I Left My Soggy Heart in San Francisco

 

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Even in the pouring rain the infamous bridge is pretty amazing and brings flashbacks to life in Vancouver, cue the Taiga jackets and rubber boots

The Bay Area, home to seven million people spread over hill and valley in 101 cities and nine counties, anchored by the metropolises of San Francisco and Oakland on opposing shores and San Jose on the southwest flank, has drawn adventurers and counter culture wanderers, alternative lifestyle seekers and brilliant intellectuals, beat writers and music titans, religious charlatans, psychics and self-help gurus, since the California gold rush of 1848 established it as the sea-going gateway to America’s West.

Song writers have rhapsodized about its allure ever since. In more recent times Tony Bennett built a career crooning about leaving his heart there while Scott McKenzie invited the world’s hippies to join the party in Haight Ashbury, but only if they “were sure to wear a flower in their hair.” Even the Animals got in on the act with Eric Burden’s biker inspired travelogue about San Francisco Nights–“Angels sing, leather wings / Jeans of blue, Harley Davidson’s too / On a warm San Franciscan night.”

Arriving from the Monterey Peninsula is not the stuff of songs, unless they’re about the ass-clenching fear of negotiating frequent lane changes on ribbons of concrete occupied by speeding vehicles of all sizes and descriptions, their drivers bent on getting to the off ramp at a place that will connect them to a safe landing in the shortest possible time. Most of them heavily armed.

We decided an RV park in Marin County would be our safe place, notwithstanding its less then idyllic location in the middle of a waterfront industrial area backed by a fetid, low tide mud flat that smelled strongly of sewage. Across the muck and water loomed the foreboding guard towers of San Quentin Penitentiary, where Johnny Cash famously recorded an album in front of its cheering inmates in 1969.

We didn’t choose it for the heavy industry or view of San Quentin, which were not mentioned on its website, but instead because it’s a 15 minute-walk from the Larkspur Ferry, which deposits commuters, suburban shoppers and tourists at the San Francisco Ferry Building on the downtown waterfront at regular intervals throughout the day.

Once landed after a mid-morning sailing, we made haste among the strollers, joggers, skateboarders and freaky people of the Embarcadero to Pier 33, where multitudes from the world’s four corners gather daily to do their tourist time on the Rock.

Alcatraz. The last stop. Place of no escape.

The Man in Black may have “walked the line’ in San Quentin but Alcatraz was “the end of the line” for many of America’s hard men. Al Capone played in the prison band and drooled in his cell until being released in a demented state to die of syphilis. Machine Gun Kelly saw the error of his ways within its walls, earning the derisive nickname ‘Pop Gun Kelly’ for his good behavior. The psychotic murderer Robert Stroud became American’s most famous jail birder.

What strikes temporary guests is its proximity to downtown San Francisco, the city’s skyline shining in the sunshine, aglow at night, so close but so unattainable, as if to further torment the prisoners with a visual taste of the world they’ve left behind. Sightseers are encouraged to wander the grounds, even to bring picnic lunches and make a day of it with the kids.

We began with our stint in the pen with a short film, outlining the history of the American Gangster era’s most famous crowbar hotel, which closed in 1963 after 29 years of hosting bad guys. In that time, 36 inmates tried to escape. Twenty-three were captured, six were shot to death and two drowned. The other five went missing and were presumed drowned.

The cell block audio tour leaves no doubt that the Rock was a desolate place occupied by men desperate to leave it behind. The hard men’s high-flying lives of crime were reduced to five feet by 9 feet, with a cold-water sink, a toilet and a cot. Bad behavior, which constituted any violation from a long list of rules, earned a spot in solitary, where the slightly larger cells did not make up for the constant darkness and isolation. Prisoners showered infrequently under steel shower heads in an open concrete room while guards watched to insure potential weapons weren’t concealed in body cavities. No bum raps, so to speak.

A couple of hours on The Rock is enough to convince budding young criminals on the tour that the thug life is no good life.  Even in a cold spring rain, the ferry ride back to San Francisco seems upbeat in contrast.

