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It's not nice to make fun of tourists.

They are the people who bring us money. At last count, $1.36 billion per year in Sonoma County. And just last week I read that Sonoma County is outpacing both Napa and Monterey in increasing jobs in the tourism sector. That's impressive.

But their off-the-wall questions make it difficult to abide by this don't-make-tourist-jokes dictum. At the several visitors centers in the county, staff and volunteers will tell you that sometimes it's hard to keep a straight face.

They come in, with their mother-in-law, their dog, their crazy questions and "We just keep smiling," says Alice Richardson, who has spent the past 16 years greeting travelers at Santa Rosa's classy old railroad depot at the end of Fourth Street. "And then, when they leave, we laugh."

She's not talking about the average visitors who are looking for directions or information, who know what they want to see and just need a little help finding it.

It's the unexpected, the outside-the-box inquiries, the "You're not gonna believe this," stories that make the job tons of fun for everyone who meets the touring public here.

I visited around last week, talking to several of the many people who work, often volunteer, at our visitors' centers.

They all have favorite stories.

Ray Crowder, a Monday volunteer in Santa Rosa, remembers the man who asked for "the address of the Golden Gate Bridge."

When Ray explained that if he was on Highway 101 he couldn't miss it, the fellow was insistent.

He had to have an address, he said. He needed a cross street, so he could put it in his GPS.

This is symptomatic of our New Age culture. More and more people, relying on the marvels of the Global Positioning System, are saying, as this guy said, "I don't want to get lost."

Lost is a problem. Even before they arrive.

A Chicago woman who telephoned to say she was planning a visit to Santa Rosa said she needed the ferry schedule.

Assured that there was no ferry necessary, she argued that she had a map right in front of her and she could plainly see that Santa Rosa was out in the Pacific Ocean.

She was looking at Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. I don't think there's a ferry there, either.

There was also a geographically challenged visitor who wondered if the ocean near Eureka was the same ocean as the one at the town of Mendocino.

There's a Santa Rosa in New Mexico. And one in Florida. They cause problems as well.

The "Where am I?" questions are guaranteed to be fun. Sometimes they're so far out there, says Richardson, "you want to answer 'Earth.'<TH>"

The Santa Rosa depot is also the official California Welcome Center, a designation that provides for signage from the freeway in both directions.

This means that it gets a lot of people who are 1) just passing through, not making Sonoma County a destination, and 2) many who are just looking for a restroom.

The staff says "May I help you?" and the visitor says "In a minute!" and heads for the loo.

The big map of California on the wall is generally helpful for confused motorist. But not always.

A visitor who insisted she was heading north to Monterey could not be dissuaded. Richardson: "We suggested she might be confusing it with Mendocino. But she insisted that she was going to Monterey and that it was to the north. Even when we showed her a map, she was adamant. She left, heading north."

Another woman wanted "a map of the local area." What exactly did she mean? Sonoma County? The North Bay? Santa Rosa? Railroad Square?

"No," she said. She wanted a map of Anaheim.

Two British couples needed to see that big map. They wanted information on Disneyland and on places to have dinner at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. They planned on doing both in one day. Their question: How much time should they allow for the Disneyland tour?

There was also a call from a woman whose dear friend had died. She wanted to connect with him in the after-life and hoped the center could direct her to a medium. Come to think of it, that may not be so far off for parts of this county.

There was, in fact, a man who said he sensed a ghostly presence at the depot, "as if someone was waiting to be met at the train."

BOTH WENDY PETERSEN, executive director of Sonoma Valley's two visitors' centers, and Laney Fleming, Healdsburg's visitors' coordinator, say that most of their questions are about wine. Where to go? How to taste? What's the best time to come?

Fleming's favorite call came from a woman planning a winery tour in the harvest season. She wanted to be here for the crush, she said. She needed to make plans so could she please have the date, the exact day, the crush would occur?

A woman at the Santa Rosa center said she wanted to "have the wine experience" but she couldn't drink wine. "Are there wineries out there that don't have wine?" she asked.

Persistence like this is not unusual. In Sonoma, Petersen says they get people who not only think they are in our eastern neighbor. They are certain.

There are not as many of these as there used to be, she says. As Sonoma County's wine stock rises in public awareness, the identity issues are diminishing. And GPS has probably helped. But there are still a few who come into the charming old former library smack dab in the Sonoma Plaza, stand firmly in front of the staff and insist they are in Napa.

OF COURSE, there are questions that are perfectly understandable — just basic necessities. Such as: "Where's the closest nude beach?" Or "What will it cost to ship a suckling pig to Los Angeles?" Or "How far is it to Patty Hearst Castle?"

The people who run our "tourist sector" are ready for anything. As Richardson puts it: "It's like a long-running play. We're the cast and we stay the same. But the audiences are very different."

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