Updated: Jun 12, 2022
Southern California | March- April
Snowbirding. I’ll guess this is a 20th century term mostly because of the relatively recent availability of comparatively trauma-free travel. In the epoch of train travel, moving south 1,600 miles meant several days of living in a cramped box pulled by a smokey, stinky and very noisy machine. Now it requires obedience to the airport security protocol which includes involuntary surrender of a chunk of personal dignity, a boarding pass, and the patience to survive a 2.5 hour flight in a chair slightly narrower than a person’s shoulders. We step on the flying pipe in frozen Seattle and step out into a sunny desert oasis where breezy palms brush the sky and the trees produce lemons, grapefruit, oranges, and dates.
Not surprisingly, we find dry air and 75F temps quite pleasant in March particularly when the temps back home are a clammy 35F. We have abandoned any past criticism we may have had for ‘snowbirders’. Much of that was engendered by envy anyhow. We are now part of that movement but not 100%. We don’t spend the entire winter here, only two weeks in December and the entire month of March. But that seems to be enough to get plugged into the rhythm of the place and habituated to the balmy SoCal conditions. We’ve even acquired certain habits and haunts. Some of the locals are beginning to recognize us and call us by name even though we haven’t seen each other for 8 months. This seems a bit surprising to us but there it is.
This is Palm Desert, California, by the way. 400,000 humans live in the seven communities that stretch along Highway 10: Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, and Thermal. That seems like a lot but compared with Los Angeles, some 100 miles to the west, this would be a tiny suburb. The general reference for this zone is Coachella Valley. This is interesting because it isn’t technically a valley and there is no such term as Coachella in anyone’s language. Neither is it a valley because there is no water course running through it nor has it been created by one in the past. To be an actual valley, this is a requirement. Rather, this area is a basin. It is the recipient of rainwater runoff and snow-melt from the San Jacinto Mountains to the west. And this desert does seem to have quite a sufficient water supply. It stays underground in the sandy substrate, safe from the heat of summer. Some of that water is quite ancient, millions of years old in fact. And without it, well, you know. It does seem odd that this desert is one of the few places in California that doesn’t have a water crisis.
The word Coachella has its origin in geology mixed with European invaders. Mexican explorers were slow to discover this place. It and its native inhabitants, the Cahuilla, avoided contact with European types until the early 19th century. The explorers from that period noticed an abundant shale rock which originated as sea floor millions of years ago. The tiny fossilized shell imprints in the shale inspired them to name the place “Little Shell”. In Spanish that becomes ‘Conchilla’. Later, when California became a part of the US, documents were created in Washington D.C. referring to it. But somehow, a clerk decided to mess things up. The ‘n’ became an ‘a’ and the ‘i’ became an ‘e’. A fictional word was born: Coachella. Now people here live in a typo.
This is our fifth season here. It is our guilty pleasure, our splurge of almost-but-not-quite luxury. The air is dry, the sun is warm but it’s still winter up north. I bring a small collection of golf clubs which I use to flog the costly and appropriately designated grass. Sometimes I actually hit the ball toward the target. And I’ve taken up tennis as an experiment. I’m curious to know if a senior citizen with much reduced agility and shockingly depleted athletic talent can do anything with a tennis ball other than donate it to a dog in a game of fetch. More on this later but for now, wish me luck and flexible joints. Christine brings as many books as she can stuff in her luggage. Her ambition is to sun bathe on a lounge chair, walk everywhere, and devour books in between dips in the pool. When we aren’t here she’s very busy with her consulting work so a bit of R&R is definitely called for.
Yes, we are retired after 30+ years of going to the office, workin’ for da man. Our retirement home and base of operations is Lopez Island. It’s nice and it’s rural. On Lopez there are few of the amenities found in cities. For instance we have no access to a big-screen movie house there. But here in the California desert they exist in abundance. We scan the offerings hoping to spot some that may be interesting, something to give us that big-screen experience. We are often discouraged on that account but we keep trying. We recently shelled out for a flick in a tricked out, new-age theater that Cinemark put up in La Quinta call XD Extreme Digital Cinema. Nice plush lounger-style reclining chairs, plenty of leg room, brilliant high def screen. All that was pleasantly wowing us until the previews flashed on. Instant thumbs down in a big way. The sound system is monstrous. It seems designed to simultaneously deafen and provide, with a fair degree of realism, an earthquake drill. It was sensational, no question, but the wrong kind of thrill for us. It did make me wonder if 10 foot diameter woofers are possible and how they build them into the walls. We failed to hang in there, bailing out to the lobby 5 minutes in. We made a weak attempt at getting a refund and were rebuffed with a thinly disguised scoff. I even forget what movie it was. So much for the ‘modern’ movie thing. We’ll stick with the regular screens and there’s plenty of those here.
We also range further afield to investigate the sights and events of this area. Hopefully these SoCal blog posts will be more about that kind of thing than of us.
Our latest outing of any note takes us several miles out of town to the south into the desert canyons of the Little San Bernardino mountains. We sign up with a guide service, Desert Adventures, which promises four wheel drive jeeping complete with an expert guide. We rendezvous in a parking lot near Highway 10 and meet our guy, Rick, or Rickopedia, our driver and nonstop font of data for the next 3 hours. Talking is actually what he does, non-stop, for 3 hours. His topics are desert flora and fauna with an emphasis on geology. He also puts out some info on himself: speaks fluent Japanese, earned a spot on the Jeopardy TV trivia program once upon a time, and is gay. We discover that ‘gay’ does not extend to his sense of humor. Rick is almost entirely mirthless. His style is upbeat but he doesn’t do jokes or kid around. There are 6 tourists in the jeep plus him. Each time any of us attempt to get a question in sideways, he’ll listen to it with some impatience and answer quickly with, “We’re getting to that.” We soon learn not to bother him with questions. He is going to be doing his own thing full speed on, no interruptions please.
