Monday, January 31, 2011

Day 166: Alien Wind Slaves

Rancho Mirage to west of Palm Springs. 19.7 miles/3209.1 total

Saturday, January 29, 2011

8:15 a.m. I’m leaving from in front of the Thai Smile restaurant in a shopping center at the corner of California Route 111 and Bob Hope Drive in Ranch Mirage, heading west through Cathedral City and Palm Springs, to a point a few miles west of downtown Palm Springs, a distance of 19.7 miles.

I’m back from a week-long rest and sojourn in Palm Springs with Uncle Ed. I took advantage of the warm weather to loll at the pool, partook of his excellent cooking, and enjoyed his hospitality.

All good things must come to an end. I have a journey to complete and today is the beginning of the last portion of that journey, what you might call the home stretch, with about eight more days of walking until I reach the ocean.

Another beautiful cloudless day in paradise with the steep rise of what I believe are the San Jacinto Mountains to my left and in front of me, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains off to the right. It’s about 65 degrees, promising to get up to the mid-70s.

Rancho Mirage is another affluent Coachella Valley city. I’m looking at tasteful one-story businesses done up to look as little as possible like the crass centers of commercialism they really are. Once people have acquired wealth they don't want to be reminded of how they got it. But why should they? Must everything look like the strip on the way into Yee-ha City on a Saturday night? I think not.

The hedges, many of them sculpted bougainvilleas, bloom as tastefully as the strip malls. All over the meticulous desert landscaping are blue and yellow-brown lantanas, subtly aromatic in the cool morning air, and everywhere tall palm trees, lots of palm trees. And speaking of desert flora, I wish to thank one of my readers—a random follower as it turns out—for answering my query regarding those willow-like evergreen trees I saw out in the desert last week. They are tamarisks, also known as salt cedars. You won’t see many of them in town here, though, because they just aren’t pretty enough to be included in a landscaping plan.

Past old shopping plazas and new ones I go. Doctor’s offices, interior design places, intimate ethnic restaurants with cute one-word names. One exception to the subtlety of all this is the Rancho Car Wash, with a large neon sign shaped like a pink elephant, probably an example of what in the world of zoning they call prior nonconforming use. And for your car purchasing pleasure we have dealerships for Jaguar, Audi, Bentley, Maserati, and Land Rover. Buy your Chevys elsewhere.

I was mistaken in my last post when I suggested that a person must be dead to get a street named after him around here. It certainly helps, but many of these streets were named when the celebrities were still alive—Bob Hope and Dinah Shore, for instance. Some, like Monty Hall, are living still. To be sure they all got old (except that poor tree hugger Sonny Bono), but that sort of goes with the territory.

I pass a bronze sculpture of a cowboy holding a saddle in one hand and a rifle in the other. It’s entitled “George Montgomery, Rider of the Purple Sage.” The piece was started by the actor himself, a man of many talents it seems, and completed after his death in 2000 by Gary Schildt. Old George died right here in Rancho Mirage. In the saddle, so to speak.

Behind tasteful walls sit tasteful low flat-roofed one-story houses and condos. Thunderbird Terrace and Thunderbird Cove and Thunderbird Villas. Nestled up in the foothills south of 111, well above the desert floor but below the higher peaks behind them, are some exceptionally choice houses. In one of them, here or in Palm Springs, lives Dolores Hope, the widow of Bob Hope. Dolores is 101 years old, having lived even longer than Bob, who made it to 100. Uncle Ed, who is full of good and sometimes true gossip, says that Mrs. Hope is (or was when she got out more) a terrible tipper, as was her husband. If I remember my Dante correctly, there's a special place for bad tippers.

I pass the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors’ Park, just like the one in downtown Phoenix, and with the same sculpture of people walking through the doors of cancer and cancer treatment and coming out on the other side.

Just past that, at Frank Sinatra Drive, is the Rancho Mirage City Hall, very modern and architecturally innovative. It reminds me of a synagogue.

At about 4 miles I leave Rancho Mirage and enter Cathedral City, named for nearby Cathedral Canyon. Cathedral City’s population is over 52,000, about three times that of Ranch Mirage. Immediately the tone of the commerce changes. It’s less elegant and understated, which is not to say that it’s cheesy, just a little closer to normal. I pass the Palm Springs Auto Mall, selling cars that mere mortals can afford to buy—Mazdas, Fords, and the like.

I cross Monty Hall Drive. Here 111 is called East Palm Canyon Drive. There’s a downtown movie complex with an Imax theater, and the usual array of fast food joints. In addition to their shopping avenues on or near Route 111, all these towns have a port, as it were, a few miles north on I-10.

One of Cathedral City’s claims to fame is that it contains a branch of Forest Lawn Cemetery, where a number of notable people who lived around here are buried, including Frank Sinatra himself, Sonny Bono, Dinah Shore, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, and Harold Robbins, to name a few. I do not pass near there on the walk, or I would most definitely go in for a visit.

At 6.1 miles, right next to Glory to God Ministries International, a large modern church, I leave Cathedral City and enter Palm Springs, population 42,000 plus, elevation 415 feet.

Having spent a few days here already I can say that it’s a fairly well-rounded city. Obviously it’s no slum, but it has a fair cross section of middle to upper income people. Up in the hills there are more luxurious houses. Lots of golf courses and gay bars.

I cross Gene Autry Trail and continue to head down East Palm Canyon Drive. I walk over a bridge across a wide swath of sand that I believe is the main watercourse. I’m told that once in a while it does fill up with water. Seems hard to believe.

After a spate of car dealerships Palm Canyon settles down into a street of attractive residential developments—apartments and condos mostly, offering one and two bedroom places with swimming pool and other amenities. Restaurants dot the way.

At about 9 miles I arrive at Sunrise Way, behind which Uncle Ed’s complex is located—the Smoke Tree Raquet Club, a very well maintained two-story quadrangle of one and two bedroom apartment condos with a swimming pool and spa in the middle. Most of the residents are older than me, it would seem, and older than Uncle Ed, too. A good number of them are people who rent during the winter from private owners. Lots of couples from Canada and other cold places and also a number of "singles," male and female.

A mile or so after Smoke Tree, Palm Canyon Drive takes a turn to the right and heads into the downtown. At Camino Parocela I take the left fork and stay on Palm Canyon, running toward me one way. I suddenly notice that I’m walking on the Palm Springs walk of fame, complete with stars on the sidewalk just like in Hollywood. Lots of these people are residents who are not exactly household names, like Dr. George Ordon, "TV host/ plastic surgeon/ humanitarian." Eventually I begin to recognize a few names. Chevy Chase, William Powell, Ruby Keeler, Cheetah the Chimp, Rick Nelson, Elvis Presley.

It was along this section of Palm Canyon where Uncle Ed took me to the Thursday night street fair. Every week traffic is shut down for a few blocks to make room for booths selling food as well as jewelry and crafts, all hand made.

Many boutiques, nice restaurants, and high end antique shops continue to line the street, and pairs of guys, almost identically well-dressed, are out and about walking their dogs and window shopping on this warm afternoon. Eventually I ease out of the downtown shopping area.

At 14 miles I come to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. I’m not sure what the name of the mountain is, but a rotating tram car goes up to about 8,500 feet, and there's a restaurant at the top. Today it’s a bit hazy, but I can just barely make out the cables for the tram in the distance, against Chino Canyon.

Just past the aerial tramway is the large Palm Springs official welcome sign for traffic coming the other way. West of the sign the settlements begin to thin out. I go past one more golf course and a couple of luxury housing developments and I’m out in the country on a four-lane divided highway.

Just like that I’m back in the desert, mesquite bushes growing on the flat sandy land up to the gray-green foothills. I come to a great slab of sharp rock, perhaps thirty feet high and a hundred feet wide. On it is a brass plaque that says, “Please Help Preserve This Revered Monument.” But it doesn’t say what the monument is, or who reveres it, or why.

Through the palm trees and over the roofs of the last development a vast field of windmills comes into view to the north up by I-10. This is as large a gathering of windmills as I have seen on my journey—thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of them. There are more here than in the western plains of Texas, I think. Some stand on erector-set towers that resemble old oil wells, but the majority are on the modern white poles. There appear to be several different sizes, too, arrayed along a 50 or 100 square mile tract between the mountains on either side of the interstate. Some stand in lines of fifteen or more, some stand randomly by themselves. They are like huge stationary alien slaves, sent to do our bidding, locked down to the ground, waving their three arms slowly in the air to make electricity for us. Where did they come from? When will they leave?

What’s left out here on California 111 as it makes its final way up to the interstate is an interesting study in contrasts. To the north are the windmills, the aliens who make our power. To the south are some absolutely pristine expanses of desert and mountains, giving almost no sign of visitation by humans, looking like the backdrops and settings of a hundred old westerns. On one side it’s the Sci-fi Channel, and on the other it’s TV Land. But because this is California, it’s all for our entertainment.

