The desert is a good litmus test of personality types, isn’t it? A certain kind of person loves the desert emphatically; another kind “hates” it emphatically. One finds it “empty” while the other takes to the bleached, tan-colored expansiveness of it all as inspiring, a place that encourages free-associative thinking and calm reflection … (you thought I would say something else, but I’ve always been a drug-free person, you see). Not to mention it’s the perfect place to listen to drone music (I recommend anything by either the Hafler Trio or Soviet France; maybe Terry Riley). Basically, the verdict is in: Artists and other interesting people love the desert, so deal with it.
Some of my earliest memories are those of the desert areas in and around Palm Springs. My grandmother (Mona Eastley, 1902-2000) lived most of her life in Encino, but when I was a kid, she owned a second house down there, not far from Palm Canyon Drive. My brother and I loved the family trips to that house. My old aunt Nellie lived, throughout the 1960s, in nearby Yucca Valley, at the northern edge of Joshua Tree; thus one of my earliest memories is of waking up in a sleeping bag on the living room floor of her Yuck Valley bungalow, watching the blinding sun rise. That and, on the same trip (I think), taking a burro ride with my mother in Mexicali.
My grandmother’s Spanish-style house in Palm Springs (which her mother always pronounced as “Bum Sprinn”) had a big, delicious swimming pool, so for my brother and me, a weekend there was a case of oh-boy-and-hot-damn! The walls of the house were lined with oil paintings by my uncle, artist Charles Mureau, very Mexican-flavored they were, with a touch of ‘60s kitsch about them, in retrospect …
As kids, my brother Dean and I always fixated on stopping first at Hadley Fruit Orchards in Cabazon, just north of PS/BS, and getting their trademark date shakes; we loved making fun of the fact that the staffers at Hadley’s would put out these disgusting little “pit-toons” for customers to put their slimy date pits in after the “free samples” were (as we were sure and much to our merriment) grossly and sloppily eaten by the old lady customers. Oh yes, we were devilish, but harmless.
So we two goofballs had a comical thing going on about old ladies, but we loved Grama. She was a character. She was svelte and good-looking and at times harshly judgmental and “cutting,” which to us always sounded very funny when it was delivered in her warbly, high, angelic voice: “Oh God, I can’t stand women!” “Uh, shut up!” “Ach, those bastards!” The funniest thing she ever said to us when we were 11 and 12, respectively, was: “We didn’t come all the way to Palm Springs just to go to Thriftys Drug Store!” (We were loudly craving ice cream, you see. It was the pluralizing of “Thriftys” that cracked us up for days ... OK, for years.)
As we all know by now to the point of exhaustion, in the ’60s and ’70s big stars like Liberace, Frank Sinatra and Bob (“Now Completely Forgotten”) Hope had homes in Bum Sprinn ... the Desert Rat Pack! But it was mainly populated by, yes, old ladies who favored piled-high violet or blue hair and silver lamé dresses, who loved driving up and down Palm Canyon Drive in stretch Cadillacs, living their un-hip lives during the real Mad Men era, and enduring sweltering heat. Ah, but it was retro heat.
My Grama would’ve fit right in, but she was just a part-time resident. (By the way, the food in Palm Springs restaurants back then must have been Amy Sedaris–ly gross, don’t you think? We didn’t know, since Grama, God bless ’er, always cooked what the family called “old-country” food there: hummus, tahini, kibbeh, baklava etc., back when this delicious stuff was still pretty much unknown in America. Yum.)
Cloud walls of L.A. smog would roll their way down to Palm Springs a lot back in those days, and the reality check even now is, this gray haze (usually the centuries-old ‘inversion layer," not smog per se) still blankets the southern desert periodically, and it’s a bummer when it does. Then, the desert is no longer a gorgeously clear and windswept escape from L.A. but seems like just an ugly adjunct to L.A., as if it’s just another depressing school-and-work day that you have failed to escape.
For a recent PS trip, my girlfriend and I headed out in early April. We’re much, much, much too old to be anywhere near spring break or Coachella. No thanks. Pappy & Harriet’s is as close as I get to that. Off-season. So yes, this was a — cough, spit — “older gentleman’s” desert trip, and appropriately so. The desert is how old?
From our view on the I-10 after leaving Hollywood, there was only a small, pinched amount of snow left, still hanging on from all the rains, which we could see on top of a couple of mountains on the drive out; the first was up above San Dimas (past Pasadena) but then a larger spread atop the mountains looming over an area called Cherry Valley. Jesus, that mountain ahead is gigantic! I recall going to Lake Arrowhead up there once’t.
