While sitting outside a cave that I opted not to explore, I saw a bit of dirt trickle into its entrance. A marmot skittered in a nearby rock pile, and melting snow slowly dripped. A hummingbird checked out a patch of cliffside flowers. I realized that some small part of what these creatures produced would filter downward. Over several hours I watched nature on the surface almost imperceptibly feed nutrients to the underground—a magical observation I would not have made had I entered the cave itself.
I’m no caver. There were a couple caves that I refused to go into, including one with a keyhole-like entrance into which you had to insert yourself backward and twist around just right, before falling in. I got myself in halfway, struggled a bit, then figured I could probably get the rest of the way in. But I worried about performing the trick in reverse. I let my smaller, skinnier teammates go in, and waited outside.
At Sequoia National Park, I and about 50 other people joined a guided tour of Crystal Cave, the only “show” cave in the park. The young guide, Tyler Eaton, led us through an elaborately barred gate in the shape of a spider web (complete with outsize spider for a doorknob), then proceeded to give a perfectly pitched, wit-filled routine on underground geology, history, and ecology. At the end, he asked me: “How’d I do?” I told him he was obviously a pro. “No, it’s my first day,” he said. “I’ve never given a tour in my life.” Either Tyler was a natural, or the Park Service gives acting lessons.