As I get further down the road I come to a point where it turns sharply to the right and crosses a dry stream bed, where the steep mountains have come right up to the south edge. The wind has picked up greatly here and I have to hold on to my hat. The sand from the dry stream has blown up to the road and created dunes, and even now is swirling across the ground. I can see clearly why there is a wind farm here. Climbing uphill, and going around another bend, fighting the headwind, I spot the motor home.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Day 165: I See Dead People

Thermal to Rancho Mirage. 20.2 miles/3189.4 total

Saturday, January 22, 2011

9:10 a.m. I depart from near the intersection of Fillmore Street and California Route 111, called Grapefruit Avenue here, amid groves of date palm trees and with a scattering of dates underfoot on the dusty shoulder. I’m headed up to Indio and over to Rancho Mirage, with several communities in between. Today’s walk will be 20.2 miles.

It’s warm again, nearly 70 already, getting up to around 80.

In a little less than a mile I arrive at Airport Road, which I believe is the main street of Thermal, a town of about 5,000 whose population doubles during the harvest season. Thermal, like Mecca, is home mostly to Mexicans who work in the fruit and vegetable industry, and it’s a relatively poor town. It was given its name because it’s hot, averaging about 110 degrees during the July.

At 2.1 miles I reach the city limits of Coachella; the sign says the population is 40,517, and elevation 70, but I’m sure that’s 70 feet below sea level. I am climbing slowly, but Thermal was 120 feet below sea level and I haven’t gone uphill that much. Like its sister cities to the east, Coachella is almost completely Hispanic—over 97%. The Coachella grapefruit is named after this area, and that’s why 111 here is Grapefruit Avenue.

What greets me as I walk here is a continuation of the salty dirt along the sides of the road, a steady increase in the amount of commerce, and the Union Pacific railroad tracks running parallel to 111. Most of the signs are in Spanish, of course; the tire shops I saw so many of in the Phoenix area—llanteras—dot the way here, too. Other businesses include places that sell cheap beer and liquor, cash checks, and help you call or send money to other countries.

I’m skirting the outer edge of Coachella; most of the city is west of Route 111. At Harrison Street I come a shopping center. I’m aware that I have missed three presidents since Fillmore—Taylor, Polk, and Tyler—and I’m now at old Tippecanoe. That in turn reminds me of a point much earlier in this journey when I visited the site of the battle in which William Henry Harrison distinguished himself, near Lafayette, Indiana. Lot of miles on the old feet since then.

If the presidents continue to run in reverse order, the next one I get to should be Van Buren. At 5.9 miles, having left Coachella, I enter Indio, the date capital of the United States, and still a bit below sea level. These days most of the actual date production is behind me, as Indio has become largely residential. Farmers' fields have given way to stores and golf courses and housing developments. Its population stands at about 80,000.

Indio seems to have two sides--the poorer one here along Indio Boulevard, and a somewhat more upscale one on the portion of 111 that branches off and begins to run west again. At 7.2 miles I make the turn into that part of town. No more salty shoulders. Now I’m in the middle of a city. I’m greeted by a giant blue inflatable gorilla wearing yellow sunglasses, advertising $49 tax return preparation. Things seem a trifle cooler, in large part because the street is lined with buildings, some of which are casting shadows on the sidewalk. Passing a used RV lot and a few car lots, I come to Jackson Street (after also crossing Van Buren).

I can see how if you live west of here, toward Palm Springs, you would think Indio is a little déclassé. But from where I've been Indio looks pretty spiffy. Not affluent, by any means, but not overly poor, either. Of the many somewhat dubious claims to fame cited in Indio's Wikipedia article, one worth mentioning is that in 1991 Jimmy Swaggart was pulled over on Indio Boulevard and found to be in the company of a prostitute. This was his second such publicized incident, the first having occurred in 1988. After that one he famously and tearfully confessed, "I have sinned against you, my Lord." Evidently the Lord told him not to worry about it.

I pass the Larson Justice Center of Riverside County, a court and sheriff’s complex almost two blocks long. In a county the size of Riverside, several county courthouses are necessary. The city of Riverside is the county seat, and that’s still many miles west of here.

Next comes the site of the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, a bright blue and white mock-Middle Eastern set-up. Across the street, as if to counterbalance this Saracen presence, stands a restaurant and hall made up to look like a turreted European castle, complete with life-size suits of armor standing on the parapets.

I arrive at Monroe Street. They’ve skipped John Quincy Adams. I was wondering if they might give him short shrift, thinking one Adams Street is enough for both father and son. That’ll probably happen with the Bushes someday, when they’re dead and people are naming streets after them. One Bush Street should suffice, the city fathers will say. Two would only confuse people. One Bush president would have more than sufficed, come to think of it. Somehow that reminds me of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous dictum, in a compulsory sterilization case, that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

As far as naming streets after presidents with the same last name is concerned, I suppose the one-for-two policy also goes for Franklin Roosevelt and his third cousin and uncle-in-law Theodore, the grandfather and grandson Harrison team, and the two unrelated Johnsons.

At the corner of 111 and Dr. Carreon Boulevard, near the entrance to JFK Memorial Hospital, I pause to say hello to a woman wearing one of those funky foam Statue of Liberty crowns and an oxidized-copper-colored gown, advertising for a tax preparation company. I ask her how it’s going, and she replies, with a sigh, “Not too bad, so far.” For just an instant I consider standing there and reciting Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” just to inspire her, but I quickly think better of it. I’ve found from experience that sign-holders are usually a bit touchy, and just as often on the margins of society and sanity. Occasionally they're willing to chat, but you can usually tell one way or the other in an instant. The hard set of this woman’s toothless jaw tells me not to linger.

At the western end of Indio I come to a broad canal owned by the Coachella Valley Water District, carrying water to the crops and perhaps to the citizens of the area. One thing was clear from the moment I got into this state: California will not be denied its water, come what may. At one time Artesian wells fed some of the farms hereabouts, and some of the water comes from mountain runoff, but most of it comes from major rivers, carried in many cases hundreds of miles.

The sign on the fence in front of the canal says, “Trespassing and Loitering are Forbidden by Law.” Technically, that's a bit of an overstatement. If trespassing were legal it would be called something else, like visiting. And if loitering wasn’t against the law it would be called hanging out.

I go by a field of strawberries, the first of which are being picked. I cross Madison Street. Only three more presidents to go now, but my destination today is near a street named for a man who couldn’t have become President of the United States, because of his having been born a citizen of another country, though he might easily have been elected president of the Coachella Valley. The man I speak of is Bob Hope.

With a cough and a wheeze, Indio begins to give out. Vacant lot follows vacant lot. The Palm Shadow Inn, once probably a classy motel, now looks like the kind of place where people go to commit suicide. The cement lion on its gate sits with its head bowed in shame. Across the street what was once a palm grove is all stumps, revealing behind it a village of cheap manufactured houses and permanently moored trailers.

At about 11 miles I come to Shields Date Gardens, very much like the Oasis I visited yesterday. I stop in for the free samples. After Shields I leave Indio and enter La Quinta. I also cross Jefferson Street.

As I go west the neighborhoods are becoming increasing more affluent. I’m entering the land of golf courses and expensive condos and of the truly and profoundly old. Like Phoenix and Tucson and other hot spots, the elderly are drawn here like moths to a flame, to get a head start on being mummified or to go into training for the first few millennia they’ll spend in hell. Here are old men in bad toupees shuffling through parking lots wearing red Sansabelt slacks they bought twenty years ago after they’d already been out of fashion for twenty years. And old women with hideous botched plastic surgeries, accidental Medusas whose eyes stare regretfully from deep within their droopy collagen-bloated faces.

The population of La Quinta was 23,000 in 2000. Though it was only incorporated in 1982, it has a much older history. The area is said to have been settled in the 1700s by the Spanish under Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, as the fifth resting place between Mexico and the present-day Los Angeles area. Hence, La Quinta, meaning “the fifth.” The term "resting place" seems fitting.

I sit down on a cool landscaping rock under a palo verde tree that already has leaves on it, and look across the street at Bed Bath & Beyond. That tells the story of the area I’m walking through at the moment. The bougainvilleas bloom with their red papery flowers, and the air is filled with perfume from other blooming bushes, lantanas, I think.

I come to Adams Street, named for John but standing in for John Quincy as well. On through La Quinta I walk for several miles. It’s a fairly tony little place. Then I cross Washington Street and I’m done with presidents, unless they decide to do presidents of the Continental Congress. Next I cross a mostly dry concrete ditch and I’m in the City of Indian Wells.

