The Best Tour Guide I’ve Ever Had

life travel

Earlier today, my family and I went to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge, Arizona. Coolidge is a pretty small town — less than 12,000 people in total. And it’s at least an hour away from any major city in Arizona. Also, this is hardly the most famous monument in Arizona, so suffice it to say we weren’t expecting too much. Really, it was just a fun random road trip on a holiday weekend.

Just as we finished eating our lunch at the picnic tables, the park announced that a new guided tour was starting in 5 minutes. That sounded like a good idea so we decided to join.

What followed was a vivid and dare I say gripping exposition on Hohokam culture some thousand years ago. Against the backdrop of what we later learned was a major architectural structure in a major city in a culture that has long since collapsed, this turned out to be a surprisingly engaging tour.

The tour guide was a short woman in her 50’s proudly dressed in the standard US Park Service attire with a small badge that read VOLUNTEER. Something was different about her. She really, really loved the subject of the history of the people in the Sonoran Desert. She didn’t just repeat facts; she told stories. She paused for effect. She made funny jokes. She asked thought-provoking questions.

It honestly seemed like the kind of tour guide experience you might see in a movie about some amazing story from a bygone era that ends with a tour guide summarizing how future generations today remember it.

By comparison, when we road-tripped to the Biosphere 2 a few years ago, that tour guide optimized his tour around what would be most likely to help him remember an old memory as an original member of the Biosphere planning team. It’s hard not to forget how sleepy I felt as he droned on.

This woman wasn’t there when the Casa Grande ruins were built 1,000 years ago, but wow the story telling! She was also strikingly knowledgeable about trade routes, the evolution of the Hohokam culture, comparisons with the contemporary Mayan and Incan cultures, and notably respectful of the modern-day ancestors of the original peoples of Sonoran Desert.

While I waited in line to speak to her after the tour, several other people walked up to remark on how it was the best tour they’d ever received. One older couple tried to tip her and she insisted that any money be donated to the park.

It didn’t make sense. How was this woman such a ridiculously good tour guide, and a volunteer at that? Was she a professional archaeologist or anthropologist? Or just exceptionally well-educated? My wife and I got curious about her background and asked her.

It turns out she was a school teacher, a medical lab technician, and later a nurse. Then at the age of 55, she finally discovered her true passion for explaining the history of the Southwest. She originally joined the US Park service in the maintenance department (i.e. janitorial services), the only way she could get an in at the time. She later followed other tour guides to absorb their knowledge and eventually got the opportunity to give tours herself.

She didn’t mention it, but it was clear she did extensive reading on the subject. She had no professional background in archaeology, no graduate degree, no undergraduate degree. In archaeology or any other subject.

What was most remarkable about her was that she was so engaged in her area of interest that any lack of formal education in it just didn’t matter. She read up on it herself, and she was the best tour guide I’ve ever had.

If she can deliver such an incredible experience for a humble free guided tour at a lesser known monument, what could that kind of engagement get you in a professional endeavor like writing software, doing data science, or studying medicine?

It was a great example for me that echoed a concept I’d recently read about in the book Deep Work: the idea that treating your profession with great reverence for the craft and skill involved in it can elevate it to something sacred, and create deep meaning not just for yourself, but for others who engage you.

The Deep Work book made a somewhat nuanced argument that so little in today’s world is considered sacred (in contrast to a pre-scientific world where so much was sacred), but that you can achieve a piece of sanctity in modern life through craftsmanship, which historically was thought to apply only to physical disciplines like blacksmithing, but which the author argues equally apply to modern disciplines like being a lawyer, or writing code.

After just reading that the night before, it was neat to see craftsmanship at work in the most unexpected of places. Who knew even a volunteer tour guide could be a craftsman in the sacred sense!

Thank you, Tour Guide Sharon, for a great tour, and for making me think a little deeper about what it means to love your work.


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