Say What? Overheard in the Park...

The observation tower at Clingmans Dome offers some fine views--but don't drop your camera! Photo by Jim Burnett.

The late entertainer Art Linkletter was known for his "Kids Say the Darndest Things" interviews, but a recent trip to a park reminded me that grown-ups aren't immune from that tendency either—especially when they're on vacation.

My wife Velma and I made a stop at Clingmans Dome during a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and in the brief span of less than five minutes were involved in one conversation and overheard a second that fell into the "Did I really hear that?" category.

At 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park and in the State of Tennessee. A half-mile paved walkway from the parking area leads to an observation tower near the summit. The tower rises about fifty vertical feet above the ground, but is easily "climbed" via a wide, sloping ramp.

During our visit, Velma overheard a shouted conversation between a woman standing on the concrete walk beneath the tower and a man who was leaning over the waist-high wall and waving from the top of the observation deck to his friends on the ground.

Woman: "Hey, do you want me to take your picture?"

Man (about five stories above her): "Yeah!"

Woman: "Okay, just drop your camera down to me!"


(The good news is he concluded he really didn't need a photo after all.)

Shortly after this near-miss, my wife overheard another conversation between a group of four twenty-something gals who had started to stroll off the paved walkway onto a gravel path. They stopped and looked a bit confused, and one of them asked her companions, "Is this the Appalachian Trail?"

During our own trek up to the summit a few minutes earlier we'd spotted a sign marking the spot where that famous trail crossed the paved walkway, so Velma knew the answer, and decided to help out.

"No," she volunteered. "The connection to the Appalachian Trail is back down the paved path, between here and the parking lot."

The would-be hikers pondered that information briefly, and then one of them asked, "Is it a very long trail?"

Velma managed to hide a smile, and replied, "Well, it runs from Georgia to Maine."


Just more confirmation that real life offers a lot more entertainment than television!


I enjoyed your article. It reminded me that during my September visit to Yellowstone NP we decided to join the ‘Wolf Watchers’ in Lamar Valley at dusk. While standing on the roadside hill, with binoculars at the ready, a visiting couple pulled up behind me and shouted, very casually, "Hey, do you know where the carcass is?” Dumbfounded by the question I could only respond, “Umm no. What carcass?”
I then learned, from my fellow bystanders, that a Grizzly had taken down a bison a couple days before and the local wolf pack had been seen visiting the carcass the day before. Apparently the park had been all a buzz about this carcass and I suspect that will be the only time I will ever be asked that unusual question. At least I hope it is. =)

In a way your article made me think of what's so special about the Grand Canyon. By far the most frequent reaction by first time visitors is, silence. Can't be described and do it justice. Okay, I did overhear one 30ish fellow that said that "he thought it would be bigger," lol! The great, great majority sense the humbling "Canyon Effect" I like to say.
A parent told me once that the first time he brought his young teenage son who was in the midst of all the teen challenges/temptations that exist today, his reaction was a long period of "just silence." The parent and his son have returned annually getting deep into the Canyon by Mule to Phantom Ranch or Roaring Springs and later by hiking the back country always returning to the Rim with nothing but smiles as words can't do the experience justice:)! Kinda fun!

I overheard a family visiting the Klondike Gold Rush NHP in Skagway this summer. The father was carefully explaining to his kids that "...we are just a couple of weeks early. They don't bring out their grizzlies until the salmon start to run...".

Years ago my husband's family camped at Crater Lake where they heard a bored visitor grousing "Once you've seen one glacial lake, you've seen them all!"

In almost any national park you go to, you will always here questions about how the rangers feed and care for the wild animals.... I personally assume that ranger feed the wild animals dumb tourists.......

Any ranger can recite a long, long litany of "overheard."

Sometimes it's hard not to indulge in a reply. For example, back in 1960's Yellowstone, there was a study of black bears and most of the roadside bears wore bright colored ribbons in their ears. The standard answer when visitors inquired was, "That just means he's already eaten one visitor and if he does it again, we'll have to do something."

