Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First Job: Lost River Caverns

I wouldn't have remembered that Monday was Labor Day if my American friends on Facebook and elsewhere hadn't (unintentionally on their part) reminded me of it. Truth be told I'm glad to let most American holidays and observances pass me by, unremembered. But Natalie used the occasion to talk about her first job so I thought, hey, I'll do that too!

Discounting under the table work and tutoring, my first real job was one I would keep for nine (!!) years (off and on): all-purpose wage monkey at Lost River Caverns in Hellertown, PA. I have words to use, but I think some pictures would be better at setting the mood.

Art Skool Damage has a charming collection of images. For some reason I really like looking at other people's vacation photos of my old workplace!

Anyway, what you maybe can't tell from these photos is that they also are a full-blown lapidary and jewelry-making supply store. Wire, beads, drill bits, cabochons, sheet metal....if you need it to make your jewelry project, they sell it or will gladly order it for you.

I started out as a tour guide for the cave part of the attraction. Luray Caverns or Mammoth Cave it isn't—I would tell people on my tours that the cave is just a baby cave, "only" 200,000 to 300,000 years old—but it's full of beautiful formations and a fair amount of history.

Over the years I gradually took on other duties until I got a lateral promotion to the store (though I still gave tours in a pinch whenever it was necessary). For a while I was what's called in Korean army slang a zzam: someone without any official power or authority on paper, but some level of unofficial authority in practice. (Mostly by virtue of being a tour guide for a billion years and being a college grad working with kids still in high school.)

Like I said, the store is full of arcane jewelry-making stuff. But what got the most spotlight in the store, in terms of jewelry supplies and floorspace, was beads. Looking at all those beads during my downtime or while I was working on the sales floor eventually got me into making jewelry. For a year or so I just made stuff for fun: stuff I liked and wore. Then the idea for math jewelry took me by storm. Kokoba opened shop in 2008 and I've been making number jewelry ever since. In case you wanted to know how I got started, now you do!

Working at Lost River Caverns was fun. Obviously, or I wouldn't have kept coming back every summer! The pay wasn't the best (no tour guide job pays well, we appreciate tips, thanks much) but as you can hopefully see from the photos it's a surreal time warp with its own roadside America road trip charm. Many of America's privately-owned caves are, actually, and I love them all from the bottom of my heart and wish them years of success and many satisfied customers. I love their earnest insistence on being what they are and nothing else. 

The people who worked there were great, too. My bosses (the brother-sister pair who own the whole shebang) were extremely easy to work under and are interesting and knowledgeable people in their own right. Discussion fodder included Monty Python quotes and zombie apocalypse plans as often as it did concern over the spread of White Nose Syndrome or how best to set a stone in bezel mount. Fellow employees were equally offbeat and I'm still friends with many of them today. Like, not just Facebook friends—real friends. Even like a second family. It's a very self-selecting crowd who works there for any period of time; everyone has some intangible weirdness in common.

The job itself was also loads of fun. I loved helping people (most people, some customers were insufferable turdbuckets) shop for jewelry supplies and giving them suggestions or tips on bringing their ideas to fruition. I guess my middle school theater ambitions never quite died, because I also loved being a tour guide and cracking jokes and entertaining and educating people about caves, and this particular cave, and rocks, and so on. 

The best tour I've ever had, by the way&mash;as in, I've been a paying visitor to another cave—was probably at Secret Caverns in upstate New York. That's the only time I've had a guide who seemed like he was coming from the same weird mixture of nerdfun (caves are cool! science is cool!) + deep capitalist wage slave despair (I'm tired and I want to go home) + dry sense of humor I think characterized most of my tours. 

Once in a while I entertain the fantasy of living out of a Winnebago, just wandering all over the United States being a gypsy cave tour guide. Not often, but sometimes. Maybe it can be my retirement plan if Sweden doesn't pan out.

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