Tuesday, February 26, 2019

DESERT SONG - Part II, Pioneer Town and Joshua Trees

DESERT SONG – Part II, Pioneer Town and Joshua Trees

We’d enjoyed some of the cultural opportunities of the area and we’re ready to explore the desert (i.e. the area that hasn’t been turned into towns and golf courses.)At the top of our list was the Joshua Tree National Park which covers areas of the Mojave Desert on the western side and the Colorado Desert on the east. 

We headed out toward the town of Joshua Tree, one of the park’s entrances but instead of turning into the park, we made a detour for more “culture”not far from the town of Yucca Valley—an exploration of Pioneertown, purportedly founded by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in the 1940s as a movie set for their shoot-em ups.

At that time about the only amenity in the area was a beat-up saloon where the stars and extras could belly-up after hours. After some 50 films, the movie business moved on but the cantina remained to serve the occasional thirsty traveler. In 1972 it morphed into an outlaw biker bar; ten years later the owners turned it over to their son-in-law and daughter: Pappy and Harriet. They built their namesake into a destination restaurant and music venue hosting such luminaries as Rufus Wainwright. Pappy and Harriet's is now worthy of entries in Wikipedia and Atlas Obscura.
Drawn by the honky-tonk atmosphere, we decided on an early lunch shared with a few gray-ponytailed old bikers and dullards like us. I couldn’t help picturing Roy and Gene ordering a salad of organic kale, vegetarian chili and a glass of Malbec after a hard day on the set while Trigger and Champion had their noses in feedbags at the hitching post outside.

Inside, the stage was set up but it was much too early for music but the quirky décor extended to the women’s restroom.

It was time to move on to Joshua Tree, a natural wonder like no other I’ve seen. Home to wildlife, pinon pines, junipers, scrub oak, yucca and cactus, the real attractions are the Joshua trees and the weathered granite boulders thrust up eons ago as a result of volcanic activity. Rock climbers and photographers are in seventh heaven.

The Joshua trees were named by Mormon settlers in the 1800s because the wild arms seemed to them to be Moses’ assistant, Joshua, raising his hands in praise to God. They aren’t mentioned in the Bible and don’t grow naturally in Israel. And they aren’t trees either but rather a variety of yucca that can grow to 40 feet. They grow slowly, an inch a year, and it is heartbreaking to see the vandalism done to the trees and other wonders by those who have taken advantage of the closure of the park in the fight over the budget.

According to rangers, it could take up to three hundred years for nature to repair the damage. I ask myself why people behave so badly, but there’s no rational answer.
The park is nearly 793,000 acres of which more than 80 percent is designated wilderness. At the entrance we noted posters of missing hikers and it was easy to imagine a tragedy from extreme heat and night chill, or a fall in some desolate canyon.

Given the time we had available we did most of our “exploring” near the road but did hike to Barker Dam and Hidden Valley used by cattle rustlers in the early days.

I was surprised how many people joined us on the path. Infants, grandparents, couples and solo walkers all determined to get in one more experience before the area closed for the day because there aren’t campgrounds there in fact our map only showed eight camps in the entire park.

The sun was low in the sky by the time we returned to our car to descend to the Coachella Valley and plan another day of food and adventure: a jeep tour on the San Andreas Fault and an investigation of the sex lives of dates (sorry: it’s about the kind that grow on palm trees.)  

All photos copyright Judith Works     

Sunday, January 6, 2019

DESERT SONG Part I - Palm Springs & Rancho Mirage

In desperate need of sun, we flew to southern California for some warmth and a change of scenery – no fir trees, no salt water, no gloom - for a week. There are nine communities clumped together in the Coachella Valley but we stuck to two: Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage for a dose of culture when we weren’t catching rays near the pool at our rented condo where hummingbirds investigated my red shoes.

The area was settled by the Cahuilla peoples thousands of years ago, calling what we know as Palm Springs: Se-Khi” or boiling waters. The local band take their name, Agua Caliente, from the hot springs and are “fortunate” that in 1876 they were granted 6,700 acres of land in what would become the city and are thus wealthy compared to the many unfortunate tribes that lost virtually everything.
The designation of the location as Palm Springs may come from early Spanish explorers who referred to the area as The Palm of God’s Hand, but as early as 1853 the word referred to the native California fan palm. Europeans showed up more permanently in 1862 when a stagecoach station was established and a wealthy attorney from San Francisco, John McCallum, brought his tubercular son to the area in hopes of curing him in the dry climate.

