As a kid in grade school I was fascinated by maps and excelled in Geography, a subject not taught much nowadays. I’m taking this for granted based on what I read about the current state of American education, a system lately producing college graduates who can’t find whole countries on maps, forget about capitals, major cities, rivers and mountain ranges. We send thousands of troops to fight and possibly die in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an entire generation can’t find those places on the map.
I’m reminded of this almost daily as I work the night shift at the front desk of my landlord’s motel here in Cody. Tourists come through the lobby door day and night, and don’t have the foggiest idea where they are, have been, or are going.
Three college age women checked in late one night. They were from Massachusetts and were spending a two-week vacation touring the West. They looked exhausted and told me they had driven for sixteen hours that day. I asked them where they had started out that morning. Blank faces.
“South Dakota?” one said as if posing a question. She looked at one of her fellow travelers. “Iowa?” that one asked. “Sioux something?” asked the third.
It was turning into a guessing game.
“Sioux Falls, South Dakota”? I asked. “Sioux City, Iowa?”
They were clueless. “Sioux something,” the third one repeated, rather irritated.
Not only are tourists geographically uninformed, but they seem to find the West’s vast distances so incomprehensible as to not believe them. Early one morning near the end of my shift a man showed up in the lobby and asked me if I thought he could drive from Cody to Denver (500 miles) by lunchtime. I said no, but he could certainly fly to Denver by lunchtime. He was disappointed by this information.
Another morning a young woman came down for coffee and announced that she and her husband were getting an early start so they could drive down to the Grand Canyon by nightfall. I asked her how far she thought it was. “Eight or ten hours” was her answer. “It’s about nine hundred miles,” I told her. “Better give yourself a couple of days.”
Some conversations have a more local slant, and can even be so cerebral as to touch on Newtonian physics, like when a man came down one morning and as he poured coffee enthusiastically told me of his upcoming river raft trip scheduled for that day on the Shoshone River. Though his infectious joy was tempered by one perplexing question: Did the rafting company float the rafts back to the put-in point after the trip? “No sir,” I said politely. “That would defy the laws of gravity. They put them on trailers and drive them back.”. He looked at me as if to say that nobody likes a wise guy.
The East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park is 52 miles west of Cody, and most of the famous natural attractions such as Old Faithful are 75 to 150 miles away. But you would be surprised by the number of people who simply cannot comprehend these facts. One woman told me she and her family were going to tour the Park, and then come back to Cody for lunch. Considering it was 7 a.m. this would have been quite a feat. I asked how far she thought it was to the Park. “Oh, about five miles,” she said, pointing west. “It’s just on the other side of those hills.” When I told how far it really was, she refused to believe me.
I’d thought I’d heard it all, until one day when a woman was telling me of her and her husband’s upcoming trip to the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. At one point she looked at me, and in a quiet, almost conspiratorial tone whispered: “Are the Indians friendly?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered back. “Things have been pretty calm since, well, General Custer anyway.”
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