“Welcome to Happy Trails Campground and to our party.” If I’d said it once, I’d said it a million times today. “Here is our brochure. We cater to campers with tents, pop-ups, fifth wheels, and vans.” I smiled and shrugged. “We cater to all. Even the ones who need a place to sleep.” I flipped open the brochure to show the young couple who’d come to the monthly party we hosted. “We have cute bungalows that range in size and need. Are you here for the long Labor Day weekend?”
“We’ve been wanting to do the whole Appalachian Trail, but figured we’d better do some smaller hiking first.” There was an eager look on the young woman’s face that I’d seen before. “We have a couple of days off and thought we’d drive down and check it all out.”
“I’m the hiker. Beth here, well. . .” The young man’s eyes squinted at her as he smiled. “She’s more along the lines of a glamper.”
“Oh, silly.” Beth rolled her eyes and put her hand on his chest. “Chuck doesn’t give me much credit. Don’t get me wrong. I love room service and a good spa, but if we are going to get married, I’d better start doing something he likes.”
“Then Happy Trails is for you.” I looked between them. “The Appalachian Plateau goes right through the Daniel Boone National Forest.” I pointed towards the lake. “I know you can’t see it now because of all the people gathered around the band, but right beyond the tree line is the start of a beautiful five-mile hike. It’s maybe one step above a beginner, but it will bring you to an amazing waterfall.”
“Beth?” Chuck put his hands out. “It’s up to you. A bungalow or the bed and breakfast downtown?”
The door of the office swung open. Dottie Swaggert’s unlit cigarette bounced between her dry lips. She pushed her hands up in her short red hair, fluffing it out a little.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mae. Someone’s on the phone about the last bungalow for rent. I told them the fee and they insisted on talking to the owner.” Her brows cocked. “I told them that you was busy with the party, but they insisted and if I know you…” She looked between Chuck and Beth. “Trust me, I know her. You’d want me to come get you.”
Dottie held the portable phone.
“You only have one bungalow left for rent?” Chuck asked, his brows knitted together with worry.
“I do. We were totally booked, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, someone cancelled at the last minute.” I took a few steps closer to Dottie to get the phone. “Thanks to social media and all those hashtags, we usually fill a vacancy within minutes of a cancellation.”
It was true. For years I’d said I’d never get on social media. That was before I became the owner of Happy Trails Campground in Normal, Kentucky, sight unseen. Once I did see it. . . Boy howdy. It’d needed a redo more than I needed a life do-over. That’s why me and Happy Trails were perfect for each other. I had discovered not only myself, but that social media could help a business better than any other type of marketing.
Just as I extended my arm to grab the phone, Beth began to stutter and mumble something.
“What?” I asked and leaned in an ear.
“We’ll take it.” Beth bounced on her toes and clasped her hands together. She looked at Chuck. “Right?” The tone in her voice didn’t seem so sure.
“Right!” Chuck jumped at the chance. Beth threw her arms around Chuck.
“Dottie, can you please tell the person on the phone the bungalow is no longer available?” I asked her, knowing that she’d set this whole thing up. It wasn’t the first time someone was on the fence about renting either a lot or a bungalow and Dottie pulled the old someone wants to rent now trick, making it a tad more urgent for Chuck and Beth to say yes.
All of us turned around when we heard quick toots of a car horn followed by a couple of long beeps from a fast-paced carload of people driving up from the entrance of the campground.
“Woo hoo!” said a young man with a big smile, dangling his arm out the window. There was a beer in the grip of his hand and a flashy watch on his wrist. The car came to an abrupt stop.
I sucked in a deep breath and let out a slight moan. This wasn’t the impression I wanted Beth and Chuck to have on their first camping experience.
“Guys. Settle down,” said the driver, who was also a young man, as he tried to calm down the others after they all started to celebrate their arrival. He got out of the car and stuck his head back through the driver’s side window to give the group one last scolding.
“Why don’t we go ahead and get you registered.” I gestured for Beth and Chuck to follow me into the office. I glanced at Dottie. “Why don’t you see what they want,” I suggested, knowing she didn’t take a whole lot of bull and would send them on their way.
“I’ll be more than happy to do that.” The look of satisfaction on her face made me smile.
“Sorry about that.” I wanted to make sure Chuck and Beth knew Happy Trails was a nice, relaxing place with fun, not rowdy, guests. There was an immediate need for me to apologize.
The office space wasn’t big. It was just a small, open space with metal files and two desks. There was a big window on each wall, which made it easy for us to see all sides of the campground while we were in there.
“Here are some papers I need you to fill out.” I handed them a clipboard with all the papers and a pen tied around the metal clip with a piece of yarn. “This one is for the rental agreement. It has all the particulars about trash and how you need to leave things after you check out.” I flipped through each page as I pointed out what they were. “I’ll need a copy of your license for safety purposes if you are going to be going hiking. Not that we’ve lost a hiker,” I assured them.
My eyes glanced over their shoulders and I could see that the car of boys had emptied out. All of them were standing with their arms crossed, arguing with Dottie.
“While you fill those out, I’m going to go check on Dottie.” I didn’t want those boys to bring any undue attention to the campground, especially since they were here during our monthly themed party. I shut the door behind me. “Is everything okay out here?”
“I want to see the owner and she won’t let us,” the one I recognized as the driver told me. “I’ve had a reservation for me and my friends for months. It’s my bachelor weekend.”
“They don’t have their reservation number.” Dottie’s eyes lowered. She wasn’t too trusting of people and it made her a great office manager.