McCallum’s early experiment in agriculture came to an abrupt end when the area suffered an unprecedented 17 days of pouring rain, followed by an 11-year drought, ruining crops and the irrigation canals. Undaunted, other entrepreneurs established hotels touting the dry climate as ideal for those with lung problems. The 1920s brought movie stars like Valentino and Errol Flynn who could have fun (i.e. sex, golf and tennis) away from the prying eyes of gossip columnists who didn’t have money enough to travel the 110 miles from L.A.

By the mid-1940s a new architectural style perfectly attuned to the landscape, was brought to the desert by the architect Richard Neutra, to house the rich and famous. The most famous of these houses is the Kaufmann house, with its use of modern materials and extensive glass windows was the model for many other homes, some of which are open during the twice-annual Modernist Week.

The 1950s were the beginning of the louche Rat Pack era with Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Elvis and others living high (actually low). But it was also the time when miles of attached housing and mobile home enclaves attracted heat-seeking retires who thronged the golf courses. That the area is a continuing magnet is evident in the number of hospitals, urgent care centers, and consignment shops lining the major roads. We passed one major intersection with two care centers kitty-corner from each other just like Starbucks. Despite the warm sunshine, I felt a chill. 

The town sunk during the recession of 1973-75 and again in the 2008. With the latest economic revival, downtown Palm Springs is revitalizing and showcasing its modernist architecture where the angular style is a perfect complement to the stark desert hills surrounding the town and to the landscaping surrounding the buildings – cactus, agave, sparse-leafed trees, and purple bougainvillea. Some of the buildings are painted eye-popping colors, like the Saguaro Hotel.

And some of the shopping opportunities are equally colorful.

We took a walking tour around the downtown where it is evident that restoration is underway with sculptures, and new buildings in the modernist style – such a far cry from the several old buildings that form the nucleus of the original settlement like McCallum’s adobe.

For a change of scene, we spent a day in nearby Rancho Mirage, famous for the Annenberg estate nicely-named Sunnylands. The 200-acre grounds include a private golf course, 11 lakes, swimming pool, and extensive gardens filled with desert plants. We entered the complex through the impressive and new Welcome Center.

Annenberg was an enormously wealthy philanthropist who was Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the U.K. He knew every politician from the 1930s on and the room containing his memorabilia is worth a long look. He envisioned the 25,000 square-foot house would be used as a place where solution-driven meetings could take place, and to that end the architect A. Quincy Jones (not the musician) designed a mid-Century modern mansion with its stark lines and egg-crate overhang greeting us at the home's entrance.

To my eye the interior was a strange jumble, especially the gigantic living room with a continuation of the egg-crate ceiling, clumps of furniture in the Hollywood Regency style, a walk-in fireplace, Rodin sculpture, and Chinese antiquities surrounding a central pool like a Roman villa of old. The most startling aspect of the room is the collection of paintings, Impressionist and Post-Impressionists in their gold carved frames. I did a double-take because I was sure I’d seen many of them before. It turned out I had – all the originals were donated to the Metropolitan Museum and these were digital reproductions which lent a surreal air because some of the paper on which they were printed was slightly warped - enough to catch the light.

We passed outside to view the golf course and swimming pool thinking of all the famous people who visited stayed in the guest house – a series of five color-coordinated rooms, each with a list of those who had rested there: Queen Elizabeth, Sandra Day O-Connor, eight presidents, and the current president of China.

A Trust was set up to preserve the estate and to continue fostering positive international relations after the Annenbergs died. Groups of up to twenty now come for meetings (and golf) while thousands of casual visitors enjoy a tour of the home, gardens, and Welcome Center.

After the tour we were ferried back to the Center in oversized golf-carts. We enjoyed an outdoor lunch and strolled the gardens, watching a yoga class on the Great Lawn before viewing a photographic exhibition of the many birds that make their home on the estate.