Here the world pauses from its crass and petty commercial endeavors, and before me is a stretch of residential developments and golf courses, along with the occasional luxury hotel. High brick walls shield the huge houses and the country clubs from the street. There’s the unmistakable feeling of extreme wealth—the smell of money. Indian Wells has a population of a little more than 5,000, and the per capita income is over $76,000, with the second-highest percentage of registered Republicans in California.

At 14.4 miles I pass the entrance to the Indian Wells Country Club, by no means the only country club in this city. I marvel at the difference between Thermal, where I started today, and this place. Thermal's per capita income is about $6,000. What a difference a half day’s walking can make. Across the street there’s a shrine to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who lived, or at least wintered, here in Indian Wells during his retirement.

I pass grapefruit trees with branches heavy with fruit. At about 16 miles I arrive at the Indian Wells Village Center. Not flashy, just tasteful.

Then I'm in Palm Desert, another well-off community, but more modest than Indian
Wells. It has all the businesses—fast food places and chain stores and restaurants and doctors’ offices—that Indian Wells seems to eschew.

The sun is beginning to decline as I cross San Pablo Street. Once the sun slips behind the Santa Rosa Mountains the view becomes more beautiful as the colors begin to darken and blend. After the Westfield Palm Desert Mall there’s another open space, a break in the action.

At 19.5 miles I cross Fred Waring Drive. I’m now at the part of the Coachella Valley where the streets are named not for dead presidents, but for other famous dead people who used to live around here. Besides Fred Waring (whose name most people younger than me probably don’t even recognize), there are streets named after Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Gerald Ford, and many others. But the big kahuna of the Valley must surely be Bob Hope, who, as a diehard golfer and a centenarian, was the perfect representative of this neighborhood.

At just about 20 miles I enter the City of Rancho Mirage. Even though Grand Rapids always claimed him, this was really Gerald Ford’s home. Not long after, up near Bob Hope Drive, I turn off Highway 111 into a shopping complex and spot the motor home, parked in front of the Thai Smile Restaurant.

After today's walk I will pause for a little R & R at Laurine's Uncle Ed's place in Palm Springs. Should be back on the road in about a week.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Day 164: Down To The Sea

Box Canyon Road to Thermal. 19.7 miles/3169.2 total

Friday, January 21, 2011

8:25 a.m. The car is locked up at the quiet little spot where I spent the night alongside Box Canyon Road, and I start downhill through the canyons to the Salton Sea and Mecca, then up California Route 111 to Thermal, a distance of 19.7 miles.

It’s a cloudless day, temperature in the mid-60s, and will probably get up to about 80.

The first six miles on Box Canyon Road during the last walk were gradually downhill. Today the descent is more pronounced and very soon I find myself surrounded by rock cliffs until I am almost completely shaded from the morning sun. The grey-brown hills ahead of me remind me of the rumps of sleeping elephants.

I will go today from at or above sea level to well below it, then gradually uphill again, still ending the walk in the Coachella Valley at about 120 feet below.

At about a mile and a half I come to a concrete monument marking Shaver’s Well. “Dedicated to the man behind the well. John Shaver 1854-1935.” You may recall that Shaver’s Summit was the original name of Chiriaco Summit. This monument was placed by the Billy Holcomb Chapter of E Clampus Vitus.

The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus claims to be dedicated to the preservation of western heritage, often commemorating places and people that the state or national governments don’t see fit to. From what I can gather, it’s a mock-serious fraternal order. Its name is in Dog Latin, and has no actual meaning. The group’s motto is Credo Quia Absurdum, which sort of means “I believe it because it is absurd.” The origins of E Clampus Vitus among western miners, in the 19th century, are obscure, and I think have been deliberately embellished to add to its mock solemnity. It seems to be in the spirit and tradition of the Raccoon Lodge to which Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton belonged in The Honeymooners. The typical Clampian appears to be an overweight white man in a red shirt and black vest with a salt and pepper beard who looks rather like an overgrown Boy Scout. Drinking is an essential element of membership.

In fact, it was this organization that put up the monument to the Chiriaco family over at Chiriaco Summit. In tribute to E Clampus Vitus I once again set out the poem written many years ago by my friend Greg Farnum:

Our lodge is much renowned for its good works.
We call ourselves Asshole Bastards of the World
So as not to seem immodest.

Today promises to be one of the top half dozen days of scenic grandeur I’ve experienced on the whole journey, right up there with the descent into Alamogordo from Cloudcroft in New Mexico and the walk from Globe to Superior in Arizona. I thank my lucky stars that I chose, almost by accident, to take this route into the Coachella Valley rather than to continue to follow I-10.

Not really solid rock, these sandy cliffs seem to be held together mostly by pressure. They contain large and small boulders that almost want to break off, as if this were a dry mixture of cement and aggregate. It looks as if every time it rains (which is seldom) the erosion is rapid and causes significant changes.

Somehow the Valley of the Kings along the Nile River comes to mind down here. Though not carved, the mountains and hills down here look quite the same. Above these multicolored sand cliffs the taller dark peaks of the Orocopia and Santa Rosa Mountains become visible, appearing in the distance like huge piles of black sand in a gravel yard. I barely have time to get used to one color and shape of cliff than another variation shows up, either because of a difference in rock texture or the changing light of the sun. The steep hills are by turns rounded, spiky, striped, and striated.

About two hours into the walk I begin to catch glimpses of that snow-peaked mountain I saw the other day, and a couple more to the north of it.

At 7.2 miles I take a sharp turn to the left I know that I’m almost at the bottom. The road soon takes a second bend to the right and suddenly before me are the blue waters of the northwest end of Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has an interesting story behind it. It’s California’s largest lake, measuring about 15 by 35 miles. It was probably connected to the ocean once, then got cut off when the waters receded or other geological changes occurred. But it has only been a lake this time around for a relative wink of an eye. For most of the time humans have inhabited the area it was little more than a dry bed of salt. Then in 1905 excessive snow melt cause the Colorado River to swell, breaching an irrigation canal and causing a dike to break. As a result, over the next two years almost all of the water from the Colorado flowed intermittently into the Salton basin and created the present-day lake, before the damage was controlled and the Colorado went back to its "normal" course down to the Gulf of California.

The surface of the Salton Sea is currently 226 feet below sea level, and it is 56 feet deep at its lowest spot. That’s only five feet higher than the bottom of Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. The salinity of the Salton Sea is about 4%; that of the oceans is about 2.6%. And although the lake is fed by rivers, the fresh water flow isn’t enough to keep it from losing area due to evaporation and becoming even more salty. When I was here in April of last year I noticed lots of dead fish on the shores. Apparently the only larger fish species that is expected to survive in it when it reaches 4.4% salinity is the tilapia, and eventually they will die off, too.

So boo hoo for the Salton Sea. Everyone’s worries about it, as they tend to do. When it's all gone, if it ever is, there will be problems with dust as well. They’re thinking about digging a canal from the ocean to the Salton Sea, to refill it and also decrease the salinity. I think they’ll have to get the Mexicans on board for that one, though, because the shortest route to the ocean is that way. To add to the strangeness of it all, the name of Sonny Bono, late Congressman from the area, has become associated with efforts to save the Salton Sea. His widow (not Cher, but Mary Bono Mack, Sonny’s successor in Congress) is working on the situation. So the beat goes on, as it were.

I think the good news is that if the Salton Sea does dry up completely and return to its pre-1905 state, people will be able to walk around on the second-lowest point in North America. Hell, I’m sure if the folks around here put their minds and bodies to it and scraped some of the salt off the ground they could make it even lower than Death Valley. Maybe Sonny Bono was thinking about stuff like this when he failed to notice that tree on the ski slope.

Today the area here on the northwest side of the Salton Sea is heavily farmed, well irrigated by a canal from the Colorado River. All sorts of crops grow nicely here, including citrus trees, vegetables, grapes, and dates. I pause on a guardrail along the irrigation ditch to eat my lunch, and the smell of salt and dead fish wafts over from the lake, a mile or so away.

Down at Garfield Street Box Canyon Road becomes 66th Avenue, and heads due west into Mecca. I pass a couple of lemon groves, the fruit hanging in heavy profusion on the trees. Then some orange trees. On the other side of the road are vineyards and a few hundred acres devoted to a dark green leafy vegetable, spinach I think. There are also some tiny pepper plants growing out of black plastic-covered mounds in a huge field. A few workers are out, pruning vegetables or tying up grapevines, but there aren’t many yet.

The streets around here are named for dead presidents. There was Garfield, the 20th president, and here comes Hayes, the 19th. So they’re going back in time. My motor home is parked near Fillmore, the 13th president.

