Cambrian: Slice of Life

Are there really ‘no dumb questions’ — just a lot of inquisitive idiots?

Kathe Tanner
Kathe Tanner

I ask questions for a living, and when I do, I really hope none of them are stupid ones.

Then I remember when I was a kid hesitating to ask yet another potentially dumb query, my mom would reassure me that “there are no stupid questions when you don’t know the answers.”

But now I know that H.L Mencken may have been on the right track when he wrote something like, “no one in this world, so far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

He must have been empathizing with anybody working in a retail business. Whether you sell food, fashion, gasoline, houses, cars or widgets, you’re sure to get daily doses of dumb from the people you serve. Mind you, I’m not talking about sensible, chamber-of-commerce type questions, especially from tourists.

In our years in various retail-oriented industries, we were always happy to answer newcomers’ questions about the area or point them to whatever destination they hadn’t found on their own … the Post Office, the grocery store, the return to Highway 1, Big Sur, how to get to Highways 46 and/or 101, and how to get back to their motel or vacation rental home.

But when those same visitors ask such brilliant questions as “what’s the name of that lake out there?” while pointing toward the Pacific Ocean, well, one has to wonder, doesn’t one? Seeking to prove to myself that I wasn’t just being grumpy, on May 18, I asked my Facebook pals: “In dealing with the public, what’s the dumbest question anybody ever asked you?”

OMG. In a few days, I got more than 130 replies, and the flood continues.

Obviously, I can’t list all of them here, but I’ll certainly share some that tickled my sense of the absurd. The Pacific Ocean and its critters are popular topics for dumb questions in Cambria. How about, “Do we have time to drive around the lake before dinner?” or “Is this the same ocean that’s off the coast of Washington?”

Kate Novoa was high above the ocean working in a Big Sur gift shop when someone asked her, “Are we above sea level?”

Similarly, Susan Price was on a cruise when she was asked, “How far above sea level are we?”

Ummm, it depends what deck you’re on.

Someone asked Bill Munds why the ocean’s water level was so low. “I looked out and the tide was out. Low, low tide. I told the guest the rains will fill it back up in a few hours and to be patient.”

Elephant seal docent Jutta Jacobs was carrying a white Styrofoam box filled with educational material to the rookery when a visitor asked excitedly, “Are you going to feed them now?”

Paul Downing and Peg Hulsey were asked, respectively, “When do the deer turn into elk?” and “At what altitude do the deer turn into elk?”

P.J. Webb had a snappy answer for “What time will the sea lion come ashore to be rescued?”

P.J. wishes she could have replied, “Well, ma’am, our 10 o’clock show is running late. Try at noon?”

Visitors seem to want to know where resort-area workers live. In Cambria, the question is, “Do you all live here?”

Patty Kemp-Wright’s standard reply when she was too busy to explain? “No, they bus us in.”

In Hawaii, according to Pat Guerre and Shelley Woeste, that residency question is even dumber. Shelley’s reply that she wished she could give? “Ummm, no. I fly in from California every day for work.”

On Maui, someone asked Rich Schlosser if there was water on the other side of the island.

Yosemite is another source of dumb questions, such as the one Mary Ann Meyer couldn’t answer, “When do they let the bears out?” and the one her daughter Emily Torlano fielded: “When will the Rangers turn Yosemite Falls back on?”

In the realm of “you really don’t want to know,” Jennifer Smith of Harvey’s Honey Huts was asked “So … what exactly is it that you collect from the porta potties?”

Someone asked photographer Michele Sherman what she was doing with a camera on a tripod, pointing toward the Hearst zebras. Her answer? “’Mowing the lawn.’ I was short on patience that day.”

Photographer Caity Tanner was complimented on her nice Canon camera, then asked, “What’s it for, anyway?”

So, I guess the poster that Deanna Voelker shared is right: “Cluelessness: There are no stupid questions, just A LOT of inquisitive idiots.”

Editor’s note: There are so many more, but they’ll have to wait for another column. Got one to share? Email it to

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