Mount Humphreys

Mount Humphreys, as seen from the top of Arizona Snowbowl


Q: What's the stupidest question you've been asked?

A: I get a lot of questions. As an Interpretive Ranger, “answering questions” is part of my job description. I am the interface between landscape and visitor. Whenever possible, I apply words to the silent story of rock and root, mountain and tree. If I sound a little big for my boots, it's only because I’m endeavoring to fill shoes roomy around the toes of titans.

Good interpretation teases takeaways out of an unbridled horizon; it pares a piece of the infinite and sends it home in an unsuspecting pocket. Providing good interpretation is a Sisyphean Labor, especially for us mere mortals. The brunt of that labor lies in answering every question as best I can, accepting that the range of human curiosity reliably produces inquiries that exceed my pay grade.

Especially on mountaintops. I often serve a station near the top of Agassiz Peak. At this lofty height, the Arizona Snowbowl's Scenic Chairlift deposits visitors into an alien altitude inhabited by andesite lava, threatened flowers, and scathing wind.

Here the alpine tundra is an environment inhospitable and indifferent to human life, rendered accessible by industrial steel. From our perch, we look down upon the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Six million years of lava domes and cinder cones extend into the distance like a geologic Jackson Pollock.

Ashen haze from seasonal wildfires smear the blue sky into darker hues of range and basin. To the south, Mingus Mountain hangs like a roof beam above the Verde Valley. To the north, the Grand Canyon opens a thin smile at the edge of the horizon. Ever-overhead, the pillar of Humphreys Peak boasts snow despite seeming tall enough to touch the sun. A self-made mountain, it rises from the Colorado Plateau by sheer will of stratovolcanism.

In this scene I stand, receiving guests as if I called the slope home. Some know for what they came. Others are lost in the enormity. Awe is commonplace, as is the sense that these heights veil something rarely glimpsed. For some, the sacredness of the peaks asserted by local indigenes becomes self-evident. In time, most everyone has at least one question.

“What can I see from here?”

“Can I go further up?”

“How do I get down?”

Dutifully, I respond within my limited, but growing, scope of knowledge. Most answers are easy, few require lengthy explanation and some have me outright stumped. Always, I answer honestly. That is, until recently.

Chatting with a man my senior by 40 years, I was charmed by his cheerful, intelligent and interested demeanor. He asked questions, and being a geologist, he even answered some of my own. Then, amidst easy conversation, he peeled a grin and baited,

“What’s the stupidest question you’ve been asked?”

In the moment I hesitated, but eventually trotted out the expected answer about such-and-such a person whose question betrayed obliviousness to the “obvious.” Satisfied, the man shook his head and snorted something about how lame-brained “some people” are. I chuckled half-heartedly, and we parted ways.

Come that evening, the interaction had a hold on my conscience. Chewing my cheek, I realized my dishonesty.

The truth is, assuming anything is obvious is a prescription for pretention. There are limitless paths of experience, and limitless bounds to what can be grasped by the mind. No matter how apparent an answer may seem, anyone brave enough to ask an “obvious” question has the humility to recognize the edges of their awareness and the ambition to expand them.

Not all questions share this ambition. In the case of my unnamed encounter, his slack inquiry aimed a fun-poking finger at those with genuine curiosity. He sought no mystery, no growth, only egotist affirmation that others were lesser than he. In that moment, his “Eureka!” was the sad giggle of self-assuredness. At such a great height, the irony of ego is lost amid the mountain’s shadow.

In hindsight, I resent how I politely played along. Condemnation of curiosity cannot be my kind of game. I revise my answer here. No grudge, kind sir, but to you and anyone else who cares to query:

“What’s the stupidest question you’ve been asked?”

My answer evermore shall be: “This one.”

Sean Golightly is a graduate of NAU’s anthropology program, serving his first season as an Interpretive Ranger for the Roving Rangers Interpretive Partnership. When not answering questions, he can be found performing as a local musician or meandering backcountry as an amateur adventurer.

The NPS/USFS Interpretive Partnership is a unique agreement between the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to provide Interpretive Ranger walks and talks in the Flagstaff area throughout the summer.

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