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For the week of May 2 through May 8, 2001

Park environs attract campers

Wanderers hang onto roving lifestyle

Express Staff Writer

"Everybodyís got a story, donít they?" said the man known only as Scott. Heís the most recently arrived camper in the Lionís Park area wetlands west of Hailey, a squattersí oasis that attracts wanderers from all over the country.

Scott rode his $20 bike from Louisiana to Boise, then to Haileyís Lionís Park. As heís done for several years, he plans to camp here for the summer while working as a plumberís assistant. Express photos by Travis Purser

Scottís story is this: married after getting his girlfriend pregnant at age 17, divorced six years later, then became a steadfast wanderer and odd-jobber. Scott, 44, spent Saturday afternoon roasting a chicken over an open fire.

To get here, Scott rode a $20 bicycle last week to Hailey from Boise. To get to Boise, he rode his bike from Louisiana. He was scheduled to begin work Monday as a plumberís assistant.

Another camper, Roger Mexico, 37, said he has lived in the area all winter. His camp consists of an old U.S. Postal Service jeep painted white, a kerosene heater, a blue and green tent and a big, muscular, protective dog named Stink. Like Scott, Mexico married and divorced young. Then he began traveling throughout the western United States and Canada, and easily slipped into the wandering life.

Then thereís Bill Potter, 74, a World War II veteran with a bad back, an $800-a-month Social Security check and two cats, Purrkins and Tom. Potter also slipped into the itinerant life after divorcing decades ago. He came to Hailey in 1990 to be with his mother, who was dying from liver cancer. Now, he lives in a trailer made from the bed of a pick-up truck pulled by an old Lincoln Continental with a straining suspension. He parks the rig at both Lionís Park and the nearby Hailey Armory.

World War II veteran Bill Potter and his cat Purrkins live at Lionís Park and other parts of Hailey in a makeshift camper trailer. "Iím just living it," he said. "You ever see the stars at night?"

Despite the rough-and-ready nature of their homes, life for the short- and long-term residents of the reedy wetlands area around Haileyís Lionís Park near the end of Croy Creek Road is easy compared to elsewhere, they say. No rent, relatively mild weather, proximity to an array of jobs, an absent landowner and sympathetic sheriffís deputies make it possible to just stay and enjoy the beauty of the surrounding wildlife, or to save some traveling money before moving on.

"This ainít too bad out here," said Mexico (not his real name) on a recent day off from the masonry and construction work he does around the Wood River Valley.

Mexico is lean and bearded with an easygoing manner. Thursday morning, wearing a tee-shirt, shorts, sneakers and a baseball cap, he gave two reporters a tour of the wetlands area that he said sometimes provides up to 20 people at once with a place to live.

It is generally speculated that campers like Scott, Mexico and Potter have been calling the wetlands home for as long as Hailey has existed. Todayís campers say they canít afford the high rents in the Wood River Valley. And even though camping there is illegal, local law enforcement officers say preventing it is not a priority.

"If you didnít have a place to live," said one sheriffís deputy Thursday, "where would you go?"

Policing the area is complicated by the fact that the City of Hailey, the federal government and Boise resident William Simmons own land there, and the boundaries are not clearly marked between the properties, which have different rules regarding camping.

Much of the camping appears to occur on private land, but without a complaint from the owner, deputies canít ask the campers to leave, chief deputy sheriff Gene Ramsey said,.

In any case, "I donít think thereís a safety issue," said deputy Ron Taylor. "Itís affordable housing. Youíve got to balance public concerns with reality."

For Mexico, mostly itís the fact that heís allowed to do it that makes him camp where he does. "I donít know of anywhere else in the United States you can do this," he said. "The [deputies] are real nice. They always come down and wave. Youíve got a pretty good police force here." But he also has an obvious enthusiasm for fishing for trout in the nearby beaver pond. He counts off with wonder the moose, otter, fish and birds heís seen in the area.

Seeing nature also makes Potterís life better. Fond of jokes ("Iíll live until the very minute I die," he said his doctor told him.), Potter spoke through the tattered screen window of his camper Thursday night. He said he broke his back building aircraft fuel tanks in southern Calif. after World War II. And though he can walk, ongoing pain from the injury means he spends hours convalescing in his camper, listening to books on tape and watching the world outside.

"Iím just here," he said. "Iím just living it. You ever see the stars at night?"

And, at dawn, "I watch beaver, I watch muskrat," said Scott, echoing the common squattersí naturalism. "I love it Ö I get stressed out in the city. I come up here, and people leave me alone. Iíve been outside for 25 years."

An unofficial squattersí mayor, who goes by the name Bird Dog, said he has lived for seven years in the wetlands. His camp features an American flag, a television with VCR, a refrigerator and a makeshift electrically heated barrel for bathing.

Bird Dog describes himself as a naturalist and is well known in the area for spending hours videotaping birds and other wildlife.

He wants to save the area from development by the Blaine County School District and the City of Hailey. The districtís and cityís immediate plans, which include building a school bus maintenance facility and a street department shop, would harm the area, he said.

Bird Dog considers the wetlands an integral and important part of Hailey.

"Sleeping out here, you not only hear the heartbeat of the marsh," he said, "you hear the heartbeat of the town."

One benefit of development would be to clean up the area, which would include removing garbage and junk left not only by people passing through, but also by the City of Hailey. Development would also likely thwart camping, an idea that received mixed reviews among the campers.

For his part, Mexico doesnít consider himself a vagrant. "Iíve got $1,200 income tax," he said. "I kind of figured that [people] think the worst. I kind of donít blame them." But he disliked the idea of preventing the camping. "Now youíre going to have them spread out over here, spread out over there. At least, now, you know where they are."

But Potter said "Hey, thatís progress, man." He had no complaints about the development or the idea that he might not be able to park his camper in the area.

Mexico and Bird Dog said they both plan to leave the wetlands soon. After he finishes saving $1,000 in the next few weeks, Mexico said, heíll drive his $600 mail jeep to Canada for some summer fishing. If he returns to the Wood River Valley next year, "I donít want to camp." After that, who knows? But eventually heíd like to settle down to a more rooted life.

Scott, though he has no immediate plans to alter his wandering life, said "Thereís a thousand places to camp. But it seems like they just keep working you farther and farther out" of town.

For landowner Simmons, who has been finishing sales negotiations with the school district and the city, preventing the camping would be welcome.

"I understand about the problem in that valley with the rent rates," he said during a telephone call from Boise, "But somebody ought to come up with a [solution]. This is called squatting."

Simmons worries about sanitation and worries that campers could cause grass fires.

Mexico said most campers take showers at local gyms. A Dumpster in nearby Lionís Park was overflowing following a recent neighborhood clean-up day, which made for challenging trash disposal for some campers.

"Tell them to empty that Dumpster, please" Scott said. "It just wonít hold no more."

Like Mexico, he was obviously aware of recently heightened public scrutiny and was a little unsure what to make of it.

"I feel kind of famous," said Mexico after talking to reporters.

Mountain Express reporter Greg Stahl contributed to this story.


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