The exit for California Highway 111 marks the moment our car morphs into a time machine.
For the past two hours we’ve been just another modern day vehicle racing along a multi-laned freeway. But as we peel off the 10 East, heading deeper into the desert, the road became ours alone. The white wind turbines announce our approach to Palm Springs and our pulse slows to match their lazy rotations. Considered a blight on the English landscape, here they take on an eerie beauty, like some kind of giant propeller graveyard.
Summer Wind plays on the car radio as we are greeted by a parade of elongated palm trees and eruptions of cerise bougainvillea, the vibrancy of the pink exaggerated by the zinging blue of the sky.
We peer into shops showcasing 50s road trip memorabilia, sleek mid-century furniture and vintage fashions worthy of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
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Cruising down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive we peer into shops showcasing 50s road trip memorabilia, sleek mid-century furniture and vintage fashions worthy of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. I slow beside The Déjà Vu Room admiring an immaculate tux paired with a wafty powder blue chiffon dress, both crying out for a dinner dance. Last New Year’s Eve, The Riviera hotel hosted an event with Frank Sinatra Junior in the very ballroom where the Rat Pack cemented their boozy-bantering-crooning legend. The show was a sell-out. A reminder that so many of us long for a little more class.
One of the factors that played into our choice of The Riviera was the fact that they are bringing back table-side service – the kind when the waiter risks singed eyebrows to prepare you a freshly-flambéed delight. The other factor was the architecturally unique ‘spoke wheel’ design, still intact from 1959 and now compared to the Starship Enterprise (a vast, circular main building with rocket-like off-shoots). It certainly stands apart from all the re-vamped motels. Sam notes that everything is low-rise in Palm Springs. The only thing scraping the sky is the Aerial Tramway.
The four-mile drive to the terminal is like a mini road trip in itself. Downtown is spirit-level flat, but the gritty, winding road taking us 2,000 feet up Chino Canyon makes us feel like a pair of intrepid hikers.
We leave the car in the lot named Hawk (which the Americans pronounce as ‘Hock‘), board the world’s largest rotating tramcar and ascend another 6,000 feet to the snowy pine-sprigged crest. We were wise enough to bring our Puffa jackets, but look down with bemusement at our now ice-fringed flip-flops. With the sun blazing the slush offers an oddly refreshing sensation.
‘That’s the road we’re taking to Pioneertown tomorrow!’ I point to what is little more than a stick-groove in the sand from this height. ‘I love driving into the unknown,’ Sam sighs contentedly.
‘Have you been to Salvation Mountain?’ A pretty blonde inquires, introducing herself as Lauren, an actual Palm Springs native. We shake our heads.
‘Let me show you…’
One Googled image and we’ve decided to ditch our plans to spend the afternoon at the hotel spa, even if it does feature a pair of petrified palm trees in the hot tub room.
SALVATION AT LAST
About 50 miles down the road we glimpse a glimmering mirage. Sam checks the map – we’re running parallel with the Salton Sea. Brimming with spontaneity we decide to pull over and enjoy our Starbucks snack pack while marveling at the lake where Sonny Bono used to water-ski.
‘What’s that terrible smell?’ Sam falters as she steps from the car.
While she hangs back I tramp across the beach to investigate, at one point finding my soles suckered by some yucky-looking silt. I think I might paddle to clean them off but things get slimier and more bizarre at the water’s edge. It’s not sand I’m standing on but millions of desiccated fish bones. We later learn that the excessively salty water has become toxic to most fish and is no longer popular for recreational frolics.
Things get slimier and more bizarre at the water’s edge. It’s not sand I’m standing on, but millions of desiccated fish bones.
I don’t often break into a run but it seems appropriate in this case. Apparently this whole area has become Hollywood’s go-to backdrop for all things post-Apocalyptic. Every home in nearby Niland is bordered by a hefty chain link fence. I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling, wondering if it might be wiser to just turn back when Sam blurts, ‘There it is! Oh my god.’
Or Leonard Knight’s god in this case. For he is the eccentric artist who chose to create what looks like a mixture of graffitied papier-mâché religious pop art with a splash of Wizard of Oz – there’s even a sign urging us to stay on the Yellow Brick Road.
We stand in awe, so glad we chose adventure over pampering. Ever amazed by America’s roadside attractions.
After retro martinis back at the Starlite Lounge and a sound night’s sleep in a bed with a tufted white leather headboard, we step back into our time machine and press the button (aka accelerator) for the Old West.
THIS TOWN AIN’T BIG ENOUGH FOR THE BOTH OF US
Pioneertown is an easy 40-minute drive from Palm Springs, passing stalls selling nuts and dates and the opportunity to ‘Dig your own cactus’ for only 59 cents. The trail names are beguiling – Navajo, Sundown, North Star and, er, Kickapoo.
When you reach Yucca Valley you ‘hang a left’ and that’s when the desert takes on a Flintstones-esque quality, with big blonde boulders set to tumble onto the weaving road. You know you’ve reached your destination when your wheels start kicking up dust and you find yourself wishing you’d packed your leather chaps.
This is a real deal Western movie set complete with a wonky wooden Bath House, a bank to hold up and gunsmith to outfit your weapons. Roy Rogers broke ground here back in 1946 and since then over 200 movies and TV shows have been filmed here, including The Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley. We’re staying across the way at the Pioneertown Motel, built so the actors would have somewhere conveniently close to stay. The rooms are filled with creaky character – all hand-stitched quilts horseshoe motifs. Better yet, dinner is within lassoing distance over at Pappy and Harriet’s.
We squeeze in between the cowboys, hipster saloon girls and a few old-timers who look like they’ve just got done panning for gold.
It’s dark now, we’re inching our way along the grit path by the light of our iPhones. It feels so quiet and remote we expect to wheeze open the door and find tumbleweeds scratching by on the inside, but instead we’re greeted by a blaze of warmth and bon viveur – the place is heaving. Now we understand why we were advised to book.
We squeeze in between the cowboys, hipster saloon girls and a few old-timers who look like they’ve just got done panning for gold. It seems apt to order a big ole rack of barbecue ribs freshly hoiked from the outdoor smoker and we gnaw and groan in rapture, licking our fingers and tapping our toes in time to the band. My Jack & ginger is served in a glass ‘Mason’ jar, and when Sam hands me a toothpick I lean my chair back and clunk my imaginary spurs onto the tabletop.
Later that night we lie out under the blackest of skies.
‘Ooooh, there’s one!’ we gasp as we spy our first shooting star of the meteor shower.
It’s so still here – bar the odd rustling of what I image to be a rattlesnake or coyote – and cold, despite our burrito-wrap of blankets. But we can’t bring ourselves to go back in just yet. Every time we glimpse another whoosh in the heavens it’s like being sprinkled with fairy dust.
Every time we glimpse another whoosh in the heavens, it’s like being sprinkled with fairy dust.
In the morning, we’re doing some snaps beside the spiky Joshua trees and wander over to inspect a rickety old wagon: the wheels are ridge thin, the seat made of hardboard. We imagine the bone-rattling ride, the sun beating down with no AC and the rather too literal horsepower.
And then we look back at our sleek 21st century vehicle, ready to take us as far and as fast as we like. Suddenly, we are very glad to be living in 2015.
Words & Images by Belinda Jones
Lead image by el-toro
30th April 2015
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