A few years ago I worked at a national park on an active volcano. I mostly worked in the visitor center, where I saw hundreds of people each day, so I can attest to the fact that brains frequently go on vacation at the same time as their owners. People were just used to asking about everything, I guess, and would slip up and ask something really bone-headed (“How long is the 30-minute movie?”, “What’s the elevation at sea level?”, “Can I use the crosswalk to get across the street?”) only to realize what they’d just said and have a laugh. I was completely fine with people being brainless if they were polite and good-natured about it, but there were some who never seemed to understand that what they were asking for (or in these cases, usually demanding) was unreasonable.
One of the park’s main attractions is its active lava flow. For many years, the lava was slow-flowing and accessible by a short hike.
However, contrary to popular belief, the park does not control where and when the volcano erupts and cannot guarantee that your visit will be identical to that travel show you watched two years ago. I had visitors yell at me because they were physically unable to hike to the lava; because they didn’t plan enough time in the park to drive down to the trailhead; because I asked them to stand behind the line of cones demarcating the area that could collapse into the boiling sea at any moment. There were also park rangers who were yelled at because they couldn’t tell people whether the lava would be flowing next June. But my favorite story is of a special couple with a pressing need for hot marshmallows:
One morning I was preparing to give a talk about the park’s geology. As the time approached, I started collecting items that I would need for visual aids, including a pointing stick so I could point out areas on a big map. My talk had just been announced, and I was walking toward the map, when a woman grabbed my shoulder and said, “Hey, can we use that stick?” I responded with a confused and probably very dumb-looking expression. She repeated, “Can we use your stick?” I said I was sorry but I was about to use it for a talk, and invited them to come listen.
They said, “Oh we don’t want to come to your talk, we want to roast marshmallows on the lava. Is there a stick here we can use?” I explained that we only have props for visitor education. I wasn’t even sure if roasting marshmallows was a park-approved activity, but it didn’t seem too harmful so I let that part go. But they were so determined they actually asked if they could break branches off of the trees to use as skewers. Here I had to interfere, because destroying living things is definitely not allowed in a national park. They didn’t seem to understand why that would be inappropriate, but finally suggested using only branches that were already down. I didn’t have time to argue, so I tried to excuse myself. But they weren’t done. If I wasn’t willing to help them find the perfect stick, the least I could do was get them some marshmallows. I directed them toward the gift shop and walked away. They actually seemed annoyed with me the whole time, as if they had expected to walk up, be handed a bag of marshmallows and a roasting stick, and walk off to the lava. Perhaps we could even club a few endangered animals for them to roast for dinner. 0125-11
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