PALM SPRINGS: PART 1 (of 3) - Mutants In The Mojave

Join me for this 3-part travel series in Palm Springs, California.

Celebrating birthdays is like getting pizza delivery. You know it's coming. Anticipation is high. You hope it'll be great, but disappointment has struck before. This year for my fiancé Jessica's 30th birthday, we ordered a pizza with the works. Once it arrived, she didn't delicately nibble a single slice. She devoured the entire metaphoric pie - embracing the milestone birthday to the max. We cashed in airplane miles and escaped the cold winter of NYC for the sunny, mountain-filled skies of Palm Springs, California.

Why Palm Springs, California? It's an oasis tucked between mountains and known for its midcentury architecture, a throwback to the days of old Hollywood when Carey Grant and Elvis Presley reigned supreme. It was an escape from tinseltown. The glitz and glam of Los Angeles were replaced with poolside cocktails and hotel martinis. Over the years, Palm Springs has evolved but still maintains its old Hollywood charm. Vintage shops and thrift stores are the backbone of the town with the surrounding Coachella Valley offering hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails for outdoor adventures. Palm Springs offered us the chance to live like celebrities...although I'm not sure what celebrity hunts TMNT toys in grungy secondhand stores.

Arrival. Day 1. Where the adventure begins! Except when you arrive really late at night. You have a beer and a bowl of noodle soup inside a casino because it's the only place open at that hour. The mediocre meal gets the job done, carrying you over to Day 2 - where the adventure actually does begin! And what better way to begin an adventure than with a flight of bacon. It was still a day before Jessica's actual birthday, but that wasn't going to stop us from partying. Our first breakfast in the Pacific Timezone kicked off with a 5-piece sampler of artisanal bacon. Yeah, it was a gimmick to pluck a few extra bucks from our wallets, but on the first full day of a vacation it's hard to pass up a flight of bacon. We nibbled the 5 tasty slices at Cheeky's, a breakfast joint that always seems to have a wait list. But, the place did its job - fueling us with tasty grub and coffee for a jam-packed day of activity.

A self-guided tour of Palm Springs' midcentury architecture helped ease us into vacation-mode and get acquainted with the town. From the post office to Elvis's vacation home, there is no shortage of outlandish, yet stylish structures that create the illusion of being in a Mad Men episode. Each beautiful, sun-drenched home was its own oasis in the desert. They made my puny apartment in New York City seem even more sad than it already is. My one-bedroom cannot compare to the architectural feats Palm Springs had to offer. Each place was so inviting. Although we toured all these places from the outside, I wanted nothing more than to enter these retro beauties, sip martinis, and talk shop with their owners. California dreamin'.

On The Sewer Den, I've mentioned before about my ability to kill a cactus. No matter how healthy, I always seem to end its life. Each cactus dies in a new, almost inventive way. I cannot be stopped. It seemed fitting for us to visit Moorten's Botanical Garden, a haven of desert plant life that's covered in cacti. While other tourists walked the nursery and reveled in the beauty of these desert creatures, I was jealous. Keeping one cactus alive is impossible for me, how was this place keeping an entire sanctuary healthy? I struggled for an answer while we roamed the tranquil grounds, snapping photos and basking in the irony.

The next day was the big one, Jessica's 30th birthday! We climbed into our rental car and headed into the gem of the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park. I'm a sucker for National Parks. Every visit is a choose-your-own-adventure experience. Don't like hiking? Cool, you can drive around the expansive land. Don't like driving? Cool, park the car and get lost wandering the untouched trails. Our trip to Joshua Tree had us doing a little bit of both. We drove throughout the park, stopping at many key attractions and then taking a few hours to hike around them. It wasn't my birthday, but it certainly felt like it by being surrounded by such stunning scenery. The endless desert was decorated in big boulders, massive palm trees, and the funky namesake, Joshua Trees. Everyone says the place is a living Dr. Suess book, and they're right. It's cartoonish.

In our first hour in the park, we wandered off a sandy, cacti-scattered trail (bad idea) and got lost in a cluster of boulders. I want to say it was an exciting way to dive into the Joshua Tree experience, but it was stressful! Thankfully, my Cub Scout skills are still in check and we navigated our way back. It only wasted an hour and chipped at our confidence, but onward!

We hopped back in the car and scooted over to Cholla Gardens. This spot is unreal. It looks like it should be part of an underwater ecosystem or an alien planet, really anywhere but Earth. Nothing makes sense looking at it. Why are all these short, prickly creatures with their wacky curved limbs all cuddled together in this patch of desert land? 

There was a guided path, but like most rule-breaking tourists, we wandered into the land and created our own route. Admiring the unique scenery was a fun, but challenging stroll. Avoiding all the cacti was like a Double Dare challenge, dodging and maneuvering between the odd plants. Between moments of cacti deflection, there were plenty of photo opps. The zany plants were always camera-ready, posing with arms out and standing proud.

