February 11, 2024

Photo Essay: A Covered Wagon Caravan Through Coachella Valley Preserve

"Oh, we're closed for the summer. It's going to be too hot out."

That's what they told me when I called to book a covered wagon tour of the San Andreas Fault near Palm Springs for myself back in 2009, when I'd just arrived for a month in Joshua Tree.

It was unseasonably cool that June. But temps in the High Desert can easily be 20 degrees lower than in the low desert.

And they were right—because within a week of my arrival, the thermometer hit three digits. And it just kept going up over the course of my four-week stay.

Somehow, I never managed to get around to calling Covered Wagon Tours again, despite having returned to the area many times—and in much friendlier temperatures, usually in the winter and spring. 

That changed last month, when my friend John was in town for a work conference and mentioned that one of their optional off-site activities was a covered wagon tour. I burst out with an "Oooh!"

A lot of my fascination with the West—and the Old West—actually has to do more with the Midwest, and my childhood spent reading the Little House on the Prairie book series and watching the TV series. 

What I really wanted was the chance to reenact a past I never experienced firsthand—a historical reality that would've been a little too real for someone used to the creature comforts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Honestly, I can rarely turn down a wagon ride. And a covered wagon just seemed like the most exciting way to experience Southern California's most notorious earthquake fault. 

I can't say the plywood-walled, rubber-tired wagon with its canvas canopy was actually authentic. 

But that was probably the best way to get a smooth ride—and not put too much stress on the draft mules pulling it.
So, we ventured from the Covered Wagon Tours basecamp farther into the Coachella Valley Preserve... 

...narration provided by our own personal cowboy... the last rays of the day waned on the far hillsides.

We'd gotten a late start, when the tours before us had a delayed return... by the time we stopped at one of the palm oases of the preserve... was nearly the end of the day. 

I hoped we'd see one of the great horned owls known to nest in the grove (that's an owl pellet pictured above)...
...but not even a hoot came out of those California palms (Washingtonia filifera).

We could see how fire had raged through, singeing the "skirts" of these native palms (which, our guide reminded us, aren't actually trees but a type of big grass).

The setting sun painted pink on the horizon—and everybody in the group had to get back to their conference hotel for their business dinners and drinks. 

Me, I would've liked to have lingered a bit longer in the cool desert dusk, maybe tasted the chuckwagon dinner being prepared for the other group. 

Met the mules.

Saw some stars.

But in the end, I don't want a theatrical reenactment of cowboy life, with roping demonstrations and singalongs. I don't want to hang out with people who dress like cowboys and cowgirls because that's their costume—their wardrobe for the show. 

I just want something real and memorable and meaningful. 

But that's hard to find these days. 

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