From Portugal we crossed the Atlantic, and a good chunk of North America, to spend Christmas with my parents at their winter home in the Palm Springs area. Our boys flew down from Calgary for a few days too, and we all enjoyed soaking up the desert sun together. Because we were staying with family, our expenses were somewhat skewed so we haven’t tracked them in this post – skewed in our favour, it’s pretty nice not having to pay for accommodation or a car! If you are interested in our travel expenses those can be found in our Spending Report.
Palm Springs – Movie stars in the 1920s and 30s were contractually obligated to remain within a two-hour driving distance of the studios in order to be available for last minute re-shoots. At just over 100 miles (160 km) from Hollywood, Palm Springs fit the distance restriction. It quickly lived up to its history as a desert oasis, becoming the go-to getaway for stars seeking to escape the spotlight. Palm Springs (and the whole Coachella Valley) has only continued to grow in popularity and is certainly a favourite destination for Canadian snowbirds seeking a reprieve from winter’s sub-zero temperatures!
Long before Hollywood came calling, the Cahuilla Nation had settled this valley naming it Se-Khi (boiling water) in reference to the abundant natural hot springs. The Cahuilla were relatively oblivious to the Europeans making their mark on the New World – the desert held no value for the Spanish, and they generally felt it was an area best avoided. The Mexicans were aware of the agua caliente (hot water) bubbling up in the desert, but it was merely a footnote in the diaries of explorers passing through the area enroute to Alta California (modern day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and bits of Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado). However, with the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the region became part of the United States, and the California Gold Rush in the 1850s brought an abrupt end to the Cahuilla tribes’ isolation. The US government established the Agua Caliente Reservation in 1876 and much of the city of Palm Springs today lies on Reservation land.
Hollywood still features prominently in Palm Springs. The Palm Springs Walk of Stars honours a variety of people from the film industry who have lived in the area, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival has, since it inception in 1989, attracted many an A-list Hollywood star.
Salton Sea – The nine cities of the Coachella Valley (Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella) are vibrant communities, each with their own flavour. At the southern end of the Valley (about 1.5 hours from Palm Springs) one finds the Salton Sea – the antithesis of vibrant.
Over the centuries, the Colorado River would regularly overflow its banks flooding the Salton Basin which lies approximately 240 feet below sea level. The water would eventually evaporate and the cycle would begin anew. By the 18th century, the basin was a salt-encrusted mudflat which did give rise to a flourishing salt mining industry throughout the 19th century. By the turn of the century, a concerted effort was underway to convert the desert around the basin into farmland. Irrigation canals crisscrossed the landscape diverting water from the Colorado River out to the thirsty fields. In 1905 one of the dikes suffered a catastrophic failure. It took two years before the breach was finally closed and all the while river water continued to flood the basin. California’s largest lake by surface area was created, and the Salton Sea became another irrigation source. What no one was really paying attention to was that as freshwater was being pumped out to the fields, the saline level of the lake was rising. More ominous though was that the run-off from the farms included even more salt, dissolved from the soil, along with pesticide and fertilizer residue and this sludge was trickling down to the Sea.
Despite the salinity of the water, a variety of fish species managed to thrive in the Sea, and where there’s water in the desert, resorts soon follow. By the early 1950s, “Palm Springs-by-the-Sea” was booming, catering to the rich and famous.
The resorts and the farms happily co-existed until the 1970s when the toxicity level of the Sea reached dangerous levels; fish died, birds died and so did the seaside communities. The names, Mecca, Thermal, Oasis, Desert Shores, hearken back to the glory days of water skiing, boat regattas and sun bathing, but today are unincorporated communities that feel a bit like you’ve walked onto a dystopian movie set. In Bombay Beach, many residents have turned their homes into eclectic art installations and the former beachfront includes many pieces standing in silent judgment on what might have been.
The TV shop art instalment in Bombay Beach
Sculpture at Bombay Beach
Joshua Tree National Park – Just over an hour northeast of Palm Springs is the Joshua Tree National Park. According to local legend, Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the early 19th century thought the unique shape of the native yucca brevifolia trees was reminiscent of the outstretched hands of Joshua in the biblical story of the Israelites in Canaan. The Park covers nearly 800,000 acres of land and is full of sandy hiking trails skirting an impressive array of rocks, boulders and the curious-looking Joshua trees.
Between 1860 and the early 1940s there were roughly 300 pit mines operating in what would later become the Joshua Tree National Park. Most were silver and gold mines, with a few producing copper, zinc, and iron and there are some fascinating remnants dotting the landscape. Some of the best preserved relics from that time are found around the Wall Street Mill, a gold ore crushing mill built by Bill Keys in 1930.
In 1943, Keys was embroiled in an ongoing dispute with his neighbour, Worth Bagley, over access to the mill. Bagley claimed the access road crossed over his land and he objected to Keys using it, finally erecting a barricade. Keys objected to the barricade, shooting and killing Bagley. Keys turned himself into the authorities and served 10 years for manslaughter. Upon his release he returned to the site of his mill and placed a commemorative stone on the property with the inscription: “Here is where Worth Bagley bit the dust at the hand of W. F. Keys, May 11, 1943.” The original stone has been removed by park services for safe keeping, but a replica stands in its stead as a reminder of a wild and wooly bygone era.
The entry fee to the Park is $30 US ($40 CAD / €28) per vehicle, but remains valid for seven days.
Coachella Valley Preserve / Thousand Palms Oasis – Roughly 30 minutes due east of Palm Springs is the Coachella Valley Preserve / Thousand Palms Oasis. Several species of rare wildlife call this 20,000-acre sanctuary home, and the San Andreas Fault line, which runs through the Preserve, has allowed water to seep to the surface, creating several palm oases. Entry to the Preserve is free of charge, but donations are welcome. There isn’t a lot of shade outside of the few oases, so bring water, it can get pretty hot!
We’re now off to spend most of 2023 in Japan, South Korea, and southeast Asia, so stay tuned as we explore those parts of the world.