Ah… the Inland Empire! Sounds pretty grand…. the very name evokes fantasies of some great imperial realm, something along the lines of Middle Earth, or perhaps Dynastic China. Last week I took a trip there with my friend, John; the cover story was to hike, but the trip had a number of other intriguing aspects.
The Inland Empire is in Southern California and comprises parts of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. For the purposes of this piece I’m referring to land within ninety-miles of Palm Springs. The Empire covers roughly 24,000 square miles, a fact that greatly surprised me. A large part of the Empire is also called the Coachella Valley. Coachella is a corruption of conchilla, Spanish for “little seashell”. The area was covered by sea in prehistoric times and seashells are commonly found there.
The names of the towns in this region sound like the founders drew them from a hat. The hat contained six words, and some random numbers. The words are: springs, desert, rancho, palm, hot and mirage. Therefore, you get place names like Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Twentynine Palms, Desert Hot Springs, Thousand Palms and Rancho Mirage.
As far as I know, no community has yet claimed the following combinations: Hot Desert, Hot Rancho, Hot Palms, Desert Palms, Mirage Palms, Rancho Springs – lots of options for such a limited vocabulary.
Palm Springs, of course, is famous for being a celebrity destination for over a century. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis, Nat King Cole, Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and many others larked around thereabouts.
I was intrigued to learn that old devil Al Capone stayed at a certain bulletproof place in Desert Hot Springs. Old Scarface really got around. The place now is known as the Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa, a very old-school kind of place, they say. You might want to check the place out…it’s bound to still have a hint of gangster charm. Management calls it “quiet, romantic and cozy.” Take my advice: keep your head down.
John and I rented a white Ford pick-up at Alamo. It was great fun to cruise the palm-lined boulevards in our shiny new F150. The streets have great names: Gene Autry Trail, Frank Sinatra Drive, Bing Crosby Drive, Dinah Shore Drive, Burn and Allen Road and so on.
As we swanned along these broad streets, wonderful old vinyl records at 33 rpm played in my head
— Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me, Moonlight in Vermont, High Hopes... mmmmm, great!
In my mind’s eye I saw a collage of favorite scenes from film noir – Casablanca, Chinatown, Kiss Me Deadly, L.A. Confidential. This assorted musing while styling around town in the Ford was truly nostalgia on wheels.
There are a few other things about this place you might find interesting. The area of Palm Springs is 94 square miles, which makes it the biggest city (but not metropolitan area) in the country. Interestingly, the city’s largest landowner is the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, numbering about 300.
A hundred golf courses dot the area, and Palm Springs has proclaimed itself “The Golf Capital of the World.” This claim would doubtless be challenged by the old sweats at The Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrew’s, Scotland. I can hear a collective “Harrumph, the very idea…”
In terms of local architecture, mid- 20th century style is revered. It’s quite refreshing to visit a city where most commercial buildings and dwellings are single-storey. Someone told me you’re not allowed to erect a building taller than a palm tree. This may be true; in any case, its architecture gives the place a great old-time feel.
The first morning, John and I made our way the the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; its address is just right: 1 Tram Way. This is touted as the one “unmissable” thing in Palm Springs. I was skeptical at first, but I was swiftly and thoroughly converted.
The tram was built between 1960 and 1963 by Van Roll Tramways of Olton, Switzerland. Its 5 towers were placed by helicopters, a new technique at the time. In 2000 the original cars were replaced with ones having circular revolving floors 18′ in diameter — a terrific idea — everyone gets a good view — two revolutions a trip. It is the world’s largest rotating tramway, the only one in the Western Hemisphere, one of only three in the world. Each of the two cars carries up to 80 passengers. In 12 minutes the tram takes you 2.5 miles up through five “life-zones”, from Sonoran Desert to Alpine/Arctic forest, from an elevation of 500′ to 8500′. You talk about exhilarating!
There have been rare mishaps and technical problems on the tram. In 1984 a passenger was killed by a falling shock absorber. In 2003 a mechanical problem left 50 guests hanging hundreds of feet in the air for four hours. Multiple fixes were attempted, to no avail. Then, in a flash of inspiration, an employee took a Leatherman multitool, and with (one imagines) a flick of the wrist, he put everything to rights. Pretty slick!
The tram dropped us in the middle of glorious San Jacinto State Park — covered in snow and ice. It was blindingly sunny; gale-force winds howled at 60mph. You can see 200 miles to the NE — to Mt. Charleston in Nevada To the SW, you glimpe the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley. You can also see the San Andreas Fault running through the Palm Springs area, northwest to San Bernardino, and beyond. We spent the day skittering over the ice, reveling in the heavenly views, generally getting a feel for life above the clouds. Everyone we met up there seemed remarkably joyful. I spent most of the day singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” — the Gene Autry version. What a place – beautiful beyond words!
I remember thinking, if the rest of this trip is a total flop, the experience of riding up, exploring the trails and then riding down were more than worth the effort and expense. In fact, I thought that our time there was one of my life’s outstanding experiences — on a par with learning to ski or SCUBA dive.
It grieves me that I can’t elaborate further on this trip. It was fascinating. I would talk about the the 6 year drought, now improving. I’d talk about the increasing numbers of Bighorn sheep in the San Jacinto Wilderness. I’d talk about the exquisite town of Idyllwild up in these mountains.
My editor tells me, however, “Enough, already!”
So this will have to do.