High and Dry in the Mojave

May 4, 2002

Let this be a lesson to you all: Don’t try to con teenagers when it comes to spring break. It can be done, of course, but the consequences are bound to be unspeakably harsh.

This winter when we were all sitting around the table in our house in Oregon City, facing the prospect of six more months of gloom and rain, the four of us decided that an escape to someplace sunny, dry and hot in April might recharge us, making it possible to trundle on through the sunless Oregon spring.

For years, I’ve wanted to spend some time in the Mojave desert. I’ve driven across its basins and mountains many times, but always on the way to or from someplace else. There was a spot on the map that had long intrigued me: Twentynine Palms, California, a small desert town at the northern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. I suggested this as a potential destination. Apparently, when I said Twentynine Palms, our kids, aged 19 and 17, heard Palm Springs, that sprawling cancer of a city 50 miles to the south. They were enthused for once and, ridiculously, I did nothing to discourage their fantasy.

Dumb move on my part.

We flew from Portland to Sacramento to Ontario, California. I detest airplanes and this was the first time I’d flown since 9-11. The rest of the family, frequent fliers all, had already become inured to the groping searches, the demands to remove shoes (which in our son Nat’s case could, depending on the shoes, be noxious event in itself), the ceaseless checking for photo ID, the seizure of knitting (though not crochet) needles and nail clippers. As it turned out, self-consciously liberal Portland conducted the most intrusive searches of the three cities, with the lines slushing forward at the pace of the Wisconsin Glaciation.

Having arrived bleary-eyed at PDX three hours early, I had a chance to watch dozens of searches and try to make sense out of who was being singled out and why. By and large the pat-downs at the gate seemed to be dictated by a simple quota system-ten to twelve individuals per flight, roughly twice as many men as women. (Nat and I were searched four times in four flights. Our daughter Zen once. Kimberly not at all.)

A demographic note. In Portland, nearly all of the people charged with doing the searches were black; most of us being searched were white. It was a fetching irony, and a situation that might do more than anything else to instill popular resentment toward the relentless incursions of the Surveillance State. There’s nothing like a good strip search to convince even the most stalwart Republican that perhaps Ashcroft has gotten a little carried away.

I’d say one out of four passengers who’d been selected for inspection huffed, pouted and acted indignant, many of them snapping at the searchers with boisterous declarations of their patriotism. And, for the most part, the searchers kept their cool, trying to keep the searchees calm enough so that they wouldn’t be booted from the airport as, to give an old phrase new meaning, “flight risks”. Many of them snickered, shook their heads and imparted knowing winks to their colleagues. One could easily imagine situations where blacks who objected to similar searches by cops on the shoulder of, say, the New Jersey Turnpike ended up being hauled off to jail or to the morgue.

Ontario was a different story. The searches here were more cursory. Instead, this rather puny airport had opted for a robust show of military force, with more than a dozen (all white, as far as I could tell) national guard troops prowling the corridors in full combat gear, including M-16s, giving young women the once over. It had the creepy atmosphere of the airport in Buenos Aires during the height of the Dirty War.
From Brand Hell to the Devil’s Garden

We headed east on Highway 10 out of Ontario. This must be one of the blandest roads in America: a smog-drenched corridor of car lots, cloned subdivisions, billboards promoting phone sex and Indian casinos-the latter day rubble of the California dream.

The monotony is broken only by the brooding hulk of the San Bernardino Mountains and by Cabazon, home of the giant truckstop dinosaurs featured in PeeWee’s Big Adventure and the Desert Hills Premier Outlet Mall.

If you thought we’d drive right past Cabazon, you don’t know our daughter, who as a taskmaster would shame even merciless old Ward Bond from Wagon Train, the sixties tv western sponsored by the Borax Company, the mining conglomerate that has done more than just about anyone to ravage the outback of the Mojave.

This may be the world’s hautiest outlet fashion mall. It’s an orgy of brand retailing wrapped in a kind of faux-Venetian architecture. The stores hawk discards from an array of designers, from Donna Karan and Gucci to Barney’s of New York and Versace. In the Giorgio Armani Exchange a near brawl broke out among about 20 Japanese teens, each fighting for possession of as many of the impossibly tight tops as they could grab. Still, most people seemed mainly interested in toting around a bag with some elite store’s name and brand on it. Others, quite sensibly, headed straight for the Godiva Chocolatier.

The whole scene is so overwhelming that it’s possible to imagine that even Naomi Klein-the Boadacea of the battle against Brand Culture-might feel faint at the prospect an afternoon trolling the aisles. I finally took refuge in the Bose speaker store, found a cd by The Kinks and cranked up You Really Got Me loud enough to awaken the San Andreas Fault.