And it is a fire-hose of data on offer by Mr. Rickopedia. He explains the collision of the tectonic plates, Pacific and North American, that occurs in this area creating the famous San Andreas Fault zone. It also creates the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains to the west and the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the north. In between is the Coachella desert basin. There is roughly 20 miles of sandy land between these ranges, all of it the result of wind and water erosion flowing out of the mountains. In January and February of this year Coachella experienced some epic rains. Few natives here can recall this place getting that much rain. There were flash floods serious enough to close roads and block access to certain neighborhoods. Rick explains that these floods run through the washes (narrow canyons or arroyos) in the hills with deadly violence. The water is often 10-20 feet deep in these canyons and rolling fast enough to carry 1000+ pound rocks. Of course this scours the looser material as well and carries it all downhill into the flatter parts of the basin below. 28 million years of this kind of thing creates the landscape we see today. I try but I can’t wrap my head around that kind of time-span.
Speaking of the San Andreas Fault, it becomes the primary geologic feature we encounter. The Little San Bernardino Mountains look like the surface of Mars from a distance; reddish gray, barren, waterless. But as we near them we see palm trees rising, arranged in what appears to be an orderly line. They are growing directly over the geologic fault, the spot where the tectonic plates meet, because of the water that gathers there. This is called a Fault Trace. Further on, Rick points out some bizarre mounds of extremely fine sand, some of them hundreds of feet high, called Fault Gouge. This sand is like talcum powder. Surprisingly, we disturb it a little and find it saturated with water. He explains that these looming hills of toothpaste-like stuff is squeezed out of the earth by the movement of the tectonic plates along the the fault line. I’m thinking that this stuff could combine with slaked lime to make a wonderfully smooth concrete. I wonder if it’s been done.
Rick continues with his non-stop narrative. We arrive at an oasis, a palm treed and shrubby pocket surrounded by sandy barren hills. We learn that palm trees aren’t trees, but grass. They are full of water which is why they don’t burn in a wildfire. As old palm fronds are replaced by new ones, the old ones droop and form a brown dry skirt. This skirt is a habitat for birds, but also for rats and snakes. This is one of the reasons why skirts are removed from palms in the urban areas. Another is fire prevention. These palms produce a fruit which is mostly seed surrounded by a bit of tasty flesh. Coyotes love to eat it. Of course they drop it again with a bonus of nitrogen fertilizer for the seed to take advantage of. Birds do this as well. Another example of plants and animals in symbiotic alliance.
We learn about the Arrow Weed, a plant the Cahuilla used to make arrow shafts. As the plant grows the natives would lash the stems together in a way that helped them grow straight. Later they would harvest them and whittle the rough spots off. They also used a kind of porous rock to make one of their arrowheads. After gathering a sufficient number of black widow spiders and some rattlesnake venom glands, they would crush them together and dip this porous arrowhead into it. The result was fairly deadly as you can imagine.
Rick points out the Honey Mesquite, a most important plant for the indigenous people. The seed pods were ground into a kind of flour that they baked into a very nutritious bread. Without it, the Cahuilla could not survive. Sadly, one of the things that drove the natives away from their lifestyle was something the railroad did when it pushed into this area. They imported the Tamarisk tree as a windbreak to mitigate the drifting sand across their tracks. The Tamarisk grows quickly and is invasive. An enormous tap root reaches deep to get water and removes enormous quantities, 200 gallons per day per tree. It likes the same conditions of the Honey Mesquite and shades it out. Worse, the Tamarisk is impossible to manage. Cutting, excavation, poison, fire, profanity, The Wrath of God, nothing can kill this thing. It always comes back regardless of the insult. It represents a serious ecological disaster for this area.
A more beneficial bit of flora is the native Creosote bush, also called Larrea. This weedy looking shrub clones itself and spreads out across the landscape as a single organism much like the Aspen but not as spectacular. One such colony in the Mojave has been determined to be 11,700 years old. Named as such because of its mild oily smell, it was actually one of the Cahuilla’s cure-all medicinal sources. They used it to relieve pain much same way we use aspirin. It also could be used as an anti-bacterial agent. The natives observed that female deer and coyote would nibble the freshest new leaves for the purpose of preventing pregnancy. It worked this way for the Cahuilla as well. Don’t ask me how they figured this out. I suspect its like the Great Sage Yogi Berra wisely offered, “You can see a lot just by looking.”
We happen to be here in March of 2019, immediately following an extended rain event as I mentioned earlier. In the previous two months this desert region experienced some of the most copious rain events any of the full-time residents can remember. One day gave them 3 inches which is typically the entire year’s quota. One of the results of this is a general renewal of plant life. The San Jacintos, which usually look like baked clay, are as green as clover. On our jeep tour through the Little San Bernardinos we see wide spreads of yellow desert sunflower as well as a purple bloom, the Sand Verbena. Decades may pass between rain events like this. During the dry years seeds are buried deep by shifting sands and duff until water can soak down through the sand to wake them up. There are flowers blooming now that people are seeing for the first time in their lives. A most spectacular one is the Sand Blazing Star. (see photo below). It has a kind of velcro-ish quality: it will cling to fabric as if it were designed by Coco Chanel. We’re viewing this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tour the rough desert in peak bloom. We’re seeing it all dressed up in its finest.
Rickopedia gives us more info about the native tribes here. There are nine bands of Cahuilla. The bands that folks notice the most are The Agua Caliente, The Morongo, The Cabazon, and The Mission Hills Band. Over the years they somehow were able to negotiate with the encroaching European types, avoiding annihilation. In the 1940’s a cadre of Cahuilla women took on a legal battle over land ownership in the Coachella Valley. They won a very favorable ruling which gave the nine bands control over a large portion of land and the water beneath it. Today, much of the property in the valley is leased to developers and residents by the Cahuilla. As a result, the Cahuilla are the wealthiest tribe in the USA. They are very civic minded and generous philanthropists, dedicating much of their wealth to public projects. It’s also interesting to note that the Cabazon are responsible for the court ruling that allows Indian tribes everywhere to run casinos on their reservations.
Our jeep tour into the hills was fascinating and well worth the money. They even put together an authentic Cahuilla village as it may have looked 300 years ago. There is a grinding stone, various living shelters, a sweat lodge, and a functional water system in the native style. Good stuff.
