Children depart Buffalo Mountain Camp each year with all sorts of memories -- of mellow campfires, night hikes, silly songs, new friends, Kool-aid smiles.
For hundreds of kids, a camp highlight is getting to touch and hold an imposing but kindly Asian rat snake who’s been at home on the sacred grounds since 1997.
“His name is Conrad Gracie,” says the Rev. Christina DowlingSoka. “He’s really a girl, but we call him a ‘he.’ He’s a she.”
Buffalo Mountain Camp was severely damaged by a flash flood on Aug. 5, and the days since have been choked with news-sharing, assessment, planning, volunteer sign-up, fundraising, and repair.
When DowlingSoka learned that two former campers from Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church had asked if Conrad was OK after the flood, she decided to invite her inert old friend to come for a nice quiet visit.
With the blessing of Jason Onks, current camp director, Conrad the snake has temporarily left his long-time home in Allison Lodge. He’s now a houseguest of the DowlingSokas, a family he (or she) knows well. DowlingSoka was director of Buffalo Mountain from 1992 to 2006. For six of those years, she shared the title with her husband, the Rev. Joe-d DowlingSoka.
See "Buffalo Mountain aims to recover for summer 2013"
“I’m not fond of all snakes, but I’m fond of this one,” says DowlingSoka, now minister of children’s discipleship at Munsey Memorial in Johnson City. Her husband is senior pastor at First UMC in Bristol.
Conrad is staying in the Bristol parsonage – specifically, in the living room hallway, in his old camp cage. “He used to spend the winter with us, so it’s like old times,” DowlingSoka said. A younger snake that came to live at Buffalo Mountain in more recent years, Corny the cornsnake, is staying with a camp counselor, Kendra Clevenger.
Conrad was three or four years old when she (or he) came to Tennessee from a pet store in western Kentucky. The camp counselor and Milligan College student who relocated the snake to Buffalo named it after Conrad Gesner, a great naturalist.
“We added the name ‘Gracie’ later after we found out he’s a girl,” says DowlingSoka.
When Conrad first arrived at Buffalo Mountain, he was about three feet long. Today, he’s seven feet long and perhaps 18-19 years old. The snake hasn’t changed much since DowlingSoka left the camp staff in 2006, except he's longer and eats less.
“He eats two feeder mice every other week,” she says. “That’s the hard part. They do eat live mice.”
Conrad has already visited with First Bristol members during a backyard picnic, and one of DowlingSoka’s now-grown sons, Ryan, reunited with him (or her) briefly before heading off to work.
Conrad is having a nice visit, this hostess says, but probably misses all the children who smiled and peered at him inside his glass house.
“He's been a great part of not only the summer camps but the environmental educational programs during the school year,” DowlingSoka said. “To have had that many children touch him and for them to be so concerned about him – he’s a very gentle snake.”
"Letters from Camp: Christina's ministry" (The Call, 2/26/06)