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Lance Cpl. Aaron Kristopik, a paralegal with the Combat Center’s Staff Judge Advocate, looks up at a large formation of stalactites. Stalactites are formed over thousands of years from ceilings of caves.

Photo by Lance Cpl. M. C. Nerl

Aaron’s Exploits; journey begins deep underground

3 Apr 2009 | Lance Cpl. M. C. Nerl

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a weekly feature in the Observation Post where we follow Lance Cpl. Aaron Kristopik, a single Marine aboard the Combat Center, as he explores Southern California in search of cheap or free attractions for service members as a chance to get out of the barracks after he said he “realized the Combat Center seems to be a geographical oddity, where if someone drives two hours in any direction they will hit an awesome tourist attraction.” This week he headed northeast, to the isolated Mitchell’s Cavern.

 Lance Cpl. Aaron Kristopik, a paralegal clerk with the Combat Center’s Staff Judge Advocate and a native of New Britain, Conn., began his weekly expeditions to experience Southern California by an attraction tucked away in the rocky hills of the Mojave National Reserve, known as Mitchell’s Cavern, on Saturday.

After the two–hour scenic drive to the cavern, the day started with an explosion of knowledge when Mike Ray, a cavern tour guide on Kristopik’s adventure, filled his head with information about geology, and the history of the cavern.

“I had no idea a place like this could have been a tourist attraction since before the Great Depression,” Kristopik said. “And it’s cool that the state of California bought it from two homesteaders to keep it open as a tourist attraction.”

Ray told the story of the origin, and a short history of the cavern.

“The two of them, Jack Mitchell and his wife Ida, owned it as a homestead, and in the late 1920’s made it into a bed and breakfast and gave tours of the cavern,” Ray said. “The state bought it in 1956 and ever since then it has been a hard-to-find, but interesting tourist attraction.”

Kristopik said he learned a great deal from Ray, not just about the history of the cave, but how it was made too.

“I learned the difference between stalagmites, and stalactites, and how they’re all formed,” he said. “Before today, I would have thought those were bars on the Jersey Shore or something,” he said referring to the stalactite formations that seemed to drip down from the ceiling.

Kristopik said the cavern has altered the way he sees the world.

“I’ve been living my life wrong this whole time,” he said. “Being almost completely at one with nature, and experiencing the caves like this has really brought me out of my element.”

The entire time Kristopik was on the tour, he said he was really impressed and fully engrossed by the rock formations. Once he almost walked  face-first into a long spike of solid rock hanging from the ceiling of the cave.

“I just about walked into the stalactite, and I’m the last one in line,” he said after nearly hitting his head.

Kristopik said the different setting was unlike anything he ever experienced or expected.

 “I wore sandals today not even considering that I would be walking around rattlesnakes and other dangerous things in the wilderness,” he said. “Scorpions, and rattlesnakes; I’m terrified of them. All day I was the only one on the tour in sandals.

“I’m kind of a city guy at heart, and it’s really cool to start sightseeing in the middle of nowhere like this,” he said.

Kristopik said the tour was “one of the best tours – period.”

“The tour guide was great, he kept me interested the entire time and really knew his stuff about the cave system,” Kristopik said. “I’ve never really been in a cave before. Deep–down I took some cool stuff from there, it was one of those live, learn, love, kind of situations.”

Kristopik said his recent cave outing was a good way to begin his exploration of Southern California.

“This place is good, it’s a nice hidden away spot,” he said. “It’s one of those places you would have to look for to find. Not easy to get to because of the back roads and small towns, but it is definitely a good place to see.”

Kristopik said the cavern is an even more unique spot to visit because of its seclusion.

“I was talking to one of the park rangers and he said it took him almost three hours to go get supplies,” he said. “He didn’t even call it groceries – he called it supplies. That just shows you he probably has to go to Costco and buy stuff in bulk and survive out here on his own. That actually seems like a pretty sweet deal.”

Kristopik said the seclusion is what makes the area around the cave such a beautiful place.

“It’s far removed from any towns or cities, which is why the countryside out here is so incredible,” he said. “It’s breathtaking to see places like this. In the city where I’m from it’s nothing but congestion. This is good. This is healthy.”

Mitchell’s Cavern is a great place to visit even for someone who is not that “into” geology, he said.

“I would definitely recommend this for others to check out,” he said. “It was a long drive and we killed a lot of bugs on the windshield, but it was worth it. And I think they would appreciate being hit on the way to such a cool place.”

The way to the cavern is long, but simple. It is located outside the small town of Essex, Calif., with a population of only 100 people.

Soon-to-be patrons leaving from the Combat Center need only to follow Amboy Road, turn right on old Route 66, heading toward Needles, Calif.,  and take Essex Road north to the cavern at the Mitchell’s Cavern sign.

Admission is $2 for children five and under, and $5 all others.

For more information, to book a spot on the tour or to make camping reservations, contact Mitchell’s Cavern at (760) 928–2596.

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