“Cactus Slim”

One of My Favorite Places in the Coachella Valley

During my weekend in the desert, my brother and I didn’t get much of a chance to go gallivanting around. I did manage to introduce him to one of my favorite places, which, surprisingly, he had never visited. I am referring to the Moorten Botanical Garden on South Palm Drive in Palm Springs.

The garden was founded by Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten who had come to California during the silent film era and acted in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops films. By the 1930s, he had received a diagnosis of tuberculosis and was urged by his doctors to check into a sanitarium. Instead, he moved to the Palm Springs area and opened a cactus nursery. The story is told in Garden Collage magazine in a 2016 article by Molly Beauchemin which you can find here.

Acres of Incredible Cacti and Other Succulents

Dan and I enjoyed an hour exploring the paths overgrown with thousands of varieties of the desert foliage. The garden also does a land office business selling potted cacti to visitors.

One of the Most Photogenic Places in the Coachella Valley

Chester Moorten’s son Clark now runs the botanical garden. Plant varieties are carefully labelled with the plants’ scientific and popular names. There is even a greenhouse with hundreds of rare varieties which normally wouldn’t otherwise grow in the Palm Springs area.

For more information, you can visit the garden’s website: Moorten Botanical Garden.

Weekend in the Desert

Looking Up from the Book I Was Reading, This Was the View

It was good to see my brother again after four months of quarantining alone with Martine. Because she hates the desert (having lived and work for two years in Twentynine Palms), Martine stayed behind in L.A. and engaged in several cleaning projects which would have been difficult with me tromping about the place.

Dan and my sister-in-law Lori were, as usual, excellent hosts. Dan went out of his way to cook several gourmet meals including a vegetarian lasagna with eggplant and spinach as well as corned beef and cabbage with potatoes and carrots. We didn’t visit many places, because the Coachella Valley is still under a Covid-19 lockdown. But I did manage to read two whole books sitting in Dan’s back yard. The weather was perfect, an even 70° Fahrenheit (21° Celsius) with an occasional cool breeze.

The photo above was taken from the chair in which I was reading Hilaire Belloc’s Selected Essays and Jon Krakauer’s Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk. (I love reading essays, as I consider myself to be something of an essay writer, but in a small way.)

My Brother Dan at the Moorten Cactus Garden in Palm Springs

Because Dan lives in the lower desert of California, I would not venture to visit him during the blazingly hot summer months. I hope that he can make it to L.A., or I will have to wait until the fall to drive out again.

Desert Bound

Cabot Yerxa’s Pueblo in Desert Hot Springs

This weekend I will drive out to the Coachella Valley to see my brother. It won’t be long before the temperature goes up to 100° F (37° Celsius) and over each day. Although Dan has air conditioning at his place, I don’t want to step outside only to be instantly dehydrated.

At this time of year, the desert can be beautiful. Alas, it has been a dry year, and thus not a great time for wildflowers. I remember times when I visited the desert in February and March to find it filled with uncounted millions of wildflowers, ranging from tiny blossoms to large cactus flowers.

Consequently, I will not post again until Monday, March 1. I hope to take a lot of pictures to use in next week’s posts.

The Quarantine Makes Us Boring

An Empty Restaurant

Things being as they are, I have a hard time thinking of interesting things to write. During the quarantine, I am involved primarily in four activities: food shopping, cooking, reading, and film viewing. There isn’t much I can write about food shopping and cooking, primarily because of Martine’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), most of what I cook is pretty bland. When I cook a dish for myself, I tend to go crazy with spices and chiles—because I can!

I would love to write more about places that I have visited recently. Except I have not visited many places recently. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Restaurants are usually closed, and the weather does not encourage picnicking.
  2. If you have to go to the bathroom, you pretty much have to buy gasoline.

I’d love to go driving in the local deserts, but I am uncertain as to filling these two basic needs which all travelers have. Let’s say I want to go to Boron, California, home of the Twenty-Mule-Team Museum. Not only is the museum closed, but I have no idea where I can get food locally, and whether the local restaurants are serving diners outdoors. There is just too much uncertainty.

Sometime this February, I will pay another visit to my brother in Palm Desert. My last visit there was at the end of October. There are some places we can go, and he knows which local restaurants are serving food. (Though the best food there is likely to be cooked by my brother.) To be sure, I will take my camera and try to find some places I can write about.

Until then, you will hear more about my reading and film viewing.

City of Bones

The Palace (Left) and the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque

One of the most beautiful Maya archeological sites is Palenque in the State of Chiapas. It sits at the edge of the jungle and just before the foothills of the Sierra Madre. My brother Dan and I spent several days there in December 1979. I would give anything to go again.

The name Palenque means “Palisade,” which was given by the Spanish, who saw the ruins as a fortress. By the time the Spanish conquered Mexico, the site had been uninhabited for over eight hundred years. It was around AD 800 that many of the major Maya ceremonial centers were abandoned due to various factors. These included drought, changes in religion and form of government, and other reasons.

Maya Glyphs from Palenque

According to Maya glyphs that have been recently interpreted by scholars, the Maya name for Palenque is actually translated as “City of Bones.” As the great Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered, the Temple of the Inscriptions was the tomb of a powerful ruler named Kʼinich Janaab Pakal. In 1979, Dan and I were able not only to climb the pyramid, but snake our way through the tunnel that contained the site of Pakal’s burial chamber.

The ruins could only be described as beautiful. Only Uxmal in Yucatán could be described as its equal for siting and architecture.

Ruins in the Mist at Palenque

I was surprised that my brother seemed to enjoy Palenque as much as I did. It turns out that the region where the ruins are located is a famous coffee-growing region. So Dan, who is a major coffeeholic, found himself drinking endless cups of the stuff.

