Old Woman of the Mountain


In 1934, Jack and Ida Mitchell made their way to the Providence Mountains driven by their desire to reinvent themselves midlife. Four years earlier, Jack had staked several mining claims in this remote area, which included some mysterious ancient limestone caves regarded by the Chemehuevi as “Eyes of the Mountain.” A former general contractor and real estate investor, Jack traded in his brush and hammer for the miner’s pick and axe. For several years his western Arizona silver and lead mine, Evahom (Mohave spelled backward), proved moderately successful. However, by the beginning of the Great Depression, Jack, like many of his contemporaries, had gone broke.

Unwavering and determined, the Mitchells embraced circumstance wholeheartedly and relocated to their mining claims in the eastern Mojave, where, without regret, they embarked on a new life of rugged subsistence. Camping on a site below the caverns, they dined on roasted jackrabbits, dove and quail while they built a handsome ranch house and several outbuildings from native stone on their 160-acre homestead. Water was supplied from a remote spring through a 6,000-foot pipeline salvaged from a nearby abandoned mine. Over several years, with the help from their grown children and friends, the Mitchells would cobble together a popular tourist attraction that drew curious sightseers from the bustling Route 66 Interstate at Essex, located twenty-five miles due south on the desert floor.

In his spare time, Jack would explore the Providences’ other spelean wonders, including the legendary Cave of the Winding Stair. During his first attempt to determine the cavern’s depth Mitchell became stranded like a giant dangling spider, fading in and out of consciousness as he awaited being hoisted back up from the underworld. The consummate showman and promoter, Mitchell’s fabled autobiographical account of the ordeal became widely known through Desert Magazine, Touring Topics and other regional publications.

Edwin Corle, a popular mid-century American author and Guggenheim Fellow, known for his engaging but not-so-factual portraits of desert personalities such as Fig Tree John, fantastically embellishes Mitchell’s own exaggerated account into epic proportions with “Old Woman of the Mountain,” part of his 1941 collection of short stories published in Desert Country. Although Corle’s tale is highly distorted—the cave is only 300 feet deep compared to his inferred 1,200-foot depth—the author presents the reader with a suspenseful narrative, intertwining references to modernist painter Paul Klee, female anatomy and space-time.

Today’s “Keeper of the Cave is Andrew Fitzpatrick, the California State Parks Interpretive Ranger for the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. In two accompany audio tracks Fitzpatrick describes in detail the fascinating geological and more recent human history of the caverns.

In 1929 Paul Klee, a Swiss painter, completed at Düsseldorf in Germany a painting which is neither red nor pink in its totality of color, but varies in degrees of mauve. It shows a little man swimming upstream in what might be a vaginal canal, and as he is progressing it appears that his body is losing its general adult form and he is returning more and more into the shape of an egg. His little eyes are set determinedly close together, he is concentrating upon his goal, and his arms and legs are rapidly becoming vestigial—a few more strokes, and he will be entirely ovoid. He will have arrived at his destination, which can be none other than the womb, and which, directionally, would be located in the eyes of the observer. Klee called the painting by a name, which may be freely translated as “refuge” or “retreat” in English. The work has singleness, parity, and no doubt greatness. For his freedom and high degree of originality and his complete cleavage from conventional painting, Paul Klee was branded by the Nazi government an anarchist in art, whose depraved mind should no longer be allowed the privilege of living in Germany. Klee returned to democratic Switzerland and continued his great work until his death in 1940.

Also in 1929, when Klee was at work on his little man returning to a state of gestation, a prospector named Jack Mitchell roamed into the Providence Mountains in the Mojave Desert, sixty miles west of the town of Needles, looking, of course, for gold. The year 1929 would seem, at first glance, to be the only thing that Messrs. Mitchell and Klee had in common. But that is not quite so.

One painted a concept, and the other experienced it. Klee executed the abstraction; Mitchell entered the womb of space–time.

Paul Klee, “Refuge,” 1930.

Jack Mitchell was not a conventional prospector. He had been a real estate operator in Los Angeles, and in his transactions he had acquired some mining interests in Arizona. This led to his being bitten by the gold bug, and he proceeded to spend something more than a hundred thousand dollars in the development of his Arizona gold mines. He found some gold but not enough and finally came out in 1929 with nothing. And 1929 was a bad year to start all over again. He could not go back into real estate; so, reduced to the status of a hard-rock prospector living on bacon and beans, he went on looking for gold.

