As I span the two bridges across the Neches River to complete the last few of the day’s 30 miles, I imagine a flat and safe place for my tent on the opposite side. Maybe at the water’s edge. I yearn for a restful night with my body pressed against the earth. Within a quarter-mile of the bridge, there’s a sign for the Camper’s Cove RV Park. A stroke of luck.
An older white guy decked out in biker leather and a name tag—FRANK—greets me at a guard shack. I tell him the sign lured me in. He says that camping, though mentioned in the name, is not their thing. The RV park has full-time permanent residents only.
“Oh. I’m just looking for a place to stay the night,” I say. “Can you make an exception?”
He asks if I plan to do any drugs. I assure him that’s not my thing.
“Hmmm…I have to check you out first,” he says.
He takes a photo fo me posing behind Little Buddy. I smile big. Then he snaps another of my business card and texts both to the park owner. The landline on a messy desk rings almost immediately.
I listen as Frank describes me.
“He’s white, average height, older guy, beard and glasses,” he says. “He’s pushing a cart that has walk USA on the front…overall he seems like a nice guy. Legit, I guess.”
Frank pauses, listens to the receiver.
“Yeap…OK…Got it…will do…OK then…Bye.”
He hangs up.
“Well, he told me it’s my call,” Frank says. “So, far as I’m concerned, you’re all set to camp over there by the docks.”
“Oh great! Thanks!” I say. “Should I pay you now?”
“Nah, man. Don’t worry about that,” he says, waving me off. “I’m not charging you for the night. We have a peaceful place here, just help us keep it that way.”
“Will do. Thanks,” I say. “I’m Tom, by the way.”
“Yeah, I know,” he says. “Frank.”
We shake hands and he tells me to make myself at home. Points to park’s public bathroom then confirms where I can pitch my tent.
“Right over there on that grassy spot,” he says. “Honestly I’ve always wanted to sleep over there under the stars. I bet it’s pretty awesome.”
I park Little Buddy and plop onto the ground. A few fishing boats sleep on the glassy water. I watch a scattering of small clouds punctuate the sky until a hint of movement to the side catches my eye—it’s people scooting aside curtains as they peek through trailer windows. Before long, a few residents walk by and wave, offering me a hearty welcome as I set up my tent. Then a young man, maybe in his twenties, bounds in my direction with two beers in-hand.
“Man, I saw you on the bridge! I thought you were selling ice cream!” he says. “I’m Charles. Wanna beer?”
Charles and Cheyenne, his wife of two weeks, are taking their son for a swim off the dock. I accept the Bud Light and Charles runs back to his trailer to grab a few chairs.
“Man, you’re so damn lucky you found this place,” he says. “This whole area is fuckin’ meth-city. This here trailer park is about the only place where everyone’s clean. Everyone out there—” he points to the park’s entrance, “—is desperate as hell. They’d roll you in a heartbeat without thinking twice. Trust me!”
Charles tells me he’s a recovering addict himself.
“But I’m one year sober,” he says. “Haven’t touched the stuff in like forever.”
We clink our cold cans together. Charles points to Cheyenne supervising their son on the dock.
“She’s all into suicide prevention,” he says. “She puts up posters all over town with hotline numbers for folks to call. There were seven suicides in this town last year. That’s a lot, isn’t it? People around here ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Charles has had a handful of local jobs. Most recently at a barbecue restaurant where he was being groomed for management.
“But I blew it,” he says. “I let my past take control of me. I’ve got anger problems, man. It’s real hard for me to catch myself in the moment when I’m losing my shit. But I want to break the cycle, you know.”
“Cheers to that,” I say, raising my can.
When Charles was sixteen, his mom died.
“Cancer,” he says. “So I went to live with my dad. Which was crazy because up until then, I’d never met him.”
“Sorry about your mom,” I say.
“Yeah, thanks,” he says. “But as for my dad—he was a felon and a meth guy. Probably not the best place for a teenager to grow up. But I didn’t have a choice. So there I was.”
At first he and his dad got along fine. But over time they started butting heads. When Charles learned his dad was affiliated with the Aryan brotherhood, he wanted out.
“But I was just a kid,” he says. “What was I supposed to do?”
Cheyenne’s parents join her at the dock. Charles and I watch as she gathers up their son and walks toward us at the child’s pace. Charles cracks another beer and hands me one, too. He stares at his son and goes quiet. His smiling face hardens.
“My family. My son, man,” he says, gesturing toward them. “They are enough for me to try my best. To do what my dad didn’t fuckin’ do. I want to do right by them. Go back to school, maybe.”
“I wasn’t good in school back then, so I’m not sure things would be any different now,” he says. “But I am a natural leader and pretty much can do anything I put my mind to.”
“I know you didn’t ask,” I say, “but it sounds to me like you’re starting with the right mindset.”
“Yeah,” he says. “We’ll see.”
Cheyenne lets go of their son’s hand and he runs into his father’s arms. Charles closes his eyes and squeezes his son tightly, but gentle, too.