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Pier 23 is one of the many piers used for either industry or providing a thirsty traveller with a cold beverage on a gray San Francisco day

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The view from Alcatraz, so close and yet so far, except if you’re Clint Eastwood of course

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Also, don’t even think about not buying something from the gift shop on your way out

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The infamous rogue’s gallery of Alcatraz including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and The Birdman Robert Stroud

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Al Capone went mad in Alcatraz from syphilis, not quite as glamorous as dying in a blaze of machine gun fire like some of his counterparts in the biz

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Cell Block B is open for tourist business

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Please note, board games not included with incarceration package

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The “Indian’s Welcome” is graffiti left after the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz by Native American Indians who lived on the rock from Nov. 20th 1969 to June 11th, 1971 willingly. Prisoner 2671 is shaking his head in disbelief

After a couple months in the sunshine and arid climes of Arizona and Southern California, the Wet Coast’s grey drizzle hits former Vancouverites like a rain-forest flashback. We decide to wait out the storm with a side trip to nearby Sausalito for breakfast on our second day. By afternoon, the now-constant downpour, a certifiable-el Niño-inspired-heaven-sent-non-stop-torrent, drowned our plans to continue up the Oregon Coast. A short but soggy doggie outing to the rank mud flat left Dude, Dame and Dog with a hankering to leave our hearts in San Francisco and take our water-logged bodies east, across the Sierra Nevada mountains, braving sleet slanting down in Donner Pass, with its history of cold death and cannibalism, in pursuit of sunshine in the Biggest Little City in the World.

Next up, Reno surprises.

 

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Donner Pass is now a ski area, cannibalism optional at the various eateries on the hill. Also at 7000 feet, the summit is a formidable trip and and down, the Dame was a tad white-knuckled

 

On the Hunt for Dirty Harry

 

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The wild beauty of the Pacific Coastline between Monterey and Big Sur

You know the drought you’re always hearing about in California, the one that will eventually lead to an invasion of Canada and the draining of our lakes and diversion of rivers to supply the thirsty south (Note to self, stop reading conspiracy theory websites. That means you treehugger.com). Apparently parts of California didn’t get the memo cuz baby it’s green in the central coast. Luxuriously green after a month in the desert.

Okay, Oprah didn’t have time to see us during our brief Santa Barbara stopover and with Pismo Beach in the rear-view mirror we are headed north to see Clint Eastwood in Carmel-by-the-Sea, or simply Carmel as it’s known to locals without a lot of time to talk.

Our base will be Monterey, or so the campground claims. The marketers cleverly named it the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA but in reality the location is about 25 minutes drive from either city. KOA employs this trick often (talking to you KOA Montreal).

Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur are an awesome trio of travel delights with one thing in common, location, location, location. And money. Lots of money. Okay, that’s two things. The Pacific Ocean is the backdrop, with its crashing waves, long stretches of pristine beach, and the smell of sea.

The wind blows hard off the Pacific on the 45-minute drive from Monterey to Big Sur. As George Constanza would say, “the sea was angry that day my friend, like an old man trying to send soup back at a deli”. The view is everything the brochures say—turquoise-blue ocean spewing massive columns of white foamed fury, roadside cliff faces shaped by the winds into crenelated red castles, bridges spanning green chasms.

The Dude, who ran the Big Sur Marathon in his younger slimmer life, says the area was a hippie mecca in the sixties. Writer Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, among others) kept a place here and poet Allen Ginsburg and beat writer Jack Kerouac were frequent visitors. The non-profit Miller museum in a modest cabin off the road, with its incense infused book shop, provides a flashback to the time when long-haired freaky people migrated here to commune with nature, discover the meaning of life in EST’s It, smoke weed, play guitar and get naked. Apparently they all got jobs, bought land and put on clothes, because the place feels like a well-heeled vacation mecca these days.

Big Sur is less a town than a conglomeration of lodges, inns and restaurants strung along the highway between sea and mountains. The biggest cluster has a pub and general store where hikers gather to pick up supplies. In its mountain setting, with the smell of pine in the air, it feels like old time Whistler without the snow.

We decide on lunch at Nepenthe, an iconic eatery a few miles south. Built on a cliff face with multiple stairs, patios and levels, Nepenthe is the ultimate destination restaurant. It has the requisite gift shop with pricey artisan objets de arte for your collection and an outdoor café on its roof with stunning views of waves breaking on the distant coast far below. The main restaurant sports west coast log cabin décor, with a soaring trussed ceiling and massive windows overlooking the raging Pacific. Prices are stunning as well.  Ten bucks buys an al a carte  basket of fries to go with your burger, a steal at $17 US (add $1.50 with cheese). Despite the stiff prices and accompanying wind, the place is packed on a stormy Tuesday in March. But it’s memories of the drive not the overpriced hamburger that I’ll take away from Big Sur.