After all these rains, the San Gabriel and San Berdoo mountains and foothills, always so permanently brown and desolate-looking every time I’d go out east, now look a lot like moist chocolate cake, covered all over with a carpet of green and rivulets of yellow flowers, portending flowery goodness in the deserts to come..
The freeway hummed, an unromantic but necessary convenience; we arrived at the northern edge of Palm Springs precisely two hours after leaving Hollywood. Wait, I notice the fields of windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass are not moving at all, which is a little ominous. No wind today in P.S.? That's B.S. But luckily, the temp was cool.
So here I am in my very late, late, late 30s (that is to say, in my 50s), revisiting Palm Springs. My relatives are long gone, the sands and mountains just sit there, still, and the place looks the same as it did back during my beginnings here, which was pre-windmills, mind you. The big exception I guess is the main drag, Palm Canyon Drive. There’s been a lot of turnover there. Meanwhile, I can’t remember what street my Grama’s house is on, but somebody’s enjoying that nice pool right now ...
Our first order of business: the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. If you haven’t been on this, it’s worth doing at least once in your life; it’s a naturalist’s carnival ride (and if you’re like me and have no interest in skiing and thereby breaking your legs, this is the closest you’ll ever get to a ski lift). And I love heights.
The tickets are cheap. Basically, this tram car/capsule glides its way down from the top of a deep and steep, 8,500-foot-high mountain canyon about once every 20 minutes, and you and about 20 other humans will step inside such, wherein you will soon be swooped slowly but thrillingly all the way up to the top of the high, high “Mount” that is part of Mount San Jacinto State Park. You’ll be looking very, very close-up through the windows at the forbiddingly sheer and jagged, craggy ancient granite rock faces where (we are told) some very brave bighorn sheep live, which sounds insane.
It’s like some primordial, prehistoric Disneyland ride. You’ll get a nice, thrilling but soft jolt and sway of G-forces every time the capsule reaches one of the cable towers (there are five) on your way up. You will lurch and sway and enjoy it, I think, in a nice, goosebumpy way.
At the top of the mountain you are suddenly in Mount San Jacinto State Park and you’ve been deposited into the big visitors center on the east-facing top of the mountain, a usually bustling lodgelike complex (restaurant, etc.), no doubt a great place to have a drink and a meal; but, as always happens when I decide to come here, I’m not hungry.
You feel like you’re truly on top of the world, and you’ll want to answer the call of nature to go out and take a look around at what is truly another kind of world outside the door: an ancient forest of fir trees in the exalted, L.A.-long-forgotten atmosphere of a clean, clear, windy blue marble sky. It’s crisp.
The day we went, there was still a lot of snow on the ground, which is very gratifying to see and to walk upon and to crunch upon.
As Huell Howser (peace be upon him) might’ve said, it’s amaayzing to walk up to the edge of the cliff here and look far, far down at the desert, all 8,500 feet below. From up here, Palm Springs looks like a big brown waffle iron. And there are no wimp-barriers on these cliffs, either; you just have to be careful standing there on the rather sloping edge of the mountain. Keep your cellphone camera close to your chest. If you fall, that’s all.
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Once back down in Palm Springs, I gave in to the guilty feeling that I should take a walk — or dare I say a “hike” — around here. Our friend Lars recommended the North Lykken Trail, so we went with that even though I've become an committed indoorsman in my middle age. Well, we saw some tasty bushes of yellow flowers (Spanish broom, I think), but during this “hike” I'd hoped I might run into some nice spooky desert animals, the kind I’ve been obsessed with since childhood like all good boys: a rattlesnake, a scorpion, a tarantula, maybe a lizard or even (c’mon now) a beetle, for God’s sake. You know, the kind of creatures you always see on the warning signs but never see in real life? Is that asking too much?
I’ve seen more lizards and snakes in freakin’ Laurel Canyon near some neighbor’s house than I did on this particular day. One time only and many years ago, I saw a tarantula crossing the road in Joshua Tree, and I did once have a pleasant run-in with a dark-reddish horned toad out there too, his mottled, ruddy color making it so he blended in perfectly with the rock he was sitting on. On that day I got my money’s worth. More important, Pappy & Harriett's barbecue ribs were delicious that day too.
Screw it. Next we headed for dinner at the Ace Hotel. Civilization, bitches! The bartender fixed me the best gin and tonic I’ve had in a very long time … flawless, absolutely flawless. Interesting to think of a person (like him) living down here full-time. Later, during dinner, we witnessed a waiter singing.
Going out, the local paper in the lobby says, “Every April the Coachella Valley becomes the center of the music world.” That’s nice. But I prefer it the rest of the year.