He has yet to find the gold, but his search has been far from barren. High up on the alluvial fans of the Providence Range is the old Bonanza King mine. Mitchell decided to give this area another look in the hope of discovering some low-grade ore. His chief discovery proved to be a lot of bats. When they returned to their home with the first dawn, Mitchell noticed from where he was camped that not one bat but hundreds of them all entered the same cleft of rock. A little climbing through mountain chaparral, and a few blows on the rock disclosed a small aperture.

If all the bats had gone inside, the area within must be a fairly respectable cave. So Mitchell forced the entrance, clambered over rubble, and found himself in a small cavern formed by erosion. But there were no bats. In the rear of the cave was a further opening, not much larger than a stovepipe. Apparently the bats had a cave within a cave, and Mitchell investigated further. It was half a day’s work to force this second entrance, and Mitchell picked away until he had broken through into a long, dark passage which led on into the depths of the Providence Mountains. On the ceiling, asleep for the day, clung the bats, disturbed somewhat by this intrusion. Half a dozen of them swept past his head in soundless arcs and dips.

Exploring as best he could with no equipment, Mitchell found passageways and grottoes and large halls and amphitheaters, all more or less bounded by innumerable stalactites and stalagmites. He could not go very far into this series of caverns until he had some cave exploring implements; so he returned to the daylight of the desert mountain range. It was all odd, nothing to cheer about especially, and certainly in no way related to his original purpose of seeking gold. He decided to remember the caves and some day return and really explore them. At least that was his intention. The truth is that gold mining went out forever, and the fascination of cave exploring took its place. Except for essential trips for more supplies and to get his wife to join him, Mitchell has hardly left the Providence Mountains since his discovery. And while he has found no gold, the caves have supplied a source of income, and he has been able to establish a tiny resort in a stunning location and indulge in his hobby of breeding wild birds, studying geology and archaeology, and in general exploring the never-ending mysteries of the Providence Mountains.

For people who love the desert country or who are only learning to love it, Mitchell’s Caverns are worth a trip. U.S. Highway 66 skirts the Clipper Range near Essex Post Office and leaves the Providence Range twenty-five miles to the north, and there is a good desert road from that point to Mitchell’s front door. He will know that you are coming as soon as you leave Essex, for the elevation of his property affords a magnificent vista, and your dust and the speed of its movement as it floats across the Mojave Desert will enable him to esti­mate almost to the minute the time of your arrival.

Some maps refer to these caves as Giant Caverns. For a while there was a plan to call them the Doheny Caves, due to a projected exploitation of them by Doheny’s money into the status of a full-fledged resort. Rather happily, this has been abandoned, but if the name of the caves is changed in the future it may be for a similar reason. At present Mitchell’s genial personality and sincerity are so much a part of the attraction that Mitchell’s Caverns is name enough.

Now there are people to whom caves are caves, and I’m one of them. But if you think, “Well, I’ve seen Carlsbad in New Mexico; why look at some lesser attraction in the Mojave country?” you will be making a mistake. What Mitchell has to show you is not comparable in size to the Carlsbad caverns—yet. But if you are a stalactite or stalagmite fancier you will find plenty of interest. Archaeologically it is believed that the caves offered a habitation to a local clan of Indians known as the Chemehuevi, a small offshoot of the southern Paiute tribe, in fairly recent times—probably during the last two to four hundred years. Before that they were doubtless populated by earlier bands of aborigines. The upper reaches of the Providence Range are high and produce some piñion nuts, and it is likely that these caves were used by Indians as a storehouse for the piñion harvest. All of which is the conventional information that you would expect to hear or read about almost any caves anywhere in the Southwest. And it is possible to visit Mitchell’s Caverns and hear all this and go away and not give it another thought. If you allow that to happen, you will have missed all the drama of the trip.

For what Jack Mitchell has so far been able to explore and make accessible to the general public is not one tiny fraction of what lies deep within this mountain range. For the public at large, the deeper caves are too dangerous. In time they may be conquered. Exploration continues; its details and statistics are breathtaking. It may be that Carlsbad will be dwarfed to insignificance.