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The Dude enjoys the view but not the prices at Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur

With our pricey midday repast digesting, we head back to visit Clint’s bar, the Hogs Breath Inn, in the town that seems much too twee for its macho, squinty-eyed former mayor. Remember Palm Springs and its art galleries and money smell. Take that and times it by ten and you have a picture of Carmel-By-The-Sea. The town is ritzy California culture on steroids. Art galleries line the streets, and lovely streets they are, filled with freshly tended flower beds sprinkled with gold dust every morning to encourage growth. Given the recent rainfall, the local ladies who lunch have opted for brightly painted wellies from Abercrombie & Fitch, or as we call them at home, rubber boots, to stroll the shops.

Clint’s restaurant is off the street, down a narrow passageway that opens onto a brick courtyard. The nondescript building that fronts it is simply and appropriately called the Eastwood Building. Unfortunately, Clint isn’t there and hasn’t left a message for us, so we are left to stroll the streets and gaze in awe at the sculptures, blown glass and paintings with heavenly price tags in the windows of cottages with fairy-tale rounded roofs. The smell of marijuana wafts from a small street-side park. Clearly, Dirty Harry is no longer in charge.

We choose the scenic route back to Monterey on what is unpretentiously called The 17-mile Drive, its name being the only unpretentious thing about it. It costs 10 bucks just to navigate the route, which rangers in Smokey the Bear hats collect at various entry gates. When we ask for the nearest gas station, the ranger advises us to backtrack to a station outside the gates. “Everything costs more inside.” he cautions.

Leaving Carmel, The Drive meanders along tree-lined lanes with massive stone gates that front even more massive estates. Think Marine Drive in South Vancouver then add a few zeroes onto the net worth of the inhabitants. Incomes along this stretch are measured not in tens of millions but in hundreds of millions. The gawking factor is worth the price of admission and that’s before we arrive at Pebble Beach Golf Course with the spectacular ocean-side setting familiar to everyone who likes a little celebrity mixed with their TV golf.

The course famously hosts the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro Am, first held when Bing Crosby invited a few friends to his home course for a clam bake and charitable game of golf. Pebble Beach is so sure of its stature as a premier public golf course visitors are hard-pressed to find a sign indicating they have arrived or directions to the club house. It is assumed if you are here you know the drill.

Our stroll around the putting green, surrounded on one side by a collection of sports clothing and high-end golf paraphernalia stores and on the other by ‘The Lodge’, finished with a bit of a gargle overlooking the 18th, as one does. The Dude, who many of you know is a world class speed  guzzler, not a sipper, slowly savors his 10 buck U.S. a pint beer, perhaps reflecting  on the misspent youth that prevented him from making the financial cut at Pebble Beach. Although it is a public course, play is limited to those who can afford the cost of two nights at the Lodge, which qualifies them to book and pay for a tee time.

Pretending to be a member of the bourgeois proves exhausting s0 we bid adieu to Pebble Beach and wind our way along the remaining 17-Mile Drive, passing ocean side mansions and favored foursomes playing out their day to the tune of crashing surf on the three other golf courses strung out along the roiling Pacific. Our route takes us to aptly named Lovers Point, jutting into the sea on Monterey’s western edge, distinctively fringed with ice plants, through Steinbeck’s famed (or infamous) Cannery Row to the Aquarium that set the benchmark for zoos of the sea, out past the tidal flats and outlying marinas, by the farmland and  roadside fruit and vegetable stands, to the Grey Ghost, the home that grounds us, for a decidedly plebeian dinner of burgers and two buck chuck from Trader Joe’s. Yes that’s right, respectable tasting white or red wine at $2.49 a bottle. Even with the exchange it’s enough to make a Canadian weep.

I think Mr. Eastwood would approve.

Next…The rainy streets of San Francisco

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One of the lovely pieces found in Carmel, got a big wad of thousand dollar bills burning a hole in your pocket, this little glass piece could be yours

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The Dame’s hands are very excited to see the Pebble Beach sign

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A stroll through the streets of Carmel, on the hunt for Dirty Harry

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Okay, we’ve found Clint’s place but apparently like Oprah, he isn’t available, ever.