Down at Johnson Street, at 13.2 miles, I enter Mecca. This is a community of about 15,000, whose population swells to three times that number in April and May when the pickers come en masse. But even without the migrants, the population is 98% Hispanic. I think the name Mecca (it was once called Walters) was inspired by the date-growing industry, as a number of other Arab-sounding names also show up in the general area. Probably a more appropriate name would be Guadeloupe.

I pass a building under construction with a faux Arabic look, including a dome and rounded arches, which is to be the Mecca Boy’s and Girl’s Club. Across the street is the Mecca Community Library and a Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. At Date Palm Street I go up to the main commercial avenue, where virtually all the signs are in Spanish.

The mud and dirt on the sides of the road as I head northwest out of Mecca has a white crust on it, which I take to be salt. Just to be sure I taste a little of it, and sure enough, it’s salt. It has a slightly bitter and metallic taste, so it might contain some other funky chemicals, or maybe potassium or magnesium chloride, other salts found in the ocean.

I pass the Lopez Mobile Home Park, with its front and back yards covered with salt. Where the salt has been raked away people grow a little grass and some palm trees. In the back is a water tank about ten feet high, on which has been painted an image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. They gotta have that virgin.

When I get to Pierce Street I know I’m only two miles, and one president, away from the motor home. I don’t know what happened to Buchanan, or Lincoln, for that matter.

I pass a large grove of date palm trees. I wouldn’t have identified them as such, except that I know there are dates around here and they wouldn’t just plant hundreds of acres of ordinary southern California ornamental palms. Just beyond the grove is the Oasis Date Gardens, a store and restaurant dedicated to dates.

After a sojourn there I leave the Oasis Date Gardens, somewhat more knowledgeable about dates than I was before I went in. They grow a dozen or so varieties of dates around here. According to a little video I watched in the store, Indio is considered the date capital of the country, and 95% of all dates grown in this country come from here in the Coachella Valley. Date growing began about a hundred years ago. There’s a Date Festival in Indio in February, when all kinds of weird pseudo-Middle Eastern things go on—camel races, ostrich races, belly dancers.

So I’ve had several tastes of the land on this walk—first a lemon that I cut open, then a small orange, then some salt of the earth, and finally a sampling of several kinds of local dates.

Not long after I leave the Oasis Date Gardens the motor home comes into view on the side of the road, just before Fillmore Street on the outskirts of Thermal.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day 163: Chiriaco

Red Cloud Road Exit to Box Canyon Road. 20.1 miles/3149.5 total

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

8:45 a.m. I’ve just locked up the car and shrugged on my vest and am leaving from the parking lot at Red Cloud Road, Exit 182, heading for Chiriaco Summit, where I will take Pinto Road and Box Canyon Road west southwest from I-10, in the direction of Mecca. Today’s walk will be 20.1 miles.

It’s another warm day in the desert, cloudless at the moment but hazy ahead of me. It's predicted to get up to 75.

I'm walking down the decent one-lane dirt road I was on for the last two or three hours of yesterday’s walk. So as not to tempt either fate or Broderick Crawford of the Highway Patrol, I have managed to stay clear of the shoulder of the interstate in my sixty miles of California walking so far. As long as I have pretty good roads like this it’ll be fine. And in a few days I’ll be back in civilization and probably won’t have any more desert trekking for the duration. So I’m getting my fill of it now.

The nearly midmorning winter sun, still far to the south, casts long shadows from the utility poles and the mesquite bushes across the dusty road. To the north is a ridge of mountains, about a mile beyond the interstate. These are the Eagle Mountains. To the south, also about a mile away, are the Orocopia Mountains.

The mountains to the north of the highway on which the full sun is shining are particularly attractive with their multiple colors—chocolate brown with a dusting of pale green vegetation and here and there a lighter peak, more caramel colored. The mountains are making me hungry. Right at the base of these mountains is the Julian Hinds Pump Facility, which raises water from the Colorado River aquifer to a sufficient elevation so that it can flow easily down into the Los Angeles area. From here it’s a tiny set of pipes coming out of the side of a mountain.

An hour and a half into the walk and I’m sweating, and beginning to doubt the prediction that it would only get to 75 degrees today. At 5.1 miles I pull even with the Hayfield Road exit, which isn’t much other than a way to get to that pumping station. But it’s about halfway to the Chiriaco Summit exit, which is the little oasis in the middle of my walk today.

At some point past Hayfield I happen to look into the desert and see a stand of ocotillos that has turned green. The branches of these things are usually a grey brown color, but once in awhile they get leaves on them.

As its name implies, Chiriaco Summit is atop a hill, and the road has been rising very gradually all morning as I near the exit. These last few days of relatively warm weather have brought a little bit of life to the desert, and I've seen several small cottontails darting through the bushes, in addition to numerous tiny lizards. On the road I follow a set of cloven hoofprints, probably of a mountain goat or sheep. I search the nearly hillsides, hoping to spot a live one, but don’t. This little side road I’m on climbs steeply up and down hill for a bit, and then I can see the Chevron gas station sign beckoning me.

At 9.2 miles I walk the hundred yards over to the freeway and find an open spot in the fence to crawl through, and on the other side, by the parking lot of the station, I find an unlocked gate in the fence.

After taking a rest and eating my sandwich and sipping cappuccino, I begin to look around Chiriaco Summit. Across from the gas station and convenience store, next to the restaurant, there’s a shady little shrine to Our Lady of Guadeloupe. She's very heavy duty with the Mexicans. Masses are said here each afternoon at 5:00 p.m.

Next to the shrine is a little monument to the Chiriaco family, founders of this oasis. It says Joseph Chiriaco came from Alabama in 1925 and worked as a surveyor for the water company. That work brought him to this area, known as Shaver’s Summit, where he set up a gas station and general store in 1933. So he pretty much did what Mr. Carr tried to do over in Hell, but it lasted. It was in 1933 that they paved U.S. 60 between L.A. and Phoenix. In 1942 General George S. Patton established the desert training center headquartered in nearby Ft. Young. In 1945 Chiriaco built a memorial to Patton and his men, which has since grown into a museum. In 1958 a post office was opened, and the area was renamed Chiriaco Summit. Joe and his wife Ruth both died in 1996. The family continutes to operate the place, and charges some pretty outrageous prices, I might add, including gas for $3.66 a gallon, which is high even for California.

Sure enough, next to the marker and a small trailer park is the General Patton Memorial Museum. A large bronze statue of him holding a riding crop, with his English bulldog Willie on a leash, stands in front of the entrance. I’m curious, after seeing that statue of Douglas MacArthur back in Texas, whether the sculptor gave him as nice an ass as MacArthur had. But no, Patton has a regular flat old white guy’s ass, as one might expect. I decide to wait until my day off tomorrow to visit the museum, which also has an extensive collection of tanks outside.

For now I head out of Chiriaco Summit into the desert again, crossing over the freeway to the south side to Pinto Road, which is a continuation of the one lane road I was walking on, but is now two lanes of blacktop, running parallel to the highway.

One of the first things to strike me as I leave the oasis is the sight of the first snow-peaked mountain I’ve seen on my walk through the southwest. Obviously there are plenty of them in both New Mexico and Arizona, but I was so far south, and perhaps there had been so little snowfall, that I didn’t see any until just now. I think this is Monument Mountain, over in the Joshua Tree National Park. At 4,834 feet, it is the highest thing in the immediate distance.

For nearly five miles I float down this cracked asphalt road. Since leaving Chiriaco Summit I’ve been going downhill. At 12.9 miles I come up even with Exit 168, where Pinto Road merges into Box Canyon Road. Box Canyon diverges from I-10, heading west southwest while the highway continues more or less straight west. I’ll be on this road for about six miles today, and on my next walk it will take me another 14 or so into Mecca, which is 180 feet below sea level. So it’s all downhill now toward the Coachella Valley.

I’m intrigued by the name Box Canyon Road. I’m sure there are many Box Canyons all over the west, just as there are many Dome Rocks. Having been raised on cowboy TV shows and movies like most people my age, this name is redolent of the western adventures that absorbed me as a kid. Ben Cartwright has to go down to Box Canyon to get those stray cattle; the Lone Ranger captures the bad guys who are holed up in Box Canyon; Sky King rescues a little boy who has broken his leg down in Box Canyon.

Down Box Canyon Road I go, then, past the Orocopia Mountains. More of the same, as far as scenery is concerned. Some plants are flowering in the warm midwinter air. As I walk a family of five on bicycles passes me—a mom and dad and two teenage sons and a daughter. They’ve been brought out here by a company called Big Wheel Tours. A guy drives them out into the middle of nowhere, gives them their bikes and their little helmets, and on down the road they go, with the vehicle following them. They're all jabbering. "Dad, can I ride next to you?" "David, how's your sister doing?" "Honey, what's going on up there?" I imagine that when they get to the bottom of the road, down below sea level, the guy from Big Wheel will put their bikes back on the SUV and they’ll all cram in for the ride back to Palm Springs, or wherever. At any rate, I don’t expect to see them again.

