Defying Nature in Palm Springs
I know what you're thinking: casinos, golf courses, and senior citizen conventions, right? Think again. Well sorta. OK, sure, the free city map has a large, conspicuous marker for the local social security office, hearing aid shops are readily abound, and just about all of the passengers on my plane were age 65 and above. But the Palm Springs of today has a new look. It’s been struck by hipsters and gay-boys, and in all the right ways.
I am slated to do a quick overnighter here because of the wedding of my longtime friend Kara. And I’ll be honest, knowing full well that she reads my blog--When she first announced Palm Springs many months ago as her matrimonial destination, my initial thoughts were something along the lines of, “You have got to be kidding me. I know we’re getting older, but isn’t this a little premature?” But, with Kara being my friend of 21 years now, Palm Springs-bound I was.
Stepping off the plane, I was pleasantly surprised: the airport architecture was comprised of modern concrete and angles, but elegant with its desert landscaping, set against a dry mountain backdrop sprinkled with palm trees jutting into a clear blue sky. Truly a sight for sore eyes. From there to the Ace Hotel, I saw a lot of mid-century motels, relics of a time far past, but in good condition.
After a short cab ride I arrive at my destination, the the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Formerly a Howard Johnson’s motel, it had since undergone major renovations and, as much as I usually detest modern-style architecture, and all its “sleek lines” (ask yourself, isn’t there a reason villains in movies always live in modern villas?), it worked here. In the rooms, the floors were polished concrete with exotic rugs on top, the linens a crisp clean off-white, and the walls and curtains were comprised of off-white canvas tarps, completing the desert theme. The furniture was sparse, mostly polished wood, with effective shelving. The larger suites had patios bedecked with cozy but tidy gas fireplaces. The entire expanse of the motel was landscaped with concrete and combed sand. And, unlike your standard Americana motel, instead of a huge parking lot in the middle, the Ace had a large pool and bar, a number of patios, and some smaller pools. A little hipster oasis in the desert.
Palm Springs has come a long way. Originally the stomping grounds of Native Americans, this former reservation was torn up by the U.S. federal government and distributed in checkerboard pieces to a railroad company in the 1870's. Later, with much irrigating and pumping in of water, and importing of date palm trees from Algiers, it was then developed as an agricultural center. By 1940's, all attempts at farming were almost completely replaced by the luxury resort strategy, with strong success. Desert casinos and high-end hotels popped up. Celebs like Frank Sinatra built second homes. Such predictably warm, arid weather served its patrons well, particularly the elderly ones, who bought homes and condominiums en masse. And that is how I identified Palm Springs growing up: I knew it as the home of my father's professional mentors and my mother's sponsors when she first immigrated. Those people were all senior citizens.
But in the last ten years, Palm Springs has broadened its demographic. Now a weekend stop for Los Angelinos, it is replete with restaurants and pool clubs for the boho yuppie set. Gay- friendly nightclubs and restaurants have also officially arrived, making it one of the top stops for members of the gay community. During my stay I was able to have lunch with an old grade-school buddy of mine, former high school football star turned multi-starred chef, who is opening up a new restaurant next to the Ace. His theme revolves around fresh, seasonal fare, targeting the new Palm Springs breeds--the younger, hipper, and gayer sets, with tastes for healthy and gourmet, and who have money to spare.
After a long evening of libations and post-banquet snacks by the various pools and fireplaces in honor of my my gal pal Kara and her new husband Gerry, I woke up the day after my arrival to go for a run. As I'm jogging under the stinging rays of the desert sun, I look around at the scorched mountains, covered by only the burliest of vegetation barely hovering over the ground. From the top of the mountains against a crystal blue sky, my eyes don't have to wander far before they fall on the many stuccoed spa clubs and hotels.
I am running in the middle of the desert for fun. In another era, such an activity would have been fairly stupid and life-threatening. But on this day, there is no sand in my teeth, and under my feet, there are smooth, almost polished, sidewalks. If I want to I can veer to the left and climb up true desert-mountain terrain. But, at any moment I can buy a bottle of mineral water long before I even begin to feel dehydrated. The irony of it all is a refreshing message to me, a resident of New Orleans, a city that critics all over the country and the world have suggested should have been left to fallow after its near destruction because of its seemingly impossible relationship with nature. But looking at the desert all around me on this jog, if nothing else, Palm Springs is proof that man has already and can work with, and maybe even defy nature, to create an oasis of human delights on scorched earth. Don't get me wrong here--unspoiled nature, like that of Alaska and other rare spots, is truly an amazing experience, and one that we as humans should preserve for as long as we can. But I'm not going to cry if someone has a cocktail ready for me when I get back to the hotel after this jog through a beautiful desert landscape.
By the time I return to my room, I feel a dry, intense heat emanating from my head. I grab a bottle of mineral water from my hotel fridge and thank god for the beautiful pool I'm about to plunge into. And I ask myself, has Kara whipped up those Bloody Mary's yet?