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High-end graffiti found outside the Cypress Inn in Carmel which is, fun fact, partly owned by America’s former sweetheart Doris Day

 

Riding through the Republic

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California – land of oranges, palm trees and plastic surgery, has chosen a bear as their state symbol. The Dog was digging the pom pom on his California Republic touque

Like most of life’s journeys, driving from the land of plenty in the desert to the plentiful land on southern California’s Pacific Coast, involves a few bumps in the road.

Traversing Highway 101, which cuts a pitted and patched-asphalt swath through the urban sprawl along the northern fringe of the City of Angels (and demons), is enough to jiggle the neck wattles of white-knuckled seniors, who it is said relieve freeway stress by pleasuring themselves with the motion of their large vibrating vehicles.

Distasteful as that imagery may be, driving the heavily travelled corridor through San Bernardino and surrounding environs, famous of late as the scene of another mass shooting, conjures even darker thoughts. It goes without saying that most of your fellow freeway drivers are packing and inadvertently cutting someone off will likely end with a fuselage of bullets.

Approaching the City of Angels (and demons) brings to an idle but well-vibrated mind the image of Joe Btfsplk, who readers of a certain age may recall as the character in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip, a man who lives his perpetually jinxed life under a black cloud. The toxic haze hovering above the L.A. basin, albeit more greyish-yellow than black, casts a symbolic shadow that can be seen on the horizon from 50 miles out, seemingly sent from the heavens as a reminder to man of the consequence of short-sighted human endeavor.

Much has been written about paradise-gone-bad and the transformation of the Los Angeles region from a sleepy, pre-First World War agricultural community where farmers and orchardists lived idyllically amidst palm trees at the country’s western edge, to the concrete explosion of the 20th Century that spawned a mega-metropolis of 17.8 million people (as noted in a 2010 census), all of whom seem to be commuting at once. But as the poet said, even a thousand words could not adequately capture the urban chaos like the pictures formed by journeying through the fringe of the heart of darkness. Suffice to say, Hollywood, Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive, et al, held no allure for these passing, well-vibrated, RV tourists.

Freeways are an environment unto themselves. They don’t so much pass through landscapes as take them over as their own. Especially near big American cities, where they crisscross, eight or ten lanes wide in each direction, like a tangle of concrete vines, interconnecting so frequently it’s impossible to know at any one time which direction you’re heading. All semblances of human activity are hidden behind concrete walls, erected to mitigate sound and the devastating affect on property values. Drivers are left with the soul-less ambience of towering billboards, multi-story factories and office buildings in suburban towns identifiable only by the signs on freeway ramps. Negotiating Southern California’s freeways without the calm guidance of GPS Gertrude is unthinkable.

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It’s not enough to have five or six lanes of traffic, let’s make them horizontal and perpendicular to really confuse things

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Not quite what I expected Hollywood to be

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That grey haze you see is so thick it blots out the horizon

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This little fellow was on his way to the Piggly Wiggly but got stuck in traffic

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Sign’s sign’s everywhere a sign

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Graffiti is everywhere, if you stop for a moment they’ll tag your car (kidding..:)

Gertie had her sights uncompromisingly set on the genteel seaside city of Santa Barbara, where entertainment swells and industry captains keep second homes on ocean-side estates with sweeping views of the forever rolling Pacific surf.

Oprah has a 50-million-dollar summer home in Santa Barbara, complete with English gardens that rival the grandest estates of old money. According to local lore, the once-Queen of daytime TV and self-proclaimed woman of the people, visits frequently but has never once been spotted out and about mixing with the regular folks. That is left to Stand-in… er… Steadman, who at 6’5” is a highly visible black man in a town that, like Palm Springs, is white with walnut-coloured Hispanic flavouring. It’s said the summer home contains a master bedroom-size closet for Stand-in’s custom-tailored suits. No word on the guest quarters for Gail.

Santa Barbara’s red brick-tiled roofs and lush vegetation are a welcome sight to freeway-weary travellers. As if to signify the transition from the land of plenty to the plentiful land is complete, the pinkish freeway walls are draped with Bougainvillea and hanging vines that seem to flourish in the toxic fumes.

A later drive through the city reveals exotic flowering birds of paradise rising to greet visitors from street-side planters. The low-slung downtown is a melange of outdoor patios, coffee shops, art galleries, antique stores and trendy clothing boutiques with historic Spanish facades. Nearby, the Pacific Ocean rolls onto classic California beaches split by a giant pier that juts out into the surf, a perfect place to stroll and do lunch at one of the seafood eateries perched above the ocean at its end.