I have a commanding view of the widening valley between Box Canyon Road and I-10 as they continue to diverge. Off in the western distance, almost obscured by dusty haze, is that big old snow-capped mountain. Overhead cirrus clouds mercifully temper the sun a bit. “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,” as the Bard would say.

Into the second half of the afternoon, I tumble downhill gradually for the next few miles to the motor home.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 162: Looking For Hell

I-10, Corn Spring Road to Red Cloud Road. 19.4 miles/3129.4 total

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

8:35 a.m. I set out from the Corn Springs Road exit of I-10. Today I’ll be going through the bleak little village of Desert Center at about the halfway point, then on down the freeway to the Red Cloud Road exit, 19.4 miles in all.

It’s another warm day, heading up into the 80s. No clouds. I’ll be down to my t-shirt again soon.

I walk down what’s left of Chuckwalla Valley Road, which isn’t much. In about a quarter mile it ends and I am off on a narrower road of sand. I have to cross over to the north side of the interstate anyway, because according to the map there’s a place called Hell over there, just off the highway about three miles west of my starting point. I’ve been past there a few times and have seen nothing, so I assume it’s a ghost town, if that, but I’m hoping to see some remnants of it.

I find a dry ditch where I can crawl under the barbed wire fence, and after crossing the highway I find a similar spot, where one strand of barbed wire has been cut or broken, and I once again slip through without having to climb over.

In our theology we’re taught that you don’t have to look for Hell, rather that it will invariably find you, or lure you to itself, or that it’s waiting for you unless you do certain things or at least behave yourself. Getting to Hell is easy; it’s getting to Heaven that takes the serious effort. With all that in mind I’m expecting to see a primrose path, or at least a road paved with good intentions.

I should see Hell within the next hour. The fact that it remains on the map would seem to indicate that there’s something here, even if it’s just a ghost town. I’m not expecting a tableau out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, maybe just a wrecked building or two.

Off to my right is a huge orchard, covering hundreds of acres. Most of the trees are only four or five feet tall. Some are close enough that I go over to investigate. I think they’re tangerines or small oranges, based on some dried fruit from last year I see lying on the ground. When I get close I see that each of the many thousands of trees is being watered with a tiny trickle by a vast irrigation system. Just enough water to keep them going.

It’s been three miles or more and I’ve seen nothing. Not even a little profusion of trees from which I could surmise that there once was a community. Just one dry ditch after another, and lots of rocks and bushes and dead and dying mesquites. And a good sprinkling of old litter, some of which may date back fifty years or more. Rusted beverage cans with openings made by pull tabs, and a few that have been opened the even more old fashioned way, with the pointed end of a church key. And some of those stubby brown bottles they used to put beer in up through the 1970s. No matter what anyone says about littering, it’s a privilege to be following in the footsteps of litterers from the past. Without such people we would have no archeology. I’m grateful that my forebears here in the desert took the trouble to leave their trash rather than disposing of it properly. To be sure, there’s plenty of newer trash here, too—even stuff from only a few weeks or months ago. I’m not sure how people even get to places like this with vehicles, much less sit around for hours and drink beer and eat pretzels, but they do.

(It turns out that this Hell never was much, and is nothing today. It was founded in 1954 by a man named Charles Carr, who lived there with his wife and son as the only three inhabitants. He was also the head of the chamber of commerce. It had a gas station, a tavern, and a good supply of drinking water. But in the late 50s it was abandoned when it was isolated by new highway construction, and in 1964 its remains were demolished and burned by the Highway Department to make way for Interstate 10. Fitting, somehow. All this I did not know until this evening when I sat down to do the blog, so during the walk I was looking for at least some remnants, in the form of abandoned buildings or pieces of foundations or household junk.

I realize that map making is an inexact science. Most of the time maps start with older maps, and improvements and changes are made based on the best information available. Mistakes are repeated more often than they are rectified. Place names continue to show up on maps where there are no longer towns. More often than not these places have been subsumed into larger towns, and so they do exist, just not as separate entities. Their names have a bit of nostalgic value, to tell the visitor that there was once a bit of commerce or a stage coach stop or a train station at this spot where's there now just a subdivision or a dentist's office. I’ve seen this phenomenon all over the country as I’ve walked. But I've also seen spots, like this one, where there's nothing left. There comes a time when you have to let a place go, and in this case I think the cartographers really should have done some research, then made the executive decision to eliminate Hell from the map. With a population of three, it didn’t deserve to be there in the first place, except just for laughs. And now it’s been gone—not just abandoned but demolished—for over 45 years. There is no Hell, people! Wake up!)

Having sought Hell and not found it, I now discover that the road is no longer broad, nor is the gate wide. In fact, the road ceases to exist, first becoming cluttered with rocks, big and small, then disappearing altogether. I’m once more climbing down and up the embankments of dry ditches and zigzagging around looking for a reasonably smooth place to walk. I try to keep the highway within a quarter mile of where I am, but I keep following little sandy swales made by the rare rainfall, and winding all over the place. To go straight is like going over an obstacle course.

Come to think of it, maybe I found Hell after all.

After a very long morning of this kind of walking I see the sign for the Desert Center exit, at 9.2 miles. There's a cluster of palm trees between the town and the interstate, many of which have no tops on them. Ghost trees. A real road begins to form, and I get to come in out of the wilderness, so to speak, as I approach the town. The midday sun is quite hot.

The dirt road widens into a two-lane blacktop road and I pass a trailer park called Coyote Village, containing perhaps thirty trailers, only about a half dozen of which look inhabited. Almost a ghost park.

Beyond Coyote Village is a large junkyard containing cars, trucks, buses, boats, and motor homes—a vehicle graveyard--with a large ghost building in its center, windows boarded up or gaping open and free of glass. Most of the vehicles date from the 50s and 60s—a Dodge Coronet, a Nash Metropolitan, the skeleton of an orange Corvair, a Buick Riviera, a pair of tiny MG sports cars.

In Desert Center itself, the only business other than the post office that’s open, as far as I can tell, is the Desert Center Cafe, which is no great shakes. I go in and buy a couple of bottles of water. Outside are a defunct grocery store, two abandoned gas stations, and a string of other empty buildings. There is a historic marker, though. It says that near here was the site of Contractors General Hospital, started in 1933 by Dr. Sidney R. Garfield, which delivered health care to Colorado River Aqueduct workers through a prepaid health plan. Later Dr. Garfield associated with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and started Kaiser Permanente, the largest prepaid nonprofit health care program in the country.

Westward I go out of Desert Center for the second half of today’s walk. For now at least I’m on a real road, running to the Eagle Mountain Road exit. The road begins to go gradually uphill as the mountains close in. I see my first piece of California roadkill, a jackrabbit lying on its back, eviscerated in the afternoon sun.

At this exit I cross under I-10 and begin walking on the south side again, on a one-lane dirt road. Although their larger cousins the chuckwallas are hibernating right now, little gecko-like lizards dart across the warm sand and into and out of old tree trunks and between rocks. They and the crows are about the only live fauna I’ve seen in the Colorado Desert so far. I see plenty of tracks though, of coyotes, rabbits, birds of several kinds, and some cloven-hoofed animal.

This sandy road feels like a carpet after my search for Hell this morning. Had I not been on that wild goose chase, I probably would have been on this very path. I’m happy to be spending the rest of the day walking in comparative comfort.

I walk for another two and a half hours, and watch the sun begin to sink toward the horizon. I can’t see the freeway exit yet, so I go down closer to the barbed wire fence to get a better look at the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of a green sign indicating something. Eventually I see one that says Red Cloud Road is coming up in another mile.

All during today’s walk I’ve seen dead and dying mesquite trees, their bare branches dipping down spiderlike to almost touch the ground. It’s been a day of ghosts—ghost trees, ghost towns, ghost gas stations—ghosts of all kinds but no Hell.

Each morning as I begin my walk I calculate precisely what time I will arrive at my destination if I average three miles per hour all day long. Because that’s my walking pace, any breaks I take or trips to stores or museums or pauses to look around will add time to the original calculation. At the end of the day I check to see by how much I have exceeded this ideal end time. On a typical day I’ll finish in about 35 or 40 minutes over. Very rarely, I get there in the exact allotted time, which means I’ve kept up a fast pace and made very few stops and have been full of energy. Sometimes I get to the end more than an hour after the time, especially if I’ve been through a city and have made lots of stops or slowed down to see the sights. Today I will be over an hour and a half over, due in large part to the extra distance I traveled while meandering through the desert this morning. Of course it’s all good, as they say, because the only requirement I really impose on myself is to finish walking before dark. Walking all day is what I do. It’s piecework, and I only get credit for the completion of the job, not for how fast I do it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Day 161: Chuckwalla

I-10, Wiley's Well Road to Corn Springs Road. 22 miles/3110 total

Monday, January 17, 2011

8:35 a.m. I’m leaving the rest area at Wiley’s Well, heading west to Ford Dry Lake Road, where I’ll get on Chuckwalla Valley Road and take that for the rest of the day to Corn Springs Road, a distance of 22 miles.

