From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Cave Collector

If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d all be millionaires.

Abigail Van Buren

I had been given yet another new nickname, the “Mother Lode Mole.” This moniker was bestowed upon me by a San Francisco Bay Area television reporter during a feature story about my cavern business, based in the foothills of the great Sierra Nevada. As a cave collector, I was used to it. Another television reporter shared with viewers that I had the “pale look of a shut-in.” Honestly, it doesn’t bother me one bit. I love living my life underground, exploring Mother Nature’s magnificent caves and sharing it all with the public.

Recently, again in front of television cameras, I tried to explain my collection of four public show caves and a gold mine by saying, “It’s better than collecting stamps.” With apologies to all philatelists, for me, being a “cave entrepreneur” is the perfect marriage of hobby and career.

I find that many life-altering events result from small actions and chance meetings, and my life is no exception. When I was just fifteen years old, I was in the school library when a book, The Darkness Beneath the Earth, caught my eye. My life forever changed when I reached for that book, for it revealed the fascinating, mysterious world of cavern exploration. I was hooked.

I was seventeen years old the first summer I worked in Kings Canyon National Park, located in the southern Sierra Nevada. During the summers of 1956 and 1957, while selling groceries and pumping gas at Cedar Grove Village, I was irresistibly drawn to nearby Boyden Cavern, a public show cave, and Church Cave, which was wild, untamed and closed to the public. I became acquainted with one of the guides who worked at Boyden Cavern, and he and I struck out to explore the whole Boyden/ Church cave system. After that, all of my free time was spent in the exciting pursuit of exploring these wonderful caves. Spelunking late into the night and sometimes into the early morning hours, I became an accomplished explorer of the dark and mysterious world I had so avidly read about.

After years in the United States Air Force, and later in the computer/semiconductor business, I still spent much of my leisure time exploring caves. One weekend in 1972, I sat at a Boyden Cavern picnic bench enjoying a cool beer and resting after a long caving trip. The owner of the business, who was having a bad day, came out and stood looking at the Kings River rushing by. He spewed, “I hate tourists, this canyon and the cave! For two bits I’d sell the whole thing!” I picked up a quarter that was on the table and tossed it to him. He looked at it and then at me and said, “Well, we could talk about it.” I knew I had to buy it, even though it would require me to quit my safe nine-to-five job, sell everything I owned, including a house with a swimming pool and an airplane. And I had to convince my wife she would enjoy life in the mountains with an uncertain income. I did so without reservation. I knew it was absolutely the right thing to do.

My introduction to self-employment was an amazing educational experience. I took over the operation of Boyden Cavern during the Fourth of July weekend, the busiest time of the summer season. I had to quickly learn how to juggle the work of keeping generator equipment and everything else running (no power company there), and serving the throngs of happy holiday visitors. At the end of the day, I reflected on the fact that I just spent an entire day showing my beautiful cavern to appreciative visitors, and I also got to take a box of cash home and count it! Work. Take home money. Have a good time. I was going to like being an entrepreneur.

Successfully running a seasonal cave business gave me the confidence to add to the collection, first with Moaning Cavern in 1977, then California Cavern in 1980, and Black Chasm Cavern in 2000, all of which are located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Not being content with running just cavern tours, I leased Sutter Gold Mine in 2001, a modern mine that had recently been closed, with the mining equipment still inside. This addition allowed me to show visitors the difference between nature’s amazing limestone creations filled with arrays of stalactites and other crystalline formations, and the underground labyrinth of the gold mine, which was created by heavy equipment and human sweat.

During the early years, I took particular notice of the extreme curiosity of our daily visitors: “Where does that go?” or “What about other passages in the cave?” or “Has all of this cave been explored?” were common questions they asked about the off-limit sections of the tours. That’s when I realized there were a lot of inexperienced, would-be adventurers who would love to go exploring the mysterious passages and chambers of my caves, testing their ability to conquer fears of darkness and tight places.

In 1980, with the purchase of California Cavern, my entrepreneurial skills kicked in when I developed the world’s first regularly scheduled “wild cave” exploration trips for the general public. The endeavor was so successful that I added another wild cave trip at Moaning Cavern, this time including a very attention-getting 165-foot rope descent. “The Rappel” was the first such true mountaineering-style rope descent ever offered to novice visitors. This rappel was not anything like an amusement park ride; it was real, just like rappels that cavers and mountaineers do, utilizing the same equipment and techniques. I trusted that with outstanding, well-trained personnel and equipment this type of activity could be made available to anyone looking for a truly authentic adventure. I was right. It also attracted an avalanche of television and news reports that resulted in even more visitors to the caverns.

I take great pleasure in offering the public a range of adventures. Thousands of visitors enjoy fascinating walks on lighted trails, crawling through tight passages filled with mud, rafting across deep underground lakes and hanging from the rappel while experiencing the incredible beauty of my underground world. I enjoy watching ordinary people do extraordinary things, things they didn’t think they could do.

My love of being a cave collector has taken me around the world. Besides exploring other caves, I am a sought-after speaker and consultant on cave management and development. I am a director and past president of the National Caves Association and first vice president of the International Show Caves Association. I formed Sierra Nevada Recreation Corporation in 1977 and have been active in both the environmental and historical preservation of my five properties, one of which is designated a National Natural Landmark, and another a California State Historical Landmark. I take extreme pride in what I do, but more important, I thoroughly enjoy what I do! And all it took was one book to change the course of my life. I hope the same for you.

Stephen Fairchild

[EDITORS’ NOTE: To learn more about Stephen Fairchild and his five underground adventure caves, please visit or call 209-736-2708, toll-free 866-762-2837.]

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