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Santa Barbara land of tiled courtyards, birds of paradise, endless stretches of beaches, piers jutting out into the pacific, shop til you drop and oh yah, Oprah lives here.

Relentless in her mission, Gertie guides the Grey Ghost to a freeway exit that will take us to Sunrise RV Park, noted for its proximity to downtown Santa Barbara, and absolutely nothing else. The park is located at the end of an exit ramp on an L-shaped gravel parking lot between the brick wall that fronts the freeway and a six-foot dilapidated brown fence that separates the surrounding neighbours from visiting RVers. Initially, it remains unclear who is most put off by the close living arrangements.

Short electrical posts protrude from the gravel, indicating the narrow slots to park rigs. We pull in beside a 40-foot coach and after much tension-filled maneuvering manage to position the Grey Ghost so as to have enough room to put our slides out with inches to spare. We squeeze two lawn chairs onto the gravel between coach and trailer and grab a beer to wind down from the day’s travels. Noise from the freeway drowns out all attempts at conversation but does not overpower the shrieks of a caged parakeet hanging just over the fence in a cage attached to the back wall of a neighbouring house. After five minutes it becomes clear the parakeet is more put off than we are, and that’s saying something.

At 70 U.S. dollars a night, the Sunrise is the most expensive RV park of our continent-spanning trip. Unlike other snow geezer parks we’ve experienced in the higher price range, it does not try to ease visitors’ sticker shock with unnecessary frills. There is no swimming pool to recline by, no ballroom for dance parties, no horseshoe pits or bocce courts, no putting greens or fitness rooms. No courtyards with music and five dollar pitchers of beer. Only a forlorn laundry room that is under repair and a shower that is hot-water challenged. And, of course, an indignant parakeet.

With nothing to do but watch the parakeet shriek, we commiserate with the occupants of the coach, whose lawn chairs rest on the gravel only a few feet away, shouting to make our gripes heard above the noise of the traffic.

“It’s Santa Barbara,” says our close neighbour, with a pragmatic shrug.

Enough said.

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Okay now I get it, the bear IS the mascot of California

Palm Springs – The Real Story

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Sunrise lights up the wind turbines with beautiful colours

When we decided to include a blog as part of our travel experience it seemed like a great way to share the trials (more funny now in hindsight) and tribulations (blood pressure begins to rise) of life on the road for almost a year. The Dude, being a professional writer and world class procrastinator, warned me, and warned me again. “Writing is hard work,” he said. “If you make a commitment, waiting for inspiration isn’t an option.”

Sigh… he was right. (Note from the Dude. You are my witnesses.)

After leaving the warmth of the Florida beaches for the honky-tonks of Memphis, the Dude became inspired and I was tired. His creative juices began flowing and the blogs have been a wonderful mix of travelogue and The Dude’s uniquely humorous view of the world. (You guys got that, right.)

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The Dude realizing his days as a Reggae drummer were numbered returned to his first love, writing

But after his latest take-down of the Palm Springs area and it’s wizened….er… carefully preserved denizens, I felt a need to tell the real story of Palm Springs. The best thing it had to offer was friends from home, familiar faces that after a long time on the road were a godsend. I love the Dude and Dog to bits, but conversationalists they’re not, and it was good to have some girl talk with one of my besties from home.

We had dinner with friends, L & D, at their beautiful home in one of the gated communities the Dude took delight in putting down. The place was a throwback to the sixties, with perfectly maintained architecture surrounded by lawns with towering palms and ringed by orange and lemon trees. I want in!

Palm Springs is cultured decadence with a sprinkle of funkiness thrown in.

It’s creamy date shakes that must be tried to be believed.

It’s hour-long pedicures at ridiculously low prices with a leg massage thrown in.

It’s watching the sun rise and suffuse the massive wind towers with a silky orange glow.

It’s hikes in the desert with homies Bruce, Linda and their dog Oliver, through flowering cactus and bone dry river beds.

It’s happy hour with friends at trendy Palm Springs restaurants, where the food is good, the booze is better and the laughs are plentiful.

It’s quirky consignment stores filled with the detritus of former lives–oversized furniture, strange brick-a-brac and movie memorabilia like the fifteen-foot room divider with Frank Sinatra’s face silk screened on it.

It’s day trips driving through arid countryside, past massive ranches and tiny mobile homes squatting in the scrub off dirt roads with nary a tree in sight.