Today’s walk will be through the Colorado Desert, which is what they call this area west of the river. I think it might be part of the larger Mohave Desert. I will be walking on improved and unimproved roads on the south side of the interstate, and should be able to avoid the cross-country stuff I was doing on the previous two days. I quickly find a sandy one-lane track to follow.

Right here at the beginning of today’s walk, down Wiley’s Well Road, is the Chuckwalla Valley State Prison, a minimum to medium security facility that houses over 3,700 inmates, although it was designed for fewer than half that many. I can't see much of it except for the barbed wire fences.

It’s already pretty warm, perhaps in the mid-60s, and I think it'll get well up into the 70s before the day is over. There was a mildness in the air early this morning that I haven’t felt since I resumed the walk after Christmas.

Today’s my first full day of walking in California. All of today and the two following will be spent walking across the desert. It won’t be until the middle of the third day that I'll see a gas station and can obtain my midday cappuccino. However, this morning I am sipping one I picked up at the Flying J on the Arizona side before I got on the freeway, so I will only be deprived of cappuccino for one day. Such are the hardships of the dusty road, I guess.

The topography can be described succinctly: flat and sandy, dotted with brown bushes; in the distance on all sides beautiful brown and purple mountains.

At 3.9 miles I see the sign over on the freeway for Ford Dry Lake Road, so I know I’m about a mile from there. Ford Dry Lake is an area of sand and rolling dunes located north of the interstate. At 4.9 miles the dirt path I’m on widens to two lanes of blacktop and becomes Chuckwalla Valley Road. This is the road I’ll be walking on for the remaining 17 miles of the walk. It diverges slightly from I-10, getting as far as two or three miles away from it, but rejoins it down at Corn Springs Road where I’ll be at the end.

There is an herbivorous, iguanalike lizard of the southwest called the chuckwalla lizard, described as “large,” although I couldn’t find out what that means. They live in the area I’m in now, but they tend to hibernate until some time in February, so I’ll be seeing no chuckwallas today. The word “chuckwalla” is from the Shoshone language. This, evidently, is their valley.

I come to a sign erected by the federal Bureau of Land Management inviting recreational visitors into the wilds of the Colorado Desert. The sign also lectures the would-be traveler about the hazards of going in without sufficient water, food, fuel, and a well-maintained vehicle, and begs him not to be an idiot, if at all possible.

At about 8 miles I get to Graham Pass Road, which runs south off Chuckwalla Valley Road. On the north side of the intersection is a nice county-owned piece of Caterpillar earthmoving equipment, sitting idle. Lacking other places to sit along the way so far, I perch atop the blade and manage to get in the shade a bit so I can rest. It’s not really hot yet, but I’ve taken off my outer shirt and am down to my t-shirt.

On into the early afternoon I walk, chained to this broken asphalt road, the semis on the highway a couple of miles distant and the large mountains behind them giving me my only sense that I’m going anywhere. I’ve reached what you might call the doldrums of the walk. Occasionally far ahead of me I’ll see a flash of a metal guardrail over a dry ditch and I’ll focus on attaining that. Then it’s on to the next one, or to some relatively tall or odd-shaped tree.

For the two hours or so I’ve been on Chuckwalla Valley Road only one vehicle has driven past, a Highway Patrol cruiser that didn’t seem to notice me. Sometimes I hear the caw of a crow, but other than that no sign of animal life. Evidence of our own species is all around, of course, including tall utility poles carrying electricity across the desert. And the road itself.

At about 13 miles I come to some signs of civilization, at least a past one. It’s a little ghost community. In the distance I see the ruin of an old turquoise and green house trailer and a few small brown wooden buildings. I decide to investigate, especially since it’s absolutely the only sign of human habitation I’ll pass today.

When I get closer I see that the general wreckage and strewn junk is much more extensive than it appeared from the road. The buildings are wooden sheds of some kind. There are several other old trailers that have been worked over well and stripped of anything usable. Sometimes it takes me time to get things in focus, but I can see now that this was once a trailer park, bereft now of practically everything but the skeletons of three dwellings. What’s left of rusty old air conditioners and small appliances are strewn around along with tires and 55-gallon oil drums, tin cans and broken glass. In front, near the road, there’s the guts of a building. Everything looks as if it dates from about fifty years ago. I don’t know what it was called, but I’m going to dub it the Chuckwalla Valley Motor Court.

Pausing on a galvanized guard rail about 16 miles into the walk I realize I’m looking at a couple of trees like ones I saw back on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona. They’re good-sized evergreen trees, some with trunks of two or three feet in diameter. The bark is very deeply furrowed and rough. Their branches hang in a droopy fashion reminiscent of willows, but they have blunt soft light green needles growing from them. They’re three inches long or so, like pine needles, but not sharp. The ground beneath the trees is covered with a yellowish brown carpet of old needles. Because the needles aren’t sharp I’m thinking they might be a kind of juniper or cedar or even a type of cypress, but I just don’t know. If anyone out there has any idea of what kind of trees these might be, please let me know. My little tree book doesn’t have anything in it quite like them.

At about 20 miles I can see that the freeway is getting closer as it and Chuckwalla Valley Road begin to converge. I rest in the shade of some more of those trees for a few minutes and in the far distance I see a dark presence on the right side of the road, too vague to make out. But since it doesn’t move I think it might be the motor home.

In another mile I see the sign for Corn Springs Road, which runs off to the south. I now see that the dark image in the distance isn’t the motor home, but a black Peterbilt truck, which must be parked right next to it.

By a quarter of a mile away I begin to see a tire from the towing dolly, but most of the motor home is hidden behind some short trees. The truck drives away and I can see it now, and wearily make my way to it. The sun has just gone over the mountains to the southwest. It’s a little past 4:30 as I arrive at the door.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Day 160: Official Welcome

Ehrenberg, Arizona to Wiley's Well Road exit, California. 22.8/3088 total.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

9:45 a.m. I’m headed for the Colorado River this morning, where I’ll cross into California, go through the town of Blythe and another dozen miles beyond to exit 222, the Wiley’s Well Road exit, a total of 22.8 miles.

It’s another fine clear day here in the desert. The temperature is in the mid 50s and should get up into the mid 60s. Ho hum.

First off, I head down to the Flying J gas station on the access road to get my morning cappuccino/coffee mix. Then I negotiate a fence and come up onto the freeway bridge over the Colorado River, at the center of which I cross into California, the Golden State, the last of the 13 states I must walk through on this journey.

At one mile in I enter California, 3066.2 miles after beginning the project. In entering California I also enter the Pacific Standard Time zone, the fourth time zone of the trip. So it becomes an hour earlier. The Colorado River here is about a quarter of a mile wide and has water in it, which is a wonder considering how many times it’s probably been dammed upstream. I imagine they manage to capture most if not all of the rest of the water before it reaches the Gulf of California. I also enter the City of Blythe, which the sign says has a population of 21,800 and is 266 feet above sea level.

I hope this isn’t a harbinger of things to come, but the very first thing that happens to me in California, as I make my way across to the other side of the interstate at the “Welcome” center (which isn’t here to welcome anyone but to inspect agricultural products being brought in and also as a Border Patrol station), is that I get waylaid by an employee of the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans. He waves me over and gets out of his truck full of orange cones, wearing his white hard hat and reflective vest, and asks me a few questions about where I'm from and where I'm coming from. Then he lectures about walking on the highway. He points out that there’s a pedestrian walkway across the bridge on the north side, which I didn’t know about because I walked up an embankment on the south side of the road. After warning me more officiously than any cop ever did, he bids me go and sin no more. As I leave I wonder if Caltrans workers have some special police powers I’m not aware of or if this guy is just a Border Patrol wannabe, eager to keep his cousins out of the country.

I was going to get off the expressway here anyway, and I do. I follow Riviera to Hobson Way, which will take me through Blythe and beyond before I have to deal with the interstate again. I’m walking past lots of agriculture, fed by irrigation ditches no doubt diverted from the Colorado. There’s cotton, alfalfa, and something that looks like winter wheat. The land stretches flat and smooth here in the Palo Verde Valley, toward the McCoy Mountains to the north.

