PALM SPRINGS: PART 3 (of 3) - Tramways & Thrift Stores

Live like a celebrity in 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. Join me for this 3-part travel series as we hike the Mojave Desert, explore a local toy show, comb countless thrift stores, and venture eight thousand feet into the sky onto a snowy mountain top.

PART 1: Mutants In The Majave
PART 2: The Temple of Toys

Palm Springs is thrift store mad. The secondhand shops are everywhere! No two are alike, they all have their distinct styles. From high end furniture to musty old clothes, there is no shortage of used goods in Palm Springs. Each place is a mini museum that presents different levels of American junk. The physical locations also reflected this, and were just as unique as their items inside. Many shops were in your run-of-the-mill strip malls. Others were hidden gems, sometimes classier, that took a little navigation to find. The search for these diverse stores was sometimes more fun than the stores themselves.

Whenever we had time to kill between activities, we'd find a new thrift store to explore. For a trip lasting five days, we made a decent dent in the Palm Springs thrift scene and ventured inside many places. I scanned the cluttered shelves and dug through dirty bins all for the sake of Turtle Power. Franks & Son was such a disappointment, I hoped the thrift stores would shift my fortune.

My favorite spot was Dazzles. Although the store came up through a Yelp search, a treasure map might have been more useful. The place wasn't exactly hidden, but also wasn't obvious to an out-of-towner hunting for toys. Framed by splashy decor, the store was tucked inside an old motel. The entrance required a walk through the colorful parking lot that housed a collection of vibrant oddities. The classic car, giraffe, and tiki head not only intrigued me, but reinvented my mental image of thrift stores.

When we finally peeled ourselves away from the lively entrance, we followed the "Dazzles" sign down a small path that brought us to the pool area. The body of water had long been replaced by a pile of dirt, and instead of blue waves, there was a green patch of grass covered with pink flamingo lawn decorations. It was campy, maybe even a little tacky, but it was totally up my alley. I loved this place and wasn't even inside yet.

Inside, Dazzles was a wonderland of nick nacks, trinkets, and beautiful junk. There were items from all around the world, from all around time. The loosely curated collections made the shopping experience museum-like. Buying anything here seemed impossible because, like a museum, the displays suggested unaffordable pieces of art, not attainable by the common man. But unlike a Van Gogh original, you could snag a vintage Kool cigarette display for a small handful of cash. 

The color palette on display was unbelievably captivating. Vibrant hues emitted from every angle, enhanced by the California sun. Translucent collections of glass beamed their powerful colors throughout the store. There was a sense of movie magic in this place, like living a scene from a Technicolor masterpiece. The colors carried me into a mild hypnotic state. I toured the store in a trance. But, as beautiful and awe-inspiring as Dazzles was, the place didn't have much to offer on the toy front. Most items were too old and overpriced. Toys from the 1950-60s era are fun, but just don't have the same charm as those from my childhood.

We stubbornly left Dazzles empty-handed. But, at least the experience made up for it. We moved onto more stores, often having the same unfortunate results. But then...golden pizza?! This had the potential to be a game changer. A single slice of pepperoni and mushroom pizza that underwent a golden mutation. I wasn't sure what this thing was exactly. A necklace? Pin? Something to put on a coffee table to tie the room together? Intrigue pulled me closer. The cheesy slab of gold spoke to me from behind its glass. I glanced at the tag, but it didn't offer much information. It was a creation from the 1970s, "Ted Arnold-marked," whatever that means. The painful detail was the asking price...$120. Too rich for my blood. That cost would make it the most expensive action figure accessory ever. It was a lot of money for a novelty item that measured only a few inches long. But man, how cool would this have been in The Sewer Den? Or better yet, somehow part of my Sewer Den uniform? I would've been TMNT royalty with a treasure like this in my possession. It was a painful decision, but I passed on the golden pizza.