It’s the night and weekend markets throughout the valley, where vendors offer everything you don’t need but buy anyway.

It’s golfing in February in your shorts surrounded by Palm Trees with a cheap beer and burger at a roadside joint after.

It’s the road-side fruit vendors on a random country corner selling massive bags of fresh oranges for a fraction of the price at the supermarket. It’s all these things and did I mention the date shakes!

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One of the things to love about Palm Springs are the great hiking opportunities everywhere made even better with some pals from the ‘Hood. 

Date night in Palm Springs

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This impressive 43 foot fellow graces the Cabot pueblo museum in Desert Hot Springs. One giant sequoia tree did the job. Oh and in his spare time the artist did another 73, using power tools.

“It never rains in southern California,
But girl don’t they warn ya, it blows. It really blows”

It’s only about 50 miles from the boulevards of broken dreams in Bombay Beach on the desecrated Salton Sea to the country clubs and gated communities of the Coachella Valley, where North America’s well-aged wealthy congregate to play out act three of their privileged lives on manicured golf courses, irresponsibly lush and green under the desert sun in the midst of a prolonged and much-publicized drought.

Approaching the valley from the south through its industrial edge, past ramshackle double-wides and squat bungalows fighting losing battles against the drifting desert detritus, eases the transition from poverty to the riches of the walled cities strung out along Highway 111 all the way to the valley’s north end.

Indio. Indian Wells. Palm Desert. Rancho Mirage. Cathedral City. Palm Springs.

The toney towns blend into each other, connected by a series of desert-coloured strip malls offering up all the good life has to offer, from the big box bargains of Walmart and Costco to high end consignment boutiques, pricey retail chains and Mercedes dealerships. Clearly, the good burghers of the valley bought into George W.’s advice in late 2008 when America teetered on the precipice of financial collapse.

As you may recall, the Great Decider displayed the kind of leadership in crisis that would mark his presidency by staging a photo op in a big box store at which he famously advised the jittery populace to keep America strong by “Going shopping.”

Indeed.

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Dates – the frisky fruit

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It should have been our first clue that it may get a tad windy in the Palm Springs area

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Not exactly Palm Springs type shopping but a day trip to the hippyish Idyllwild mountain town had it’s own sombrero deals to be had

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Palm trees, check. Mercedes, check. Gate surrounding us from the plebes, check. The sun sets on another day in the  sun valley

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Wow it appears the denizens of the valley like to get their hootchy on once in a while

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Not to be outdone, the Pope had a competing booth across the road

All that shopping builds the appetite and the Coachella Valley is flush with opportunities to do lunch. At first glance it seems unlikely that the shopped-out parade of matrons and old swells in Mercedes and Range Rovers could eat enough to make all the restaurants profitable. It seems the establishments on Palm Canyon Drive in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, six or seven per block, could by themselves satiate all the Valley’s permanent seniors in two sittings.

Clearly, restaurateurs rely heavily on the cut-above snow geezers who disdain the proletariat RV parks of Arizona for the pricier concrete pads in Palm Springs. Like the gated communities that surround them, the valley’s most expensive RV parks revel in their exclusivity, limiting their clientele to motor coaches, and even then only those of a certain late model vintage.

Manitoba farmers, rich with the American dollars they collect for crops grown in Canadian currency, have no desire to mix with the riff raff who pull dilapidated trailers or wheeze their way south in 20-year-old converted school buses. The motor-coach-only sites, with their outdoor kitchens complete with wet bar, fridge, stove, granite counters, dishwasher, barbecue, double sinks, covered seating area, overhead heat lamps, propane camp fires and view of the man-made lake, exude the values of the discerning camper.

Once inside the secured gates, the owners of half-million dollar coaches can feel comfortable leaving their toads (RV-speak for towed cars) unattended next to customized four-seater golf carts in front of expansive outdoor entertaining areas and schlep to the pool in their flip flops to wile away the days drinking cocktails and reading trashy novels in their cushioned loungers, comfortable that their upper crust status will not be blemished by rubes in noisy pick-up trucks pulling sub-par fifth wheels or trailers. When they tire of the poolside repartee (how much can you say about the price of canola), they get behind the wheels of pricey toads and cruise past the country clubs in search of diversion, inevitably shopping or a suitable place to eat.