One of the chief factors in cave expeditions is adequate preparation. One never knows what obstacles he may encounter, and like an attempt on Everest, it is the preliminary preparation that will determine the degree of final success. Not enough rope, not enough flashlights or gas lamp equipment or flares, improper clothing, not enough water—or even food in the case of the work in the Providence Mountains—any slight oversight before the attempt is begun may be the cause of the failure of the expedition. Little did Jack Mitchell know what lay ahead of him. There was no way for him to know that like the little man in Klee’s painting, he was well on the way into the womb of space and time in the great belly of the Old Woman of the Mountain.

Left: A 1953 Pennant Books collection of Edwin Corle's Mojave: A Book of Stories. Right: Ida and Jack Mitchell pictured in a March 1939 Desert Magazine feature by Randall Henderson.

Among the caverns thus far opened there are three or four separate entrances, and some of the caves do not communicate. One of them began like any ordinary series of halls, grottoes, and passageways and then turned straight down into a deep shaft many feet across, which precluded further exploration until somebody could be lowered by a rope. There was no way to estimate the depth of the shaft; flashlight beams failed to show anything, and dropped flares went down and finally out. A tossed rock or pebble obviously ricocheted against the sides in its downward course, but there seemed to be no final plunk of its hitting bottom. So Jack Mitchell decided to go down and see.

With his co-workers he got 1200 feet of rope, and they constructed a bosun’s chair and a windlass, allowed for stress and main and Mitchell’s weight (he is close to two hundred pounds), and were careful to guard against the ropes’ rubbing against the face of rocks near the top of the shaft. Lashed securely in this swinging seat and armed with flashlights and a little food and water, Mitchell was ready for a journey straight down into darkness. The plan was that when he hit bottom he should extricate himself from his roped security and explore further, and perhaps the others could be let down gradually and a new base established at the bottom of this crude elevator. Then they could work on from there. So far the plan bas failed, and miraculously Jack Mitchell is still alive to tell the tale. With everything ready and seemingly every precaution taken, the descent began. Mitchell went down in darkness in order to conserve the light which he would need as his drop in space progressed. He waved to the men at the top, and jokingly they began to pay out the rope. That was the last they saw or heard of Mitchell for two days.

When they were finally able to get him back he was unconscious, badly cut by the chafing rope, which had worked into his hips, without any supplies of any kind, and ready for a hospital.

When you are deep in the chilled darkness of a cave, weirdly illuminated by artificial light which serves only to accentuate the eeriness of your base, since the light is unnatural and increases the rock and stalagmite grotesqueries, and you are surrounded in all dimensions beyond that light by impenetrable blackness, time becomes a relative matter. What seems like eternity may be merely minutes, and what seems like minutes may be hours or even days. Nobody at the top thought very much about it during the first half-hour. Slowly the rope was paid out—once they thought they could see flashes of light as Mitchell was searching the walls of the shaft to learn the nature of the rock or to see if there were level passageways leading off. Once somebody at the top yelled “Hallo!” But the chasm simply swallowed the hail and sent back no echo.

Now 1200 feet is a long drop. In order to get a visual image, recall that the Washington Monument is 555 feet high. But those at the top continued to pay out rope while waiting for a hail from below to tell them that Mitchell had reached bottom. That hail never came. On went the rope until 800 feet were out. There was nothing for those on top to do but to keep on letting Mitchell down into space. Now it was impossible, by leaning over the edge, to see any light down in the shaft at all. Nine hundred feet—ten—eleven—the men exchanged troubled looks; could it be that there was still more to this shaft? Then they came to the end. Every bit of the 1200 feet was out—and where was Mitchell?—no sound, no light, 110 signal.

They waited.

The waiting was nerve-racking. When it had been an hour they looked at their watches. Odd—the watches said it had only been eleven minutes since the rope had been completely paid out. They waited some more. Had Mitchell hit bottom just at 1200 feet, perhaps, and wandered off, exploring down there below? No—the weight indicated that he was still in the bosun’s chair. Then what was he doing? Should they pull him back up? Or was he not yet ready to make the ascent? Why the hell hadn’t they planned a more definite system of signals and communication? And they had thought that every emergency had been allowed for—and now, they didn’t know for sure what they should do next. Dissension arose. One was for bringing him back; another was for waiting fifteen minutes more. The fifteen minutes went by. At last the men began to be afraid. This deathlike stillness was unendurable. Mitchell was definitely still in the bosun’s chair—there was no doubt of that. Perhaps he had never reached bottom. The only thing to do was to bring him up; then, if they had blundered, at least everybody was safe and a second attempt would be possible.