Lots of non-native folks live this space now and they do get on with things. The LPGA and the PGA have golf tournaments in January. In April the Coachella Music Festival pounds out the Pop and Hip-Hop while the Mavens of All That Is Cool either scowl or nod with approval. But BNP Masters1000 Tennis Tournament in March is the big event. For about two weeks the world of Pro Tennis and its accompanying beautiful people converge here complete with international stars and 24/7 TV coverage.
The players smack a fuzzy yellow ball at each other for big money while the fans admire them from their seats, frying in the desert sun like snails that failed to get off the hot sidewalk in time. This year we have tickets for two days of it. Normally our sanity would be in question but the weather isn’t hot this year. It is as comfortable as it can be, in the high 60’s and low 70’s even though the local residents complain about it being too cold. For us Snowbirds, this is ideal. Don’t worry. I won’t go on about the tournament results or any fan stuff. But the gigantic venue they use to stage it is worth exploring. First, it should be noted that this facility is basically used for just this two week tournament. It may have a small event or two after the tennis is over but mostly this place stands empty until the next BNP Open.
It is the pet project of Larry Ellison, the boss cheese of Oracle Corporation. He’s a big tennis fan and this tournament represents glory and prestige for him. This is one of the biggest tournament complexes anywhere. Amenities are excellent for both fans and players. The gardening on the grounds is spiffy and perfect like Disneyland. In between the courts there are gear vendors and food options in abundance including wine and champagne bars where you can get your Moet Chandon in a souvenir goblet for $30. Yep, this is a street fair for the well heeled. But we are the kind of cheapskates who pack our own lunch. On the splurge side, I went for the $14 Bloody Mary and a souvenir T-shirt just to prove that I’m not immune to temptation.
They put out a bit of eye candy on the tournament grounds. There’s a stunning example of vertical gardening at the pedestrian tunnel at the south entrance. Lots of real flowers there. Inside there’s several panels of artificial flower arrangements designed to invite cell phone selfies and add color to the proceedings without wilting in the dry air and sun.
From the upper reaches of the stadiums, risers, and mezzanine levels we can enjoy a view of the Santa Rosa range as it seems to shoot straight up out of the valley. The high seats are also a good place to view wildlife. A flock of Pelicans made a flyby appearance in the sky over the grounds. They put on a fine synchronized aerial stunt exhibition. Next day about 500 or so turkey vultures flew over stadium 2 awkwardly flapping their way to somewhere else. If they had stopped to circle us I might have been concerned. On Thursday we enjoyed many hundreds of swallows darting about hunting a healthy sized bug that was hard to get a look at because of its superlative air speed. But it was no match for the swallows. Gulp. Speaking of bugs, that February rain must have launched a number of insects into action. For the first week of the tournament the night sessions were plagued with clouds of moths gathering around the floodlights. And these were bombers, about half the size of a humming bird. Another quick inspection of the ground revealed a rather normal looking black beetle scurrying madly about wisely avoiding the food traffic. Unremarkable except that there were herds of them.
On St Patrick’s Day the tennis tourny has its final match. The last trophy is lifted and kissed. Big checks are cashed. Players, coaches, hanger’s on, entourage, reporters, announcers, and camera crews all pack up and jet off to the next one, I think its in Miami. We’ve learned that there are a number of fans who book in to the Desert just for the tournament. They take off, too, when it’s over. As a result, traffic eases a bit, the coffee shop lines are shorter, and the residents and the snowbirds get back to the business of avoiding the frozen parts of the northern hemisphere, which is the whole point, actually.
This has been a wordy post and congratulations if you’ve lasted until the end of it. There’s more to report on the Coachella area but I’ll save it for the next entry. I plan to cover things like El Paseo (a glitzy boulevard in Palm Desert), a bit of a restaurant review focusing on our favorite haunts, and other items of interest as they pop up.
Cheers from SoCal.
El Paseo, as previously mentioned, is the intentionally glitzy boulevard adorned with a shopping atmosphere aimed at the 1%. One end of the strip seems to be more blue stocking than the other with Financial Services, Gucci, Coach, Burberry, Apple, Tesla, jewelry shops with seriously blingy bling, and art shops featuring corporate-level sculptures in stone and bronze. This is all walking distance from our flat at Shadow Mountain. The following is an attempt to describe a little of what we see there.
The Gardens is one of the shopping malls cleverly integrated on the El Paseo strip. It doesn’t look like a typical mall, one of those large boxy structures surrounded by parking lots. This one is an open design. The customers stroll in the open air between buildings. There’s a lot of garden space and lounging areas to give the place a park-like feel, a public space kind of ambiance. It’s ritzy but, hey, it’s a shopping mall. They sell stuff here. We don’t hang out. We pass through it on the way to elsewhere so we sometimes notice the happenings. There’s a snow machine in December they set up for the kids. Sloppy wet machine snow all over the place. In March there’s some kind of music and wine event every Saturday night. It’s never my style of entertainment. The fashion business moves in just after the Indian Wells Tennis tournament. The upper floor of the Mall’s parking garage is transformed into a clothing designer’s runway show under fancy temporary vinyl structures complete with professional lighting, air conditioning, and bar. Tickets are $80!!??. It’s an event where folks who care about this sort of thing can top up in their best feathers and cavort with each other. Good for them.
Orogold shop where they hand out dabs of lotion in sealed packets. Then the salesperson attempts to lure you into the store with the offer of another ‘free’ thing for the eyes. There’s nothing free about it, of course. Every jar of ointment in this store is just south of $200. We just take the little packet and scram with the guy’s voice fading into the background.
Christine’s favorite cafe is Il Sogno, where a cake and a coffee will ding the credit card for $20+ not including tip. It’s good, though. I have never experienced this. I’m out chasing tennis balls when she indulges here.
La Paon (The Peacock) – This is a haunt. This is one of the first El Paseo restaurants we discovered 5 years ago. Most of the places around here feel compelled to pipe pop music at irritating volumes throughout their rooms. La Paon doesn’t do that. There is no music except when the piano guy is doing his thing on the baby grand that occupies a place of honor in the bar area. And so, that’s where we settle our butts to enjoy nice wine and the bar menu which consists of excellently done small plates.
