June 04, 2010

A Reason to Get Up in the Morning

In my first encounter with Palm Springs, I was unimpressed.

I was dropping Edith off after a couple of nights in Joshua Tree together, so that she could spend Valentine’s Day last year with her husband, and I could spend it alone in the desert, drinking red wine and eating cookies.

“Ick,” I said. “It’s too populated here.”

Back then, people were the enemy. All I could do was seek out serenity in solitude, tucked away in the hills outside of Joshua Tree National Park, with only the stars to answer to.

When I returned to Joshua Tree a few months later during the summer, I gave Palm Springs more of a chance, going “down desert” to explore its abandoned country club and other modern ruins, windmill farms, Indian canyons, baseball team, and even a restaurant or two. I also resorted to Palm Springs for access to a swimming pool, which I found in the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, a welcome – albeit hipster – respite from rising summer temperatures, the air that burned my skin immediately upon exiting my air conditioned car. I wrote, worked, swam, and drank at the Ace, and – despite how sedentary it was – I think of my time there very fondly.

So I jumped at the chance to actually spend a night at the Ace this March when I was in the desert for a tour of California City, but one night left me only wanting more. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to just stay put, with its sprawling pool, glowing hot tub bubbling late into the evening, spa, restaurant, bar…And it’s the kind of place that just keeps calling you back.

During this trip, I still only had two nights planned at the Ace, so I wanted to really make them count – not only at the hotel itself, but also in Palm Springs, which I was eager to call home even for just a couple of days. In addition to squeezing in as much pool time as possible (and chatting up my fellow swimmers, mostly Hollywood types), I rented a bicycle, tried new restaurants, and, this morning, got up at 5 a.m. (after only three hours of sleep) to take an early morning hike in the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument hosted by Friends of the Desert Mountains.

I’d tried taking a hike through the slot and box canyons of the Mecca Hills Wilderness on my way to the Salton Sea yesterday, but the trailhead proved to be far too remote, and the dirt road far too sloggy for my 2WD rental car. I avoided regret by aborting the mission, knowing I’d certainly regret getting stranded out there by myself.

I also knew I’d regret not getting in one more hike before I had to return home to NYC. So at 6:15 this morning, I pulled into the parking lot of the monument’s Visitor’s Center off Highway 74, pulled my socks and sneakers on, threw a pack over my back and placed my hands on my hips as though to say, “OK, I made it. Now, let’s go.”

I wasn’t sure if anyone else would actually be there, but sure enough, a handful of local senior citizens showed up in their hats and shorts and summer shirts, binoculars in tow, eyes twinkling. I wasn’t even sure I’d make it given the early hour and the lack of sleep, but if my fellow hikers could overcome age and increasing physical fragility, I would most certainly try to keep up with them.


It had already hit 80+ degrees by the time we set off, so we chose to take the relatively easy and shady Randall Henderson trail, which would provide a more gradual climb to sun-bathed peaks, and a relatively leisurely meander back down within two hours.


first climb

The sun was streaming hard at us already, casting sidelong shadows and contrasting the grey shade with a bright, white spotlight that we seemed to be facing regardless of which way we walked. As the moon was slowly absorbed back into the blue sky, we admired also the last waning moments of the remaining wildflowers, which had been abundant this season and manage to crop out of dirt, sand, and rock alike.

creosote flower

Once I got there and kicked up silt with every step I took, I was so glad I came. We were all troopers, with the intensifying sun beating down on our foreheads by the end, and the temperatures rising over the two hour hike. Only one person in our group turned back, the rest of us trudging on happily asking questions and pointing out a lizard or a jackrabbit in the brush.

In the desert areas surrounding Palm Springs – even in the mountains, before the topography transitions from palms to pines – the cactus is king, and a variety of succulents seemed to be emanating sunlight from within, perhaps a warning of the power of plants like the cholla that will literally jump out and attack you.

cactus wren nest in a cholla


Acacia, AKA "Wait-a-minute"

Our hike leader also pointed out chuckwalla dwellings, areas of desert tortoise sightings, and the bighorn sheep habitat at the top of the trail where humans are now forbidden. We hiked through sandy washes, up pebbled cliffs, and along well-packed ridges until we reached a wider path near the top, a dirt road that’s a former stretch of Highway 74 that was in use by vehicles until the 1940s. I kept thinking about how I’d driven along the Palms to Pines Highway last summer, stopping to snap photos and admiring the surroundings, but never thinking to explore any of it on foot. As I would search for a new hike to do every day, it just never occurred to me to hike in the mountainous wilderness just west of Palm Desert (though I did take a nature walk at San Jacinto).


I was tempted to kick myself for the missed opportunity, but I realized that it only mattered that I had made it there eventually, and that now I had a whole new territory for exploring, a whole new set of trails for me to conquer.

As early as I got up today, the morning wasn’t long enough. It’s always hard to really do anything before flying out (unless you take a brutal redeye), so it’s impressive that I crammed in such a gratifying hike and breakfast at Cheeky’s under the patio mist spray, in the last minutes before it was too uncomfortable to eat outside. I would have loved to swim one more time, bike one more route, meet one more hipster, but, for the sake of packing properly and making my flight on time, I had to save those for my next visit, which I hope is very, very soon….

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