About 20 miles outside of Cabazon we came to the junction of I-10 and Highway 62. In the notch between these roads, there’s a patch of Sonoran desert known as the Devil’s Garden. By most accounts, it was once to the world of American cacti what the Hoh Valley is to temperate rainforests: the most exuberant expression of the biome on the continent.

In 1906, George Wharton James, in his book Wonders of the Colorado Desert, described the strange cactus jungle this way: “When we find ourselves on the mesa, we begin to understand why this is called by the prospectors ‘the devil’s garden.’ It is simply a vast, native, forcing ground for thousand varieties of cactus. They thrive here as if specially guardedI know of no place where so many are to be found as in this small area near the Morongo Pass.”

Twenty-five years later it would all be gone, plundered by Los Angeles real estate developers–the great barrel cacti and ocotillo uprooted for replanting in the obligatory cactus gardens that adorned nearly every house in southern California.

The passing of seventy years has done little to restore the damage. There should be a sign somewhere commemorating this spot as one of the great battlefields in the history of environmentalism, the Antietam of the desert preservation movement.

The cause of the desert was taken up by one of the great unsung heroes of the environmental movement, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt. Hoyt wasn’t a female John Muir. She wasn’t a mountaineer or a desert rat. She was an LA socialite.

Hoyt proved to be tenacious, visionary and connected. She soon got FDR’s ear, and more importantly, face time with his Interior Secretary, the original Harold Ickes. Ickes pere was a titan of his time, nothing like his son, Harold Jr., the weasely hatchet man of the Clinton White House. Ickes took Hoyt’s maps and within three months had withdrawn from private looting more than a million acres of land from Morongo Pass east to the Colorado River, then still a river in flow as well as name.

Over the years the mining firms and ranchers and Pentagon whittled away at the monument, seizing anything of commercial or strategic value. In 1993 when Clinton and Dianne Feinstein pushed through the California Desert Protection Bill, creating Joshua Tree and Mojave national parks, it turned out to be a far cry from the original vision hatched by Hoyt and Ickes. The deal was another Clintonesque win-win gesture, designed to grab headlines but save precious little.

Highway 62 is a 175-mile-long arc of road cutting through the heart of the Joshua tree country from Palm Springs to the Colorado River town of Earp, at the foot of the Whipple Mountains. The road climbs up out of the carbon monoxide-glutted haze of the Coachella Valley past the shadow of Mt. San Gorgonio onto what the locals call the Hi Desert and we know as the southwestern tip of the Mojave. We moved quickly past the towns of Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, increasingly inhabited by the service workers for Palm Springs, who have been priced out of the absurdly inflated land values in Coachella Valley.

The original Highway 62, now buried under asphalt and the ubiquitous DelTaco drive-thrus, was known during the prohibition era as the Bootlegger’s Highway. At night, giant Joshua trees (including the largest known tree in existence) were soaked with kerosene and lit on fire, like giant tiki torches, to mark the perilous path to John Shull’s place near Indian Cove canyon. Shull was the clubfooted genius of Mojave moonshine, whose potent concoctions found their way to the speakeasies and casting rooms of LA.

It was after nine when we finally pulled in at the Inn at 29 Palms, a small resort, perched on the edge of a fan palm oasis, consisting of about a dozen nicely kept adobes built in the 1920s. There were immediate remonstrations from the backseat. Apparently, this wasn’t exactly (or even remotely) the kind of spring break getaway our kids had in mind. Their worst fears were confirmed by the hotel: no phone, out of cell range, no video games, no nearby shopping district and a television the size of a cantaloupe.

Revenge would be swift and unsparing and it would come in the form of Palm Springs.

Windmills and Liberace’s Bathroom

Kimberly and I awoke early to golden sunshine, the insistent call of a Scott’s oriole and unremitting demands for reparation.

“Yes?” I say.

“Time to go.”

I was being double-teamed now. Even Nat, once a reliable hiking companion, had defected.

“Go? Go where?”

“Palm Springs.”

“Good lord. Why?”

“There’s nothing happening here.”


“There’s nothing to do.”

“Take a hike. Read Twain. Bask in the sun.”

“You won’t let us. Skin cancer, remember?”

Check-mated again. Palm Springs it was.

