By Brendan Kiley, The Seattle Times
Allegedly, Palm Springs became Palm Springs through a quirk in contracts old-time Hollywood bosses used to write for their stars: a “two-hour rule” stipulating that no famous face should be more than 120 minutes away in case it was needed for an urgent film shoot. Palm Springs was within that radius.
At that point, the town was already known for its resort clientele. First came the wealthy tuberculosis patients (the dry, desert air made it an attractive spot to build sanitarium hotels) followed by the general wellness-retreat crowd.
Soon, the stars started tumbling in: Marilyn Monroe; Bob Hope; Sammy Davis Jr.; Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; and the rest. Now Palm Springs is known as a picture-postcard fantasy for hoi polloi like you and me, sipping cucumber-infused water poolside while humming bars of The Girl from Ipanema. Or something like that.
If that’s your idea of a great winter vacation, know the dream is alive and well. Palm Springs has plenty of inflatable pool furniture for gazing at the rocky San Jacinto Mountains, thinking about how much more comfortable you are down here than up there.
But if days of indolence sounds dull, it’s easy to head out: Onto mountain trails. Or to a hidden roadside pizza parlour/live music venue. Or into a strangely transportive sculpture park. Or up the wood ladder of a half-century-old structure, built to plans specified by visitors from Venus, where electromagnetic forces will rejuvenate your cells. Allegedly.
You can have your Palm Springs domestic or wild, with your own two-hour rule — no day trip further than 120 minutes from the pool, in case you are needed for an urgent cucumber water.
Where to stay
Palm Springs is well-travelled territory with a broad buffet of hotels, from the very upscale to budget standbys like Travelodge.
If you’re looking for something in the middle-ish of the pack, consider the Ace Hotel & Swim Club (high middle) or the Sonder V Palm Springs (low middle). The Ace is comfortable, boutique-y and self-care-y (the “do not disturb” sign reads “I am keeping my sanctuary safe”) with on-site everything. Over a couple nights in December, clutches of lightly glamorous-looking people seemed to live along the edges of its zig-zaggy main pool, where they could order food and drinks, pad over to the gym, take a shower, then pop over to the spa for a massage and back to their favourite lounge chair without leaving the little pleasure cage separating them from the rest of the world.
Some guests brought small children, and a few looked like they might have grandchildren, but the dominant age range seemed to be late 20s to early 40s. The dominant mood seemed to be chipper. The Ace is a pleasant place to relax and people-watch — as long as you don’t mind being people-watched in return.
If you’re looking for something a little more low-key and financially modest, there’s the Sonder, run by an international apartment-hotel company which keeps minimal on-site staff. Instead of checking in at a reception desk, you email Sonder photos of your driver’s license (or other ID) and your face (from several angles), then receive a numerical code to punch into your door. If you have a question or issue, you are encouraged to text a remote Sonder employee via the company app. This worked, more or less, except for the time I asked where I could find another paper coffee cup and my correspondent answered: “I am so sorry, but there are no more cups.” That seemed a little hard to believe.
Dining possibilities run up and down the price ladder as well, from fancy steakhouses (Mr. Lyons) to nice, sit-down Mexican food (El Mirasol Cocina Mexicana) to quick-and-easy Mexican food (Guacamoles), plus the popular Sherman’s Deli & Bakery, beloved for its pastrami and other New York-style sandwiches. (Call me a heretic, but I’m a partisan for their liver and onions. Sandwiches and entrees go for around $14-$21.)
One quasi-hidden gem: Rooster and the Pig, a Vietnamese restaurant tucked into a strip mall, where owner/chef Tai Spendley makes intricately spiced dishes (a silky cod with dill and turmeric, $24; a fresh roll with lemon grass pork, dates and peppery mizuna, $13) and a range of drinks (coconut water, specialty cocktails, an “umami beer” brewed with bonito flakes, $11).
Now that you’re settled, it’s time for adventure.
Day trip, part one: The Integratron’s Venusian solution
Seen from the outside, the Integratron looks like a modest-sized observatory: a white-painted, dome-shaped thing planted out in the high Mojave Desert where the paved roads end, about 50 miles north of — and 2,600 feet above — Palm Springs.
Inside, it was all bohemian chic: soothing cedar interior, the smell of burning palo santo incense, a framed quote by Rumi, an older man wearing lots of turquoise, a younger man wearing a Pfish T-shirt, middle-aged women in earth-toned dresses with flowing, tasseled scarves.
But the 38-foot structure is neither observatory nor high-end ashram. It is, in the words of founder and career flight inspector George Van Tassel (1910-1978), “a machine … a time machine for basic research on rejuvenation, antigravity and time travel.” Or, if you’re more earthbound, a place you can go for a $50 sound bath courtesy of someone playing 20 quartz-crystal bowls in the massive, acoustically amazing wooden dome.
After a “sound bath” of music from quartz-crystal bowls, a couple stands in the centre of the Integratron — one spot in this acoustically remarkable structure where sound seems to radiate through the body. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
The way Van Tassel told it, in 1953 he had been running a small airport in the area when an “antigravity ship” carrying Venusians arrived to give him details about the “tabernacle” he should build on top of a nearby geomagnetic anomaly. These forces, amplified by the domed building, could regenerate human cells, adding years to a life span. This was urgent, the Venusians told him, because human beings tend to become wise only just before they die, and our species needs more wise people on the planet to save ourselves from an increasingly probable self-destruction.
Van Tassel got to work — but died suddenly in 1978, a few weeks before the Integratron’s official opening. (Three sisters, unrelated to Van Tassel, have run the place since 2000.)
