Desert Planet

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2000, Tom Bentley


One of the most seductive lures of travel is that it can provide you with that "other-worldly" sense, where you're swept away from normal rhythms and routines, where the very air itself has a different scent and a different charge, where foreign things require fresh decisions, fresh attitudes.

More interesting yet is when that other world is but an hour away from your home by plane, as Palm Springs is to mine. Sure, it's easy to smirk at the lofty buildup of the first paragraph, but my recent week in Palm Springs attests to that powerful proclamation: it's another world out there in the desert. Heck, the putting green at the airport testifies to that.

From the moment my sweetheart Alice and I stepped off the plane, when that blast of slanting sunlight painted fire on our faces, I knew the cool California coast was more than mere miles away. The desert, particularly in early summer, is quite insistent in confronting you, and even in a showy, storied resort community like Palm Springs, the first personality you meet of any consequence is the desert itself: the sharp, dry air, the bleached hot light, and (here in the high desert) the sere broken crags of nearby mountains.

I hadn't been in Palm Springs in years, and it's undergone some changes: the succession of small nearby communities like Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage have their own characters, but they do suffer a bit from LA-itis, where bordering cities seem to let their community's flavor melt into another's. This is best (and most painfully) exemplified by too many strip malls and too many walled housing developments, attractive and tidy as they are.

But there's much more than strip malls and housing developments in Palm Springs; for instance, there is a profusion of male senior citizens with remarkably nice hair. Truly, I have never seen so many octogenarian stalwarts with such thick, flowing white manes--is it something in the water? And not a few of these spry gents had beefy chests and sinewy legs to boot. I suppose if you're going to retire in a community with so much sunshine, you might as well make sure your mature arms and legs look good in all those skin-exposed clothes.

But we didn't come to Palm Springs to retire. We came to see sights, and there are many. There's much more than rabbits pulled out of hats at the Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park in Palm Desert, and it all seems rather magical. There are 1,200 acres with over 130 species of desert animals, things like bighorn sheep, oryx, zebras, cheetahs and meerkats. Even in the deep heat, it was wonderful to stroll through the expansive grounds and various ecosystems to see unusual animals and plants. Guided shuttle service will make all the wildlife stops if you don't want to defy the thermometer, and shaded relief is also there in the form of a beautiful oasis, near a walk-through aviary filled with exotic birds. Wilderness hiking trails are there for those cool souls whose lungs like a challenge.

Anyone's lungs could have appreciated the next morning, when we rose early from sleep under a single sheet and walked through the quiet neighborhood where we were staying. The startling morning warmth is served up on such fresh, crisp, toasty morning air on an appetizing bed of clear, deep-blue sky. After the hot, still clarity of that desert night, we were ready for more adventures--and they're available close-by.

We set out for Moorten's Botanical Gardens, declared in their literature as "a living museum." Moorten's is a fascinating collection of cactuses and rare desert plants set on a rambling few acres not too far from downtown Palm Springs. Visitors trek down winding dirt paths surrounded on all sides by an eye-opening profusion of wildly spiked and tortuously twisted cactus and succulents, far weirder than any I'd ever seen.

The best part of Moorten's is its funky atmosphere, with its humorous hand-painted identification signs on the plants, many with corny sayings. Moorten's also hosts the "World's First Cactarium," a greehouse-like enclosure with cacti even more outlandish than those outside, dubbed names like "Devil's Fingers." There is a selection of plants for sale, and they even host weddings and receptions in the cool-green garden courtyard.

It's a jolting juxtaposition to go from the roadside attraction aspect of Moorten's to the polish of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, and since it's right in the neighborhood, it seems like the proper thing to do. The Desert Museum is a modern, four-level building housing an eclectic art collection, ranging from rotating 20th century exhibitions to MesoAmerican art, with an interesting desert diorama (plus live, native-desert beasties) for that local touch. When I passed through, the changing main level exhibit featured "Collaborations: William Allen, Robert Hudson and William Wiley." Old Hollywood stars William Holden and George Montgomery have special collections housed here.

The spirits of those old Hollywood stars seem to be floating about everywhere in the city, not just on the downtown "Walk of Fame" gold-star embedded streets. Even though in many ways Palm Springs is a barefootin' kind of place (I think even the priests wear shorts), it also has that peculiar kind of glitzy glamour that almost seems like a put-on. Eating in the Aqua Bar and Grille at the Spa Casino, with its piano-bar musicians doing chestnuts like Girl from Ipanema and Mack the Knife, we were surrounded by more of those elderly whipped-cream coiffed smoothies with their dates, who wear the wildest screaming rayons and polka-dot polyesters.