Of course, this elegant bit of sophistry didn’t stop Zen from trying to attain in a matter of five days the same bronze tones Georgia O’Keefe acquired after a period of 60 years of sustained exposure to desert sun. She got the requisite tan, a kind of living proof for her running mates back in soggy Eugene that she had made a desert pilgrimage, and, after day three, a nasty case of sun poisoning, which, naturally, didn’t deter her in the least from two more days of noon-to-dusk broiling.

Palm Springs has been a spring break haven ever since Troy Donahue stripped his shirt off and presided over a poolside rave-up in Palm Springs Weekend. But I blame our kids’ obsession with the place all on Carson Daley and those MTV spring break hot tub shows. And why not.

From the west, the entrance to Palm Springs is heralded by a sprawling wind farm, operated by the Wintec Corporation. Simply put: it’s a blight masquerading as an example of enlightened environmentalism. More than 4,000 wind mills clot the San Gorgonio Mountain pass, blotting the scenery for miles, and shredding untold thousands of migrating birds. Perhaps only the pesticide-sated waters of the Salton Sea, forty miles to the south, present a more lethal hazard to our avian cousins in this region.

Some of the windmills are 150-feet tall, armed with blades half the length of a football field. When fully-deployed, the three twirling arms of the windmills look like nothing so much as Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments. It’s certainly appropriate. By some accounts, the Coachella Valley boasts more Benz’s per capita than any other conclave of fat cats in North America.

First Palm Springs, then the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada. The radioactive wastes of the NTS are slated to become the next big windfarm. In a deal hatched between the DOE and Siemens Energy, and brokered by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the blast site windfarm will consist of the 325 turbines whizzing out 260 megawatts of electricity.

There we have it. Windmills are a greenwashed form of political pork, big capital-intensive projects that spurt lots of money into the accounts of energy conglomerates (even nuclear firms), and keep people wired into the current utility system. Under green energy marketing, the energy brokers and utilities can even con consumers into paying more for each kilowatt of wind power, a feel-good green premium.

You can drive down the fog-curtained Oregon coast and find more solar panels than you’ll ever see here in the valley of perpetual sun, a place that could easily disconnect entirely from the power grid.

But it’s all about growth. Even the windmill power plant is getting into the real estate development business. Here’s how Wintec describes their new Green Mall project: “Most of the property has never been developed. A small portion of the property is improved with large utility grade wind turbine generators which have already become a large tourist attraction. The property is visited by several thousand tourists per can safely share the property, each complimenting the other. The property is well situated in the emerging commercial/industrial sector of the City of Palm Springs and enjoys a tremendous competitive advantage for commercial mall development.”

Shopping malls on previously undeveloped desertthat’s the kind of environmentalism that would have made Sonny Bono gleam with pride.

Of course, in a perverse way the contamination of what the landscape ecologists call the “viewshed” of the Coachella Valley may be all for the good, the dispensation of a kind of historical and ecological justice on the perpetrators of so much destruction and misery (not mention horrid cinema). After all, Palm Springs was always the favored desert colony of Hollywood’s most noxious right-wingers and their allies in the world of big business: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Walter Annenberg, Frank Sinatra, Sonny Bono. Some of these early pioneers still survive deep into their dotage, such as the awful Hope, who seems to exist on some far-out kind of life-support system reminiscent of the devices in Frederic Pohl’s Gateway series of SF novels. Call it the mummification effect, where the process of decay unfolds so slowly it’s ever so difficult to detect the living from the dead.

Palm Springs (and its associated enclaves, Cathedral City, Desert Springs, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage) is like a Chinese box of private enclosures, restaurants, bars, resorts, condos, spas, plastic surgeons, sex clubs. But at the heart of it all is, of course, the golf course.

Palm Springs is the Luxor of the hacking classes. There are at more than 100 courses in and around the city, all of them prodigious consumers of water, piped in from the poor Colorado River or sucked out of the Palm Springs aquifer. Back in 1987 (the most recent full-blown study I could come across), Palm Springs’ links soaked up a more than 130,000,000 gallons of water on an average summer day. It’s certainly much more than that now, with a new 18-hole course being bulldozed into the desert nearly every year.

In the arid West, turf watering accounts for up to 60 percent of urban water use. To keep its course a shimmering, almost surreal green, the Palm Springs Country Club extracts 430 million gallons of water from the aquifer every year-that’s five times the average for golf courses nationwide-and enough water to meet the daily needs of 11,000 people (and untold humpback chubs, the great, now vanishing fish of the Colorado).