“William Hinson.” I stuck my arm out for him to shake.
“Yes, that’s me,” he said with a calm voice and straightened his shoulders a little more. “Do you have our reservation?”
“I do. Remember the reservation that was booked for two weeks because we don’t do middle of the week reservations for the bungalows?” I looked over at Dottie. Whoever had booked the bachelor party had reserved the bungalow way in advance. “Mr. Hinson’s bride sent a few items for you and your friends ahead of time.”
A couple of days ago we’d gotten a big package in the mail from William’s bride-to-be. It was filled with snacks, movies, and gear for hiking and fishing.
“She did?” He grinned.
The other four boys patted his back.
“He’s got a good one.” I recognized the one that was flailing his arm out the car window earlier. “Jamison.” He nodded at me. “My name is Jamison Todd Downey.”
“I get that. I’m Mae.” I wasn’t about to give my full name, which was Maybelline Grant West. It wasn’t uncommon for southerners to give you their full names upon introduction. The more we talked, the less rowdy they were, just excited.
“You’ve got these yahoos?” Dottie wasn’t very forgiving when a first impression made her cringe. I could feel the tension coming off her shoulders as they hugged her ears.
“I will take them to their bungalow while you finish up with Beth and Chuck,” I said to Dottie.
It was nice to be able to team up with Dottie. She’d been the manager at Happy Trails way before I’d gotten there. I’d come to rely on her for a lot of things, but hospitality to everyone wasn’t her specialty. She was fabulous at putting together parties and keeping the campground running like a well-oiled machine, but she didn’t take any nonsense, which these boys seemed to have plenty of.
“Hold on a second.” I told the boys and went back into the office with Dottie. “Beth and Chuck, this is Dottie. She’s going to finish up getting y’all settled. You’re in great hands.”
They nodded eagerly and went back to filling out the paperwork. I walked over to the filing cabinet and opened the H drawer for Hinson to find William’s reservation. There was a lot of paperwork and computer work to be done. It was best to get him to fill out the paperwork at the bungalow he’d rented instead of bringing him in the office with the couple.
“They might need a starter camping kit,” I said to Dottie about the couple. I grabbed the key to the bungalow with four bedrooms where we’d stuck William and his friends plus a clipboard full of paperwork. “I’m not sure if they’ve got towels and things either.”
When I finally got settled into being owner of Happy Trails, I realized many campers forget everyday things like toothbrushes, towels, and other personal hygiene items. That’s when I came up with the idea to put together camper packs. We offered them at several different prices, depending on what was included. We also rented fishing and hiking supplies, including poles, backpacks, and picnic baskets.
I partnered with a few of the local shops in Normal, offering their items in different baskets. The Cookie Crumble Bakery’s delicious chocolate chip cookies that were the size of my head were a hit along with coffee from the new coffeehouse in town.
Gert Hobson, owner of The Trails Coffee Shop, put together packages of coffee and filters for the rental campers and the bungalows. She also supplies the complimentary coffee I offer in the morning at the recreation center on the campground. Anytime I could help a local store, I did.
“Are you good?” I asked Dottie before I left to get the boys settled into their bungalow. I could see there was still some tension about the Hinson bachelor party.
“I’m fine.” She didn’t sound fine, but there wasn’t any way to question her in front of customers, so I left and decided I’d take it up with her later.
“Why don’t you head on down to Bungalow Five. I’ll be right behind you.” I put the items in the golf cart. The bungalows were located at the farthest end of the campground and more nestled into the woods while the concrete pads for the campers were out in the open, with a few lots that had tree coverage.
“Thank you.” William took the keys. “Boys, back in the car.” He lifted his arm in the air and twirled his finger around. They all piled in.
“Y’all sure do have some fancy watches.” I noticed they all looked alike.
“I got them for all the groomsmen as their present for being in my wedding. They even have their initials engraved on the back.” He flipped his off and showed me.
Southerners loved to put their initials on everything. Including shower curtains.
“Be sure you adhere to the fifteen mile an hour speed limit,” I warned him. That was something I’d definitely kick them out of the campground for. We had many families with children and pets, including my Fifi. “I’ll be right behind you. First I have to stop by my own camper.”
They took off in their car and I got into the golf cart. Fall in Love with Kentucky was the theme of the month and honored Labor Day. Dottie loved how she incorporated the fall season in the name. It was one of the most popular seasons at the Daniel Boone National Park. She’d used different camping items to decorate. Canoes, a couple of tents decorated with bobbers and plastic fish, checkered tablecloths, bourbon barrels, and campfires going with a s’more station.
The recreation center had games for everyone including cornhole, horseshoes, and ladder golf, just to name a few. Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys were on the stage singing their hearts out while they played the banjo, guitar, harmonica, and the jug. It was a true bluegrass band that went nicely with the theme.
There were cornstalks with bales of hay all over the place for extra seating. Pumpkins, gourds, and colorful mums filled old tobacco baskets and planters of different sizes.
I pushed down the gas pedal on the golf cart to head on down to my camper. The fresh air filled my lungs and spread a happiness through my body. A few months ago, I’d never imagined myself here, much less the owner. When I found out I was the owner, I’d decided I was going to sell it as fast as I could find a buyer. As I started to get to know the small, southern town of Normal, the more I began to enjoy the slow-paced life surrounded by nature. It was food for the soul and when a buyer did come along, there was no way I could even imagine letting it go. Dottie Swaggert and I, along with many members of the community, had brought Happy Trails back to what it used to be.
For me. . .it was home.