At about 3 miles I enter the business part of Blythe, interspersed with low end chain motels—Day’s Inn, Budget Inn, Knights Inn—gas stations, and bars. I pass the Horny Toad Saloon and Patty’s Bar and Grill. There’s a cut-rate quality to Blythe so far. It has a Sears and a K Mart. One sure sign of a city that lives in the past, economically speaking, is a free-standing Sears store.

Blythe was named for a gold prospector named Thomas Blythe, who got the water rights to the region in 1877. Then he and a couple of partners built it up into an agricultural producer. Today it's a motor home mecca, like Quartzsite, and attracts RVers from the northern states.

Gas prices are futuristically high here in California, probably due mostly to taxes. It’s selling in Blythe for $3.39 a gallon, which is 44 cents more than on the Arizona side of the line. I may have to slow down the pace of the walk a bit because of the cost of gas, which is my major expense. But not just because of that. I’m also savoring these last few weeks of the walk as I close in on my destination. And I invite my readers to stay tuned after I put my toe in the Pacific Ocean, because I’ll be sojourning in southern California for a time in order to see some of the sights. Got to look up the Clampetts in Beverly Hills and Bill and Ted in San Dimas and of course the Little Old Lady from Pasadena. I didn’t spend all this time walking here just to hightail it home as soon as I get done. And as long as I’m on the subject of my plans I should mention that I’ve already started to think about another walk, this one up the Pacific coast from San Diego to Vancouver, beginning some time this year.

California is really a state after my own heart—high taxes on everything. I even like the name of the California tax department, the State Board of Equalization. That has an appealing socialistic ring to it, as if they’re committed to taking the money of the rich and giving to the poor. Of course I know that isn’t the case here or anywhere else in this country, but I do like the name.

In a small park I see a bronze sculpture of two giraffes reaching up to eat the leaves from a tree. Crossing Main Street I arrive in what looks like the nicer side of town, with a Starbucks and a Best Western Motel, a step up from the ones on the east side.

On my way out of Blythe on the west side I pass a guy I saw earlier when I was driving the route, one of those nomadic freakazoids one sees from time to time, who always remind me of George Clinton. Or maybe its that George Clinton reminds me of a street person. Anyway, this guy seems to be carrying everything he owns on him, including several layers of clothing and a shopping cart stuffed with miscellaneous items of real or imagined value. When I get close I see that he’s not very old, perhaps in his late 20s, and is quite disheveled, sporting red dreadlocks. He looks down and away from me fearfully as I get abreast of him, and I can tell that whatever he’s suffering from includes a heavy dose of paranoia. Just to be friendly and give him something to think about for the rest of the day I say in a cheery voice, “You’re almost there!” He continues to look away and hurries his pace a bit.

After K Mart I’m back in the open again, passing more irrigation ditches and lots more land under cultivation. Vegetables—something in the cabbage family—and an orange grove.

In California everything you see reminds you of something you’ve already seen on TV or in the movies. And for good reason. The state and all its physical features, at least in the southern part, as well as all its freeways and residents and towns, have come to belong to the nation because of the media. I fully expect that the next time I get stopped by the cops it’ll be Ponch and John from CHiPs, or those doofuses from Adam 12, or better yet Broderick Crawford from the old Highway Patrol show, lumbering out of the passenger side of a cruiser, dressed in a suit and fedora and walking swiftly over to me with his short-legged gait to give me a gruff lecture. “Dontcha know it’s dangerous out here? Get offa the highway.”

It’s time for an Arizona statistical wrapup. I walked for 20 full and 2 partial days through the state, for a total of 408.7 miles. I entered the state on November 23 and leave it on January 13. On the full walking days I averaged 20.36 miles per day. Arizona was my third-longest state, edged out by New Mexico by just a few miles. Texas of course was the longest with over 750 miles.

I got 25 ride offers in Arizona, a little more than one per day, which wasn’t bad considering that for several days in the greater Phoenix area I was on sidewalks and not getting any offers. For found money and road kill, though, Arizona proved to be quite stingy, and in fact was significantly behind the rest, especially given its size. I found only 57 cents on the highways and byways of Arizona. As for the dead animals, they just weren’t there. Maybe the fauna of this state are extraordinarily lucky or fast. More likely they were hunkered down for the winter. I counted 13 birds of all kinds, 11 dogs, 5 skunks, 4 coyotes, 3 rabbits or hares, 2 cats, and one each of javelina, fox, cow, and mouse. There were of course the usual puddles of dried flesh and fur and bones that I had trouble identifying, but because of the dearth of roadkill I generally took extra time to try to figure out what they were, just to bulk up the stats.

Besides being in California and in Blythe, I’m also in Riverside County, one seriously large county, even by western standards. It starts here and goes all the way over to west of the city of Riverside on the other side of the state, maybe 150 miles away. But San Bernardino County, just above Riverside, is about three times bigger, and at 20,000 square miles is the largest county in the lower 48 states, and larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey put together, only without nearly as many Italians.

At 12.6 miles I reach the western end of this paved road and I’m joining up with I-10 at this point. According to the map the town near here is Nicholls Hot Springs. The good news is that I can stay on either dirt roads or hard-packed desert just outside the interstate right-of-way. For a while there’s a viable two-lane gravel road, pretty well maintained. But after about two miles that road veers around a mountain to the north, and I leave it to stay close to the highway.

On through the desert I trudge, jumping across dry stream beds and climbing up irrigation berms. At about 16 miles I’m off any beaten path and just walking on the hard edge on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Uneven terrain is slowing my pace down a bit, but it’s flat for the most part and not wildly hilly and rocky like yesterday was. Once in awhile I hit a stretch of perfectly level gravel that goes on for half a mile or more. Down here along the washes and dry stream beds that I come to every few miles the palo verde trees seem to be sprouting tiny leaves.

At 18.5 miles I cross the Isora Ditch. Then, as the sun gets low enough to shine straight in my eyes from the left, the expressway exit where I’m parked comes into view, perhaps three miles in the distance. I now have something to focus on. It's Wiley’s Well Road, Exit 222. I can make out the rest area just off the exit, where the motor home is parked in the midst of the semis.

Day 159: Rocky Road

Quartzsite to Ehrenberg. 21.8 miles/3065.2 total

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

8:40 a.m. The morning chill is already wearing off under cloudless skies as I begin walking from about two miles east of the town of Quartzsite. Today’s walk will take me through Quartzsite, down Dome Rock Road, and onto I-10 to the last exit in Arizona, a distance of 21.8 miles.

The further toward town I go down this access road the thicker the congregations of motor homes become, although people still allow themselves plenty of space. One need be no less than thirty or forty feet from one’s neighbor. Naturally there are people who like to be cheek by jowl with others and they can get closer. These dry campers, as they’re sometimes called, who rely on their generators and supplies of water, are generally more short-term than the campers who go to the places with full hookups and settle down for the season. But some of these gargantuan luxury motor homes can go quite a while before they have to schlep into town for refilling, refueling, and emptying. Nevertheless I’d say most of the “free” campers along this road are here for two weeks or less.

I understand that I’m here just about at the height of the season for RVing. I would be interested in seeing what this place looks like at the hottest and most inhospitable time of year, just for comparison purposes. Most of the commerce along Kuehn and Main Streets is of a semi-temporary nature, many of the stores being made of pole structures over which nylon tarps are stretched, almost like the shops at an Arab marketplace, and I imagine that by late March or so most of the vendors literally fold up their tents and go elsewhere, perhaps up into the Midwest for the summer.

Besides having a nomadic feel to it, this community has an “adult” feel, too, meaning that most of the people around here are retired. There aren’t a lot of children or even younger adults around, although I know there’s a small permanent population somewhere. The age group I’m talking about is probably pretty narrow, perhaps between 55 and 80. Folks younger than that are still working and those older than 80 are probably less able to get around. By the time someone reaches the age of 60 or so, if they’ve managed to survive that long in decent health, they’ve probably outgrown most of their most self-destructive and antisocial behavioral tendencies, which makes them friendlier and more relaxed. Of course there are happy and unhappy campers in all walks of life and at all ages. But I can say from my own experience that nothing liberated me from stress better than the cessation of daily work.

At a couple of miles I reach the I-10 overpass and make my way to Main Street. At the corner of Main and Riggles there’s a large lot of new and slightly used motor coaches of the more luxurious kind—Monacos, Sportcoaches, Berkshires. I’m sometimes amazed at how many people find the money to spend on these leviathans.

Another fact about this way of living—whether it’s driving around the country in a huge motor home or pulling an equally large fifth wheel behind a full-sized pickup truck—is that the age of the drivers of these huge beasts is considerably above the average. Something to consider when you’re out there on the road: the guy behind the wheel of the average motor home is probably a great grandfather. From a safety perspective that’s generally not a bad thing, even when you factor in the risks of stroke, sudden heart attack, and incipient dementia. But it is an interesting thing to contemplate. Give them a wide berth.

