Desert Dreamers: Cabot Yerxa 2

Cabot’s Old Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs

Yesterday I wrote about Cabot Yerxa the writer. Today I turn to his Pueblo Museum on Desert View Avenue in Desert Hot Springs, a city a few miles north of Interstate 10 and Palm Springs. Other than the various spa hotels, the Pueblo Museum is the only real tourist attraction in that community. According to the pamphlet handed out at the museum:

Cabot’s vision is alive and realized in his 35-room, 5,000 square foot Pueblo built entirely of found and repurposed materials. Everyone who wants to see first-hand what can be accomplished with the three R’s—reuse, reduce, and recycle—will be in awe as they walk through the museum and home of Cabot.

In addition to the Pueblo itself, there are a number of outbuildings on the grounds, including a trading post, tool house, and meditation garden, to name just a few. The visitor can take a one-hour docent-led tour of the main Pueblo building, and easily spend another hour looking around the complex.

Cabot built the Pueblo later in his life, starting in the 1940s and continuing for most of his remaining years. Where most architects put together a plan to which they more or less adhere, Cabot did it the other way around. The size of the rooms had more to do with the building materials he had on hand at the time. Many of the windows, doorways, and stairs are unusually narrow or small. He justified his practice by referring to the Venturi Effect, which is usually applied to fluids, but which can also be applied to the movement of cool air in a desert building. In fact, the tour I had last Friday on a hot morning was remarkably cool in this non-air-conditioned structure.

Image of Eagle on Pueblo Wall with Narrow Window

There was no Home Depot or Lowe’s around for Cabot to buy standard windows and doors. Everything was based on found materials, as for instance in the window illustrated below. Usually, comfort on hot days in the desert is achieved by expensive air-conditioning: It is remarkable that Cabot’s Pueblo is actually quite livable. Even in West Los Angeles, where I live in an old uninsulated apartment house, the three windows facing the setting sun can heat the place up to 90º Fahrenheit (35º Celsius) until the middle of the night. Imagine what that would do in the Coachella Valley in August!

Check Out the Crude Bars and Barbed Wire on the Above Window

Although he traveled around the world more than most desert rats, Cabot Yerxa did know the desert from deep personal observation. That’s one of the reasons I am enjoying his book, On the Desert Since 1913.

 

Desert Dreamers: Cabot Yerxa 1

Scene from the Southern California Desert with Joshua Tree (L)

The deserts of Southern California are beautiful, but can be forbidding. I spent the weekend visiting my brother in Palm Desert. On Friday, I took a ride out to Desert Hot Springs to revisit Cabot Yerxa’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum. Simultaneously, I have been reading Yerxa’s collection of newspaper columns for The Desert Sentinel, written, with a few interruptions, between July 1951 and December 1957. They have been published in a book entitled On the Desert Since 1913 by Cabot’s Museum Foundation.

There, I find such gems as the following from December 11, 1952:

The cabin was swept and dusted, beds made up fresh, dishes put through a bath of soap and water. Then holes in the roof were repaired and firewood gathered. Boxes of groceries were opened, and it gave us a great sense of security to see packages of food on the shelf. We, very few of us, would see a store again for seven months, but we cared not. There was flower and yeast to make bread, sugar, salt, dry beans, cornmeal, canned milk, molasses, and a few other items to make many meals. But the greatest overall joy, with a thankful feeling of independence and satisfaction, was the fact that the land under our feet was ours! To no man must we pay rent or tribute for water, gas, electricity, phone, newspapers, or streetcar rides. We were free men in a new, clean, fascinating world.

Back in 1914, he had written:

Yesterday it rained for the first time in nine or ten months, and the desert was drenche. Just a steady, slow rain without any blustering wind. The sandy soil absorbed the welcome moisture completely and none ran off. The greasewood bushes opened their leaves, which are folded close together for protection during dry weather, and the damp air was full of their clean, haunting fragrance. All the sparse desert growh of bunch grass and small plants, usually quite brittle, were as limp and soft as though made of pretty colored rubber.

