Monday, July 5, 2010

Mt. Rainier Visitor's Center

I once saw a sign in the Zion National Park Visitor Center: 

1. Outside to the right
2. 93 degrees
3. 8:00 pm

I try not to ask many questions in National Park visitor centers. I never ask where the restroom is, how warm it's expected to get, or when the visitor center closes. I find the restroom before I go in, then I ease through the door, sidle along a wall and search the bulletin boards and displays for the information I need. I am an experienced and resourceful holder of a National Parks Pass.

I was spotted entering the Mt. Rainier Visitor Center, after using the restroom outside. The man behind the counter boomed, "Do you have any questions?" while most of me was still outside in the light mist.

The man focused on me and blocked my view of the white board behind him, which appeared to hold the weather report. He seemed to have been waiting for me. I tried a few head bobs to get a clear view of the board, but he had dealt with craftier visitors than I. And he was not a small man.

I mumbled that I wanted to know how cool it might get that night and how likely I was to get rained on in the campground. I seemed to be the first person to ask about the weather that day; he turned to read the board with me.

After we had established "mid 40s" and "probably" the man turned back to me and asked what else I wanted to know. He had been waiting all week to answer my questions.

I warmed up to him and asked a few more things: what was his favorite day hike (still snowed in, but there were several at lower elevations that I might enjoy), how much had I dropped in elevation since coming over White Pass (about 2500 feet), and was there a cure for my fear of trees (try taking my glasses off). His eyes crinkled beneath grey hair. I was his favorite visitor that week.

We chatted on, swapping stories about other parks, our favorite hikes, and people who rely solely on their GPS unit, rather than carrying a backup compass and noticing where they are on the landscape (other people; not us). We were old friends; I was probably his favorite visitor all year. Admittedly, the visitor's center had only been open for a few weeks. 

By this time more visitors had arrived. None were sidling along the walls searching the bulletin and white boards, so I left the man to talk with other, less interesting, park visitors.

I moved on to the 3-D scale model of the park, on my way to the displays in the museum.

The man welcomed a young couple as they entered. He detected an accent and asked where they were from. When they responded, "Holland," he asked which part. He placed their home town in the correct region, which he pronounced convincingly in Dutch. Then he described the Dutch origin of one of his children’s names. 

The couple were his favorite Dutch visitors that week. 

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