April 24, 2018

Since this is National Park Week…

Park Ranger

Years ago, I researched and wrote a number of articles on national parks for Outside magazine. In the course of that research, I spoke with and met a number of national park rangers and, as often happens when pursuing one story, another emerges. I learned that some rangers kept notes of the funny questions visitors asked in national parks and I began to compile a list. For example, one of my favorite questions someone asked is, “Why were all the Civil War battles fought in national parks?” Uhhh….

Outside published some of these questions in a short article titled “Where the Deer and the Presidents Play” in the May 1995 issue and then ran more of them online.

At Mesa Verde National Park near Durango, Colorado, which preserves and protects 600 cliff dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people who lived there from 600 to 1300 A.D., visitors have asked:

  • Why did they build the ruins so close to the road?
  • Did people build this, or did Indians?
  • Do you know of any undiscovered ruins?
  • What did they worship in the kivas — their own made-up religion?
  • Why did the Indians decide to live in Colorado?

From Yosemite National Park, considered the nation’s first:

  • Where are the cages for the animals?
  • What time of year do you turn on Yosemite Falls?
  • Can I get my picture taken with the carving of President Clinton?
  • How do I get to Old Faithful?

From Yellowstone National Park:

  • Does Old Faithful erupt at night?
  • How do you turn it on?
  • When does the guy who turns it on get to sleep?
  • We had no trouble finding the park entrances, but where are the exits?

From Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico:

  • How much of the cave is underground?
  • So what’s in the unexplored part of the cave?
  • How many Ping-Pong balls would it take to fill this up?
  • So, what is this — just a hole in the ground?

From Everglades National Park:

  • Are the alligators real?
  • Are the baby alligators for sale?
  • Where are all the rides?
  • What time does the two o’clock bus leave?

Please know it is not my intention to disrespect park visitors. Indeed, a number of rangers would not share their list of questions with me because they did not want to make fun of visitors asking them, an attitude that makes me respect the ranger corps even more. But such questions give us a starting place to share information about history, about nature, to share in the awe and wonder that a visit to national parks often provokes.

“National parks,” Wallace Stegner famously said, “are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."