This post is the first in a series to be called Desert Dreamers. Tomorrow, I will write about his Pueblo Museum and what is to be found there. In future posts, I will write about other California Desert authors, most particularly Mary Austin.

 

 

Serendipity: Cabot Yerxa and Rattlesnakes

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

This is an entire article that Cabot Yerxa wrote for The Desert Sun on May 8, 1952 about his encounters with rattlesnakes. I myself have encountered rattlers several times during my hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains. Perhaps I will tell you later about my scariest encounter, which occurred in Point Mugu State Park about twenty years ago.

I have had many close calls with rattlesnakes. Then one night came a new one. It was quite dark, I was walking gingerly through a patch of cholla cactus, slowly making my way so as not to contact the vicious spiny stalks which I could barely distinguish in the gloom. Twice the noise of my feet crunching on rocks had disturbed snakes and I heard the buzzing, so I knew this was snake country.

Perhaps I was giving most of my attention to the cactus. Anyway, all of a sudden, without warning, I stepped right in the middle of a large coiled diamondback rattlesnake! He was asleep or would have rattled. Or perhaps his mama did not teach him to rattle. But this rude awakening made him mad, and he buzzed angrily. I could feel the strong coils twist and squirm under my feet, even now, and its head thrashing about my legs. You can be assured that I made two or three big steps. Fortunately my boots were heavy, because I still had five miles to walk in the dark.

On one occasion Bob Carr and I were walking from the railroad to the mountains on this side of the desert in snake season and after dark. We both had on just ordinary city shoes of rather thin leather, with no protection for our legs. First one man would lead and the other follow until it was embarrassing, then he would take the lead for a while and the other fairly thankfully follow along. We several times heard buzzing near us, but reached home safely. In those times it was rather silly to be out at night without some protection.

On moonlit nights, rattlesnakes cast a narrow shadow, and if watching closely it is quite easy to see them. In fact I have on occasion gone out on moonlit nights to find rattlers for my snake pit. At the old ranch house I kept 15 or 20 snakes and chuckwallas for pets. They were in a pit five feet deep and 13 feet square. Many people came to look at these, which brought in some revenue.

 

Cabot Yerxa: A Life in the Desert

Cabot Yerxa as a Young Man

In that great migration westward that characterized the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, there were many men of genius such as Mark Twain, who wrote Roughing It; Frank Hamilton Cushing, the ethnologist who studied the Zuñi Indians of New Mexico; John Muir, the great Scottish-born naturalist; and Cabot Abram Yerxa (1883-1965) who, in discovering the eponymous springs of Desert Hot Springs (DHS), embarked on a fascinating life full of creativity at every turn.

Today he is mostly remembered by a school in DHS named after him, but most especially for the pueblo he built of mostly found materials in imitation of Hopi pueblo architecture.

The Cabot Museum in Desert Hot Springs That Served as Yerxa’s Home

Last Sunday, my brother Dan and I attended a Mexican Day of the Dead festival (more about which in a following post) at the Cabot Museum. There were unfortunately too many attendees for us to take the guided tour of the inside, so that will have to wait for another visit.

When Yerxa first settled in DHS, he had to walk thirteen miles to the nearest known well. Using a dowsing stick, he discovered a well on his own property and commenced to dig. What he found were the first hot springs. That was fine for bathing, perhaps, but not for drinking. Taking up his dowsing stick again, he located another possible candidate and, this time, found cold water not too many feet away from the hot springs. DHS is right on the San Andreas fault, so there is a large underground aquifer in the area that is being replenished by runoff from the surrounding mountains.

The Pueblo Contains Many Examples of Pueblo Indian Art

During the 1950s, Yerxa wrote a series of newspaper columns for The Desert Sun during the 1950s describing his life on the desert. The Cabot Museum Foundation published these columns along with other biographical information in a volume entitled On the Desert Since 1913. In the weeks to come, I intend to reprint some of these columns for this blog.