In a city where tourism constitutes more than a quarter of all jobs – and in an age when the customer is always right – it can seem like tourists run Durango.
In high season, we see them feasting in restaurants, outnumbering cars as they cross intersections on their way back from riding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and forming lines for ice cream so serpentine they interfere with indignant pedestrian traffic.
But according to the people who regularly work with tourists, the resplendent splash of visitors’ money in local cash registers can numb Durangoans to the fact that they are vulnerable – strangers in a strange land – and need help coming to grips with Durango’s geography, habitat, institutions, wildlife, systems of transport and economy.
Like every service industry worker interviewed for this story, Jonathan Schrop, who has worked at the front desk of the Strater Hotel for about a year, said tourists frequently wondered about the altitude at which deer turn into elk, and if there was an optimal season for witnessing this transformation. (Answer: While elk can be found at higher elevations, alas, poor deer are stuck forever being deer, and elk being elk.)
“We also get asked whether there are bathrooms in the rooms,” he said. (Answer: While in the 19th century, the Strater’s guests would find bathrooms at the end of every hall, in 2013, there are bathrooms in every hotel room, a modern amenity typical of hotels throughout North America, even in the Wild West.)
Paula Nelson, general manager of the General Palmer Hotel, said she was sometimes confronted by tourists asking even more basic questions.
“We get asked, ‘Is this a real hotel?’” she said. (Answer: The General Palmer is a real hotel, not a toy hotel.)
Front desk manager Hannah Rehman said that while she fields a fair number of trivia questions, in her experience, easy questions can be the most challenging.
For example, on presenting some customers with the bill, she’s been asked whether the hotel would like to be paid in U.S. dollars – perhaps under the impression that a heifer and their eldest daughter’s hand in marriage would be preferable currency.
“It’s like they expect a barter system,” Rehman said, before clarifying that the General Palmer indeed prefers greenbacks and does not take, for instance, pesos.
Nelson said the front desk was happy to steer tourists who want to travel to Denver via the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge (it stops at Durango and Silverton, not Denver) toward the airport.
But she conceded feeling some dismay when tourists apparently believe the West is a region uniformly teeming with paranormal phenomena. She said in dealing with potential customers on the phone, one of the most persistent sources of tourists’ curiosity rested on whether the General Palmer is haunted.
(Answer: “It’s not,” Nelson said. “But they seem to think all hotels in the West are haunted.” Furthermore, since physician John Ferriar’s 1813 essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions, ghosts’ non-existence has proved a point of broad scientific consensus.)
Staff members at the Durango Welcome Center, Main Avenue and Seventh Street, which sees anywhere from 100 to 300 tourists a day in July, said it too is inundated with tourists’ interest in the conditions under which deer transform into elk.
But Debi Marti, who has worked at the center for over a year, said the harder questions tend to be impossibly specific and often assume predictive powers beyond current science.
“One guy called in to ask, ‘What will the weather be like on October 15th?’” said Marti, shaking her head. “I mean, I don’t know!”
(Answer: Below normal precipitation, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s long-range forecast for Durango.)
Marti said she was similarly at a loss when last week a man walked into the Welcome Center, baldly informed her that he had 40 kids in a bus and abruptly asked Marti what he should do with them.
(Answer: “I gave him suggestions, but he probably should have planned something,” she said.)
Sometimes, tourists’ mistakes are naïve, Marti said. For instance, couples take their children to play in Bodo Park, not understanding it’s a business center.
But at other times, tourists seem disappointed with more inherent aspects of Durango.
Marti said one couple from Las Vegas recently complained that Mesa Verde National Park was too far from Durango. It was unclear whether they expected Durango to do the gallant thing and simply relocate farther West or whether the couple thought that in building their cliff dwellings, the ancestral Puebloans proved inadequate planners in not anticipating Durango would become a city a thousand years later.
But Marti said the couple had other problems with Durango, saying “the train made too much noise.”
Tour guides face similarly fundamental questions of metaphysics.
Kathy Harper of Outlaw Tours fondly recalled hearing a woman marvel aloud at all of the flowers lining the highway to Silverton. “She asked who planted them,” Harper said.
At Southwest Whitewater, tourists’ often unanswerable questions about Durango are fodder for ongoing, informally kept lists.
Rory James, who owns Southwest Whitewater, said his personal favorite was, “Does the river run in a circle?” (Answer: It does not.) He also enjoys tourists asking, “Who put all the rocks in the river?”
He said some tourists who were about to float down the river also asked, “Where are the tracks?” which might suggest they were expecting a Disney-esque amusement park ride down the river as opposed to the lower-tech, gravity-based river travel we offer in Durango.
He said that while working as a ski instructor, he’d been privy to similarly searching if rudimentary questions, such as, “What’s up with the chairs on the chairlift going back down the hill? How come no one’s riding them?” And: “What do you do with the moguls in the summer?”
Zack Rowland, a guide at Southwest Whitewater, said that when he mentions his Native American roots to tourists, he must sometimes explain he does not, in fact, sleep in a teepee.
He said this did not generally exasperate him, as such people tended to believe that Montana natives still “ride around in covered wagons.”
But beneath tourists’ disarming questions lurk shrewd minds with unshakeably realistic expectations.
On Friday on Main Avenue, one tourist examining a T-shirt that read “Durango. Colorado,” asked his family, “Why are these novelty T-shirts so expensive?”