Antoine, a handlebar mustachioed Hungarian fellow, greets us at the door with European charm and an accent to match. Rosa, Alondra, and Autumn have become our buddies in the bar. Rosa and Alondra work the tables and Autumn runs the bar. They are super nice to us and always have a warm smiles. We look forward to seeing them. This is one of our favorite places to spin time away, enjoying the piano medley floating around our ears.
The owner is the Head Chef. We’ve only seen him once when he came out to talk to us last year. As it happens, he is also a painter and has several of his pieces on display around the restaurant. Rosa has a side-hustle… or working at La Paon is her side-hustle. I don’t quite know. Anyhow, she owns and operates a hair salon in Cathedral City. She says she trims men’s heads too. I think I will ask her to cut mine because I need it. And Autumn, our top-class barkeep, is a talented artist who has shown her work in several shows around the valley. Check it out: https://pixels.com/featured/desert-beauty-autumn-martino.html
Pacifica – This is perched on a second story section of the Garden Mall about halfway down El Paseo. It features an outdoor veranda with a late afternoon view out toward the north part of the valley which is very nice until darkness puts an end to it. The best part of Pacifica may be the bar area. Next to Armando’s this is one of the busiest bars we’ve found. La Paon is one of the quietest, comparatively. Even with a lot of people hovering about the watering hole, the atmosphere is airy and cool in hot weather. Drinks are fine and they don’t cheat you. Seafood is the specialty here. I like the tuna and cod. They do a nice job but I must always remember to order my fish rare. If I forget it comes overcooked. Blah. The wine list is produced on a clumsy I-Pad mounted on in a large vinyl folder. I’m sure that the management thinks its a whiz-bang piece of modernity but we think it’s an unnecessary chunk of electronics that challenges us to understand how to work it when all we want is the wine list. By the time we figure it out, we stumble on our selection because half a glass of anything is going to be more than we ever pay for a full bottle at home. This is not an economical choice for dining, so we limit ourselves to one visit per trip, usually.
Armando’s: One of the most popular restaurants in Palm Desert. Mexican cuisine and a 19th century antique oak bar that was imported from North Dakota. The bartenders are busier than ants on a popsicle. This is a haunt. We like to perch at the bar and enjoy their Margarita, a deadly 4 tequila shot goblet of fun. We’ve learned never to order a second, though. We did that once. Luckily we were on foot back to the flat with just enough wit intact to read the crosswalk signals correctly. There is no happy hour at Armando’s. They free pour the drinks and don’t cheat. The food is pretty good too. I’m partial to the Ceviche and the Campechana.
Kitchen 86: Freshly opened a week ago in the former Wolfgang Puck’s on El Paseo. Our waitress is an experienced pro sporting some edgy fashion: a partial dreadlock hair pile and an undecipherable matte of tatts sprinting up and down her arm. She knows her business and is nice to us. But soon we understand that things are a bit shaky in the kitchen. Incorrect plates are being delivered to tables. We overhear customers in detailed conversation with the manager describing long waits and cold food. Apologetic diplomacy is being practiced, some of it at our table. The menu is odd. Half the items printed on it are also marked ‘not available’. We can understand why they wouldn’t be ready to serve certain things but why advertise the fact? Strange. It may be difficult for restaurants to get competent employees around here. There are dozens of eateries here competing for staff and very few want to pay decent wages. Kitchen 86 may have had to take the best available people, perhaps some inexperienced ones. We’ll re-visit this one in December to discover what’s changed.
Castelli’s – This place makes us laugh. It is Italian food with ambiance in the manner of New York Family Style. The owner, an Italian-looking fellow in a tailored suit with a barrel chest that seems to be ready to puff out like a banty rooster, greets you flanked by young ladies in heavy makeup and tight dresses who check your reservation and usher you to your table. A piano player tinkles familiar tunes next to the wine rack crooning lyrics in a lazy baritone that sounds like he’s forgotten half of the words. The walls are dark and covered with photos of major and minor celebrities of bygone decades. Almost all of the wait staff are Latino males dressed in black and white livery of waistcoat, shirt, and tie.
Over the past five years we’ve seen only one waitress and she doesn’t work the main dining room. The food is fine though nothing outrageously special. Some of the prices are special: a bowl of Cioppino will set you back about $40. It’s the atmosphere of thinly veiled, imported 1960’s Mafia that wows us, I guess. When you’re here, you may as well be in New York City. Their most remarkable dish is dessert, a concoction of French vanilla ice cream, with layers of fresh strawberries and chocolate mousse, topped with Amaretto, whipped cream and Amaretto cookies. And their Pistachio Ice Cream isn’t bad, either.
Chez Pierre – This is one of the first joints we visited when we rolled in to town 5 years ago. It is tucked into a maze of other businesses, part of a larger building on Highway 111, the busy main drag through the valley. For some reason I’ve forgotten, I was on foot when I noticed their sidewalk sign board featuring the Special of the Day. It was Wild Boar. “Hrmmm”, thinks I, “Wild Boar in a French restaurant. Could be good.” So I booked it for us and they did not disappoint. It was prepped in the manner of Beef Bourguignon. Since then, we’ve been back a few times but only once did they ever have boar again. Unfortunately, other dishes I’ve had there haven’t been so wonderful. But they have been useful. Once, thinking that it would be a slam dunk winner, I ordered a Coq Au Vin even though I almost never order chicken in a restaurant. Amazingly the poor chicken died for nothing. It was overcooked and dry as a local arroyo in July. The sauce was terrific, though. The experience inspired me to do a version of it at home, because, you know, I’m arrogant enough to think I can do better. So, now, Coq Au Vin is one of the dishes we impose on our island guests. It’s not bad, either.
Il Corso – Right on the El Paseo strip, this is high-end Italian. It may have one of the nicest looking dining rooms in town with well designed walls and a 20 foot ceiling. A few tables are under an awning outside by the sidewalk where water misters keep the patrons cool on hot afternoons. We’ve only sampled it once. We haven’t been back probably because of the manager’s decision to run pop music over the tables. That’s usually a non-starter for us. I’ve forgotten what we ordered. It must have been ok because I don’t remember being disappointed. Same for the service.
