Life In A Historic Hogan
The road wound steeply toward a mountain lined blue sky. The range was scattered with creosote bush and barrel cactus. A jackrabbit darted playfully barely escaping my Jeep's knobby tires. As Route 66 disappeared into the merciless desert behind me, the wilderness of the Mojave embraced me. A different life was before me. It would be a life of solitude and silence, of nature and simplicity, and of uncertainty and apprehension. I had never lived so far out in the middle of nowhere. Where the nearest mailbox is 25 miles away or more importantly the nearest beer stop is 60.
The higher I climbed, the more spectacular the view. I was mesmerized by the vast desert's lure. I rounded a bend in the road anticipating my next sight when suddenly three rock-covered buildings peeked over a ridge. A weathered sign that read, "Tour Center," proved my destination. I was at the end of my arduous journey. Finally as if I was Jack Mitchell, I was home.
Whenever I see an advertisement for a canvas yurt or a plastic dome, I can't help but to remember a time several years ago when I lived in a rock covered Hogan. Part of the historic complex of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in the Mojave Desert of California, this Hogan was constructed by Jack Mitchell in the 1940's.
Jack and Ida Mitchell fled Los Angeles for the Providence Mountains in 1929 after the stock market crash stripped Jack of his life's savings. Determined to turn two caves in the mountains that he had visited a few years before in to a tourist attraction, Jack acquired the use of the land and began erecting rock buildings to be the Mitchell's Resort where tourists could relax after a hard day of cave exploring.
One building usually reserved for newlyweds was called the "Honeymoon Hogan." Inspired by a dome form for concrete that Jack saw at a rock shop, Jack built a cottage in the shape of a Navajo Hogan. Typically dwellings of earth and branches covered with mud, Jack's Hogan is made of collected rocks and concrete. A geologic time capsule, the Hogan is a historical structure laced with a bizarre quaintness. The variety of rocks used to construct this desert igloo range from copper ore to cave formations. Now protected by law, the rocks can't be removed which is ironic as a few of the rocks contain ancient petroglyphs collected before restrictions.
The covered front porch of the Hogan provides relief from the scorching sun. Once draped by a non-native grapevine Ida planted, the Eden of the front porch fit the honeymoon motif of the Hogan. Now, the grapevine though old and cutback strains to bear fruit.
Inside the door of the Hogan, four pieces of striped Utah sandstone were laid in the floor to resemble a butterfly with its wings spread adding a nice decorative touch.
An opening in the top of the dome symbolizes the smoke outlet for a campfire but served in Jack's time as a stovepipe outlet. Today, the opening is capped with a modern day turbine and the stove has been removed.
The acoustics in the Hogan are unusual and sometimes eerie. Jack described the effect in his autobiography, "Caveman" as "movement answered by a hushed whispery sound." According to Jack, the dome's opening has a role in the strange, amplified sound of the room. One feels a psychedelic sense when words uttered from the center of the room sound distorted and unnatural. Jack was humored by the Hogan's ability to baffle his guests and commented, "I only smile enigmatically, for I am amused at the thought of a spook in an Indian ‘Honeymoon Hogan."
The Hogan was my home for six months while I worked for the park. When shown my living quarters, I was struck with questions of, "Is this all there is?" and "How can I possibly live here?" Not only was I in the middle of nowhere but I was to live out of boxes in a one room, fifteen feet in diameter circular house.
My living space was confined to the center of the room where every night I unrolled a foam futon only to pack it up the next morning. If I was too lazy, I spent the entire day leap-frogging over the futon.
Lined along the curved walls are a tiny four-burner propane stove, wall heater, refrigerator, and sink. Water fed to the sink is supplied from a distant well that is pumped to the complex, chlorinated, and stored in two massive cement tanks.
A generator that must run for at least three hours a day to charge a large battery bank supplies the electricity for the Hogan and the complex.
I washed my clothes by hand in the sink and dried them by wind on the line. There never seemed to be shortage of wind or clothes.
There is a small bathroom with a toilet, shower, and sink that was added on to the rear of the Hogan and thankfully is more comfortable to use than the nearby catclaw bushes.
I knew life in the miniscule Hogan was going to be a real challenge especially since I arrived at the park with everything I owned but nothing was more challenging than the isolation. Never had I lived sixty miles from the nearest town. When the cavern tours were over and the visitors left, the park was quiet. Only the sound of the wind howling through the mountains and the scream of a red-tail hawk penetrated the silence.
Nothing was more unearthly than the darkness. As the sun set over Foshay Pass before the moon had time to rise, an inky blackness blanketed the desert. There was only a stream of lights from traffic following Interstate 40 to light the sky.
On many days, I sat at the picnic table on the porch and gazed in to the distance. Before me more than 150 miles of the Mojave stretched across the horizon. I began to think about life and how these mountains renewed Jack's and now mine. I thought about death and how Jack was killed a mere stone's throw from where I sat when a car slipped off its jack and rolled over him. I thought about nature and how I was wonderfully surrounded by so much of it. And I thought about how the Hogan introduced me to a new way of life, one of simplicity. I found a life where my biggest worry was what to eat for dinner.
I never would have thought that a life without telephone lines, without Internet access, without a mall or grocery store to run off to when in need, without neighbors peeking over the fence, and without 1,500 square feet of space would be so rewarding. I learned that I didn't need all that stuff and it felt great. In fact, it felt so good that I have continued that lifestyle to this day.
Living in the Hogan gave me a feeling of independence, strength, and self-sufficiency. A lesson I learned from living in the Hogan was that I could and all I had to do was be resourceful and patient. A simple life is something folks are forgetting and sadly losing.
Jack Mitchell once said, "Every rock we laid for the Hogan had to be beautiful since it was to surround so much happiness." Happiness is something else folks are forgetting but something that can be easily found with simplicity. Jack finally found happiness in the jagged peaks of the Providence Mountains and that's where I found it too in a tiny cottage called the, "Honeymoon Hogan."