July 30, 2018

The Impersistence of Memory: A Return to the Reopened Mitchell Caverns

"Did they build these structures as part of the renovation?" I asked.

Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area had closed in 2010 in the wake of state parks budget cuts. After opportunistic thieves stole copper wiring and disabled the electrical line that lights the caves, it had stayed closed for seven years, and just reopened in 2017.

This was my first opportunity to welcome it back in person, nearly a year after its reopening—and so much of it seemed so unfamiliar to me, it felt like my first time all over again.

"No, these are all original historic structures from the Mitchells," Ranger Will said, as he charged my credit card the $10 entrance fee.

"Huh," I said, puzzling over my fuzzy memories. "Well, it was 2009 and I was late and in a rush and missed the beginning of the tour."

"I guessed I just missed that part."

That was my excuse, at least—but I wonder whether I've just seen so much stuff over the last 10 years that my brain just needed a refresher.

Let this be a lesson to me when I try to use the "Been there, done that" excuse.

Besides, I'm in a better position now to understand how such a "show" cave fit into the mid-20th century narrative of Route 66—and how Jack Mitchell gave up pusuing his mining claim seriously in favor of tourism.

After all, as our state parks ranger guide told our group, it's a lot easier to get a silver dollar out of a tourist than silver ore out of the side of a mountain.

Ol' Jack initially led his tour groups down from his home (now the visitors center) into the valley below and then up the side of the mountain directly below the opening he'd created.

The arduous trek took all day and was the only way to get into the cavern—that is, until Jack's wife noted that their house was more or less level with the entrance and that a trail could be blazed more or less straight across.

The new path proved to be much easier for roadtrippers making a stopover on the way east towards Chicago or west towards LA, and it provided a much better view of what's now the Mojave National Preserve (previously the East Mojave National Scenic Area) below.

And it's the same path that visitors take today...

...a moderate, but exposed, 10-minute walk towards the north-facing side of the mountain...

...past flowstones and cacti on the south side...

...and a newly constructed bridge, thanks to the California Conservation Corps...

circa 2009

...a vast improvement over the Indiana Jones-style, pre-closure crossing.

Of course, it didn't take seven years to build a bridge or even replace the wiring—but bureaucracy being what it is, even relatively minor changes take a long time.

Honestly, I wasn't sure if Mitchell Caverns would ever open back up, despite having been under the stewardship of the State of California since 1956.

But now, there are not only guides but resident caretakers keeping an eye on the place, preventing the spread of fungal spores that cause White-Nose Syndrome, and keeping visitors from hitting their heads on the stalactites hanging from above.

Some, of course, have gotten broken off over time (either accidentally or intentionally), but now there's a strict "No Touching" rule.

It's a pretty small cavern system, comprised of two distinct caves that have been connected: El Pakiva and Tecopa. You get from one to the other across yet another manmade bridge.

You try not to poke your eye out while looking up...

..and you look for droplets of water, no matter how tiny, as a sign that the cave isn't "dead" yet.

You try to distinguish distinctive shapes in the formations that are dripping from the surrounding limestone...

...and you try not to bring any of the "cave coral" home with you, as you navigate through some pretty tight squeezes (though not nearly as tight as Jack's original entrance to the caves).

When you're ready to leave, having seen no bats but having heard stories of prehistoric ground sloths and Niptus beetles that have developed a taste for dung, you exit through yet another passage just down the way...

...out into the blinding sunlight and temperatures that are 40 degrees hotter than inside the dank den of wood rats and pseudoscorpions.

Hopefully, I'll remember this visit for at least 10 years to come—and if not, then perhaps the third time will be the charm. I hope the caverns stay "alive" long enough to me to return.

Related Post:
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