Melvyn’s, in Palm Springs: Some places we can’t walk to. This is one of them. The fame of this place makes it a sort of pilgrimage. One has to go to Melvyn’s just to be able to say yes to the question, “Have you been?” We do our research prior to phoning our reservation. They declare that there is a dress code: Jackets Please! Ok, I don’t wear sport jackets, blazers, or suit coats but I do travel with dress shirt & shoes, waistcoat, and a few ties. That will have to do. Google Maps faithfully guides us there. As we arrive we see only a gate flanked by old trees and and ancient hedges. This has been here a while. We learn that it is a former private estate built in the early 1920’s. These days it is a boutique hotel with restaurant. We find our way to the bar and notice straight away that the dress code is merely wishful thinking. We see shorts, tee shirts, and flip flops. Suddenly we feel overdressed. Then the maitre d’ gives me a complement on my bow tie. That was the required magic to put us at ease. We are early so we sit at the bar and enjoy a cocktail. Doing so informs us that the bar is probably the best part of Melvyn’s.
Tip: If dining here, try to get seated on the veranda. That’s the best dining location. It wasn’t available the night we were there due to cool weather. We didn’t have a problem with it but anything below 70F is freezing cold for the locals. Ordering steak is the thing here because of the light show that goes with it. The steak is seared to order in the kitchen but the brandy sauce is flambeau’d up and served hot by a fellow next to your table. Just the thing to impress your date on Prom Night. Unfortunately this was not Prom season or there would have been clumsy tuxes and strapless gowns to admire. After dinner, which was very nice, we went to explore whatever parts of the property allowable. At the far end of the bar was a bit of a mystery. They had transformed a space into a small bandstand and a postage stamp dance floor dotted with tiny cocktail tables. It looks like the kind of cheesy night club scene one might find in 1950’s Las Vegas. This stuff seems out of place, somehow. We decide not to stick around to see which Frank Sinatra Tribute act shows up.
Domo, on the east end of El Paseo is where I get Udon Noodle Soup done right. Christine, not a fan of Japanese food, goes for the Teriaki Chicken. Nice prices here. If we wanted to eat out every night for about the same cost as cooking in the flat, this would be the choice. But CK just doesn’t like oriental cuisine that much. Tragic!
Various Steak Houses: Mastro’s, Sullivan’s, Mitch’s (not steak, seafood), Kaiser Grille, none of which achieve our seal of approval for ambiance. Frequently we’re all thumbs down on these places two steps through the door due to over-loud pop music thumping through the high-tech speaker system and Early Reign of Terror décor. Mastro’s and Mitch’s may be the most over-the-top. They’ve brought 21st Century Vegas to the Desert with all their black walls, mirrors, chrome, and towers of propane flame. And the thumping. Always with the thumping.
There are dozens of restaurants, of course, but visiting them would require driving. Sometimes we do that but mostly not. We like to walk to dinner and back. That way we can have wine without the self denial of switching to ice tea. The last option is to Uber. Not a terrible choice, just extra expense that wounds our miserly souls.
Tomorrow we’re driving to dine, breaking our habit. This will be in La Quinta, a somewhat pretentious joint called Melange. It’s part of a resort hotel perched on the edge of an artificial lake. We hope to dine on their patio and catch the rising of a near-full moon while drinking each other’s health. People don’t dress up to go there unless it’s a wedding or a Prom Night but we will just because. I’ll throw on one of my ties and my black shoes. Perhaps I’ll wear pants too.
< fast forward to tomorrow >
Melange – This is in La Quinta. We noticed this joint as we drove past it on our way to another eatery in that neighborhood calling itself The Cork & Fork. Melange is the restaurant portion of a boutique hotel, The Chateau at Lake La Quinta. We’re given to understand that this building has its origins in the late 1950s. It was a mansion built by a wealthy family since converted to a hotel and restaurant. A few tables surround the bar inside but outside is where folks like to dine in the evening. The patio perches on the edge of an artificial 25 acre lake which is the centerpiece of a gated community of vacation homes. The menu is short, well planned, and is on the pricey side for us. Humbug! We give ourselves permission to splurge now and then. The food is nice. My seared tuna is fresh and rare. CK has steak and a very colorful beet salad.
Thumbs up on service even though the wait staff look like undergrads from a college hospitality program. None of them can boast of a birthday prior to 1995. We compare this phenomenon to the wait crew at La Paon and Castelli’s who impress us as ancient veterans. The unique feature is the lake itself. It is a bit surprising to me. Why is it here and when did they build it? It seems to be an over-the-top extravagance, a taunt directed at this hot, dry zone: “Desert? Fooey! We have so much water we can let it evaporate all day.” I’ll have to call a real estate person to get the history of this lake. Google doesn’t seem to know it. And by the way, our young bartender, Zach, gives us some good dope on old mansions that have been re-invented as eateries. We now have to go to Palm Springs to visit Colony Palms, Del Ray, and Tirada.
And now for something completely different. Weeks ago before we left Washington State we purchased tickets to see a polo match in Indio on recommendation of my father. It never occurred to us to seek this out. The Empire Polo Club is a sprawling park featuring large ponds with Koi, oriental bridges, gazebos, follies, statuary, and stunning flower gardens. This area is frequently rented for private social gatherings, weddings, corporate picnics, etc. This is where the Coachella Music Festival happens.
And that’s not counting the polo facilities. We see expansive shaded areas with tables and chairs overlooking the spacious polo pitch. Several bars offering cocktails and food dot the concourse area. Private parties are set up in some sections with their own catering setup. Many of the ladies in attendance are sporting their trendy fashions and flouncy hats as if it were the Kentucky Derby. The shade shelters and tents with their spiky tops gives me a vision of the medieval jousting tournament. All we need is some pennants fluttering and some strolling troubadours in pointy shoes.
Polo does take place but the field is so enormous that the action seems far away. At one end of the field the ball becomes impossible to see, lost in dust, horses, and distance. The horsemen all follow the ball around in a group. There is no such thing as a zone-offence, apparently. It reminds me of those films of Central Asian cultures playing Buzkashi, literally “goat pulling”. Horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. Participants all move in a group chasing the rider in possession of the carcass trying to grab it away. Looks very much like Polo except with mallet and ball instead of a corpse. Polo smells better, too.
