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.

“How Close to the Edge We Are”

Desert Wind Bending Palms

It was L.A. author Joan Didion who said, “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

After spending a weekend in the desert with my brother, I drove back to Los Angeles in a veritable windstorm. The worst of it was in Ontario, where I pulled off the freeway to pump gas and use the bathroom, the rest area at Calimesa being closed.

When the wind blows from the north, it whips through Cajon Pass and pummels the communities adjacent to Interstate 15 with an intensity which at times could be frightening.

So it was for me at the Shell Station off California 60 on Archibald Road. I had difficulty opening the driver-side door: It was as if the wind had nailed it shut. I knew better than to try to wear my cap and end up chasing it to San Diego, but little did I suspect that my eyeglasses were in the process of being yanked off my head and sent swirling into the blowing leaves and dust.

As I got back on the road to the freeway on-ramp, I had difficulty keeping my Subaru in my lane, driving as I did between 18-wheelers.

The worst of the wind was there, but it was also pretty wild at Cabazon, which sits on the low pass connecting San Jacinto Peak with Mount San Gorgonio.

My brother made a point of calling me around noon to see whether I was able to navigate the gusts without mishap. He said that it had gotten equally intense in Palm Desert, where he lived.

The Indian Canyons at Palm Springs

California Fan Palms at Palm Canyon

The area around Palm Springs is dominated by the huge mass of Mount San Jacinto. Nowhere else in California is there such a precipitous ascent from base to peak, 8,000 feet (2,438 meters).

While much of the surrounding landscape is bone dry, there are a number of lush canyons on Indian reservation land around the mountain. The Indians in question are the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who own a crazy quilt of checkerboarded land in and around Palm Springs.

I have visited Palm and Andreas Canyons, and would welcome a chance to see Tahquitz Canyon (below) which was out of bounds to visitors for decades after having been desecrated by hippies in the 1960s. I have never been to Murray Canyon.

Waterfall at Tahquitz Canyon

There is also a Visitor Center (closed during the coronavirus outbreak) near Palm Canyon, where the Cahuillas sell books and souvenirs. Please note there is an admission charge to visit the Indian Canyons.

Because the area is bone dry most of the year, the tribe requires that visitors come equipped with between 16 and 48 ounces of drinking water.

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.

Back from the Desert

Gus’s Fresh Jerky in Olancha, CA

Today, as a major heat wave was sending the desert temperatures as high as 107° Fahrenheit (42º Celsius), Martine and high sped south from Lone Pine to return to Los Angeles by mid-afternoon today. We had expected hot temperatures on the floor of the valley, so all of our major destinations were at an altitude between 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) and 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). It was not unusual for the temperature at these higher locations to be 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than our starting point for the day. In the White Mountains, where we viewed the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, it actually became chilly.

Gus’s Fresh Jerky (shown above) was one of the first stops on our trip. The unpromising building actually had delicious beef jerky and various types of dried fruit, honey, and olives. In fact, we stopped not only on our way up the valley, but also on the return trip.

One of the things one learns while traveling in the California desert is that there is little correspondence between how fancy a building is and the quality of merchandise (or exhibits) within. A store like this in Los Angeles would not be taken seriously. Check out their website, which belies the casual look of their premises.

The Laws Railroad Museum

Gas Station and Jalopy at Laws Railroad Museum

It was January 2010 when Martine and I last drove through the Eastern Sierras. One of our favorite destinations was an outdoor museum of pioneer life in the hamlet of Laws, CA. Four miles northeast of Bishop, Laws was a station on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, which ran from Mound House, NV to Keeler, CA, site of the Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill”) mines, which produced high grade silver, lead, and zinc. In 1900, the Carson & Colorado was sold to the Southern Pacific where it operated in various forms until around 1960.

Today, the Laws Museum is one of those outdoor museums to which various old local structures were moved, from railroad buildings and residences to various types of businesses. Martine and I plan to pay another visit next week.

One of the Original 19th Century Boxcars of the Old Carson & Colorado Railway

We love the strange desert landscapes of the areas flanked on one side by the steep eastern flank of the Sierra Nevadas on the left and the Inyo and White Mountains on the right. We expect that the Sierras will still be covered with snow because of the record precipitation this last winter.

 

The Living Desert

Mountain Lion at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert

Not to worry: There was a thick layer of glass between me and that mountain lion. I took this picture ten years ago when I went with Martine to one of my favorite zoos in Southern California, the Living Desert in Palm Desert. (The other one is the small but otherwise perfect Santa Barbara Zoo in the city of the same name.)

This was before my brother and sister-in-law moved to Palm Desert. Martine and I had just done an overnighter, staying at the local Motel 6. J know it wasn’t exactly ten years ago because I can’t see myself visiting the lower desert in the Coachella Valley in the heat of July.

Martine and I will be taking something of a risk visiting the Owens Valley next week, as the daily temperatures are expected to range between 60º and 98º Fahrenheit (16º to 37º Celsius) with the humidity hovering around 20%. The only thing that will make that bearable is that, if it gets too hot, we can always drive to higher latitudes and relax. There are only a few things we want to see in the floor of the valley, but those are all things we’ve seen before.

We will have a large cooler with us filled with block ice and plenty of water, along with a few goodies in case we feel like roughing it at high altitude. After all, for most of our trip, we will be in the shadow of the highest mountain range in the contiguous forty-eight states.

 

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.

 

The Deserts of This Earth

Hillside with Cholla Cactus in the Anza-Borrego Desert

California has a number of distinct desert zones, ranging from Death Valley in Inyo County to the Mohave Desert around I-15 and I-40 along the route to Las Vegas and Northern Arizona to the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego. My friend Bill also tells me about the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which also seems to be a desert, one which I have not yet visited. And undoubtedly there are several I am not taking into account.

One thing they all have in common: Don’t go there in the summer if you don’t want to die of discomfort and have your car stranded on some obscure untraveled highway. In the winter, on the other hand, the desert is lovely and beguiling. Do you see those cholla cactuses in the center of the above photo? When the sun shines through their barbed needles, they look positively huggable. But don’t even try! If you brush against cholla spines, they will stick to your skin and your clothing, and you will have the devil’s own time disposing of them.

During the spring, you are likely to see that every inch of the rough desert surface seems to be covered with tiny wildflowers. The efflorescence lasts only a few weeks, and you have to time your visit carefully and call locals to see if it’s happened yet. And it generally happens only after a wet rainy season. We haven’t had many of those lately.

Because California is on the ring of fire, you can occasionally find natural hot springs in which you can bathe. There is one such in Anza-Borrego on County Road S-2 south of Scissors Crossing. To get there, one passes by the old Butterfield Stage Route; and you can even stop at one of the Butterfield Stage stations which has been restored to its 19th century glory.

When it’s too cold to go the beach, consider the desert.