published Sunday, July 14th, 2013

Always Outdoors: For some, camping isn’t a vacation, it’s a way of life (with video)

Last Days at Possum Creek
Billy Ciomei is living out his last days of life at Possum Creek RV Park and Campground in Soddy-Daisy. His wife Lois Ciomei and grandson Dallas Oliver are by his side. By Doug Strickland and Mary Helen Miller.
RVs are parked at the Possum Creek Campground in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.
RVs are parked at the Possum Creek Campground in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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    Dallas Oliver mows the grass in front of an RV belonging to his grandparents, Lois and Billy Ciomei. Oliver says that he often mows the grass around neighboring RVs as well, to be neighborly. Billy is dying from cirrhosis of the liver, and Oliver is living with the couple to help care for his grandfather.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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    Lois Ciomei stands at the door of the RV which she shares with her husband Billy and grandson Dallas Oliver in Possum Creek Campground in Soddy-Daisy.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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    Laundry hangs to dry from a clothes line Wednesday on the RV of Lois and Billy Ciomei.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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    House cat Mika lounges on the porch of the RV of Lois and Billy Ciomei.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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Long-term camping

Here are some of the campgrounds in the Chattanooga area that offer long-term camping.

• Raccoon Mountain Campground, Chattanooga — $425/month.

• Possum Creek RV Park and Campground, Soddy-Daisy — $300/month, $2,400/year.

• Chattanooga Holiday Trav-L-Park, Rossville, Ga. — $370-$390/month.

• Blue Water RV Resort and Marina, Dayton, Tenn. — $585-$735/month (six-month limit).

• Mountain Glen RV Park & Campground, Pikeville, Tenn. — $395-$450/month.

• Campsites on TVA reservoirs — $285-$330/month.

Carolyn Underwood does not consider herself to be outdoorsy, yet she camped for six months last year.

That’s what she calls it — “camping” — but she and her husband, Steve, are hardly roughing it in their fully equipped RV at Chester Frost Park. They’ve got a TV, Wi-Fi and a pork roast cooking in the crockpot.

“Gasoline’s high and we can come up here, and it’s a pretty cheap vacation,” Underwood says, sitting at the covered picnic table outside her RV. The golden bangles on her wrist catch sunlight as she taps on her iPhone, which is plugged into the vehicle with an extension cord.

With their real house only about seven miles away in Hixson, the Underwoods swing by two or three times a week to mow the lawn and check on the cat. They’ve been coming here for about eight years now, usually from spring to early fall, and they’re part of a small community of long-term campers at the park.

The Underwoods are hardly unusual. At several parks around Chattanooga, including Chester Frost and Possum Creek RV Park and Campground in Soddy-Daisy, when the weather gets warm, dozens of folks pull up their RVs or expandable campers to campsites on the water and homestead for the summer.

The initial reaction from outsiders may be that these people must be forced to camp, that they’re victims who lost their homes to foreclosure in the recent recession, or are transients who get itchy if they stay too long in any one place, or they’re just folks who were never able to buy a home. In some cases, that’s true, but for many that’s not the case at all. Some see it as an inexpensive way to take a vacation to the lake. And some like the simplicity of life without a full-sized house.

But whatever the reason, all will tell you about the people. About the community.

Campgrounds, after all, can be more neighborly than actual neighborhoods, full of set-back houses with shut doors. When camping, you live close to others and out in the open, so it’s next to impossible to keep to yourself.

“We undoubtedly have met some of the nicest people,” Underwood says.

“We’re all just like one big family,” says Lois Ciomei, who lives with her husband, Billy, and adult grandson, Dallas Oliver, in an RV right on the water at Possum Creek in a quiet, wooded campground with a mix of RVs, campers, and tents.

‘Roughing’ it

A night at Chester Frost Park costs between $10 and $20 for Hamilton County residents. The price includes Wi-Fi, water and electric hookups, shower and laundry facilities and, in many cases, a waterfront site on beautiful Harrison Bay.

Underwood says she and her neighbors exchange crockpot recipes and sit outside and “yak ‘til ten-thirty, eleven o’clock” at night. They’ve met friends camping that they see even when they’re living at home. And between taking walks, cooking and riding their three-wheel bikes around the campground, the day “just flies by,” she says.

There’s a 28-day limit for camping, but many people stay the maximum length, leave for the required seven-day gap, then return.

“Most of the people that stay that long are retired,” says Ron Priddy, director of the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Department.

At Chester Frost Park, the only Hamilton County-owned campground, most campers generally own homes in the county as well, Priddy says. Priddy estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of campers at Chester Frost stay for the full 28 days. Some of the people there have sold their homes and live solely in their RV.

Frank Hamill is one. On a recent weekday, he sits outside his RV, strumming an electric guitar. When he and his wife are not camping at Chester Frost Park, they’re traveling around the country in the RV. When forced to leave the park after 28 days, they just move to another campground, either in Hamilton County or another state. The couple is originally from the Chattanooga area, and Hamill says they generally spend much of the summer at Chester Frost and the winter months in Florida.

While county-owned parks have stay limits, some privately operated campgrounds in the area don’t have time limits, including Possum Creek, where some people pay $2,400 to rent their campsites by the year.

At Possum Creek, some campers pitch a tent for the weekend; others stay for a few weeks while they’re in town for work nearby at TVA.

But there’s a core group of people who live there full time, including the Ciomeis, who have a waterfront campsite with a wooden dock, one of the prized sites that only become available every once in awhile. Ciomei says she feels safe here, and there are two police officers who live at the campground.

They moved from Beach Island, S.C., about three years ago. Oliver, the grandson, paddles his kayak onto the creek almost daily to catch fish to eat. His grandfather used to go with him, but several months ago, Billy Ciomei became very ill with cirrhosis of the liver. Now he spends most of his time on a recliner inside the RV, often hooked up to a tank of oxygen. With a new hospital bed in the living area, there’s barely enough room for the rest of the furniture. Home hospice care is in and out.

But he doesn’t want to live anywhere else. In fact, he and his wife moved to Possum Creek because, with family nearby in Soddy-Daisy, they wanted to be here for his final days.

“We don’t want to move from here,” he says, struggling to speak.

Neighbors from the campground come by to see him all the time; one even takes him for rides on a golf cart because he can’t walk or bike anymore. The campground’s resident manager, Franklin “Doc” Holliday, is an EMT who will come over in the middle of the night if there’s a problem.

“Maybe I’ll get better,” Billy Ciomei says, shrugging with a slight grin.

He knows he won’t. Time is almost out.

Before the Ciomeis moved here, they lived in a mobile home on a 10-acre lot in South Carolina. They went from having “no neighbors, to all neighbors,” Lois Ciomei says.

Now she hopes to be here for the rest of her life.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Contact staff writer Mary Helen Miller at 757- 6324 or mhmiller@timesfreepress.com

about Mary Helen Miller...

Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...

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