Socializing is likely the main sport here. People are drinking booze and stuffing their faces, all except the stick-insect ladies who must eat lettuce or buy a larger size dress. They are chatting and partying, wandering about, scarcely watching the field. The game is a distant distraction. There are two matches but by the time the second one gets started more than half the crowd has departed, kind of like a Dodgers baseball game. This is quite different from most other sporting events I’ve attended in that there are no bleachers or arena seating. We aren’t crammed into tiny chairs rubbing shoulders and sharing DNA with our neighbors against our better judgment. Instead, we see a table with chairs. Our name is on a card stuck to the table confirming that it is for us and we need not scramble about trying to claim a space. It’s all very civilized.
By the end of the final match, all is well and no horses or riders were injured. We are full of food and wine except for John, of course, our wise-cracking Canadian friend, who is the designated driver. I’m not sure if we’ll go back for a re-run of the Empire Polo Club but I won’t rule it out.
We’re coming to the end of our March Snowbird Splurge. Plans to pack up and move out are in our heads but not in our actions. I’m still trying to play tennis most mornings while CK concentrates her efforts on sleep, reading, swimming, walking, and her Pinochle group. On the 31st we drive to Los Angeles where CK has a conference. I don’t, so I’m on the loose there with two days all on my own. I may do something goofy just because I don’t expect to be having free days in Los Angeles again any time soon, if ever. We know that we’ll be attending a Dodgers v Giants ball game together one night. I’ll be at another one solo because of CK’s conference. That may be worth a post all by itself. But, for now, we’ll sign off from sunny SoCal and catch up later.
Palm Springs Street Fair
20 years ago, when we last did the Street Fair, it was only a couple blocks of action. Last Friday night there were 7 blocks closed off. Dozens of sellers, loads of items, and an absolute crush of people. The booths mostly have unappealing stuff on offer which prods my curiosity to trip out into guessing how folks can possibly earn a living by vendoring things that appear to be one yard sale away from the landfill. The artwork booths, on balance, are especially hideous with very few exceptions. Crafty things show best but nothing draws a crowd like the hamburger and bratwurst barbecue. There must be 70 people in the queue. I’m happy that we aren’t hungry. There isn’t a table available at the dozens of restaurants that line Palm Canyon Drive. It is a weekend date night gone mad. I had no idea this was going to be such a mob scene.
The noisiest busker on the strip wears plastic breast plate armor from a Halloween costume, various black Goth style clothing items, while stringy foot long gray hair is kept flying from his middle aged head by the industrial strength fan mounted at his feet. He’s playing an electric cello accompanied by computer generated loops and effects. He looks and sounds like an acid-muddled refugee from a Wagnerian Opera. The combination of booming noises and hulking image creates a force field 15 feet in front of him. He’s attractive like a train wreck. People stare but don’t want to get close. They’re waiting for something to happen. It never happens but if it does it could be dangerous. His tip jar is just next to him so this no-man’s land seems self defeating. For various reasons I didn’t get a photo. I should have tried harder.
Flower sellers got some attention from us. They featured an alien, tropical thing called a Protea. Our friend, Linda, scored some for her flat.
Ask the Rabbi – No question, the oddest booth at the Palm Springs Street Fair. This bearded version of Lucy selling psychiatric advice to Charlie Brown for $.05 a pop was a scene straight out of a Monty Python skit. But here the price is cut to $0 and the scope of wisdom expands to Life, The Universe, and Everything. Given the worn state of his sign, this wasn’t his first rodeo. As we pass by we see him fielding questions from a group of young women. We can only guess what that was about. We are tempted to inform him that we happen to know the answer. It is 42. What we want to know is The Question. We chicken out and walk on.
We only last about an hour and a half before the crowd blends with the background of tchotchke’s and amateur art becoming a bit of an unsolicited hallucination. We escape back to a quiet Palm Desert for a late bite. We may repeat this experience next March just to compare scenes and do a better job getting images of the best, or in this case, the spookiest buskers.
Tonight we’re in downtown Los Angeles, having abandoned Palm Desert for the season. CK is busy with her conference and I’m off exploring on my own. At the moment it is Happy Hour at El Cholo, a Mexican joint that has history back to the early 1920’s. The margarita they just served me was loaded and sneaky. Full effect isn’t felt until 10 minutes after last sip. A second one would be fatal, much like Armando’s. It’s a good spot to get a bite of ceviche and to write a bit.
Tomorrow I am loose again in L. A. But everything I’m interested in is too far to walk. Uber may be getting some of my dough. We’ll see.
April 1, 2019
CK is up early and hopping out to the Conference Center. I don’t have to do that so I’m free to roam in The City of the Angels all day.
The initial plan is to go from the Marriot Hotel to Union Station. Between these points I spy potential for bumping into other sites of interest, so here we go.
Google shows me a route that takes me on foot to the light rail station. I don’t need to use it but I want to just to learn about it. It’s slick: buy a day pass from the machine and Bob’s your Uncle. I only ride it one stop to Pershing Square because that’s the nearest drop-off for Grand Central Market. Pershing Square is a small park but it seems a bit scratchy. Some rough folks are doing the loitering thing. The sidewalk seems dark and dirty here. Closer inspection reveals that a large percentage of the pavement is covered by used chewing gum. There’s a lot of gum chewers in L.A. from the looks of it.
Grand Central Market is a half mile from the rail stop. The building isn’t remarkable but inside is where the action is. I see all kinds of food items and lunch options here. Meat, fish, herbs & spices, fruit, beer, candy, all manner of great stuff and it sooo doesn’t look like Wal-Mart, thank you very much. This is the kind of place Anthony Bourdain would plunder stem to stern. I order a fruit smoothie and walk the whole thing.
Angels Flight – A funicular rail across the street from Grand Central Market. I get on with some city workers on break. There’s time enough to share where I’m from (I look so much like a tourist they have to ask). The ride up this inclined railroad is short but just enough time to become acquainted. The ticket seller is at the top. He wants $1. My new friend pays for my ticket. I holler “Thank you”, as he trots away with his crew. “Welcome to L.A.!”, he says with a grin.
