Another summer is almost here, and with it, the opportunity for those who work in parks to field some excellent questions from visitors. Along the way, those rangers and volunteers will also undoubtedly encounter a few new candidates for the wacky question of the week.
Questions come in almost as many varieties as visitors, and include the daily dozen ("Where's the restroom, is it going to rain today, how far to the nearest McDonalds . . .?"), the sincere seeker ("What kind of bird, or tree, or flower, or . . . is that?"), and the inane inquiry.
It's this last group that poses a major test of tact and diplomacy—and the ability to keep a straight face. When confronted with these questions rangers have to wonder, "Is he (or she) really serious, or is this one a joke?"
In most cases these questions seem to be asked with the best of intentions, which confirms that many people today are simply in an alien environment when they venture into the Great Outdoors. National parks are wonderful places to learn, so these examples are offered in the spirit of fun. If you’re curious about something during your visit to a park, I hope you’ll have a chance to ask a ranger.
Some of the following have been a part of ranger lore for years, while others were asked of me personally. I'll include a bit commentary for each one to provide some context.
Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado contains numerous world-class cliff dwellings and other archeological treasures. Several of the best sites require at least a short hike from the parking lot, prompting rangers at that park to be asked more than once, "Why did the Indians build the ruins so far from the road?" (One would think they'd have been more considerate of the tourists who would eventually come to see what was left of their homes.)
The staff at Mesa Verde also has to endure the inquiry, "Why did the Indians only build ruins? (Those ancient structures were occupied long before Europeans arrived in North America, so at least we know the answer to that question is not, "It was a government project, and Congress didn't appropriate enough money to finish the building.")
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is to caves what the National Gallery is to art. There are plenty of caves in the world that boast magnificent or unique formations and others that lay claim to many miles of passageways, but for the combination of beauty, size and easy access for the average visitor, it's tough to beat the underground wonders of Carlsbad.
Located within the boundaries of the same park are both Carlsbad Caverns and Lechuguilla Cave. Between the two, the park offers a nice variety of ways to enjoy a cave, from paved walking trails that wind through tastefully lighted rooms to completely wild, undeveloped routes that require expert spelunking skills and a permit.
Reports will occasionally surface in the media about the discovery of a new area of the caverns, especially at Lechuguilla Cave. Those news stories probably account for some of the following questions:
"How much of the cave hasn't been discovered yet?" and a closely related inquiry, "What's in the undiscovered part of the cave?"
Those inquiries can probably be placed in the "I just didn't think before speaking" category, but I do have to wonder about, "How much of the cave is underground?"
One of the great scenic drives in the world is the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, which crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of over 6,600 feet. Even at midday in the summer it's usually pleasantly cool—and sometimes downright chilly—at that altitude in Montana, but I actually had one visitor ask me why it didn't get warmer as he neared the summit.
His reasoning—honest now—was that he thought it should be getting hotter as his car approached the pass since the road was supposed to be taking him closer to the sun!
On the flip side of these inquiries, rangers sometimes encounter visitors who use their sense of humor to have a little fun. A man once approached me in a park and remarked that he could identify "any bird in the world."
I had to admit this was a very impressive feat, and asked him how long he had been studying birds. "Not long," he replied. "It's either a robin, or it's not a robin!"
One of my personal favorites has been asked at several parks: "At what elevation do the moose turn into elk?"
I was tempted on one occasion to offer the tongue-in-cheek reply, "It depends upon which side of the Continental Divide you're on"...but discretion prevailed.
Those of you who have spent much time in parks have undoubtedly overheard some similar queries. Any favorites you'd like to share?
This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America’s National Parks © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.