Lately I’ve found myself searching for the most mysterious, and ancient caves in the Mojave Desert. Caves that had been used by the earliest people to make North America their home. The hunt for these sites is both fun, and exciting because so little information is readily available about them, making the search into a game of a hide-and-go-seek.
The Old Woman Cave had my attention for some time, yet I had never set foot in the Old Woman Mountains. What little source of information that I had managed to obtain over the course of years of sifting through archaeological reports, I never had enough concrete evidence of the cave’s location to make the trip worthwhile. One day in January, while trying to figure out my next adventure, I took some time to really focus on the area of the Old Woman Mountains. I learned the name of one of the granite domes, and it piqued my interest….its location wasn’t far from a spring that’s name had previously crossed my desk as a potential location for petroglyphs.
I plotted my route as I usually do with the help of Google Earth, having never ventured into this portion of the Mojave, I wasn’t aware of road closures, and private roads. Because I wanted to maximize my time, I chose the most direct route…I found out that morning, that my plotting wasn’t going to get me to where I wanted to go. After almost two hours of driving up and down dirt roads, only to be turned around again and again by private road and closed route signs, I was ready to give up for the day, ready to return to the drawing board. I decided to be persistent, which eventually paid off as I found a direct BLM route, another ten miles down Highway 64.
The drive to the area of the Old Womans that I was looking to reach was far from short. Thirty plus miles over a dirt road, some of which was extremely sandy. Following railroad tracks, than power lines, into vast Ward Valley. About the time that it felt like I’d never reach my destination, the turn off was within a couple of miles.
After a few more turns down fairly well maintained roads, I arrived at the granite dome. I was surprised to find signs posted for an organization called, “Native American Land Conservancy”. I had assumed that the land was BLM land, but was excited to find out otherwise. The signs spoke of land preservation, and cultural preservation. A map of the Old Woman Mountains was provided, and showed multiple plots of land that had been acquired by the organization.
The dome was beautiful, the land around it majestic. A plethora of cacti, shrub, and other vegetation covers the desert floor, and granite stone piles up upon itself.
I set off around the dome keeping my eyes peeled for anything of interest, I immediately noticed a break in the middle of dome, which would have been carved out by ancient waters, a natural tank had formed itself there. Water was still present from the areas last rainfall, in November of 2013. I gazed up at the tall granite walls, and there I noticed a series of petroglyphs carved into the dark patina. I continued a little further past the petroglyphs and into the natural tank. There on the top of the dome it was, the Old Woman Cave.
From the ground I could see vibrant painted designs, however the cave was situated high above, and from my position I couldn’t figure out how exactly to reach it. I turned around, and climbed up the dome from its backside, when I reached the top there was a small crawl space that entered the painted cave.
I was in awe, all around me were bright-colored pictographs, over multiple panels. I don’t know what any of them mean, but I know that it is something special. A range of colors from orange, red, black, and white had been used to decorate the walls.
I noticed that the floor of the cave was smooth, with a reddish gloss to it. The red tint likely indicates that at one time the floor had been painted, much like the walls surrounding it. A website called, Petroglyphs.us, provides the following fascinating description:
“The petroglyphs and pictographs are combinations of geometric rectangular & circular shapes with some diamonds, triangles, parallel & wavy lines. Absent are depictions of anthropomorphs, bighorn sheep and other representational figures found elsewhere in the desert. Power for both male and female shaman came in dreams, usually from guardian spirits in animal form. These spirits would provide instructions and songs to cure illness and protect against malevolent shaman and ghost intrusion. Dreams could be obtained by spending the night alone in particular caves. The Chemehuevi ‘dream’ their creation myth (which is similar to the Mohave creation myth) and it is from this dream they acquire their power. Chemehuevi rock art, both petroglyphs and pictographs, symbolizes those dreams.”
After I compile my documentation, I left the cave, and made my way back to the petroglyphs that I had come across earlier. I stopped to document these designs, then continue around the dome to find yet another large panel of petroglyphs.
About this same time, a white SUV pulls up next to my Jeep with the name, “Native American Land Conservancy” prominently displayed. An older gentleman along with two dogs emerge from the vehicle. The gentleman introduces himself as Tom Askew, a site monitor with the NALC. It was immediately obvious that Tom was the kind of guy that you’d want to sit down and share a beer with, he was friendly, informative, and had an obvious love of this land.
Tom explains that this land was his grandfathers, he had purchased it in 1923. After his grandfather has passed away, he inherited it, and lived on it for several years. Tom pointed to an area up in the hills, “that was my camp up there, one of my vehicles is still up there, it has been all shot up by people, one of these days, I need to figure a way to get it out of here.” He went on with stories about how the hills are filled with boulders that appear to be in the shape of human heads, and how they would yell at him because nobody came to visit any longer. Tom took this as a sign, and felt compelled to invite the descendents of the Chemehuevi back to these lands.
Tom made the drive to Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella. Here he met a man by the name of Dean Mike. Tom presented a photograph of the painted cave, and told him, “Here is a picture of your property, this belongs to your ancestors. If you’re interested, give me a call.” A lengthy process of creating a non-profit ensued, but eventually the NALC was formed, and the land turned over to the descendents of the people who once called this home.
Tom now works for the NALC, he makes the trip from his current home in Essex on a regular basis to keep an eye on the land and the resources that it contains. We talk for a little over an hour, before he bids me farewell; probably to make his rounds to the plots of land that are now held by the NALC.
In the short time I spent with Tom, I could tell that the man has a beautiful heart. He loves the land, its history, and the people that he went to, to give the land back. If only more people would be like Tom, we would live in a better place.
As Tom pulled away, I made way toward another interesting granite formation that had caught my eye. From the distance I could see an arch in the rock, and what looked like a shelter. I approached it, and peeked inside. A large rock was conveniently located inside, and a few faint black and orange pictographs adorned the ceiling. Very cool I thought to myself, “bonus pictographs”.
I returned to my Jeep, and took off, I wasn’t much in the mood for hiking today, so I followed the dirt roads to some of the addition plots of land that are controlled by NALC, looking for anything that popped out to me as interesting. A few miles away from the Old Woman Cave, I noticed another small shelter site, I parked the Jeep, and walked out to it. Along the granite walls outside of the shelter, a dozen or so petroglyphs had been carved. I entered the shelter, hoping to maybe find additional pictographs, but there wasn’t any; however a few small petroglyphs had been carved inside.
It was getting late, and it was time to return down that thirty mile stretch of dirt toward home. I was pleased with my day in the Old Woman Mountains, I had found what I had set out to find, and encountered two additional sites that I hadn’t known existed. Meeting Tom was also one of the major highlights of the trip, I hope to again run into him one day, and hear more of his fascinating stories.
For more information on the Native American Land Conservancy, visit them online at: www.nalc4all.org
The following video was made by the Native American Land Conservancy. Watch it, and please learn from it.