At a nearby table sat Dorothy, a queenly dowager of 85 or so, who wore a real fur coat, a nice lime-colored coat underneath, and then a modest pink outfit below. One-hundred plus degrees be damned. We knew her name was Dorothy because she was acknowledged by the pianist, and subsequently by just about everyone in the restaurant. Gloria Swanson, eat your heart out.

A certain percentage of Palm Springs has a campy but appealing 50s-esque aspect. The Saturday night special there at the Aqua was chicken and dumplings. Even a lot of the architecture, aside from those new strip malls, has a weird retro-progresso look, a kind of dowdy Jetsons effect. Check out the curves and swerves of the Bank of America building just off downtown to see what I mean.

And for another world-within-worlds that feels out of time altogether: just a few miles out of Palm Springs are the Indian Canyons, magnificent and amazing clusters of towering palms and cool flowing water amidst the flinty desert crags. Administered by the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians native to the area, the crisp contrast of these lush canyons with the dry desert is mind-boggling. Palm Canyon, the largest, is 15 miles of marvel, with an easily traversed trail that leads through its leafy, luxuriant glory. Nearby Murray and Andreas canyons are no less splendid. Palm and Andreas Canyons have the most and second-most concentrations of palm trees in the world.

And speaking of trees, the day after our Palm Canyon journey we couldn't miss taking in trees of a vastly different yet equally enchanting sort, as well as all of the strange, beguiling geology and plant life at Joshua Tree National Park, well worth the hour-and-a-half or so drive from Palm Springs. The park has over fifty miles of hiking trails, along with many shorter nature walks among its diverse campgrounds. We entered the park at its southern entrance (near the Cottonwood Visitor Center) and spent a leisurely day driving through and stopping to gape and walk through the park's many sights.

There are many marked viewpoints and site of interest just off the main road: be sure to check out the Jumbo Rocks and walk the Hidden Valley trail--fantastic rock formations and the living marvels of Joshua trees, ocotillo, cholla, scooting lizards, snakes and other desert denizens abound. At nearly 5,200 feet, Keys View offers a "big picture" view of the entire Coachella Valley and beyond.

But if it's views you need--and a cool breeze or two--the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is just the ticket. In less than fifteen minutes, you can ride in a big, glass-encased car from the sweltering summer floor of the desert to the 8,000 feet peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. Another extraordinary change of worlds: from the scorched air of the desert to the sweet piney scents of the mountaintops in a matter of minutes. The day we rode the tram, the temperature differential was over forty degrees.

The tram is less than twenty miles from Palm Springs, but again, another world away. There is a visitor's center both at the bottom and top of the tram, and plenty of nice hiking and nature trails in the mountains above. As you might imagine, the views from the glass tram cars are spectacular. The tram, the longest vertical ride in the country, was 30 years in the planning, and finally opened in 1963. This fall, the Park Authority is supposed to replace the 35-year-old cars with cabins with revolving floors, giving spectators a rotating 360-degree ride. It ain't bad now, and it's only going to get better.

Since I'm not a golfer, I can't give sing the praises of Palm Springs' storied golf courses, but suffice it to say that in a town where they have golf-cart lanes on the streets instead of bike lanes, golf is big. I saw one shop selling carts that were miniature--and very authentic--replicas of old MGs, '56 T-Birds and other classics. If I'd seen those at the airport, I would have rented one of them instead of my car.

And how could you not be tempted to get something added or taken away at one of the profusion of the city's cosmetic surgery parlors. There are surely as many of those as there are golf courses--I even saw one that had a hand-painted sign that said "Figure Shaping Bargains." I suppose I could have gotten a discount on some kind of lobe shaping, but that's kind of a mood thing for me, and I wasn't ready.

All in all, Palm Springs is an eyeful. The town seemed pretty quiet when we were there; they have tourist time and no-tourist time, and we were on the hot edge between. But even the heat was nice, for its very difference from my standard coastal California fare. I was very happy seeing all those spendid desert sights, but I was just as happy lounging poolside at our borrowed house, where hummingbirds darted in the mornings, raptors climbed the nearby canyon air in the afternoon, and bats swooped down at twilight. Palm Springs' many worlds were all welcoming ones to me.

The Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park, 47-900 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert (760) 346-5694

Moorten's Botanical Gardens, 1701 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs (760) 327-6555

Palm Springs Desert Museum101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs 760-325-0189

Spa Hotel and Casino (Agua Bar and Grill), 100 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, (800) 854-1279

Indian Canyons (Palm, Andreas and Murray), 3 miles south of downtown Palm Springs at 38-500 S. Palm Canyon Drive (760) 325-1053

Joshua Tree National Park, Cottonwood Visitor Center, Hwy. 10 E. from Palm Springs at Hwy. 195 N. (760) 367-7511; (760) 367-5500

Palm Springs Aerial Tram, North of Palm Springs on Tramway Road off SR 111, 3 1/2 miles up the hill. (760)-325-1391