There was only one sign instructing visitors not to touch the Cholla plants. Just one signing saying, "Don't do it!" One sign just makes you shrug your shoulders and move on. The message doesn't set in with only one sign. Why am I harping on this one sign? The Cholla plants are dangerous dudes. Their pins easily stab into your skin and are an intense chore to remove, often making a trip to the emergency room necessary. I didn't end up in ER like some Cholla chump who doesn't read signs (one sign!), but my boots were the victim of an attack. I accidentally brushed up against a loose piece on the ground. In an attempt to get it off, my other boot stupidly brushed against another stray piece. It was a comedy of errors that took lots of effort and tweezers to fully remove. Thank the heavens I read that one sign!

Moving on from the Cholla comedy hour, we ventured to Skull Rock. This rock looks like, you guessed it, a skull. It's a fun photo op and reminded me of a lost set piece from The Goonies. I was really looking forward to this spot, but it was plagued by a chaotic crowd. Unlike most of Joshua Tree, the calm group was replaced with a Disneyland-like atmosphere of tourists and college kids pretending this National Park was Spring Break in Cancun. People were climbing all over this thing like a treehouse, ruining the quiet and coolness of Skull Rock. We grabbed our photos and bolted. 

Away from the madness were giant clusters of boulders. We hoofed on over, and although only an earshot away from the loud Skull Rock, the tranquility immediately returned. One of Joshua Tree's biggest strengths is its ability to get real quiet real quick. Getting lost, away from the world is its alluring charm. We scaled the smooth, giant rocks admiring their greatness. 

Like the Cholla plants, these boulders are unreal. Their positioning and structure defy logic. Donatello's brainpower wouldn't even be able to muster up a rational reason for their form. It's like they started rolling down a cliff and suddenly stopped to admire the scenery. This mystique calls to you, begging you to interact. Climbing, laying, hugging - it's hard to deny the power of their uniqueness. Naturally, I felt the need to recreate one of Indiana Jones' most famous moments (running away from the big boulder in Raiders of the Lost Arc). Unfortunately, my cheap hat and hoodie from Target are no cinematic icons.

When my embarrassing archaeologist role-playing ended, another treasure caught my eye. More rock clusters, but this one was different. Scatter inside this group was something special. Maybe I'm like a lunatic seeing Mother Teresa's likeness in a potato, but I swear this rock looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Was all the hiking making me hallucinate? Please tell me you see it too.

Does that help? Do you see it now?! Mutants in the Mojave. It's a real thing.

Sunset was knocking on Joshua Tree's door. Our day was done. We explored the National Park like it was our job (best job ever!). After the hard day's work, we waved goodbye and left Joshua Tree in the rearview mirror. Bye Cholla plants, bye Skull Rock, bye TMNT boulder.

The birthday celebration continued. We toasted pints of beer, gorged on tasty grub, and Jessica was rewarded with a strange, weird dessert from our waitress for surviving 30 years on this Earth. We partied like Michelangelo and enjoyed the night.

The next day we cruised over to Indian Canyons, a Native American preserve with numerous hiking trails and picturesque views of Palm Springs' mountainous terrain. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much. Joshua Tree National Park was such a force, could this even compare? Yes. And easily. We got this answer immediately while hiking the Palm Canyon Trail. The 15-mile route had our jaws drop to the cactus-covered ground. The land's evolution that we witnessed during our excursion was like a real-life mutation.

The hike started as a leisurely stroll through a desert oasis. A trickling stream ran parallel to us, providing water to a mini forest of palm trees. And these were no seedlings. The towering trees dwarfed us. I've seen plenty of palms in other parts of the country, but never assembled together like this. Their power as a team is overwhelming. Much like the desert life in Joshua Tree, it's unreal. Even though the geography is nothing alike, something about this spot made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park. Maybe it was the dino DNA of these palm trees. Hold onto your butts.

What seemed like only steps later on the trail, we felt the ease of the hike vanish. The trail became strenuous with steep climbs and rigid dips. The palm tree-filled oasis spit us out and onto the doorstep of a mountain range. The phrase is getting stale, it was unreal (where's that thesaurus?). We stood in silence, admiring California's beauty.

The contours of the land and contrast of colors begged for us to hike more, to explore further. We obliged and kept moving. In no time at all the landscape morphed once again. Scattered across the ground were stout cacti that were so cute I wanted to hug them. The temperature was moderate, but the rigorous hike worked up a good sweat. We took a breather, parking ourselves on a long, flat rock that acted as our own personal picnic blanket and overlooked the trail. My cute cactus friends were all around us, while the snowcapped mountains poked their heads out in the distance. Even though we were alone, it felt like the land was watching us from every angle. Mother Nature...such a peeping Tom.

Our supply of water and sunblock was diminishing. And let me give you a sexy visual - we were sweating through our clothes. Of the 15 miles, we conquered about 5 miles of them. A valiant effort for a couple of Manhattanites that have their groceries delivered. It was a demanding hike that deserved a reward. In my love for the cactus, nothing else seemed more fitting than a food therapy session at El Jefe. This hotel restaurant in Palm Springs is an eclectic joint lit with neon cactus signs that make you thirsty for tequila. We were lucky enough to hit up the place on Taco Tuesday, which meant $2 tacos. Even better, there were also $5 margaritas! We sipped, celebrated, and devoured our food with more force than displayed on our hike. From afar, it probably wasn't a pretty sight. But hey, work hard, play hard, right?

The journey continues! Palm Spring PART 2 & PART 3 explore a California toy show, endless thrift stores, and an eight thousand foot mountain.

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