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James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.

Silly Queries Asked at Historic Sites and National Parks

You cannot underestimate the American tourist. Well, no, that’s not fair; many tourists know a lot of history and ask very intelligent questions. Still, this box shows the result of Loewen’s asking various NPS rangers and managers “What are the silliest questions you get asked, more than once?” You’ll enjoy them! Also, you might imagine how you would reply diplomatically, if you were the NPS staff recipient.

From East to West:

  • In Washington, DC, at the Washington Monument, surrounded by its majestic ring of American flags, NPS rangers frequently get asked, “How does the National Park Service get all the flags to point in the same direction?”
  • Nearby, at the information desks of the National Gallery and the National Museum of American History: “We hear there’s a great mall around here. Where is it?”
  • Another foolish question, repeatedly asked at the Capitol, according to the Curator of the Senate, Diane Skvarla: “Where is the president’s office?” (They don’t understand the separation of powers.)
  • Across the river at Arlington National Cemetery,
  • These problems are hardly limited to Washington. All the way from Gettysburg down to the lower Mississippi River, staff at Civil War sites repeatedly hear, “Isn’t it amazing how so many Civil War battles were fought in parks!” And at Gettysburg, even worse: “How could they fight a battle here, with all these statues?” (When Loewen told the parks story to his guide at the Coliseum in Rome, she replied that Americans exclaim to her, “Isn’t it amazing that they found all these ruins next to subway stations!”)
  • At Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, rangers have a hard time replying to the query, “How much of the cave is underground?” Farther west, at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly, another stumper is, “Are there any undiscovered ruins in the park?”
  • At an alligator “farm” in Florida, my own daughter contributed a problematic item. When the guide invited questions, one tourist asked, “What do they eat?” “Fish, birds, we feed ours chickens,” he replied. Lucy then piped up, “What do they drink?” which drew laughter from the crowd. “Oh, strawberry milk shakes,” he quipped, before pointing out that they live in water. But Lucy was only four. The other questions reported here are all from, shall we say, grown-ups.
  • Some tourists seem not to grasp basic principles of geology, according to rafting company guides in the Grand Canyon, who report being asked, as trips commence, “Does the Canyon follow the river all the way down?” For that matter, some tourists lack basic logic: “Do we wind up back where we started?” Maybe they think they’re in Water World.
  • At Grand Teton, visitors ask, “At what elevation do the deer become elk?” In nearby Yellowstone, tourists seem convinced of the all-powerful nature of humans over Nature: “Where do you keep the animals at night?” “Where do you put them in the winter?”
  • The American tourist becomes no smarter at sea. Cruise ship crews report being asked, repeatedly, “Does the ship generate its own electricity?” “No, it has an extension cord that releases under tension from the stern,” was one response. Since this cruise went from New Orleans to the Yucatan, about 2,000 miles, the reply helped the questioner see the absurdity of his query. “Does the crew sleep on the ship?” prompted another silly reply, about each crew member having their own jet ski, so each evening we might glimpse hundreds of them leaving the ship en route to … where, exactly, was not clear.
  • To end on a less happy note: Essential history seems lacking at Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. There, visitors repeatedly ask staff members, “Did the President and First Lady return to this house after his term of office?”

As a college teacher, seeking to encourage thought and discussion, I always told my undergrads on the first day of class, “The only stupid question is the one you fail to ask.” However, staff stories from tourist destinations have convinced me otherwise.