They yelled down to Mitchell that the ascent was about to begin. Just in case he was not ready they waited an extra five minutes. Then he would have secured himself safely again, granted he had ever had any reason for attempting to free himself from the strait jacket of the roped chair. No answer came back from the chill blackness. They began to reverse the windlass. It wouldn’t reverse. They put more pressure on it. It didn’t budge. In spite of the chill in the clammy atmosphere they broke into a sweat. No amount of exertion could make the windlass bring the rope up out of that black hole. They labored furiously over it for ten minutes—ten minutes? That was odd, for their watches said it was already an hour since they had called down that they were about to begin the ascent.

For another half-hour they worked, but the windlass was jammed, and there was no way to put any concerted effort on the rope strong enough to maintain itself while the 1200 feet were brought up. Mitchell must have felt a series of jerks and pauses and sickening drops as the men tried to use muscular power to no avail. They called down to him but got no answer; they dared not throw flares down for fear of striking him. Outside, the sun was setting and the desert was cooling, but to the men in the cave, night and day were one. They tried again and again to devise some way of bringing Mitchell back from the depths. Nothing worked, and too violent attempts increased the hazard that something might happen to weaken the rope. And if that should break…

It was impossible to take the windlass apart and repair it without removing the final few feet of rope, and if that were attempted Mitchell’s weight 1200 feet below might pull them all over before they could secure it in any certain way. Moreover, the windlass had been constructed and braced well out over the black opening so that the rope might be safe from the danger of scraping sharp rocks on the sides of the chasm; it was in a position that made it doubly dangerous to work on.

In other words, they were faced with repairing a piece of machinery which they hardly dared touch.

The next day dawned, and the weary crew weren’t aware of it. There was desperate talk of one of them going for help, but where to go and what to ask for was another problem. The nearest town of any size was Needles on the Colorado River, more than sixty miles away. It was a climb of fifteen minutes to the surface, a run of fifteen more over a narrow mountain trail to the nearest automobile, and then an hour’s drive to Needles. Explanation in Needles. Ideas. Men. Help. Then an hour and a half more back to the cave. That meant four hours at least before any help of any nature could be hoped for.

Then one of the men looked at the rope and turned paler than before. It was turning slightly, almost three-quarters of a circle, and then turning back. That meant that their efforts, plus Mitchell’s weight, had started a twisting motion. If it were three-quarters of a circle at the top, allowing for the play in the weave of the rope, Mitchell must be making three or four revolutions clockwise and then three or four counterclockwise, 1200 feet down below. Besides the sickening sensation of those rhythmic revolutions, it meant an additional strain on the tensile strength of the rope, and unless it were stopped it would eventually so weaken that one life line that it would surely give way.

An improvised and dangerous platform had been constructed about the windlass, and one of the men was out on that, risking his own neck should he make one slip.

Another exclaimed, “The fire department!”

© Bob Richards 1998

The others thought he had gone crazy, but he repeated the idea. Fire departments have been known to rescue children from cisterns and cats from trees, but could one bring a man out of a 1200-foot abyss? The man who thought of the firemen was about to dash off for Needles to implore their help when the man on the windlass said, “It looks to me as if it ought to work—let’s just try it once more.”

He scrambled down, and the weary crew tried again. They began to turn slowly, steadily, and the big roller revolved, pulling up the rope slowly, while the men strained and waited for the rope to slip. Somehow it didn’t. It had caught, and the roller continued to turn and bring the rope up at a tedious pace, which, to those who labored, seemed to be a foot a minute. Actually it was much more than that; nevertheless it was a good five-hour job to bring the 1200 feet to the surface of the cave. With it they brought the unconscious form of Jack Mitchell. They swung him to safety and cut him out of the bosun’s chair and managed to revive him. And then, like the exhausted crew of a racing shell, the men themselves collapsed.

