From Desert To Snow In 11 Minutes

 

I expected to hate Palm Springs. For a start, it has more golf courses than any other place on earth – 108 to be precise. They are exquisitely beautiful, and would be fantastic as parks and nature reserves. Why do they have to be spoilt by golfers?

This desert resort, 120 miles south-east of Los Angeles, also likes to boast that it has 600 tennis courts and 38,000 swimming pools. So far, so bad. Then there are the town’s 700 restaurants. You could dine in a different one every day for two years. Yawn!

Don’t get me wrong. Palm Springs is great for golf, tennis, swimming and eateries – if you like that kind of thing. But the really sensational attractions are its mountains and architecture. Did I hate the place? I loved it.

Palm Springs has the world’s finest concentration of mid-twentieth century modernist architecture. Around every corner are stunning motels, offices, shops, homes and public buildings by Bauhaus-influenced designers like Albert Frey, Donald Wexler, Richard Neutra and E Stewart Williams (www.psmodcom.com). Prince Charles might loathe these modern carbuncles, but I was enthralled by the creative use of concrete, glass and steel. The futuristic City Hall and Bank of America are two fine examples. Built in the 1950s, they look as if they came off the drawing board of Norman Foster only yesterday.

Most amazing of all is the domestic architecture, with its inventive use of space and light, and its low-line, flat-roof construction. Predating the eco-architecture movement by 30 years, these homes blend effortlessly into their garden surrounds. By comparison, modern British housing design is stuck in a second rate vernacular time warp. Even if you are not normally into architecture, you’ll be inspired.

Maps are available for self-guided architecture tours. Bicycle is the best way to get around. Rick Karr of Bighorn Bicycles charges from $20/day or $85/week, and provides a DIY bike tour map (760 325-3367). But if you really enjoy good architecture, your best bet is Robert Imber of PS Modern Tours (760 318 6118, psmoderntours@aol.com). He does daily mini-bus trips to all the notable buildings, including little-known gems like Frank Sinatra’s former house at 1148 Alejo.

Looking is fine, but I wanted to experience living in one of these modernist classics. Orbit In was a perfect choice. Designed by Herbert W. Burns in 1952, this boutique hotel consists of 10 streamline grey-green concrete units built around a pool and boomerang terrace bar, with steel mesh walls and sun roof. The interior is 1950s original – chrome and white enamel kitchen, splayed-leg tables and chairs, and pink and yellow melmac crockery. I never imagined the ’50s could be so chic.

The other big sensation in Palm Springs is the towering, all-dominating mountains. Half a mile from the main street, they rise up at a 75 degree angle to nearly 11,000 feet. Awesome. Between the peaks there are 54 miles of scenic hiking trails dotted with rock formations and waterfalls.

The morning after my arrival, I set off to climb Mount San Jacinto (10,804 feet). Getting up the first 8,516 feet was easy. I rode the Aerial Tramway (www.pstramway.com). During the 11-minute cable car ascent, you travel from the sandy desert of Palm Springs to alpine snow-fields, dropping from 32 to two degrees centigrade.
Despite the cold air, the sun was hot. No one else was hiking, so I stripped down to my underpants and boots, and headed up through boulder-strewn pine forests, wildflower meadows and snow-covered valleys. Golden Eagles soared overhead. The tapping of White Headed Woodpeckers reverberated through the trees. A Bobcat darted over rocks.

My upward progress was slowed by heavy snow obscuring the trail. It was trial and error guesswork. But I was undaunted. I love a challenge.

By mid-afternoon, near Miller Peak (10,500 feet), I realised there was not enough time to get safely to the summit of San Jacinto and back to the Aerial Tramway. To be stuck on the mountain in darkness and sub-zero temperatures could be fatal.

Just as I was about to turn back, I came across another hiker. Gary was a huge hulk of manhood. But he had over-stretched himself and collapsed with exhaustion. This left me with a dilemma. Do I stay with him and jeopardise my own safety? What happens if we both get stranded overnight? We could freeze to death.

It was too risky to leave Gary. He might not make it down. So I stayed with him. Our descent was a race against the fading light and tumbling temperature. The trail was treacherously icy. We slipped and slided all over the place. My hands and face turned numb and blue with cold. I was frostbitten and hypothermic. But somehow we made it – just. At 6pm, as darkness fell, we walked into the Aerial Tramway – frozen, hungry and exhausted. But our battered spirits were lifted by the dazzling view: 8000 feet below us, the glittering lights of Palm Springs sparkled like diamonds.

When Gary and I said our goodbyes, I couldn’t resist a mischievous smirk at the irony of the day’s drama: a skinny fag like me coming to the rescue of Mr Butch.

