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A Drive through the Sonoran Desert


Slightly northwest of Palm Springs is the Sonoran Desert with a robotic dinosaur museum run by creationists, a plant that makes LSD look tame, and Austrian food that should not be missed.

Photography by the authors

The Sonoran Desert is on the latitudinal line as South Carolina, Morocco, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, China, and Huntington Beach.

“It’s a real desert getting only 3-and-a-half inches of precipitation from July to July,” our guide tells us. “Last year we managed only 0.97 inches!”

Palm Springs, however, is surrounded by 15 peaks more than 10,000 feet high with gravity pulling water off the mountains. Indeed, the greater Palm Springs Area sits above the second largest aquifer in the United States: 2,000 feet down and stretching 17 miles wide and 50 miles long. The Coachella Valley, nevertheless, has 124 golf courses each taking a million gallons a day and if they are not watered the grass goes brown in 5 days.

The tribes who lived in the valley here used water 7 times before they lost it. America wastes water.

So it’s hot and it’s dry.

We are standing in the desert above Palm Springs. We are vaguely northwest of the city, not a very precise identification but it’s a desert and we’re not driving!

We are here with the same Desert Adventures guide we had 20 years ago on one of our first visits to Palm Springs, Morgan “Wind-in-Her-Hair” Levine. She has just warned us not to get too close to the Cholla Cactus, sometimes called the “jumping cholla” from how easily barbs detach from the plant and attach themselves painfully to anyone who brushes against them.

The jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida) uses its stems to self-propagate. Attached to desert animals the barbs enable the cactus to form tangled forests over many acres. However, their barbs are a defense for the cactus wren, which builds large football-shaped nests in the cholla lined with grass, straw, and feathers. The female wren is fertile; she can have 3 broods in a season, She may need to be that fertile because, just as Bighorn Sheep learn to eat the cactus fruit for water and food, so the desert rat knows those nesting holes contain eggs or baby cactus wrens.

Morgan Levine shows us an empty cactus wren’s nest on the left and, on the right, a blackened and mummified desert rat impaled and immobilized by the barbs as it climbed months ago to enter the nest. The former stage stop in Whitewater recalls an earlier time when this community thrived. Our 20-year-old image of Morgan shows an earlier time, too!

The Whitewater Canyon stagecoach stop was 2 days out from the 22-day trip between San Bernardino, CA, and La Paz, AZ. Here was one of the 2 largest ranches in California, where the cattle were not harvested for their meat, but for their hides—what locals called “leather dollars.” Young Indian boys were hired to skin the cows (the original, some think, of the term “cowboy”).

Here, you are on the San Andreas Fault, where a famous World War II tank commander trained his troops before D-Day. He trained here where he had his mistress rather than Indio where he had his wife.

Top: Bladder Pod smells like skunk and its seeds taste like radishes. We chew and wince. “I don’t like them either,” Morgan says, “but they had uses for seasoning like a spice.” Middle: White Sage. Lower image: California Fan Palm; it had sweet dates like raisons, but its filaments could be rubbed on a bare thigh to make rope.

The white sage (Salvia apiana) is interesting. When rubbed the leaves give off a strong aroma attractive to bees. But more fascinating to health professionals and anthropologists is its role in native birthing ceremonies, which produced “cooked babies” that never suffered infant respiratory infections.

At the start of labor, explains Morgan, males in the family are sent away for 3 days, a depression is dug in the ground and filled with hot white sage ash. The woman and her baby are placed and breathe in the ash and the aroma “that is just like oxygen.” The ash is kept hot in what must have been a sterile environment—and no food is given to the mother other than water. Medical uses for another white sage Artemisia ludoviciana are available from a USDA page here.

Top: Mesquite with (inset) its beans. Middle: Sacred Datura. Bottom: The simple desert rose.

Although the creosote bush was an important plant in the Sonoran Desert and its leaves met many of the natives’ needs (including medical ones either boiled as a liniment or as a tea for cramps and venereal disease) the mesquite (top image) was vital. Its cooked pods could be made into flour or even wine and a tea of the leaves could be used as eye drops. Its wood was used for furniture.

The hallucinogenic Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) is even more interesting—it was sometimes painted by Georgia O’Keefe. Another member of this Deadly Nightshade family is called jimson weed. They are anticholinergic and can be poisonous.

