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.



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.


Stuck on Cactus

As I Sat and Rested, I Loved This View

This morning, I returned from a restful and enjoyable weekend with my brother and sister-in-law in the Coachella Valley. It seems that it takes half again as long to return to Los Angeles as it does to leave it. That’s because I usually leave early in the morning, a full hour before rush hour begins. It means staring into the rising sun as I approach Corona, but that lasts less than an hour. As Dan was working on building a home on Friday, I re-visited the Moorten Botanical Garden and hung out there for a couple of hours: It seems I never get bored looking at cacti. Then I went to Sherman’s Deli & Bakery for lunch, and spent the afternoon at a large Barnes & Noble close to where Dan lives. I picked up copies of Henry Green’s Back and Ross Macdonald’s The Way Some People Die. By then, Dan was back, and I drove the mile or so to my final destination.

Saturday was a special day, about which I will probably write a number of postings. In Desert Hot Springs, there is a museum named after and started by Cabot Yerxa, the man who discovered the hot springs at Desert Hot Springs. There was a Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebration, a few weeks before the November 2 date that is the Feast of All Souls in the Catholic Liturgy. Dan and I wandered around the premises, but did not take the tour because of the number of people present. I promised myself to return to Cabot’s Museum and lose myself in the wonderful zaniness of one of those original minds that seemed to blossom in the deserts of the Southwest.

Sunday, Dan, his wife Lori, and I went to see Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018) starring Ryan Gosling about the space launches that culminated in the U.S. astronauts first walking on the surface of the Moon. The film was so intense that I was not conscious of two and a half hours passing, which I normally would be. I highly recommend this film.