This theme became common in our thrift stores exploration. There were always lots of eye-catching collections, both curated with care and others haphazardly tossed together, but the searches never lead to discovery. It was still a fun quest, but the thrift stores weren't leaving much room for hope. Even Frank & Son had teased a possible find. I shifted gears. Instead of looking for TMNT gear, I accepted the likelihood of discovery was slim to impossible. Turtles or no Turtles, enjoying my vacation and eying old junk was fine by me.

Then the heavens opened up. Angel View Thrift Mart appeared before us. But, there was nothing angelic about the place. It shared none of Palm Springs' charming attributes. The radiant sun, vivid colors, and picturesque architecture had been stripped away, replaced with musty carpets and an aroma of moth balls. The place was gross. But with a weird dedication to junk, we ventured inside anyway.

Walking through the front door was like dipping your toes into the algae-covered surface of a stagnant pond. Decade old window fans stirred the stale warm air. Rows of garments greeted us with a faded, secondhand hello. A defeated energy moved through the place, with customers sulking along with little to smile about. The neon lights flickered from above, like they were sick from being in this place. We moved deeper into the store with hopes of finding a redeeming quality. I was being vocally judgmental, which is surprising since I've been inside dirtier, sketchier places all around the world. The things adults do for toys...

Hiding in the back of the store was a remote room plagued in disorder. Yellow signs and coverings highlighted the building's broken features in addition to the assortment of garbage lining the shelves. The store staff should've been embarrassed by most of their offerings. From chipped plates to dolls missing limbs, the area was a landfill of sad, trashed memories. Curiosity got the better of me and I poked around anyway. I found a half a yo-yo (yes, half!) and assumed that was where the excitement ended.

"Always look up." My Mom's sagely advice proved to be worthy once again. I tilted my head back and saw something different. It was unique...and green! Like a king sitting on top of this throne of junk, there it was. But what exactly was it? Sure, it was certainly in the TMNT family, but nothing familiar to me. I stared at it for awhile, trying to make sense of the weird object. There was a strange force preventing me from grabbing it immediately, like I had to earn its trust. This was no mass-produced piece of plastic. This was handmade and special, crafted in a material unique to TMNT merchandise. 

With my courage rising, I gently rotated the object on its dusty shelf. A new side to this mystery emerged. Now "shell-side" out, I could see more imperfections, odd color choices, and the occasional ceramic chip. Was this outlandish artifact a bootleg or a kid's classroom project?

A closer look revealed even more details. The best revelation was the price tag. This was no $120 golden slice of pizza. For only $2.99, there was no way I was passing this dude up. Just below the pink sticker was an indicator of the object's origin - Mexico. California was a lot closer to Mexico than New York or New Jersey. It's no surprise the one-of-a-kind Turtle ended up in a Palm Springs thrift store, even if the place was a dump. 

Ceramic, Mexican, used, and abused Leonardo. What a spectacular thrift store find. Although I came up empty-handed at Frank & Son and countless other secondhand stores in Palm Springs, this wacky discovery more than made up for my disappointment. It symbolizes everything The Sewer Den stands for - silly, absurd TMNT creations that make you raise an eyebrow and laugh.

The backstory behind this statue-like piece fascinated me. Scenarios danced around my mind. All the clues added up and painted a vague picture of its mysterious past. I guessed it was an object of the yesteryear, from when TMNT unleashed as a phenomenon in the early 90s. Despite being an unofficial, non-licensed knockoff, it survived. And not only did it survive, but escaped its native lands and crossed the borders into the United States. Leonardo likely sat displayed like a trophy in some American kid's bedroom during the 90s. Maybe a souvenir from a trip to Mexico? I imagine like most TMNT toys kids had, they eventually grew out of the phase and packed the item away in a basement or attic. The final nail in the coffin came, and the Mexican memento was sent away for good, finding its current place on a shelf at Angel View Thrift Mart. For a bootleg hunk of junk, the piece likely has a lot of interesting history. I'd kill to know the entire story.  

With all the ridiculous thought I put into this thing's backstory, it was safe to say I needed it in my collection. Finally feeling like I had won the object's trust, I carefully slid him off his cluttered resting spot and into my possession. I scanned every inch of the piece, searching for any last clues. Nothing. The only thing left to do was pay. I made my way back through the store, walking on the stained carpets to the register.