“Those plants contain scopolamine,” Morgan says. “They make LSD look like Kool Aid but they are not illegal because nobody knows about them.”

The Whitewater Preserve is owned by a conservatory determined to improve one of California’s best wilderness area. This is the first time in 40 years the guides have seen it dry. It lies a bit remote so hikers should wear proper foot ware, have sun protection, and carry a lot of water. And maybe call first to find what nature programs are available and to make sure they have parking space.

The Whitewater Preserve and Canyon separates the Coachella Valley from the San Bernardino Mountains to the northwest. The hiking here is part of the Pacific Crest Trail. A Bighorn sheep at the visitor center. Part of the Windmill Tour: second generation “Eiffel Tower-like Windmills.”

The second generation windmills to create green energy have been a disappointment. With an open frame, not unlike the Eiffel Tower, they need more servicing from attendants who dislike them because they have to climb up the frame and be buffeted by the same winds that drive the mill blades. Since the open structure allows the wind to shake the spars and loosen bolts, they always need service.

Top: First and second generation windmills. Middle: Third generation windmills and the towers they transmit their energy to. Fourth generation windmills are now in use with 3 blades each half the length of a football field. Bottom: Desert Adventures SUV beside a windmill and a solar farm. Guess which is more productive?

If you guessed that solar farms were the future, guess again. A third generation windmill produces enough energy for 900 to 1,000 homes; this solar farm will provide only enough power for 300.

“Given the lavish electrical consumption of America, if we relied entirely on solar panels to provide enough total energy,“ says Morgan, “it would take 12,000 square miles of solar panels (an area the size of Maryland) and the expanse would have to be covered in concrete to prevent the dust that affects the panels.”

A worrying thought, given recent world nuclear disasters, is that uranium costs 5 times less than coal in the sense of energy derived from it; nuclear power is the cheapest source of energy. Despite that, of the 65 locations providing nuclear power, 29 have been shut down and of the 104 planned, 64 have been canceled. Fifty-one percent of the energy in USA is provided by coal.

Drivers traveling along busy Interstate 10 above Palm Springs are traversing the third windiest place in the world, where the cold ocean air gets squeezed by the local mountains in a demonstrable Venturi Effect.

In the 1980s tourists driving along Interstate 10 near the Carbazon Outlets had to stop and let their kids gaze upon 2 huge dinosaurs created by Claude Bell, who ran the adjacent Wheel Inn. Bell, who had previously been a Knott’s Berry Farm sculptor, took 11 years to build the first dinosaur here, a giant Apatosaurus. He died in 1989 while building the second, a huge Tyrannosaurus, and the project died on the vine, too. It was always a bit kitsch and reviews of the Wheel Inn were not flattering and its restaurant (whose waitresses sometimes wore cavewoman costumes) once achieved some kind of fame with a Yelp review that said, “Less than mediocre food.” The restaurant closed with the inn in 2013.

The so-called Robotic Dinosaur Museum

An attempt was made to revive the area when, without much publicity, it became a creationist museum that attempted to “teach the idea that dinosaurs lived only 1,000 years ago among humans, something that many Christian fundamentalist believe.” Many who have visited this so-called Robotic Museum, an addition to the original 2 dinosaurs, never realized that they were walking through the hidden agenda of creationism promotion until they paid their entrance fee.

We were saved that. The young man at the entrance counter walked away for an unexplained reason from customers waiting to pay to get in. Maybe he had his own personal agenda. Several of us walked away down the trail to shoot photographs then exit from what one of the visitors opined was a “rather cheesy museum.”

If it’s cheesy, it’s the only visitor pull that is along the upscale attractions that lie along the Coachella Valley.

The Palm Springs Tram offers a different experience.

Every visitor seemingly wants to take the tram ride to near the top of San Jacinto Peak in the world’s largest rotating gondola. We have done that several times usually for the tram-and-dine passage where in the evening you can grab something to eat in the cafeteria at the top. It’s an experience, but there are other Palm Springs restaurants nearby and, somehow, going in the evening as the light disappears has never given us a really good view of the Coachella Valley below. Although we do see how the wind farms have grown.

Johannes Restaurant.

If you’re heading back into Palm Springs, plan to eat Austrian and keep going till you reach Johannes Restaurant. His Wiener Schnitzel is classic and his Seared Maine Scallops may the best you have ever tasted.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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