As people like you and me swarm through the West's national parks and forests, transmuting into that dreaded specimen, the summer tourist, agency staffers resort to trading quotes by e-mail to make the hot, hectic days pass more pleasantly. We are deliciously quotable because we are uninformed, stubborn, and we lie a lot.
Darryl Stone, now a superintendent at a park in St. Louis, recalls working at Yosemite, in California, when a woman drove up and asked: "Which way are the geysers?" Ranger Stone had to tell her to continue 1,000 miles farther, to Yellowstone, but she insisted, "I have a friend who saw them." Later, she wrote a letter of complaint about Stone's lack of cooperation.
Each year, visitors to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona purloin an estimated 12 tons of petrified wood to take home to fireplace mantels and front yards, despite numerous warnings that theft is a criminal violation. Once, some bikini-clad foreign visitors tried to bluff their way past park staffers while looking oddly stacked; another time, rangers received a tip that a man had put a large piece of wood in his car. Rangers checked his trunk and found a 40-pound slab of petrified wood. The tourist found this puzzling: "My 4-year-old must have put it in there."
Tales of cellular-phone pleas to park rangers from tuckered-out hikers on mountain peaks are becoming rampant - -but you don't understand, I'm really tired and need an airlift' - but it is the innocent queries at park gates, sent to us by reader and HCN contributor Evan Cantor, that reveal the width of our wonder:
"Why did the Indians build only ruins?" Visitor at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona;
"We had no trouble finding the park entrances, but where are the exits?" Visitor at Yellowstone National Park, Montana;
"How much of the cave is underground?" Visitor at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico;
"What is your best parking area?" Visitor at Zion National Park, Utah.
Sometimes, while we're wandering, we find what we didn't know we were looking for. A woman in Grand Junction, Colo., who had been recently robbed, was browsing at a secondhand store when she spotted a pretty good-looking bread slicer. It was hers. A talk with the store owner quickly led her to a garage sale where she spotted her bed, among other belongings. Police nabbed the owner of the garage. Over in rural Nevada, archaeologist Jeff Markos of Sparks was working on a survey when he spotted a rotted wallet in the dirt (the $550 inside had held up just fine.) Markos then spent days tracking down wallet owner Richard Dixon. "I can't believe anyone would be that ethical," marveled Dixon. The Utah man had dropped his wallet 14 years ago.
Would you call Grand Junction, Colo., fortunate? The town of 90,000 or so was chosen by the Frito-Lay folks for a test run of Olestra, the fake fat that passes through the body while adding not a single gram of fat. There are some repercussions, however; an 11-year-old boy suffered abdominal distress and missed three days of school after eating 6 ounces of Frito-Lay's new Max chips. Sadly, his was not the only fecal emergency caused by what the chipster folks have dubbed "anal leakage," reports the Daily Sentinel. What a choice: You can be fat or you can spend three days in the bathroom.
Some towns would kill for a life-size, fiberglass dairy cow on their main drag. This is local color, in black and white. Not in Park City, Utah. The local planning commission voted to boot the spotted bovine from in front of an ice cream shop because it violated the town's sign ordinance. The owners of Cows Ice Cream have now started a petition drive to save their mascot, Bessie. As one tourist who signed a petition said: "Cows are meant to be outside."
Six tornadoes blew over or around Denver International Airport July 9, but the major damage was to the windows of a parked car. That was the good news from an airport famous for bad news. So for balance, we note a Denver Post story that asked the age-old question: What does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer at DIA: $277,000. That's the price of a custom trailer for a hydraulic lift to elevate maintenance workers 100 feet. Once airborne, one worker can replace one dim bulb at a time in DIA's three concourses.
How do you measure who's made the biggest hole in the world? City folks might not think this is something to compete about, but in the West, bragging rights count for a lot. At issue is whether the Bingham Canyon copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, surpasses Chile's copper mine at Chuquicamata, called Chewkey, for short. Reporter Jim Woolf from the Salt Lake Tribune flew to Chile to check out the statistics on the ground and was suitably awed by that country's slightly bigger pit, some 2.6 miles long, l.6 miles wide, and .4 miles deep. He was lucky to see the pit's depths, since it's a rare day "when windblown dust or pollution from the copper smelter" doesn't obscure the area. "It makes me feel sorry for Chile," said Scott Endicott, a Sierra Club activist who monitors the continuing cleanup at the Kennecott mine. "They must have an even worse problem than we have."
Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumpersticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or HCNVIRO@aol.com