Travels in the American Southwest

Mitchell Caverns

See Also:
CmdrMark's Trip Report from 1998 on Mitchell's Caverns

Jack Mitchell's first descent was harrowing. A make-shift winch was attached to a tripod which was centered over the hole Mitchell had observed bats emerging. A jury-rigged bosun's chair was attached to 1200 feet of rope. Mitchell took some water, food and flashlight, climbed into the chair and his team started to hand crank the winch lowering him into the cave. Slowly they let out the rope, knowing that eventually Mitchell would reach bottom. Eventually...

Slowly the rope payed out until there remained only a few feet on the upper side of the winch. The team didn't know what to do. Had Mitchell reached the bottom? They called down to him but heard no reply. They decided to wait. Still no signal from below. Again they yelled down that they'd pull him up but waited a few more minutes just to be sure. Then the crew wrapped their desert worn hands around the winch, then looked at one another in horror as the winch refused to budge.

This was 1929. Help was available...In Needles, maybe...Hours away, once someone ran miles down the mountainside to the cars and then drove the dirt road to Route 66 finally arriving at Needles, then explaining the predicament and the long return trip. It was getting dark and the cold night wind rose.

One of the team stared slack-jawed at the rope descending into the cave. It was slowly turning. First to the right, them to the left. The men knew that this twisting would be multiplied many times at the end of the 1200 foot rope as well as weaken it, perhaps to the point of breaking.

Ways to retrieve their friend were discussed and dismissed as being too dangerous or unworkable. The rope passed through the winch. The winch couldn't be dismantled without the rope, and they feared poor Mitchell, falling. Forcing the winch could prove equally disasterous.

Time dragged on, the rope slowly twisting. Let's try one more time, they decided and the winch worked. It seemed to take forever as the rope slowly rose. They licked their chapped lips nervously glancing at one another. What would they find?

At last, they spied him slowly rising from the depths. An unconscious Jack Mitchell with burns on his hips where the rope had chafed his skin raw. He was taken to the hospital in Needles where he quickly recovered and told his story. He had never reached the bottom nor heard his friends calls from high above. He descended into a cavern which was so large that the feeble beam of his flashlight wouldn't reach the cavern's walls. Suspended, he slowly twisted in absolute silence and darkness, losing all sense of time and space while unknown to him, the team brain-stormed far above. Mitchell had been underground for two days, but after a quick recovery, he again returned to explore the caverns which today bear his name.

Paraphrased from "Desert Country" by Edwin Corle. Duell, Sloan & Pearce 1941 (c)

Tourist Trap

Back in Mitchell's day, before the interstate highway system, little curio shops dotted the roads. Some displayed Native American artifacts, some showed gem stones found in the surrounding mountains. It was only natural that Mitchell would give tours of his caves. These roadside attractions acquired pejorative "tourist trap".

Folks would drive up the dirt road from Essex to tour the caves. Mitchell's home, which overlooked the surrounding desert, provided him with a view! Today, the view from Mitchell Caverns is awe inspiring, much as it was then. >From his front door, Mitchell would see a cloud of dust slowly moving on the roadway. He knew that it hearlded the approach of tourists wanting a tour.

One day, a couple of guys drove up at the end of the day wanting a tour. Mitchell was tired after a long day and told the fellows to go to the second cave, light the candles they'd find there and feel free to look around. I'm sure the guys thought "tourist trap" as they scrambled toward the cave's entrance. As they entered the darkness, they saw the box of candles. Reaching in, they realized that something felt funny. They brought the candle to the cave's entrance and in the gathering twilight, they gaped at a stick of dynamite. They returned to the parking lot, cursing Mitchell soundly, I'm sure. They must have told all their friends the story of the tourist trap where some crazy guy tried to blow them up.

Was Mitchell's Caverns a tourist trap? Not really. The guys went into the first entrance where Mitchell was doing some excavation work, not the second entrance as Mitchell instructed. Dumb tourists!

The Chuckwalla

This desert reptile, a staple of the Chemeheuvis Indians has a unique defense system. When threatened, it scurries into a crevice and inflates bladders in its sides. This effectively prevents the chuckwalla from being dragged out and eaten by a four legged predator. But the Native Americans used Chuckwalla Sticks which were sharpened to a point on one end and hooked on the other. A couple of pokes with the pointy end deflated the chuckwalla and the hooked end afforded easy retrieval after which it was skewered and roasted over an open fire. Tastes like chicken, so they say. Just like rattlesnake.

Saw a black and white western on TV a while ago. Don't really remember the name or plot but one of the songs during the square dance was the Chuckwalla Swing. "Dance like the chuckwalla" sang the fiddler and the dancers swung their hips in an exaggerated Chuckwalla walk.

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