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.


Anonymous said...

Good writing, good pictures,

Billie Bob said...

So, are you going to visit the fabled Rancho Malario on your days off?

We'll be lookin' forward to your return.

Anonymous said...

I see you haven't lost your sense of humor yet! The wife and I have spent a few weeks in Indian Wells and quite enjoyed it. rest up at Uncle Ed's and I'll await your next report-