As we visitors reclined on low cots, the man who would play the crystal bowls gave a preamble about the electromagnetic power of the structure, a nexus of underground rivers beneath us and how the sound of the bowls would move through our bones and cells faster than we could hear it. He asked whether we might invite dead loved ones or our astral “watchers” to visit — then he began to play.
I didn’t meet anyone from the beyond, but it was a remarkable sonic experience. The droning tones of the bowls, amplified and concentrated by the acoustics of the room, thrummed through my body, the way a rhythm section can rumble your guts during a loud concert — but in this case with sustained, vibrational hums. The experience is, if nothing else, deeply relaxing.
Take that feeling with you on the road.
Day trip, part two: Noah Purifoy’s portal to another dimension
Just 14 miles south of the Integratron, you can find another kind of sanctuary, more terrestrial but in many ways more soul-stirring — the 10-acre outdoor studio/museum of artist Noah Purifoy (1917-2004).
A one-man sculpture park in the wild, built with an intelligence and aesthetic that feels otherworldly, Purifoy’s museum is a sometimes playful, sometimes poignant dreamscape. The materials are all humble and identifiable (wire, boots, paintbrushes, scrap metal and wood, bicycles, letterpress type, baking sheets, old appliances) but the world he’s created pulses with life and surprises, like an unguided tour through someone else’s daydreams.
The Integratron is great and all, but Purifoy’s museum is breathtaking, a different kind of portal to another — but deeply human — dimension. “I do not wish to be an artist,” Purifoy said in 1963. “I only wish that art enables me to be.”
The themes range from homey and light (frisky-looking abstractions, a few funny riffs on outhouses) to religious (three large, rickety crosses in the sand, like Golgotha the morning after the crucifixion) to art-historical (a leaning wood tower seems to echo Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Constructivist tower, that staple of Modern Art 101 textbooks). Some are stark and chilling: an old water fountain with a sign above it saying “white” next to a toilet, placed at drinking-fountain height, with a sign reading “coloured.”
Born in Alabama, Purifoy served with the Seabees (the U.S. Navy’s construction battalions) during the Second World War and became a social worker in Cleveland and Los Angeles. In 1953, he enrolled as the first full-time Black art student at Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). His first major body of sculptural work was “66 Signs of Neon,” pieces made of materials salvaged from the Watts rebellion of August 1965. Purifoy said he made the exhibition as a way “to interpret the August event.”
In 1989, he moved to a trailer in the Mojave and starting building an artscape meant to return to the desert. Sand has begun to fill some of its trenches and mound around the sculptures. Lizards and roadrunners skitter across the museum floor. How many of these artworks have been shelters for tortoises and rattlesnakes? Purifoy is long dead, but his museum remains a living thing.
Unlike other destinations in the area, Purifoy’s museum is free to visit — but there’s a metal donation box, should you want to contribute to the nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation, which maintains the site.
On your way back to Palm Springs, make a pit stop at Giant Rock Meeting Room in Flamingo Heights. This relaxed locals’ hideout bakes high-quality pizzas for two and hosts live music, drawing pickers, twangers and rockers. Some come from just down the road, some from Los Angeles, and occasionally a touring band from further away stops for a high-desert set before moving on. Check GRMR’s Instagram or Facebook page to see who’s playing while you’re in town.
Or, if you’re in a quiet, roadside-diner mood, check out C&S Coffee Shop — a longtime family-run spot in Yucca Valley, perfect for a grilled cheese and bowl of tomato soup to fortify you for the 45-minute drive back to Palm Springs.
Hiking in Indian Canyons: The road less travelled
As its own day trip, Joshua Tree National Park is very famous — and very, very crowded. Its website is warning that Joshua Tree may become drive-through-only as parking lots reach maximum capacity and its Instagram page has been posting time-lapse videos of people and cars flooding the trendy photo spots.
But if you’re looking for lonesome hikes in the desert, Indian Canyons — a nature preserve stewarded by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians — is an easy six miles south of downtown Palm Springs. The Agua Caliente Reservation covers approximately 32,000 acres in a checkerboard pattern, including 6,700 acres within the Palm Springs city limits, collectively making it the town’s largest single landowner.
Indian Canyons is relatively bare-bones, but if you bring enough water and food — plus sunscreen and a hat — you’ll be fine. Drive past the entrance ($12 per adult) and up the hills to the Trading Post. (They sell bottled water but have no place to fill a canteen.) You can get maps and consult with a ranger about which hikes might be a good bet, given your experience level and ambition for the day.
The preserve has miles of hikes, from short, simple walks through palm-lined valleys to punishing, rocky heights where the shade is next to nonexistent and the landscape becomes eerily, beautifully severe — a notable rock formation or lone cactus growing out of a boulder, far from any other vegetation, can feel like it’s taken on a distinct personality. “Those long walks in the mountains surrounding Palm Springs are a mental pressure cooker,” an old friend who used to live in the area told me. “I swear there’s some metaphysical force there.”
Aliens from Venus, artists still communicating from beyond the grave, geomagnetic anomalies: It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without the sense that something is working its magic in the desert.
Whether you go for that metaphysical stuff or not, consider getting out of the pool and up into hills at least once during your trip. They’re a quiet, contemplative place to climb above it all, to reflect on the wideness and weirdness of the world — and maybe feel like you’ve earned your late-afternoon swim.
If you go:
Ace Hotel & Swim Club – 701 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs;
Sonder V Palm Springs – 333 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs;
Sherman’s Deli & Bakery – 401 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs;
Rooster and the Pig – 356 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs;
Indian Canyons – 38520 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs;
Integratron – 2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers, Calif.;
The Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art – 63030 Blair Lane, Joshua Tree, Calif.; noahpurifoy.com; free from dawn through dusk, no reservations required.
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