Cave Woman

Earlier this winter I spent a weekend at Zzyzx. (There’s a strange, almost illicit pleasure in typing that improbable sequence of letters). The name is the invention of Curtis Howe Springer who squatted in an area of the Californian desert then known as Soda Springs, about seven miles south of Baker on the old Mojave road. In 1944 he filed 12,000 acres worth of mining claims under a moniker he felt confident would reside at the very foot of an alphabetic list of place names. Some would suggest that his choice was supremely apposite: many view this corner of California as the end of the world.

But it is redeemed, for others, by the natural spring which renders it an oasis - a gathering place for the people of the region. Close by is a prehistoric quarry site where Indians fashioned projectile points used to hunt the game that gathered at the spring. Curtis attempted to leverage the allure of the oasis by bottling the water and building a health spa with an apparently natural hot-spring but which, in fact, featured water heated by a large oil burning boiler discreetly located at some distance from the bathing facilities.

The enterprise was a modest success and he built a substantial establishment of guest rooms, a dining hall and meeting facilities on these public lands. His presumption was finally curtailed in 1974, when he was arrested by the United States Marshals for misuse of the land as well as alleged violations of food and drug laws. The property was reclaimed by the government and the village compound bequeathed to a consortium of Cal State Universities who use the buildings as their ‘Desert Studies Center’. It was here that I stayed, for three days at the end of January, to attend the seventeenth Mojave Rock Art Workshop (MORAW).

The participants, mostly male and grizzled, were educators, academics, park administrators and amateur rock art aficionados who were gathered together to give and listen to informal presentations of research, newly discovered rock art sites and the tribulations of site-stewardship. I attended with Doug Brotherton and was accepted as a participant on the basis of my association with Doug, the recent publication of Rock Art at Little Lake (2012) to which I had made small contributions (Little Lake) and, perhaps, because of this blog’s sometime focus on the Chumash.

I was on the lookout for great stories – and the tale of Zzyzx was going to be hard to top. Each morning at dawn I ventured forth in 24 degree F. weather to run along the dry salt beds and try to fathom this strange, anomalous place in the vast desert-scape of the Mojave. By mid-morning, I was immersed in the minutiae of rock art recordation and the presumed archeological import of the data.

Late Saturday afternoon I listened to the archeologist Steve Schwartz tell his tale of  Lone Woman Cave, San Nicolas Island: Sifting fact from Fiction. Here was a story with a true dramatic arc that glittered with historic and pre-historic insights; a tale capable of competing with the origination myth of Zzyzx and possessing an allure sufficient to eclipse, as the day’s peak experience, the beauty of the dawn’s impossibly low sun grazing the salt lake and sending the long shadow of my frozen body bouncing into infinity.

In 1814, the Russian Fur Company dispatched Aleut otter hunters to San Nicolas Island, the furthest west and most remote of the Southern Channel Islands, to secure some of the many thousands of pelts required to satisfy the booming Chinese market. While a desultory trade had existed for years between the native hunters on the Channel Islands and itinerant European trappers this represented a new and threatening expansion of the fur trade and there was a violent confrontation between the Aleuts and the locals resulting in the death of many of the already marginalized Islanders. (When Viscaino landed on San Nicholas on December 6, 1602, he had reported it densely populated).

Reduced to an unsustainable population, the remnant Nicoleños were removed from the island some twenty years later. One woman remained, however, to search for her missing child, or, as told by Scott O’Dell in his fictionalized version of the story, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, having dived overboard from the evacuation ship after sighting her young brother left behind on the beach. In 1853, George Nidever arrived on the Island with a hunting party and caught sight of the woman, who had survived alone for eighteen years (the brother is killed by wild dogs early on in Scott O’Dell’s narrative), and she was gathered up and taken to his estate in Santa Barbara. On the mainland, she shared few words with the local Ventureños but with the use of sign-language indicated that her lost child was never found. Shortly after being baptized as Juana Maria by the Padres of Santa Barbara Mission, she succumbed to dysentery. This story became a staple of popular magazines in the late 1800’s and was revived by Scott O’Dell in 1960 with his hugely popular children’s novel.

Artifacts related to Juana Maria’s lonely sojourn on the island were recently recovered from a sheer cliff on the leeward side of San Nicolas by the noted archeologist Jon Erlandson. It had long been established that the Lone Woman lived, for the most part, in a cave, and objects she had used in her daily life were recovered from her island home in the 1880’s but were subsequently destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The cave’s location was lost for the entirety of the twentieth century and  Erlandson’s find was the first, twenty-first century indication that the cave's wherabouts might be recovered. Scott Bryan from U.C. Berkeley subsequently discovered an 1879 coastal survey that pin-pointed its location.

Steve Schwartz - seconded to Naval Air Systems Command which administers the Island and from which it fires test rockets – had attempted to locate the cave for over twenty years. Now, using Scott Bryan’s information he had the confidence to organize a major dig. Eighteen days and 40,000 buckets of material later, with the help of a team of volunteers, the cave was revealed in a sandstone outcrop that had held its secret for well over a century, in twenty feet of accumulated sand.

Steve reached the occupation floor of the cave and followed it 75 feet back into the cliff. At that point the Navy stepped in and halted his excavation. A cave of this magnitude almost certainly possesses artifacts from the beginning of human habitation on the Channel Islands. As Jon Erlandson has demonstrated at the much smaller Daisy Cave on San Miguel, evidence can be traced  back 15,000 years to what he calls kelp culture: the artifactual and nutritional basis of pioneer Asian Pacific voyagers - perhaps the first North Americans. (An Island on the Land and Ancient Isle).

While we can deplore the decision by the Navy to prohibit further archeological research in the cave, we can also be profoundly grateful that the island still exists. In 1945, San Nicolas was one of eight short-listed sites for the Trinity Atomic test, the dubious honor of which eventually fell to the White Sands testing range in New Mexico. The island thus missed its appointment with the apocalypse: but its place in history may yet arrive when proven to be the confirmatory site of the unique culture which came to the Channel Islands with the first peoples of North America.

On the brink of potentially major discoveries, thwarted by labyrinthine Naval bureaucracy, Steve Schwartz has chosen to retire.