Like so many holiday weekends at the national parks, this one was no different. Parking lots were full, people were milling around the sequoia grove. As a Park Ranger, you were expected to work holidays as that’s when so many people visit the parks. One perk of working the holiday as a federal employee was getting double time, overtime.
As I walked up to the Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park’s iconic tree as the world’s largest, one visitor in particular caught my eye. She was carrying a small tree out to the parking lot with her, a trail of dirt left behind from the root ball hanging off the bottom. I stopped her, saying “Ma’am, excuse me, ma’am?” She stopped by, but spoke in broken English, “Yes?”
“You can’t take that with you. It’s illegal to remove plants or other natural items from the park.”
She didn’t seemed to comprehend, staring at me blankly. I kept repeating myself. Finally she handed the tree over.
As Labor Day weekend comes to a close, this memory is woven in my conscience. Living in a mountain town whose very existence depends on tourism, these types of events still occur pretty commonly today. But it’s also seems to me that holiday weekends seem to bring out the weird and wacky in a way rarely seen on a typical summer day.
You know what I’m talking about. Kids who decide to play a soccer game in a fragile mountain meadow in the middle of Yosemite National Park. Or one my friend Barb shared with me today about a tourist in Nederland who spying a postcard with our state flower Columbine accused the town of making a buck on a terrible tragedy, not understanding that the high school Columbine is named after the wildflower. Visitors who inquire innocently, “when do the deer turn into elk?” These kinds of crazy questions and incidents seem to that much more prevalent on a holiday weekend.
Perhaps it’s because folks who normally don’t spend a lot of time in the great outdoors make the big leap to go to the mountains or parks on a holiday weekend. It’s a long weekend, and they figure they should leave the familiar urban environment and make the trek to the mountains. They’re not familiar with wilderness/park rules and regulations and so as a consequence do what they would do while at home. Pick those wildflowers, pull up that tree, try to pet the elk.
It’s hard working in a field where everyone you work with is pretty much an expert on ecology, wilderness and conservation. It’s hard because when you bear witness to these strange acts and oddities, you can’t laugh or make fun, even though you really, really wan to. You can only try to keep your poise and act as if this is just an everyday occurrence and it’s not big deal at all.
However, once particular incident occurred here in Colorado that I simply could not keep my composure. While driving on I-70 west towards Grand Junction, we stopped at a place to eat near Silverthorne, Colorado. I guess we must have looked like we knew the area, because a tourist stopped us and asked “Can you give me directions to the Grand Canyon? I know it’s near by…” I was dumbfounded. In that moment, not mentally prepared as I had been donning my NPS uniform, I said, “Are you kidding me?”
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed as my husband calmly explained to her, that in fact the Grand Canyon was not anywhere close to where we were. That in fact, it was located in another state entirely and would take a full day’s drive to get there.
Now as I’ve gotten older, I know as the holiday weekend rolls around, expect the unexpected.