Tiger Woods has a lot of explaining to do. After Woods does his penance for being a frontman for sweatshops, he needs to account for his shameless promotion of Palm Springs as a golfing Mecca for millionaires. Woods used to mouth pieties about bringing public golf courses back to urban neighborhoods and chafe about country clubs that catered only to whites. Now he pimps for one of the most exclusive-and exclusively white-enclaves in America, hawking courses that are built and maintained on the backs of Mexican immigrant labor. These workers are paid so stingily that they could toil for a month and not afford the green fees for a single round at many of the elite clubs.

Rarely have so many billions been mustered to so little purpose. There are few public spaces in Palm Springs, and its outliers, that aren’t solely geared toward channeling you into retail outlets or overpriced restaurants. We tried to eat on the cheap. But it was impossible to get away with a lunch for less than $50. Those producers at CBS should forget about using remote places like the Marquesas Islands as a setting for Survivor and instead hand the contestants $100 and see if they could survive in Palm Springs for two weeks-they’d make the Donner Party look like a bunch of vegans.

The art museum is decidedly third-rate and the city’s buildings fall victim to the same kind of civic-ordered mundaneness that destroyed Santa Fe and dozens of other towns across the New West. To find interesting architecture here you’ve got to venture up into the side canyons and foothills of Mount San Jacinto, and peer with binoculars into gated communities looking for the odd house designed by a Neutra, Venturi or Schindler, though in the case of Neutra this is becoming an uncertain propositon. Around the time we were visiting Palm Springs, Neutra’s famous Maslon House, built there in 1963, was being sold to a Mr Richard Rotenburg, who promptly tore it down. The former owner could have attached a preservation easement to the deed, but that might have lowered the value of the lot.

There are better ways to quench the voyeuristic impulse. Go to the bookstore and pick up two indispensable guides to the sleazier side of the valley, Jack Titus’s Palm Springs Close Up and Ray Mungo’s Palm Springs Babylon, which provide vivid accounts of the political, financial and sexual escapades of the city.

Palm Springs is where Nixon came to lick his wounds after resigning the presidency, Mamie Eisenhower to get tanked and Betty Ford to dry out. It’s also where JFK had his fateful assignation with Marilyn Monroe on March 25, 1962, at Bing Crosby’s estate.

It wasn’t supposed to come down that way. Frank Sinatra, who had shuttled dozens of starlets to the Kennedy brothers, had been expecting JFK to make his house a presidential getaway. Indeed, Sinatra had sunk a lot of cash into a new security system and a helicopter pad just for Kennedy’s benefit. Then pious Bobby intervened, citing Sinatra’s fruitful relationship with Sam Giancana, among other mobsters. Sinatra fumed and shifted his loyalties to the Republicans. In 1969, he hosted Spiro Agnew, who, upon arriving in town, announced to the press corps: “It’s nice to be in Palm Beach.”

One redeeming virtue of old Palm Springs is that it served as a relatively safe harbor for many Hollywood gays, from Rock Hudson to Liberace, who partied at places like the Desert Palm Inn and the New Lost World Resort (formerly Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball’s compound), which has become one of the most opulent gay and lesbian getaways on the planet. (Of course, the city was also a refuge of last resort for wealthy butchers, such as the family of the Shah of Iran. But out here that just comes with the territory.)

If gays were tolerated, the same can’t be said for other oppressed classes, such as Jews and blacks. Until the early Fifties Jews were permitted to stay in only one hotel in town and that one discreetly identified them with a “J” beside their names in the desk ledger. Blacks were simply not welcome at all, except as golf caddies, as Jack Benny discovered when he tried to book a room for his partner Rochester.

But the great Palms Springs dream is distilled to its essence in this passage from Mungo describing The Cloisters, Liberace’s house: “The house is across the street from a Catholic church, Our Lady of Solitude, where sandwiches are passed out daily to the homeless who loiter in the vicinity. Inside, Liberace’s toilet is a throne, with armrests and a high back done up in red velvet. The shower curtain features replicas of Michelangelo’s David, while the wallpaper is decorated with Greek couples fucking in every imaginable position. There is a Gloria Vanderbilt suite, a Rudolph Valentino room (Liberace’s middle name was Valentino, and the Great Lover was an early Palm Springs celebrity who made several pictures here in the twenties), a room wallpapered in tiger skin, a Marie Antoinette suite, a bath with mirrored walls and ceiling and a pool-sized Jacuzzi, and a collection of strange bric-a-brac and junk no thrift could unload, including plastic birthday cakes and a life-sized stuffed male doll with erect penis. Into this world he introduced his young escorts, took his pills and kept his cranky mother.”

Yes, those were the halcyon days; it’s all been downhill since.

High and Dry in the Mojave Continued
Part Two: The Oasis of Mara

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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