A few hundred feet from the funicular is MOCA, Museum of Contemporary Art, closed until 11. I am here far too early for that and can’t wait around. Looming above the small courtyard here is a rather large collective of airplane parts stuck together in a random way, evocative of a plane crash. Clever and effective.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic, is a about a block and a half away from the funicular. The building is a sculpture project in itself. First impression is that of a giant aluminum bubble popping out of the earth. When the sun shines, as it often does here in SoCal, wear your shades. This thing is hard to look at without some light filtration.
Los Angeles City Hall is the next landmark on my hike toward Union Station. Like many folks my age, this building is burned into our memories, a result of watching Sgt. Friday go through his deadpan act of catching bad guys on the old Dragnet TV series (1951-59). Actually I’m not quite old enough to have seen them when they originally aired. I saw the re-runs. We didn’t have a TV until 1961.
Union Station – In all likelihood, I departed from here on a train with Mom, Grandmother, and both brothers in 1955 for the permanent move to Washington State although I don’t remember it. In that sense, this is something of a pilgrimage. Built in 1939 this is Mission/Spanish/Art Deco mashup architecture that is quite lovely. If only the rest of Los Angeles could have taken this as its style going forward, L.A. would have become the most elegant city on the planet. Alas…
A piano sits at a crossroads of breezeways. I’m here in time to catch a brilliantly talented young lady filling the building with ‘Fantaisie Impromptu’ by Chopin. She isn’t playing it. She’s bleeping nailing it. A security guard and another fellow are standing there with me. It’s a nice moment. She finishes and we thank her. We find out she’s not even studying piano. This is something she learned in high school. I feel so inadequate….
After a salad and green tea in Union Station [I’m behaving myself because I’ll be at Dodger Stadium tonight to watch the Giants and I want to sin with Dodger Dogs & Beer] I’m off to use my rail pass again.
According to Google and the Metro App, I have time to zip over to Hollywood. There’s stuff there like The Chinese Theater, Museum of Death, Madam Tussauds, Egyptian Theater, among other things. Actually, I’m not sure what I’ll find since I can’t recall ever being there. The subway seems much like others we’ve used in Europe and Washington D.C., there just aren’t as many routes. This one takes me to Hollywood Boulevard by way of the Hollywood/Vine Station. Riding the train is boring but getting off at the station isn’t. I’ll declare this to be one of the finest metro stations anywhere (see photo) with one exception: there are no loo’s. Quick note: if you find yourself on Hollywood Boulevard in need of facilities you may be in some hot soup.
After being severely disappointed at the metro station I begin to run through the checklist of options, a result of recent travel experiences. Google helps a bit, pointing out a hidden shopping mall but it is cleverly disguised. I don’t spot it right away. My eye picks out the very swanky but available Hard Rock Cafe. Brilliant. The music is awful in there but the bar is nice and there are no locks on the rest rooms. Thumbs up and three cheers for Hard Rock Cafe. I’m a fan.
Now back to Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame. News Flash: it isn’t glamorous. This is tourism ground down to shoe level grit and sleaze. All kinds of crummy shops litter my stroll from the station to the Chinese Theater: souvenirs, adult toys & clothing, fly blown and sun-stale street food, street hucksters, tour hustlers, and people selling the kind of glittering trash that His Fraudulence, Our President would consider sexy. Each one of these shops represents a heaving mountain of the world’s most expensive cheap crap. They don’t call this Tinsel Town for nothing. And the Walk of Fame has seen better days. Some of the stars embedded in the sidewalk have been there so long that earthquakes have split them apart. I find Katherine Hepburn and Lassie. Oddly, I avoid stepping on their stars as if they were actually lying there. I see Ronald Reagan and do the opposite.
I stumble past an establishment that doesn’t fit the trashy pattern I’m seeing. I do the classic double-take and walk back to get a peek. This place looks old, like it may be from the 20’s or 30’s: The Pig n’ Whistle Restaurant. I step through the door. Yep. It’s a time machine to the 1920’s. The whole room is art deco and the bar is awesome. I wonder how many other places like this are hiding in L.A.?
The Chinese theater comes into view. I know they do guided tours but I didn’t reserve a spot for one of them. I didn’t want to be on that kind of schedule. The very stern looking lady guarding the door says the next tour is at 3 pm. It is 1:15. I reject waiting until 3, so my attempt to get inside glances weakly off of its hard boiled tourist shell. Not sure if I’ll ever be back. Ah, well.
I pass by a big temporary structure in the mall, a sales presentation by Samsung, where a rep stops me and chats me up. Alicia is very charming and she wants to know where I’m from. I tell about Lopez Island. She sounds interested until I remind her that it has no urban groove, that one must bring one’s own groove to the island. We have a good laugh and I get her pic for the blog!
I spot Mel’s Drive-In. It must be one of the last of the old diners from the 40’s and 50’s left standing around here. The Brown Derby, where my father once worked as a cook, closed years ago. I walk in as if I’m on assignment and snap some pix, righteously leaving behind the burgers and fries.
This is only Monday and there is a fair batch of people moving about on the street. The barkeep at Hard Rock thinks that it’s because of Spring Break. That may be so, but still, I’m thinking if you come here on a Saturday night, bring your posse. You’ll need to manage through teamwork.
I spot an enormous movie house, El Capitan. The huge marquee is flashing the offering: ‘Dumbo’, a Tim Burton re-make of the 1941 classic. The thought of buying a ticket just to see the inside of this place flits, ever so briefly, through my cluttered brain. Instead, I stand in the entrance next to the ticket booth breathing in the popcorn perfume before moving on.
On the way back to the hotel the metro only takes me so far. After that I must walk about a mile and a half through some of L.A.’s unattractive parts. An old tune from the 80’s pings a nerve:
“Shopping cart pusher or maybe someone groovy One thing’s for sure, he isn’t starring in the movies ‘Cause he’s walkin’ in LA Walkin’ in LA, nobody walks in LA”
Folks passed out with nothing but pavement for a bed, people trying to sell scrounged items on the sidewalk, others with mental and physical health problems going unattended. A woman in her 40’s with needle-tracked arms is lying on her belongings next to a fence in the hot sun. She seems disinterested in living through another day. When I walk I should know that I’ll see things that make me sad and give me to feel lucky at the same time. Still, I feel ashamed that our so-called civilization allows this kind of thing to happen.
