Off the beaten path in Palm Springs
By LISA FITTERMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 3, 2004 - Page T3
PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. -- As I picnicked with 87-year-old Herb Moss and his friends atop a wind-whipped, frosty ridge nearly a kilometre above the Coachella Valley, I marvelled that he didn't let his sciatica stop him from his weekly hike, which he called "my anchor and joy." Suddenly, I felt my opinions shift as surely as if jolted by one of the earthquakes so common in the region. And I knew that the place I'd always thought of as God's waiting room was really God's country, a nature lover's dream come true.
Before I came here, I wondered what on earth I'd do. Lounge around pools, perhaps, and avoid the region's 108 golf courses. Shop, enjoy the retro architecture and check out the latest in wrinkle plumping procedures at one of the many spas. I thought Palm Springs had its heyday in the early-to-mid-20th century, and that a visit here would be akin to leafing through a yellowed photo album with images of Frank Sinatra slurping martinis at the long-closed Melvyn's and Marilyn Monroe swigging something or other at the L'Horizon Hotel.
But hiking? Sometimes, life is full of surprises. From Black Rock Canyon in Joshua Tree National Park (a 45-minute drive east of Palm Springs proper) to the Skyline Trail, which begins behind downtown's Desert Museum, there are countless trails for every age and level of fitness. Over the course of a week, I rambled and scrabbled with a variety of companions through everything from natural palm oases and dry riverbeds to desolate, cactus-spiked desert and icy alpine terrain.
"It's the best-kept secret here," said Chicago native Eileen Stern, whom I hiked with up the Earl Henderson Trail, high above the former home of the late Bob Hope. "You get up here and you think you're being hugged by mountains. I've been hugged by the mountains for the last 12 years."
Slowly, I turned in a circle on the narrow path and saw what she meant. It was as if all the jagged ranges that surround the valley, from the San Jacintos to the southwest, the Santa Rosas to the southeast and the Little San Bernardino mountains to the north, were bending in toward me, menacing and protective at the same time.
I loved veering off the beaten path. Mornings, I grabbed a grapefruit from one of the trees outside my mother's vacation home, filled a bottle with water and hiked for several hours in the immediate vicinity. Up I'd go into the San Jacinto range, which harbours trails with names such as Lykken, Wildhorse, Garstin and Shannon, all of which flow together into one seamless exploration. Work with the landscape and it might co-operate. Disrespect it, and it will surely bite back, especially in the form of rattlesnakes and scorpions that come out when the weather is warmer.
I saw boulders burnished shiny and black from time and wind, desert willows, scrub oaks and honey mesquite trees, red barrel cacti that native Indian populations used as crock pots, and cholla (jumping) cacti with fishhook barbs tough enough to pierce leather soles.
Bob Trainoff, a retired projectionist and amateur naturalist from Los Angeles whom I hiked with in Black Rock Canyon, said cholla hooks are the reason cowboys invented chaps. After seeing one attach itself in an instant to a walking stick, I gave them a wide berth.
No hike is the same. In Joshua Tree National Park, the landscape can seem lunar, with great rock formations. While I saw little wildlife because it was so early in the season, there are jackrabbits, bobcats, golden eagles, roadrunners, tarantulas, bighorn sheep and stinkbugs, the last of which is a beetle that does "handstands" when threatened and emits a bad smell from its derrière.
The Joshua trees, so named because Mormon pioneers thought they resembled the prophet with arms raised in welcome to the promised land, bloom in late February with white flowers shaped like pineapples.
For the more hardy of heart (if not spirit), there are tougher trails. My favourite was the start of Skyline Trail, which leads to what locals call the "Tables." My hiking companion, Leslie Shuffleton, the physical fitness director at the Spa Casino Resort in downtown Palm Springs, warned me that it wasn't for the faint of heart.
A former Olympic-calibre rower, she led as we ascended 300 metres in less than 1.5 kilometres. At times, the trail was so steep I could see the soles of her boots. The views of the city below were gorgeous.
Continuing beyond what turned out to be a set of picnic tables to the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway wasn't possible because we were losing light -- and besides, at this time of the year, in early February, winter rules in the higher altitudes, with snow squalls and icy patches common. The week before I arrived, an experienced hiker died when he slipped into a crevice on this very trail, and a hand-painted sign warned that there was no food or water over its 12-kilometre length. All that was missing was a crude skull and crossbones.
For different, slightly greener topography, the Indian Canyons are a must. The Agua Caliente tribe of Cahuilla Indians, one of the area's major landlords, spent summers here for centuries, eking out an existence away from the scorching sun. Four of the canyons -- Palm, Andreas, Murray and Fern -- are clustered together at one end of town. It costs $6 a person to enter (all amounts in U.S. dollars), and hikes of all skill levels are available. You'll see rock mortars that women used to grind flour from mesquite pods, ancient pictographs and plenty of wildlife.
A fifth canyon, named for Tahquitz, a malevolent shaman banished 3,000 years ago by the tribe, is located closer to the heart of town. It's quiet and mysterious, with sheer black rocks, a 20-metre waterfall, creosote bushes and jojoba plants, which the Indians used to make shampoo. Legend has it that Tahquitz still haunts the place and feeds on the souls of humans who venture into his domain. Entry into Tahquitz Canyon costs $12.50 a person, and visitors must be part of a tour led by official guides. The reason for this harks back to 1969, when the Agua Caliente band evicted squatters who had destroyed much of the fragile landscape with graffiti and garbage. Then, as if the canyon was an old master's painting, they started the long process of restoring it.
The restoration is one example of an attitude shared by those who love the land here. Unlike many of Palm Spring's inhabitants, they know that time can't be defeated with facelifts and serums. Sitting up on the ridge with Herb Moss made me realize that. And I know that if I ever get to be his age, I want to be just like him. I want to be able to don hiking boots, grab a walking stick and set out on what feels like my anchor and joy.