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.