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Sierra magazine
Smile | If You Think Saving the Planet's Funny

Half Dumb:
Yosemite's tourists say the darndest things

While attending college in Tennessee, I was lucky enough to work in tourist shops in Yosemite National Park during my summer breaks. Traveling far from my home in the Appalachian foothills, I imagined being joined in that sacred cathedral by fellow admirers asking questions like John Muir's: "Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds or the music of water written in river-lines?" and "Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?"

Instead, my colleagues and I were treated to inquiries like "When are the deer let out of their cages?" and "When are the bears fed?" (Answer: Probably at that very moment, out of the cooler the guy asking the question had left in his car's backseat.) Hiking was also a troubling subject. "How long is the four-mile trail to Glacier Point?" I was once actually asked. A tourist who had rented a raft to float down the Merced River wanted to know where he had to jump out to avoid plummeting over Yosemite Falls (which, in fact, feeds the river).

At least they knew which national park they were visiting. I often heard employees being asked for directions to Old Faithful. Other visitors seemed to be under the impression that they had entered a gigantic theme park. A young Frenchwoman once lingered after making a purchase at the gift shop. "When do they turn the lights on the cascades?" she wanted to know. It took me a moment to figure out what she was asking. "Do you mean 'When do they turn on the lights for the waterfalls at night?'" She nodded eagerly. I was desolee to disappoint her.

For some reason the mammoth granite outcropping of Half Dome, rising nearly a mile above the valley floor, excited above- average cluelessness. "How many pounds of concrete did it take to build that?" wondered a tourist standing in the valley below it. He may have been related to the guy who wanted to know where to get on the shuttle to ride to the top.

My favorite encounter came early one morning when I was working at the general store and three guys in my checkout line plopped three cases of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on the counter. They weren't among our alcoholic regulars, and I thought it was odd they were buying beer so early. I asked if they were stocking up for a party that night. No, they replied. "We're going to be the first people to get drunk on top of Half Dome!"

These guys intended to carry a case of beer each on the 8.2-mile trail that culminates in a precipitous 400-foot climb assisted by metal cables. ("Since 1919," the National Park Service's Web site helpfully notes, "only a few people have fallen and even fewer have died.") They probably didn't need a case each: Drinking at 8,842 feet lowers even the sturdiest tippler's tolerance.

I had to think quickly. "I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it's already been done," I said. Their faces dropped. "You see, they've already got a bar on top of Half Dome!" There were big smiles all around. They bought some beef jerky and a single bottle of water and left the beer on the counter. My only regret is that I couldn't be atop Half Dome (presuming they made it that far) to see their sorrowful expressions when they realized that the closest beer was back where they had started.

Carrie Merritt splits her time between Yosemite (where she works at the White Wolf Lodge) and Birmingham, Alabama (where she is on the board of the Alabama Rivers Alliance).

Illustration by Tim Bower; used with permission.

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