Or when asked what all the signs reading "Cattle Guard" were about, I told some New Yorkers, "Cattle rustling is still a big problem out here in the west. So we have cattle guards to try to protect the cows." Later, they were overheard in a nearby town pointing out a USFS ranger and wondering if was one of them.

Or when a Zuni colleague at El Morro came back to my office chuckling because some visitors had been asking some very, very strange questions about Indians. Ferdy Waatsa finally said, "Uh, you know I'm a Zuni Indian."

To which the visitors replied, "Oh, we thought you were Chinese!"

I sure hope humor hasn't been killed at our VC desks.

In almost any national park you go to, you will always here questions about how the rangers feed and care for the wild animals.... I personally assume that ranger feed the wild animals dumb tourists.......
This used to be in Yellowstone:

Sequoia NP had a "bear pit" with grandstands for people to watch the regular feedings:

"This volcano is boring, there's not even any lava" - overheard in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park overlooking Kilauea

I overheard a Grand Teton ranger talking to a group of fellow rangers:

I think I'm probably more likely to use my bear spray against a crazed visitor than a bear.

The wife and I are avid photographers with some serious equipment. A couple of years ago in Yellowstone parked along side the road the wife was trying to take a picture of a grizzly and her cub from across a valley. The wife was using a huge 600mm lens on a DSLR with tripod, the works. She was having a hard time getting a good picture due to the bears in tall grass and being a LONG ways away. As I and the kids are watching everything, a car pulls up and a guy jumps out, holds up his cell phone and snap a picture, states "I got the picture", jumps back into the car, and drives away.
I took a picture of the wife and the guy at the right moment and we proudly have that on our wall of fame. It is great and we still laughable that. We never did get a good picture of the bears due to the distance.

As a 23-year VIP (Volunteer-in-Parks for you "outsiders") with about 1600 volunteer hours in several NP's, I have heard similar remarks! One question I believe must have been made to me with 'tounge-in-cheek' happened at The Great Sand Dunes when an elderly man asked "Where did they get all this must have taken months to haul here".

Many strange comments are heard on the road. I remember a family vacation where we drove across Canada from our home in Vancouver to the Maritimes.

When we were in Kingston, Ontario, an retirement-age couple with NY plates on their car were staying in the next room at the Motel. The man looked at our license plates and mused, asking us, "Huh, 'British Columbia,' where's that be?"
We told him it was on the Pacific Ocean. In Canada, we added when he looked blank.
His expression cleared and he exclaimed, "Jeez, yuh must've drove over a hun'red mile !!"

From the lips of a teenager who really wasn't enjoying his family vacation in Sequoia NP "Hey, I really didn't know we were going to have to hike there, can't we just see it from the road?"

Back in July 1985, our tour bus packed with University of South Carolina alums, faculty, and friends was buzzing with excitement as we approached Yellowstone's eastern entrance. Most of us had never been to the park, and we were primed to make the most of our visit. Our driver, a good ol' boy named James, got on the P.A. and announced "You are now entering Yellowstone National Park, so ya'll need to keep your eyes peeled. Any minute now you are likely to see a bear, a possum or a go-rilla."

Some of us saw bears, but no possums were spotted, and the only go-rilla we saw was the little plastic one that we passengers bought for James. It dangled it from the bus' rear view mirror for the rest of the coast-to-coast trip.

Some great stories here folks, thanks for the smiles! I too have heard visitors ask where the elk were kept at night and 'Is there anything to do here?', but my favorite interaction was the couple who were chastised for trampling flowers in the Paradise meadows. The gentleman looked surprised, then answered with a heavy accent: 'It is OK; we are French!' At a crowded VC counter long ago, I heard the lady in front of me ask the patient elderly Volunteer 'Have you lived here all your life?' Without missing a beat, he replied with the ancient vaudeville line: 'Not yet!'

Back in 1988, when working for the AP in Wyoming and covering the Yellowstone fires, someone asked why they couldn't use the water from Old Faithful to battle the flames!

And then, of course, the old standby that likely has been heard in more than a few parks: "When do the deer turn into elk?"

Another version I heard was, "At what elevation do the moose turn into elk?"
I was tempted to say, "It depends upon which side of the Continental Divide you're on," ... but I resisted :-)