That night I pigged out at the Chop House and The Deck, two great restaurants, one above the other, at 262 S Palm Canyon Drive (760 325 5500). The evening began with martinis in the Chop House to celebrate my safe return. Perhaps it was displaced homesickness, but I got hooked on London Fogs (gin, pernod and lemon twist). Mildly plastered (and who can blame me after the ordeal on the mountain) I got stuck into a fab main course of Macadamia crusted Hawaiian Mahi Mahi, with wilted spinach, lobster mashed potatoes and ginger-coconut sauce. To replenish my depleted energy, for dessert I guiltlessly devoured a giant slab of bittersweet chocolate cake. Then it was upstairs to The Deck for live jazz on the open-air balcony – and several wicked Lizard Juice cocktails (light and dark rums, pineapple juice, midori, mango passion liqueur, and a float of chambord).

Still barely recovered from my trauma in the snow, the next day I decided to play safe by joining Trail Discovery’s eco-hike through the Painted Canyons (760 325 HIKE, www.PalmSpringsHiking.com). Our guide, Heidi, drove us out to the Sonoran Desert, from where five of us set off on a six-mile, three-hour trek.

To begin with, the canyon walls are about 100 feet high and 75 feet apart. But after 15 minutes walking, Heidi leads us into a narrow fissure in the rock, and soon we are ambling up dark, deep chasms only two feet wide in places. It’s like something out of Indiana Jones. Every now and then we have to climb wooden ladders to get to the next level. Eventually, the trail emerges on a ridge top and we traverse mountain spines for the next hour. En route, there are lots of lizards and butterflies; plus wild tobacco and lavender.

Descending into a large canyon, we follow a twisting, turning course between sheer rock faces over 150 feet high. Around each corner, the rock hues change from red to brown, purple, orange, pink and grey.

Heidi had a special treat for us on the return drive to Palm Springs. This area produces 98 per cent of US dates. We stopped off at the Oasis Date Gardens (www.oasisdate.com) on Highway 111, near Thermal – officially the hottest town in the USA. It has a restaurant, supermarket, museum and cinema – all dedicated to the glory of the date. There are, in case you’re interested, 119 varieties. I didn’t have time to sample them all, but I did woof down some deliciously plump, moist Halawy, Black Zahidi, Medjool and Deglet Noor; finishing off my feast with a gob-smacking date milkshake. A cheap treat at $2.50.

On day four I moved to the Caliente Tropics motel, a Tiki Hut version of mid-century modernist design, with Polynesian motifs. Built in 1964 and refurbished in 2001, previous guests include Elvis Presley. Alas, not even his ghost made an appearance when I was there. I had to content myself with sipping margaritas in the jacuzzi, under wafting palm trees. But the most memorable thing about Caliente Tropics is the beds. They are the most comfortable I have ever slept in. If Rip Van Winkle had been staying here he would have slept for 100 years, not 20.

Waking blissfully refreshed, I was ready and rearing for my next trek – this time with Desert Adventures Jeep Tours (760 324 JEEP, www.red-jeep.com). We drive out to the Indio Hills, right on the San Andreas earthquake fault-line. The collision of the Pacific and North American plates has forced millions of tons of horizontal sedimentary layers vertically upwards, creating the hills we are standing on. All around us are giant shafts of up-ended sediment rock, forming myriad canyons. Concluding this geological mystery tour, my guide, Tom, takes delight in informing me that in 12 million years time tectonic plate movements will shift Palm Springs north-westwards, making it a suburb of San Francisco. No use to us, but good news for commuters in the year 12,002,002.

And if you are looking for something slightly off-beat, then Palm Springs has a bit of that too. It’s naturist-friendly. The Desert Shadows Inn is a stylish, secluded, self-contained clothes-free resort, comprising accommodation, restaurant, pool, gym, health spa and tennis courts – set in gracious palm-fringed gardens (760 325 6410, www.desertshadows.com). You could spend your whole holiday in this resort where nudism is normal and ‘textiles’ are the weirdos. But why would you want to, when you can also have naked adventures on the outside? Trail Discovery tours offer mountain hikes in the buff. But be warned: protect your private bits. Don’t forget the sun screen.

Way to go

Getting there: American Airlines fly daily Palm Springs (www.aa.com).

Where to stay: Caliente Tropics, 411 E Palm Canyon Drive. Rooms from $110 per night (001 760 327 1391 – www.Calientetropics.com). Orbit In, 562 W Arenas. Rooms from $149 per night (001 760 323 3585 – www.orbitin.com).

Further information: Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention & Visitors Authority (001 760 770 9000 – www.PalmSpringsUSA.com). For an information pack, call the London office (020 8875 2859).

Copyright Peter Tatchell 2002. All rights reserved.

Published in a slightly edited version: Warmer climbs, The Guardian, 28 September 2002