"Mutant Turtle Ninja Hero!" The cashier yelled out. His warped smile confirmed he was both loopy and eccentric, qualities that I came to expect in Angel View Thrift Mart. The small talk was minimal beyond that. He collected my cash and the bizarre Mexican treasure was officially mine. From Mexico to Palm Springs, California, next New York City and then eventually New Jersey inside The Sewer Den, the ceramic bootleg was seeing more of the world than most people!

I wanted a celebratory drink on the top of a mountain. Yes, you read that right. This was no normal discovery. It was a weird, Mexican-made TMNT bootleg! Weird discoveries like this deserve a wild celebration. It was the final day of our trip and we deserved the ultimate bash. So when I say we wanted to celebrate on the top of a mountain, I meant it. We hopped a ride on Palm Springs' most famous attraction, the Aerial Tramway. The cable-suspended transport is the largest rotating aerial tramway in the world. The jaw-dropping trek scales Mount San Jacinto, a jagged piece of earth that touches the sky at over eight thousand feet above sea level. We bought tickets, were ushered into the tram, and soon moved closer to our mountain celebration. Our faces were glued to the windows as we climbed the rocky terrain, enamored with the stunning views and breathtaking scenery. The weather that day wasn't perfect, but the overcast skies only added to the mystique. It felt like we were floating through a fantasy world, breaking through patches of clouds and fog. We would occasionally get a glimpse through the vapors and see the contours of mountain, the textures were unbelievable. This ride was awesome - like a real-life jaunt in the Turtle Blimp!

The pockets of mountainside snow we spotted on the ride up should've clued us in. The tram pulled into the station and before the doors even opened we knew it was all over. The mild weather of Palm Springs didn't exist here. On top of this mountain, it was a different world. The rules of seasons and expected temperatures didn't care about us. When we stepped off the transport and onto the snow-covered peak of Mount San Jacinto, a powerful, frigid breeze wasted no time and aggressively wrapped itself around us. It should have been cold, brutal, and painful. We expected to battle this bitter cold. New York City has a bleak cold to its winters, but the frosty winds that circled us on Mount San Jacinto were different. They felt healthy.

The mountain's cold charged us with a renewed energy. As someone who has spent many winters in the northeast, it was a new feeling. And it felt great! We embraced this newfound spirit and decide to hike around the snowy mountaintop. We were mildly prepared with our gear, using makeshift apparel to serve as our cold weather protection.

We wandered into the white powdered abyss. Relentless, snowy gusts zoomed through the tree-lined trail, always hitting us with perfect precision. The crisp mountaintop frost covered our faces as we hiked. It was cold, but not the type of cold I've become accustomed to. That special energy was still keeping us hearty, no matter what the mountain threw at us. I was in love with the cold, raw strength of the terrain. It was powerful and beautiful. Maybe it was the mountain, maybe it was my Mexican Leonardo discovery, but at this moment, everything was perfect.

The sun was dipping closer to the Earth. The orange hue bouncing off the white snow was beginning to fade. It was time for the hike to end and the celebratory mountaintop drink to begin! We kicked through the snow and back to the main lodge. This spot had a gift shop, information center, restaurant, and most importantly, a bar. We knocked the snow off our boots and parked ourselves at a table that overlooked the special cold. In no time at all, drinks were in-hand. We toasted to relaxing Palm Springs, the strength of the mountain, and of course, Turtle Power.

The frost melted from our faces. Spirits were in our bellies. A ceramic TMNT bootleg from Mexico in my luggage. The trip to Palm Springs ended on a high, high up on a mountain. From the exploration of a desert oasis to the greasy food truck at a toy show, we came, saw, and conquered California. Cowabunga, California.

If you enjoyed this travelogue, check out my other adventures around the globe!


  1. That handmade piece is a heck of a find! Random junk like that is what makes a collection unique.


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