Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Springs

I have just returned from a few days’ rest in Palm Springs, California. I have grown very attached to that lovely place since I started going there ten years ago. Situated approximately 120 miles due east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs occupies a portion of desert at the western end of the wide, flat Coachella Valley, hard by the magnificent San Jacinto Mountains. The highest peak is roughly a mile and a half straight up from the valley floor, almost 11,000 feet above sea level, and Palm Springs cleaves to its rocky skirts like a playful, mostly indulged infant. The valley itself is bounded by the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the north, and the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa ranges in the south, and subsides almost imperceptibly into the Salton Sea, an enormous lake at the eastern end, not all that far from the Mexican border. The San Andreas fault runs right the way through the middle of the Coachella Valley, and is clearly visible from any point of elevation—a slightly sinister reminder that the entire region dwells at the junction of the great North American and Pacific plates which everybody knows are pushing very hard in opposite directions, harder here than elsewhere in California because of a kink in the fault line that is said to concentrate greater than usual pressure. This raises the obvious question, I suppose, as to why one would ever choose to settle in the locality, but the same might well have been regularly asked of Naples or Osaka for the past 3,000 years. The long-vanished Pinto culture and, latterly, the Serrano and Cahuilla peoples have all lived in comparative harmony with this environment for approximately 4,000 years. Palm Springs and the wider Coachella Valley also lie close to the intersection of the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, and their point of transition forms one of the most remarkable, unspoiled natural environments in the entire southwest: the high desert of the Joshua Tree National Park, and about that I shall write separately.

If you approach Palm Springs by car from Los Angeles, you leave the great stripe of Interstate Highway no. 10 between the unpromising settlements of Cabazon and White Water at the western entrance to the Coachella Valley, which is also known as the San Gorgonio Pass. This forms a comparatively narrow gap between the snow-caps of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains, and is therefore one of the windiest places in California. 
Hence the existence here of the extraordinarily surreal-looking San Gorgonio Wind Farm, whose 3,218 slowly rotating windmills deliver on average 615 megawatts, roughly the same amount of electricity as a smallish nuclear power plant in fully working order.
Strutting in snowy-white ranks across the desert floor; taking up statelier positions on the adjacent foothills, and seen between the rocky escarpments and the cloudless blue sky they form a haughty, silent, and vaguely weird presence, at times mesmerizing in scale and rhythm. Skirting these, indeed concentrating on ignoring them, you follow the Sonny Bono Memorial Highway (Route 111), which after twenty minutes or so turns into North Palm Canyon Drive, and suddenly you find yourself entering an apparently endless grid of wide avenues mostly planted with tall, slender palms. These form the great green bowl of Palm Springs. The howling wind of San Gorgonio gives way to desert warmth, a zephyrous micro-climate, to which the last few generations of Hollywood retirees (but not only) have resorted for leisure, exercise, resuscitation, shelter, or peace, often all these things at once. And in doing so, they have created a sort of oasis of modernist design in mostly subtle harmony with the dry, hot, dreamy climate. I often ask myself what in the American character contrived to discover the languorous pleasure, the joy even, of holiday-making in the desert, while we Australians cannot, it seems, be coaxed away from our ocean beaches? Perhaps this discovery yet awaits us, or is jealously guarded by a canny few the better to keep the masses at bay. Who knows?
These days I prefer to fly directly to Palm Springs, and rent a car at the airport. The airport itself is, I think, among the most beautiful in the world, a facility whose innards were wisely replaced with an open-air desert garden replete with citrus trees and palms and flaming bougainvillea and chairs and tables. In the almost inconceivable event of rain, one may borrow an umbrella after you go through security (back there in the distance), and return it once you reach your departure gate (up an escalator and over one’s shoulder in this view). The main disadvantage of these arrangements is the sense of sadness and loss you experience upon having to depart, and leave behind that astonishing mountain. I could stare at the changing light on its flank from dawn until the sun descends over the other side in the late afternoon, indeed I have been doing so for much of the past week, and am now already plotting and planning my return.

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