By Miles Schroader
According to the U.S. National Park Service, more than 318 million people visited the 58 national parks across the country in 2018. But only about 20,000 get the pleasure of making a career out of the National Park Service.
People who get a job in the park service may be from different walks of life, but most of them will tell you they got into the job for a similar reason to Jackie Wheet of Bowling Green, a park ranger and tour guide at Mammoth Cave National Park.
“I know you’re not making the big bucks; you don’t see park rangers driving new Corvettes,” Wheet said. “We’re kind of like school teachers. They don’t get into teaching school because they’re going to get rich doing it, they do it because it’s what they love, and they get to enjoy work.”
Almost all of the tour guides at Mammoth Cave had been the cave at least once before working there, and many felt the same thing as park ranger and tour guide Dave Spence of Richardsville when seeing the beauty of the cave for the first time.
“Growing up where I did, I used to walk the soybean fields and cornfields looking for arrowheads.” Spence said. “But, the first time I went to Mammoth Cave was as a kid in the 70s, and the thing that will never leave me is the smell, the earthiness of the cave. Then walking in and seeing the rotunda for the first time, that’s never left me.”
“It’s a lot like the first time you see the Grand Canyon. You’re speechless,” Wheet said. “You go down into the main room, the lights flicker on, and your jaw just drops.”
Spence spent his college days WKU and became a contract archaeologist with his geography degree before taking a seasonal tour guide position, and eventually got full time job. But each tour guide has their own path.
Wheet was a parks and rec major at WKU who originally tried finding work in city parks and became a seasonal tour guide for five years before finally getting the full time position.
Another ranger/tour guide, Tori Grider of Shelbyville, didn’t go to a college or university but had always desired a career where she could be outdoors.
“I’ve always liked the outdoors,” Grider said. “I’ve known I wanted to do something like this since I was a kid. I was a tour guide at another small cave when I was 16, then I moved out to Yellowstone to work concessions, which is what helped me get my job here. So, the cards played out right, and now I get to do what I love to do every day.”
The tour guides’ versatile backgrounds allow different experiences for visitors, even if they have visited the very same cave before.
“All of the guides here have different backgrounds, so you could go on the same tour three times in one day,” Spence said. “You’ll get the basics from all of them, but each guide is going to skew their interest in there, and you’re going to get a different personality from each of us.”
Many people have a hard time seeing the beauty in their job, but Spence said the most beautiful part of his job can be seen quite quickly for visitors.
“You could go to different parts of Mammoth Cave, and each has its own personality,” Spence said. “But to me, the true spirit of Mammoth Cave is in what we call ‘the Main Cave.’ Going down the Historic Natural Entrance, then seeing some of the largest rooms in Mammoth Cave, and you’re literally walking in the footsteps of people thousands of years ago.”
As nice as the view of the Main Cave is, Wheet sees all of the hidden corners of the cave as the true beauty.
“I’m able to see things that few humans get to see when I’m going off trail, so you just become more passionate knowing that you’re somewhere so unknown to most people,” Wheet said. “I never get home and say, ‘Oh, I had to go to work,’ it’s more of an ‘I get to go to work.’”
Even the worst days on the job aren’t so bad for Spence.
“A bad day at Mammoth Cave is a good day a lot of people go to their jobs and they may not like it, or at least wish they were doing something else,” Spence said. “But here, my office has a view of the cave, and I get to see the cave, and everyone’s faces when they see it, so I don’t even have a little bit of regret taking this job.”
Grider said she loves the fact that she gets to see a natural beauty every day for her job, but she also realizes that Mammoth Cave isn’t the only treat the world has to offer.
“Of course, Mammoth Cave is beautiful, and this is home; but I also enjoy looking at other parks, especially out West,” Grider said. “I want to teach my 2-year-old that the world is your background, and you can do what you want with it.”