As if to ensure the mirage of wealth and fame continues outside the gates, city fathers named main thoroughfares after presidents and movie stars. A mundane trip to Walmart might involve driving along Bob Hope Drive and then turning on to streets named after Dinah Shore or Gerald Ford before motoring down Frank Sinatra Drive, past pink-walled estates and the wrought-iron gates of country clubs called Sunnyland and Desert Palms Oasis.

Approaching from the north, drivers arriving for the weekend from Los Angeles pass the Cabazon Outlet Mall, a string of name brand stores stretching five or six football fields along the I-10. Codgers and the infirm can traverse its length aboard shuttles that carry them from sale to breathtaking sale beneath cloudless skies. For unknown reasons, it’s the only place in the valley one sees large congregations of ethnic people, as if all the Asians from miles around are drawn together in a cultural search for that perfect deal. Those with any money left can gamble it away at Morongo Casino, a multi-storied monolith that towers above the desert scrub at the Mall’s southern end, luring gamblers for miles in every direction.

Like the rest of southern California, Palm Springs is all about blue sky and winter sun. The temperature during our February stay hovered in the 80s. What the brochures fail to mention is the wind. The first clues that something might be amiss in paradise (weather-wise, that is), are the wind farms on both sides of the freeway. Towering machines dot the horizon, gleaming white against a dull backdrop of desert and mountains like a flock of giant three-pronged flamingos feeding on the breeze.
The wind blows hard in the high desert north of Palm Springs. Like giant waves building momentum, gusts can be heard gaining power in the far-off scrub-land before they sweep through the snow geezer parks, bending palm trees, overturning lawn chairs and rocking rickety trailers and formidable motor coaches with a furious God-given equanimity that rattles the dentures of the oldsters huddled inside, at least one of whom is writing the lyrics of a country song.

If the trailer’s rockin’, don’t bother knockin’ on the manager’s door. Turn up the tube and keep on gawkin’, no use in squawkin’. No refunds. He’s heard it all before.

Area entrepreneurs’ penchant for unimaginative but evocative names can cause confusion in the mouldering brains of elderly RVers who can be heard querying their spouses in Walmart parking lots.

“What’s the name of our park again Marsha?”

“I think it was Two Palms Hot Pools outside Desert Hot Springs.”

“You sure it wasn’t Two Hot Springs in Palm Desert?”

“Coulda’ been Twin Palms Hot Pools in Palm Springs.”

“Sounds familiar but I can’t be sure.”

“Maybe it was Desert Oasis Palms Pools near Two Palms Desert Hot Springs Resort.”

“That seems close. You sure it was Two Palms not Two Hot Springs?”

“I told you to write it down, Fred. You never listen. How many times have we been lost on this trip?”

Yada, yada, yada.

Net up a trip through America’s heart of darkness.

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She told me I’d be going on a big trip soon…I didn’t have the heart to tell her

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The heck with fancy schmanzy restaurants in Palm Springs, this little dive in the Joshua Tree park area got the thumbs up from Anthony Bourdain

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A day at the Living Desert museum included a few of these long-necked beauties

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A languid stretch and a panoramic view

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Okay did you just go awww. I know I did about fifty times when we spotted this little guy

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At the front door of the Cabot Pueblo museum. He constructed by hand, almost the entire 35-room structure. Oh and it’s almost entirely made out of recycled products from the area.

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The Pueblo is a mish-mash of different roof lines, odd sized windows, strange doors. Oh and the guy was an artist as well.

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We went to the Thursday night market in Palm Springs three times and I still don’t know what these things are, and frankly was afraid to ask.

The Town Where Hope Came to Die

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Hope lived here at one time but left for Palm Springs just up the road

The good burghers of this southern California town could not have foreseen its future when they planted the palm tree and erected the sign informing drivers on Highway 111 of their arrival at Bombay Beach, then a small fishing village on the Salton Sea.

To say the town has seen better days is like noting that Chernobyl has fallen off a bit since the nuclear meltdown. The Salton Sea, beside which Bombay Beach now rests almost in peace, is itself a result of man meddling with nature. The desert valley was known as the Salton Sink before the Colorado River breached its levees in 1905 filling it with water for two years while engineers worked to staunch the flow. It became California’s largest lake at 15 miles wide by 35 miles long, depending on when the measurements took place. It’s been shrinking for decades.

Things looked rosy in the aftermath of the big flood as birds flocked to the life sustaining waters and fish flourished in the former desert. By the 1950s, tourists joined the wildlife, recognizing the man-made lake as a great spot to fish, swim, moor their boats and golf at the Bombay Beach Marina and Country Club. The town had five eating and drinking establishments. Life at the lake in the desert was good.