Within twenty-four hours Mitchell had recovered sufficiently to be able to tell his version of the story. He had gone down into darkness, not using his flashlight until he was about a hundred feet below. At this point the cylindrical walls were further apart, and he could tell that he was in a much larger opening than farther above—something like the interior of a huge inverted funnel. Galleries and ridges and corridors led off in various directions, and different geological strata were visible. Once he thought he heard rushing water. But sound was difficult to distinguish in this cavern. The water sound may have been only a hail from above, entirely distorted to his ears. About halfway down, the walls retreated so far that he was simply descending in darkness, and his light was not sufficiently strong to pick up any further rock formations in any direction. After an interminable time he was aware that the descent had stopped. There seemed to be a faint glow far above from the lights around the windlass, but he could not be sure. At last he understood that he was at rope’s length, 1200 feet deep into the belly of the Old Woman of the Mountain. He cast his flashlight in every direction—right, left, forward, backward, up and down. The strong beam revealed absolutely nothing but Stygian blackness, no matter how he played it. He was suspended in an immense chamber of black emptiness. No man had ever been here before, and what lay about him or how far the huge chamber extended he had no idea. He ignited a flare and dropped it. It fell burning, a reddish comet falling away from him and disappearing below. He could not say that he heard it strike any bottom. It burned, it dropped quickly away, and then it was gone.

For hours he hung in this dead, silent, black womb of spacetime. He became weary; his legs became numb; he had to fight a terrific impulse to go to sleep; his mind became torpid. There was no purpose in anything. He was not afraid. There was nothing but nothing, and there was nothing to be afraid of. All of that material world of light and sun and shade and color and day and night seemed an unreal dream. All that thing he had thought he lived in was an unreal world on some other planet. No, not some other planet—just any planet—for he was in the cold, black emptiness of interstellar space. He was not afraid of falling, for no longer did he have a sense of up or down or north or south. He was alone in the universe. All other men were dead—no, they hadn’t been born yet. Which was it? It didn’t matter whether man had appeared yet or whether he had to wait another million years to be born—for it was all instantaneous. Time was a hoax. Now he understood it. Time was a silly jest that men believed in, or had believed in if they had lived, or would believe in if they hadn’t lived yet. But here, in the womb of universal nothingness and allness, space and time were both simultaneous—this was the quintessential pinpoint of all directions at once through space and through time. It was all possible points in the cosmos; it was all possible points in conscious time; it was the cosmic center from which some demiurgic force could jestingly create a world and call himself Jehovah or Brahma or Baal.

No longer had he been here in the plexus of consciousness for an hour or two or a day; hours and days were a chimera of limited experience. He had been here for an instant; he had been here forever—it was the same thing. He was not living, he was dead, and in this unlimited death was a meaning which limited life never knew.

After a long time he awoke. There was a breath of cool air. He was moving now through the desert of interstellar space, passing at a distance star clusters, galaxies, island universes of nebulae, some of which contained planets with life on them, and vaguely he had a sensation of pain. Ropes were cutting through his clothing into the flesh of his hips, and he was conscious of a stirring round and around, and then a reversal, around and around. The womb was shaking him loose. He was going to be expelled into life. He was going to be imprisoned into human consciousness; he was going to be born…

This is the story you may easily miss if you happen to visit Mitchell’s Caverns. Just how great these caves may be or how far they extend into and under the Providence Mountains and the Mojave Desert is still conjecture. Jack Mitchell is still going on with the slow work of further exploration. Some day in the future they may be mapped and made accessible, but that day is a long way off. But you may be sure that Mitchell will be there for the rest of his life. He declares he has learned more from the caves than he can tell. A descent into darkness holds no terrors for him. And as for the still unplumbed bottomless pit, for that womb of the Old Woman of the Mountain he has great reverence. There are a few words to be said about it above in the limited light of day. Mitchell smiles slowly and says with simple firmness, with determination unalterable: “I shall go back.”

The Mitchells acted as “keepers of the caves” for twenty years until the property was transferred to California State Parks in 1954. Recently reopened after seven years of closure for repairs, tours of the caves are available Friday through Sunday by appointment only. For scheduling and information visit: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=615. Old Woman of the Mountain was originally published in 1941 for American Folkways edited by Erskine Cadwell. Sound design for audio tracks by Tim Halbur.

This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

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