We were in town around the Christmas season, where we had the opportunity of seeing the posadas whenever we had dinner in the nearby town of Palenque. At one point, we were having dinner when a shoeshine boy came in and began circulating among the diners. When he approached Dan, my brother quietly slipped off his sandals and proffered a large foot clothed in a fuzzy red wool sock. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter.

Breaking Quarantine

California Fan Palms Growing from Sulfurous Ponds

This last weekend, I spent a long weekend with my brother and sister-in-law in Palm Desert. Atypically, the weather was perfect. Dan mentioned that until I arrived, the temperature had risen to over 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius) for over 100 days in a row. While I was there, the high was closer to 80° (27° Celsius).

It felt good to see my brother again after 7 months of close quarters in West Los Angeles. We went swimming three days in a row, and even re-visited a couple of local sites.

These included the lovely Thousand Palms oasis and the Sunnylands park on the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.

One of the Cactus Gardens on the Annenberg Estate

Not all the facilities at both locations were open due to the coronavirus outbreak, but seeing anything beautiful these days is a rare pleasure—especially during a particularly ugly election year.

Going to the Desert

Joshua Trees at El Mirage Dry Lake

This next weekend, I will break quarantine for the first time to visit my brother Dan and sister-in-law Lori in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs. It will still be hot as Hades, but for the first time I will have a chance to talk face to face with someone other than just Martine.

She, by the way, will not be coming with me. Having lived and worked for a couple years at Twentynine Palms in the Morongo Valley, about an hour north of Dan, she hates the desert with a passion.

I would not live in the desert, as my brother does, but I enjoy visiting it from time to time—especially when the dead heat of summer begins to let up.

Perhaps I can visit a couple of places that I particularly like, such as the Thousand Palms Oasis or the Indian Canyons south of Palm Springs. More likely, I will be reading some books and taking advantage of Dan’s air conditioning and swimming pool. And, of course, his cooking.

As usual, I will be leaving L.A. before the sun rises. I will stop at Hadley Fruit Orchards In Cabazon to do some shopping before making a beeline to Palm Desert. Right around Cabazon, I will set my car radio dial to MOD-FM 107.3 to listen to their parade of classical 1950s hits with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, and their ilk.

Ice Storm

It Was a Very Slippery Celebration

My sixtieth birthday fell on January 13, 2005. My brother Dan decided to help me celebrate the date by flying up to Portland, Oregon, with me and taking me for a $100 shopping spree at Powell’s Books, which touts itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore.

We landed at Portland International Airport on my birthday and took a Portland Streetcar from PDX to our hotel, which was located in the center of town (I forget the name of it). Unfortunately, with our arrival there was a giant ice storm which crippled vehicular traffic and made walking on the sidewalk without crampons and ice axe quite iffy. We saw the cars swirling around in the streets, and we were lucky in not breaking any bones on the icy sidewalks.

Yet we managed to get around on foot … slowly.

Powell’s Books was fabulous. The last time I had visited a multi-story bookstore was Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London in 1977, on my way back from visiting Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I could have spent days—and a fortune in purchases—at Powell’s, but I managed to stay within a $100 limit, buying such books as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book about the Middle East by Freya Stark, and three or four other titles.

My only regret was that when my brother turned sixty, I was unable to return the favor in a timely way. I was working in an accounting firm, and April 5 (his birthday) comes during tax  crunch time, when I had to work seven days a week to meet the April 15 deadline. Now that I am retired, I would like to find some way to return the favor, because what he did meant a lot to me.

 

Plague Diary 18: The COVID Cooking Series

My Brother Dan with Grandson Oliver

Spending time with my brother Dan and sister-in-law Lori is my niece Jennifer, who has wisely chosen to quarantine with her family. Fortunately for me, and for everyone who loves good food, Jen has filmed Dan giving cooking instructions for some of his favorite dishes. Now I have mentioned before that I admire Dan’s cooking and am somewhat jealous that I am nowhere near so proficient as he is in the kitchen.

So, straight from Dan’s kitchen in Palm Desert, here are some wonderful dishes you can prepare at home:

  1. Hungarian Chicken Paprikás: Part 1 and Part 2. You can see the completed meal in Part 3.
  2. Vietnamese Lettuce Wrap with Skirt Steak.
  3. Quiche with Potato Crust.
  4. Da Bomb Eggplant Parmigiana. This is my favorite. If I can get Martine to try it, I’ll make this within a week or two.

My Niece Jennifer, Who Shot the Videos

Having enjoyed Dan’s cooking numerous times, I think you will find these a real treat. Let me know if you have tried any of the recipes.

 

Meat-a-Palooza

Dan Carefully Measures the Internal Temperature of the Meat

One of the highlights of my weekend trip to visit my brother and family in Palm Desert is a growing family tradition known as Meat-a-Palooza. Dan is an incredible chef, and he loves to prepare a feast featuring a variety of meat dishes. Incredibly, he is able to single-handedly prepare a multi-course feast that is all ready to be served at the same time. I can’t even do that with two dishes, let alone a dozen.

I don’t think I’m a bad cook, but I simply can’t compare with Dan. Everybody always asks him why he doesn’t open a restaurant. In answer, he merely smiles and begs to differ. He knows that running a restaurant is more than anything a form of slavery, involving long hours seven days a week. Visiting Dan’s place is always a special treat for me.

The Same Beef Dish on Serving Plate

The curious thing is that I am gradually turning into a vegetarian, but that all is put on hold when it is Meat-a-Palooza time. Dan’s dishes are always top drawer and worth eating irrespective of one’s foodie beliefs.

The Groaning Table Gradually Fills Up