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A fun day at the beach if you don’t mind the dead fish everywhere

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They take trespassing very seriously around here, there’s apparently a large market for rotting boards and broken windows on the black market

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Even the pianos have given up here

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You can always count on the mail

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Petrified fish litter the beach here due to the incredibly high salinity of the water

Fast forward to 2016. With no outlet to purge its water, almost zero local rainfall to freshen things up and continuing waste water runoff from nearby agricultural land, the lake has festered into an ecological disaster with higher salinity than the ocean. Too high to support most marine life. To avoid possible lawsuits, agricultural interests bought the marinas and closed them down. Unable to survive in the toxic salty mix, the fish died; their rotting bodies and sun-bleached skeletons line the cracked mud shoreline, adding a pungent aroma to the apocalyptic landscape.

Rising lake levels in the 70s and 80s caused by excessive runoff from Imperial Valley farms combined with higher than normal seasonal storm runoffs to flood the below-sea-level town site. Tourists stopped coming and the restaurants closed, leaving only a small convenience store, a forlorn legion and the Ski Inn bar to service those brave souls who stuck it out behind newly erected berms. Interspersed amongst the rusting hulks, broken windows and burned out ruins of vacation dreams gone bad, are well-kept double wide’s with carefully tended yards and a sprinkling of modern RVs parked behind chain link fences on gravel lots. Remaining residents commute around town on golf carts while dogs of varying sizes and breeds run free in the streets.

Local residents Wendall and Jane Southland interrupted their retirement to take over the Ski Inn in 1994 after an investment meant to help out friends went south. The bar is for sale but to date there have been no takers. The weathered sign out front proclaims it to be the lowest elevation drinking establishment (227 feet below sea level) in the Western Hemisphere. Now in his eighties, Wendall works the bar 9 hours a day, seven days a week while his wife prepares and serves home-cooked meals to a steady stream of young curiosity seekers and snowbirds, many of whom venture in from nearby RV spa resorts positioned on mineral springs far enough away from the Salton Sea to avoid its odoriferous ambiance. Wendall happily keeps the beer flowing until 2 a.m. on nights when the trade warrants.

Despite its dreary surroundings among the streets of broken dreams, the atmosphere in the Ski Inn is not downtrodden. On the occasion of the Meandering Maloney’s Saturday afternoon visit, three different groups of 20-somethings stop in for a beer and a bite. The bar’s walls and ceiling are papered with signed and dated dollar bills from visitors who arrive at Bombay Beach from all points on the globe.

Wendall explains the tradition started in 2000 when a young visitor from Newport Beach, in town to look over his ramshackle inheritance, asked to put up a signed dollar bill behind the bar. Like monetary moss, the bills have spread to the walls, door and ceilings, even up the sides of the juke box, which offers a selection of suitably soulful road songs at three for a dollar. The bar is a favourite of Hollywood directors, and on one recent occasion three film crews shot footage on the same day. Wendell informs us there was a crew shooting the day before we arrive.

He is pragmatic when it comes to the future of Bombay Beach. He confides that a new marina in the works at the Salton State Recreation Area could be the first step to rejuvenating the area. The couple bought their first small trailer here in the 70s as a vacation home. After they moved permanently to the Salton Sea in the summer of 1990, the temperature hovered at 127 degrees Fahrenheit for the first four days, and he admits to thinking about heading right back to the relative coolness of Riverside, California. He recalls happier times when retirees in town roamed the surrounding desert in convoys of 20 ATVs.

The Bombay Beach population was pegged at 295 in the 2010 census, down from 366 in 2000. Wendall reckons there are 176 residents today, then perhaps remembering some recent passing’s, he reconsiders and downsizes his estimate to the low 170s.

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It’s the lowest bar in the hemisphere and it’s all yours, if the price is right

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Somebody’s been reading Dante

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You’ve got to admire the optimism of this little party oasis in the middle of town, note the crocodile sentries guarding the signs

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A place like this will have an occupied home next door, and you thought you had bad neighbours

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There’s been recent talk about the State building a couple piers and boat launches at Salton, gotta love the government for their optimism

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Millennials love this place, cheap food and drink and countless selfie opportunities

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Wendall behind the bar surrounded by the thousands of signed dollar bills visitors have left behind