Enough culture! We retreated to our condo on one of the more than a hundred golf courses on the area to enjoy the late afternoon lengthening the shadows of the palm trees on the course. We lounged on the balcony with our chilled pinot grigio watching golfers approach a rather menacing sand trap. Several, stuck in the hole, raised their heads to look around before furtively picking up their ball and casually placing it on the putting green not far from the flag. I wondered if any of the famous people who enjoyed a round at the Annenberg estate dared do the same.


all photos copyright Judith Works.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


What to do when you’re in the mood for a change of scene but don’t want to fly or spend hours in the car? We decided a ferry ride and 40-mile drive north up the Kitsap Peninsula was far enough. Our first stop was the tiny company town of Port Gamble located on the very tip of the peninsula. The town was founded in 1853 by Pope and Talbot, the lumber company that owned vast swaths of timber in the area. The mill has long since closed but they still own the town of 900 residents. If you’re looking for life in the slow-lane you can lease one of the Victorian-style houses. It’s always fun to spend some time strolling on the main street, each home and business with a historical marker.

My favorite stop in the “shopping district” is a gorgeous yarn shop called The Artful Ewe (www.TheArtfulEwe.com) run by Heidi Dasher.

Fortified with coffee and hot chocolate after our strenuous 20-mile trip, we headed to our destination: Port Townsend. Now a quiet town filled with Victorian mansions, art galleries, and wooden boats, and retirees, it has a wild history. Home to several native American tribes, it was “discovered” in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver and founded as a city in 1851. By the 1880s it was the second-busiest seaport on the American West Coast and famed for corruption where custom’s officials were bribed to allow the import of untaxed opium. The main street was lined with hotels that were frequently brothels, men were shanghaied, bars were booming. Those that profited lived in grand houses on the bluff overlooking Sodom and Gomorrah below. Everyone was sure that the town would become the terminus for the trans-continental railroad. (It didn’t). In 1898 a large fort was built at the entrance to Puget Sound. The guns were removed in WWI and shipped to Europe although the fort was used for military training until 1953. The complex has been turned into a year-round location for meetings and festivals, walks on the beach, and opportunities to stay in the old officers’ quarters.

After the War, the town fell into irrelevance only to be revived by hippies arriving from California in the 1970s. Now it’s one of Northwesterners’ favorite weekend locations with the old “hotels” converted to real hotels, and many of the Victorian gingerbread mansions on the bluff revitalized as B&Bs.

The brooding city hall:

And numerous churches:

After checking in to our favorite hostelry, The Ravenscroft Inn (www.ravenscroftinn.com) and admiring the deer in their garden, we headed out for serious shopping and eating.

The first stop, as always, were the bookstores. Our two “can’t misses” are Insatiables, old-fashioned with crammed shelves,

and the larger and airy, William James. Both are filled with bargains and treasures. The main streets are lined with other shops filled with non-literary temptations: wine, cooking, clothing, art and craft galleries, restaurants, cafes, and an Art Deco movie theatre.

A shop called Bubble N Squeak (after the British dessert) lured me to browse antiques from the UK personally selected by the proprietor, Dawn Mohrbacher. Since it was early December, there were boxes of Scottish shortbread, plum puddings, and other traditional fare. (A hangover from Downton Abby someone said.) I didn’t resist the pudding and of course Christmas crackers with their prizes and silly hats. One table was loaded with green-glazed salad/dessert plates dated from about 1870 that were just the thing to highlight the pudding. Another shopping bag filled.

We enjoyed lunch at Taps where patrons are served in the old Fort Worden guard house. Fortunately, a fireplace and fully-stocked bar are part of the restaurant – amenities probably not available for earlier occupants.  The razor clam and andouille chowder and Dungeness crab cakes were worth a stay in jail. We returned to the fort area for dinner at Reveille (is where breakfast is served to groups). Sorry to say it was lacking in ambience and very expensive.

The next day began with a short walk to the local farmer’s market. It was still going strong in December with a large selection of locally-grown vegetables and all the other items usually associated with a market; in this case, including the proverbial aging hippies, one of whom was trying to (unsuccessfully) to jump rope in her rubber boots. Nearby is the marvelous Pane d’Amore bakery where we succumbed to brownies and other treats. 

We parked our vegetables (carrots, beets, and rucola) in the car trunk and headed back to town to browse galleries and antique shops (some more formal than others).

 Later, we bought a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and headed to our room to prop up our tired feet in front of the fireplace with a glass and a book – a perfect afternoon.

Dinner was at the always excellent Fountain Café. Fortunately, they had paella on the menu.

My idea of food for the gods.

We woke to a glorious sunrise. It was time to head home with our vegetables, shopping bags, and relaxed attitudes. The ferry soon arrived and we slid past lazy cormorants resting on the Kingston dock pilings, no doubt waiting for a meal to swim by as we tried to decide how soon we’d return to Port Townsend.

All photos copyright Judith Works