“Is the summit on top?”
“How come I can still breathe this high up?”
“This is my first time up Mt. Washington. What am I supposed to do now?”
We teachers tell students, “There are no silly questions.” But rangers on top of New England’s highest peak might begin to wonder.
Four years ago, Mike Pelchat, manager of Mt. Washington State Park, posted a list of actual questions asked by tourists at the summit information desk of Mt. Washington. The list is absolutely phenomenal.
“Are those clouds on a time schedule?”
“How often do you fire the fog horn?”
“Does the altitude make kids crazy?”
These questions aren’t just silly; they’re surreal. And when you think about it, that’s hardly surprising. For the average summer tourist, being transported to the summit of 6,289 foot-tall Mt. Washington is basically a surreal experience. Being a hiker myself, it’s easy to forget that most visitors aren’t. They’re not arriving at the top after hours of gradual ascent and immersion in nature. They’re not carrying maps, they’re not following trail blazes, and they certainly aren’t well-versed the alpine hiking environment:
Who cut down all the trees up here?
Boy, the visibility is over 90 mph!
Hikers — most of them — are at home in the mountains. Or at least they learn to be after a few hours of suffering up the Ammonoosuc Ravine or the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. Not so with most summer visitors. They are basically alien beings transported as they are straight to the top in a matter of minutes via the cog railway or their car. Yes, it must be surreal. So much so that it’s easy to forget important things, like where you are in the United States:
“Hiker to Mom on phone: “’I’m on Mt. Washington, New Jersey!’”
“Which of those mountains out there is Everest?”
You say that is the ocean we’re looking at out there. Which one?
Sometimes they are so disoriented that they think they’re actually at other famous places, halfway across the country:
“Where are the presidents’ faces carved into the mountain?”
“If I mail this postcard here will it be postmarked Mt. Rushmore?”
Surely these people have lakes and rocks and mountains — you know, nature — in some form back home, but stepping wide-eyed from the train on top of a giant peak seems to make them forget the basics:
“How do they keep the Lakes of the Clouds filled?”
“Are these rocks real? I can’t imagine anyone carrying them up from the bottom.”
“Is there any danger of this mountain erupting while I am on it?”
Can you imagine being the ranger who is asked these questions? It’s probably a little bit like being that poor devout Christian guy on my hall during the first week of college when the rest of us were discovering cheap vodka. These tourists get some weird ideas in their heads:
“Can you drink the water out of the toilets?”
“Does the wind get so high that you don’t let people under a certain weight out of the building?”
“Is there a one hour time difference between here and the bottom of the road?”
But it must be hard to get too upset. A lot of their questions have a child-like innocence. They remind me of the kinds of questions I was asked that time I substitute taught in a kindergarten class:
“Where does the air stop?”
“Did they start building the road from the bottom or the top?”
“Do you ever see bears in the woods? Yes. What state are they from?”
Years ago I hiked Killington Peak in Vermont in the summer and was surprised to find a steady stream of men and women in fashionable-looking clothing, designer boots, short skirts, and even high heels milling around the summit, until I remembered that the summit gondola, hidden just below us, ran all summer. Anyone who has hiked Killington, or Mt. Washington — or anywhere with easy car or lift access — has seen these people and can picture their conversations. It’s not hard to imagine them sidling over to the information desk and saying:
“You claim this place has the world’s worst weather; I always thought Philadelphia did.”
The full list is here. Enjoy.