Being a bit of a weirdo isn’t a character trait necessary to be a tour guide, but it doesn’t hurt, either.
Jessie Bailey, 25, is a tour guide at Ruby Falls. She is also weird in all of the good, endearing ways.
She wears a red flower on her buzzed head and dons a sheriff’s badge that she purchased in the gift shop because she "thought it was funny."
"People call me ‘The Sheriff,’" she said. "Foreigners and children think the badge is real. It helps keep them in line."
She also wears buttons featuring the likeness of Finn and Jake from "Adventure Time." In her personal life, she runs a photo adventure blog that chronicles her journeys with "Fatima," a boat sculpture that she acquired from artist Francis Sileo in 2010.
Bailey has been a tour guide with Ruby Falls for a year and seven months, and she has no plans of quitting anytime soon. In fact, though she only makes $7.50 per hour, her aspirations are to continue working at the popular tourist attraction in the future.
"My dad would like me to do something else," she said. "But I really like working here."
And she’s good at what she does. The tour runs smoothly with Bailey’s perfect mix of sardonic humor (she makes jokes about how "boring" and "interesting" the rock formations are) and firm hand with the tour. For example, you’re not supposed to touch any of the rock formations except one. Bailey will yell if you slip up.
Tips are encouraged at several stops along the tour. Big signs that encourage tipping make perfect backdrops for the guide. Bailey never once mentioned tips on the tour, but the implication was present, especially toward the end.
"It’s interesting because tipping doesn’t happen all of the time," she said. "Everyone might be having a wonderful time, but if we have issues, that might affect tipping. The most I’ve ever made is $84 on one tour."
Issues include a slow-moving tour, inattentive guests and having to deal with returning tours.
Bailey refers to groups returning from a visit to the falls as "survivors."
In addition to touring, Bailey has been training for other positions throughout the attraction. This includes the gift shop and concessions.
This time of year is known as the "slow season," but tours still take place, though not as frequently as the busy summer months.
Bailey led a tour of about 25 people into the cave Thursday morning. Only a few of the guests were from the Chattanooga area. Most of them were tourists visiting Ruby Falls for the first time.
A tour at Ruby Falls is a linear affair. Tickets are sold, and tours leave every 20 minutes. If there are no tickets sold, a tour guide just waits it out. The guides are stationed in a holding room prior to their tours.
"Sometimes, it feels like as soon as you get out of one tour that you’re back on the tour again," Bailey said.
The tour lasts a little more than an hour and features several brief stops along the way to the actual waterfalls.
Although a member of management was in the room during our interview, Bailey seemed genuinely sincere about loving her job.
"I grew up here with the attitude that this just wasn’t a great place," she said. "I got older and I realized that people want to be here. They come from all over the world to see it. So it’s a pretty big deal."
And even after hundreds of tours, Bailey said she still appreciates the tour.
"I don’t know if it’s because I have the memory of a goldfish or what," she said. "But there’s still stuff I look at in the cave that I haven’t seen before."
She also collects Ruby Falls souvenirs, especially antiques and historical memorabilia, like postcards.
Think you have what it takes to be a Ruby Falls tour guide? Bailey said a good tour guide must be both outgoing and patient.
"If you don’t like talking to people all of time, answering questions, don’t bother because you’re not going to have fun," she said. "You’re going to be answering questions all of the time. I just applied, and the next thing I knew, I was in orientation. If you don’t want to be in an office all day, this is a great job."
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