I’m really easily persuaded in my more superficial beliefs, whipped, as it were, by the winds of change and the influences around me. I have to say that the more of these big campers I see the more normal they begin to appear to me. I can’t help but think that if one is going to live a substantial amount of the time in a motor home, one should have the biggest one possible. Nevertheless, it is a costly undertaking to own one of these 42 foot jobs as big as Willie Nelson’s dopemobile. The used ones often go for $150,000 and up. “Canadian Financing Available.” Naturally you can get something in any price range, and the somewhat smaller class A jobs, maybe only 30 to 35 feet in length, can be gotten, still almost new, for 40 to 50 thousand, based on the prices I’m seeing here. Still, that’s one hell of a lot of money for an ex-working stiff to spend in the afterlife.

I pass Reader’s Oasis Books, owned and operated by Paul Winer, the well-known naked book guy, formerly the naked piano guy. Ordinarily it’s open seven days a week, but today a sign says it’s closed so Paul can practice and prepare for his concert tonight. So my hoped-for return to Reader’s Oasis is thwarted, but I will attend the concert this evening.

I pass the Family Dollar and the Quartzsite General Store, as well as a succession of RV parks, RV sales lots, vendors and merchants of all kinds, selling jewelry, souvenirs, junk, tools, rocks, you name it.

At 3.4 miles I reach Main Street and Arizona Route 95. Just beyond this is a marker indicating that here was the site of Tyson’s Well. That was the original name of the town. It was a stage stop on the eastward journey in the 1870s and 1880s. “No grass but good water,” one desert guide said. Back in 1864 a miner named Tyson dug a well by hand, and the town became known as Tyson’s Well or Tyson’s Wells. As if to commemorate and underscore this there sits, on the other side of a dry river bed from the marker, a place called Tyson RV Park. That would be its modern incarnation.

Up Moon Mountain Ave. from Main Street there’s a collection of churches and more permanent buildings that I take to be the center of the town itself aside from all the RV madness, and where I imagine most of the permanent population of about 3,400 lives. At this intersection there’s also a ruined adobe building from the 19th century, showing the classic adobe construction with timber and two-foot-thick red mud. Most of what looks like adobe today is really just a thin coat of stucco-like plaster over regular plywood construction or sometimes over cinder blocks.

There are a number of references to camels around here. There’s a place called the Camel Driver’s Tomb up on Hi Jolly Road. Interesting story here. Hi Jolly was a Greek-Syrian whose real name was Hadji Ali, who took part in the U.S. Camel Corps experiment. He came here in 1856 and died at Quartzsite in 1902. It is his tomb to which the sign refers. Although camels are native to North America, they became extinct here long before humans came. In the mid 1800s the army decided to bring them back, and imported some from the Middle East, along with some drivers. During and after the Civil War the camel craze died down, the army having other things to spend its time and energy on. Also the camels seemed to spook the horses. For many years afterwards feral camels could occasionally be seen plying the desert. The last one was spotted in Texas in 1941.

Since Quartzsite does bill itself as the Rock Capital of the World or some such hyperbolic nonsense, I stop a very large store called Gem World on my way out of town. It’s full of rocks of all kinds, shells, glass beads, and polished gemstones. Much of it is for people who want to make their own jewelry, but some of it is ready made.

At 5 miles I cross back over I-10 to the south side and begin walking on Dome Rock Road, which I’ll follow for a few miles. Here and there a lone motor home sits off in a large flat lot, much like on the road on the east side of town where I stayed, only less populated by campers. Come to think of it, this might be the same road.

At about 8.5 miles I pass the small conical mountain topped with a protuberance that is Dome Rock. It’s one of thousands of places throughout the southwest that could be called a dome rock, but it’s the only one along this road.

Today is my last full day of walking in Arizona. Very early in the next walk I’ll be crossing the Colorado River into California. I’ll do a standard statistical wrapup then, but for now I’ll make a few valedictory remarks about the Grand Canyon State. When I crossed into Arizona from west of Lordsburg, New Mexico in late November I was convinced that nothing could equal the mountainous beauty of the state I was leaving. Since Arizona’s justified reputation as a reactionary state had preceded it, I felt a tiny bit of trepidation about that, too. But I should have felt no different here than I did as I set foot in Mississippi, say. Now, after walking for over four hundred miles over hill and dale and through a great metropolis, I must say that not only is Arizona at least as beautiful as New Mexico from a geological standpoint, but that its people are just as friendly overall, with notable exceptions such as the recent assassin with three names. The most decent Arizonans I happened to meet were the Apaches of the San Carlos Reservation, a group on whom you wouldn’t automoatically bestow such an accolade, given their history vis a vis the white man.

I’ve struggled to state this succinctly and in a way that I believe, but I think I’ve come to a useful conclusion about human nature on this walk, which is this: People in this country are on the whole quite friendly and willing to help others, but they tend to believe that almost everyone else is not. They believe in their own goodness but not in the goodness of their fellow citizens or of mankind. This is odd, when you consider it from a purely logical perspective. It means that we tend to think our behavior is the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. We hold ourselves to relatively high standards but write off practically everyone else as hostile, careless, or incompetent. It shows in our attitudes toward other drivers, fellow workers, and people from other cities, states, races, and countries. The lack of logic in this is astounding in its implications. It has lead to racism, paranoia, anger, intolerance, and war. If we viewed our own behavior as normative rather than heroic or angelic or long suffering, we would have more confidence in others and their motives, and would be less likely to think of them as strangers or enemies. And when the few exceptions to this rule did present themselves we wouldn’t be as quick to assume that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Imagine all that being accomplished just by people accepting the fact that their own friendliness is a natural facet of their humanity. Of course our external stimuli, such as newscasts, television programs about cops and serial killers, and shrieking right wing pundits, all militate against our ever adopting such a rational world view. Even our religions tell us that mankind is innately sinful rather than innately good, and that God has it in for everyone who doesn't kiss his ass regularly. Like newspapers, religions sell themselves by giving the bad news first.

At 10.7 miles I reach Exit 11 on I-10 and have to get on the interstate temporarily. Just half a mile past the freeway ramp I manage to get down off the shoulder and onto an area that is reasonably packed down for walking. But it’s hilly and up and down. I’m aware that if I were walking right here in the warmer months, I’d be seeing rattlesnakes and scorpions and I wouldn’t be particularly safe. I have been fortunate in that respect, this being the hibernation season, and that’s fine with me.

There’s quite a bit of pink and white quartz in the gravel and stone around here, as you might guess from a name like Quartzsite. I’d like to pick some of it up, but I think the reader will understand the drawback of gathering rocks during a long walk.

I work my way back up onto the shoulder when the gravel path disappears, and once again I get stopped by the police. This time it’s a La Paz County Sheriff’s deputy, fairly friendly. He tells me to stay down off the interstate, but doesn’t write me up. So I get back down off the shoulder again and find myself on some outrageously steep paths up and down the mountains on the side of the freeway. A group of four-wheeled off-road vehicles comes the other way, and a couple of people ask me if I’m okay. I come close to tumbling down rocky hillsides on several occasions. Once in awhile a dirt road declares itself and I get on that, but then it goes off into the mountains and I have to leave it, not knowing whether it will ever come back to the side of the highway. So these five or six miles become a guessing game of “is it a road or not?”

At some point I’ve entered the Colorado River Indian Reservation. This is home to four small tribal groups—Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo—all situated here in La Paz County and on the California side of the Colorado River. There are about 9,000 of them. They work together for purposes of maintaining the reservation and running their various farming enterprises, and they have a casino somewhere, I think along the river. But nary an Indian do I see. In fact, nary a white man, except for those guys on the quads.

At 16.5 miles I get to the Tom Wells Road exit. Here I visit a Texaco station for refreshment, legs tired from the cross country hiking. I have to climb a couple more barbed wire fences to get to it, but I’ll do that for a cup of coffee and a cold drink. I work my way back over the interstate (which, by the way, is damned wide when you’re trying to get across it fast) and climb another fence to return to where I was. Several more miles of hit or miss hiking, trying to find a path that doesn’t stop at the top of a steep ravine. Finally, tired of negotiating this lunar landscape I decide to take my chances on the shoulder of the highway.

At about 21 miles, continuing on a general downhill slope toward the river, I spot the motor home parked in another of those rough RV parking lots, just east of the Ehrenberg exit, this one containing only a handful of other vehicles.

The mountains seem to have pulled back away from me and I’m on a wide alluvial plane as I climb my last barbed wire fence of the day to get to the access road and the motor home.