of Oklahoma, and Jo Ann had visited Coyote Creek several times before choosing to become camp hosts. The Robertson’s say temperatures in Oklahoma City started to become unbearable, whereas northern New Mexico’s climate was agreeable, providing cooler temperatures, excellent fishing and mountainous landscapes. Once Jim retired, the Robertson’s packed up the RV and headed out to what became their new summer haunt.
The Robertson’s say they rarely become homesick since they keep themselves so busy. In fact, Jim recommends camp hosting to any senior who loves the outdoors and enjoys constant interaction with a variety of people.
“Camp hosting gives us (retirees) something to do, it discourages retirees from focusing on their ailments and health problems and provides a rewarding sense of accomplishment,” said Jim.
“I enjoy helping campers and assisting rangers with some tasks that I feel they shouldn’t have to do.”
Jim and Jo Ann produce the park reservation report each morning, ensure that the restrooms are tidy, update rangers on overnight activities and provide information to visitors on area attractions, among other daily tasks.
Towards the park entrance, the couple can often be found assisting visitors, while dozens of hummingbirds buzz around their heads, attracted to the feeders that Jo Ann packs with six cups of sugar a day. In fact, the Robertson’s are known as the “sweetest couple” in town not only because they’ve been married for 53 years, but because they purchase as much as 200 pounds of sugar a year at the local grocery store for their hummingbird feeders.
As with most parks, visitors generally return year after year to Coyote Creek, though Jim humbly rejects the notion that it has anything to do with him and Jo Ann. But State Parks believed otherwise, having awarded the Robertson’s with two “Distinguished Citizen Volunteer Awards,” in 2005 and 2001.
“Their work is immeasurable,” said Toby Velasquez, State Parks Bureau Chief of Boating and Safety Law Enforcement, who previously nominated the Robertson’s. “They are ambassadors for the park, whose personal experiences at the park have helped them understand how important camp hosts are not only for visitors but for each State Park.”
Velasquez says that, even though camp hosts assist park rangers with duties, they are never permitted to engage in law enforcement-related activities. Both the Smiths and Robertson’s admit that they’ve encountered noisy or crotchety visitors from time to time, but always contact park rangers or local law enforcement to handle those types of situations.
Camp hosts often assist injured visitors or those requiring immediate medical attention, though they are not required to do so. Pauline Smith remembers assisting a visitor who broke his finger, while Jo Ann Robertson recalls transporting a visitor to the hospital after he suffered a heart attack.
Along with other existing volunteer programs, State Parks’ Camp Host program is offered at 28 parks within the 34-park system. The program requires at least a two-month or seasonal commitment. Among other tasks, hosts are asked to provide information to visitors regarding facilities and park regulations in addition to collecting and verifying fee payments.
State Parks is always looking for enthusiastic camp hosts and volunteers. Positions are currently available at several parks throughout the state, and no experience is required.
As for the Smith’s and Robertson’s, both say they’ll work as long as they can at their respective parks.
“It’s very rewarding if they (seniors) have the time and want to do it - it’s not for everyone,” said Jim Robertson. “We must like it because we keep coming back; were just waiting for someone to tell us to leave.”
For more information on camp hosting opportunities, contact Darcie Schalip, Volunteer Coordinator for New Mexico State Parks at (505) 476-3391 or 888 NMPARKS (888-667-2757). Those with Internet access can also log onto www.nmparks.com for more information.
The mission of the New Mexico State Parks Division is to protect and enhance natural resources, provide recreational facilities and opportunities, and promote public safety and education to benefit and enrich the lives of our visitors. The Division's parks attracted 4.2 million visitors in 2005, throughout New Mexico.