Back at the hotel, I count my blessings, grab a bite of food and about an hour of nap time before summoning an Uber out to Dodger Stadium. It’s opening week and the San Francisco Giants are the opponents. A classic rivalry. My seat is in the left field pavilion with the Bleacher Creatures. The fans out here are pretty far away from the game so they make their own fun with heckling, chants, bouncing beach balls, waves, and characters in face paint and capes leading cheers. Basically everyone just waits for a Dodger home run so they can feel good about the team. Meanwhile everyone is hungry. Dodger Dogs are $1 each tonight only. Normally this carves nearly $7 out of your credit card per each, so everyone is loading up on multiple copies. However, a 24 oz can of pretty good beer to wash it down will dent you $16. Those millionaire ball players need real folding money, I figure. I sit next to a fellow a bit older than me and we manage to talk a bit of baseball in between the deafening noises generated by the P.A. system. Giants win 4-2. There is no joy in Mudville.
Tomorrow is another day for me to explore L.A. I think I might just go to the Santa Monica Pier. We’ll see.
April 2, 2019
The L.A. Metro whisks me to Santa Monica Pier but not without me messing it up once. I actually get on the wrong train and ride it for one stop. I get back to the original station, reset, and catch the proper train. Yay me.
It’s a carnival zone with $7 ice cream cones, fish and chips, burgers & fries, some thrill rides, and a Ferris Wheel. I have to ride it. They won’t let me ride in a basket solo so I’m sharing with a couple and their young twin sons. They’re from Washington DC. The kids don’t care for the ride. “It swings too much.” The parents roll their eyes and smile.
Buskers dot the pier spaced just far enough apart to avoid overlapping each other’s amplified sound. One guy is clearly operating on the strength of other folks telling him that he sounds like Ray Charles. I can only say that his act does not suffer from lack of enthusiasm or awkward self-consciousness. I must be feeling that for him. He wants me to pose with him for a selfie. I demure.
The Jimmy Buffet Guy: Crouching under a parasol, banging out Margaritaville at a volume that keeps the public well clear of his tip jar. This is the second busker I’ve noticed in California who suffers this deficiency. He looks like he smells bad, too, another tip repellent, the result of sleeping in his clothes for a week. He can’t sing but his guitar chops save him from 99% pathos. No pic of him.
Rock & Roll Sitar Player is a new wrinkle. He’s a work in progress. He fires up “Space Cowboy” and I make my escape. Steve Miller tunes on a sitar make me feel that I’ve lived too long.
Chinese Violin Guy is very good. His tip jar is a bucket and it is thumping. I don’t recognize anything he’s playing which adds to the charm. He smiles a lot even though the pic didn’t capture that.
Lunch is a version of Ceviche which looks to be mostly shrimp and octopus. It’s quite good. I have a quiet-ish table all to myself where I catch up on my notes.
Lunch dealt with, I have an idea to do one of those Segway tours. Zone of interest: Venice Beach, more than a mile away. I call the local outfit and, alas, I’m too late with the idea. Tour is full. Next idea is to investigate the little electric scooters I see littered all over town. The ones labeled Lyft get my attention because I already have the app loaded. After some internet phone magic I get one activated for $9 per hour. I’m a bit shaky on it at first but I learn it quickly enough. I find the beach bike trail and immediately see signs proclaiming that these things are banned in the park. Riding here is exactly what I have in mind! Double rats and drat. Now I have the scooter and I’m determined to put it through its paces. I go out on the streets of Santa Monica to find a legal route to Venice. But finding the route takes up too much time and the scooter battery is down to two bubbles out of five.
I’m a 2+ miles away from the metro stop so I have to shift direction for home. At the station I just park the scooter, tap the app to end the ride and cash out electronically. Up on the train platform the Metro security guys are shaking down a rather well heeled lady for riding without a ticket. She’s making weak excuses while the officers are writing furiously in their little black books. She’s going to be fined. Resisting the temptation to take a photo, I clutch my all-day ticket and make myself invisible.
It’s a good 40 minutes on the train and 10 minutes walking back to the hotel. Gotta freshen up. Another Dodger/Giant game tonight but this time CK gets to come too.
This was a good outing even though I failed to get to Venice. Learning about these scooters is good stuff but I don’t know where I’ll be able to use it again. I’m going to look for them in Europe. Probably won’t use them, though. They aren’t the kind of conveyance CK will warm to.
At 5:15 pm we run down to the lobby to summon an Uber to Dodger Stadium. It is two hours until game time but we’re going to need it. Car traffic has turned every street into a parking lot. Our driver is two blocks away and it takes him 15 minutes to get to us. Getting on the freeway is an impossibility so our guy takes us on a dizzying tour through some of the neighborhoods. It takes 45 minutes to move 5 miles. That’s an L.A. Rush Hour.
We’re happy to be out of the car, roaming the stadium, hunting our seats, and people watching. Dodgers are playing the Giants again. Dodgers looking for revenge after losing 4-2 last night and they get it, mostly thanks to a grand slam home run in the 5th inning. It’s what the people want. We have our Dodger Dogs and beer.
But I’m beginning to understand that this is likely the last big league game I’ll ever attend. Dodger management has installed one of those gi-normous sound towers beyond the center field wall. Four woofers six feet in diameter topped by two banks of horns 10 ft by 5 ft each.
The power required to run these things for 3 hours would keep Lopez Island lit up for a month. The electric meter must be spinning like a neutron star. And the noise this thing produces between innings makes conversation a laughing matter. One simply cannot. Compounding the pain is the music selection which hurts my head to attempt to describe. Imagine squirrels the size of hippopotami being mercilessly tortured with 1000 watt cattle prods. And all MLB parks are like this now. I’m never doing that again.
And so ends our short visit to Los Angeles, a city which gifted us a new appreciation for Lopez Island. Who knows, there may be another reason to come back here in the future but it will have to be something unforeseen. We won’t be making plans on our own hook. We consider this bucket list item checked.
Next post will be from Reykjavik, Iceland, sometime around the 17th of April. Stay tuned.