We stayed at Indian Wells for four days, which was the duration of the conference that had sent us there to begin with. During that time, an out-of-control fire raged on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains, sending dark plumes of smoke into the western skies. I first noticed the change in the light on the second afternoon, when I asked one of the bell boys whether the dark clouds above the ranges were thunder clouds. It was then that he told me it was from a purposely lit fire and I immediately noticed the smoky smell in the air, and the unusual golden tinge that was beginning to affect the quality of the sunlight.
As the day progressed, and indeed, over the following four days, the smoke became worse, and the conflagration became known as the ‘Cranston Fire’, spreading until it had engulfed over 13,000 acres of land, destroying at least five houses and leading to the evacuation of 7000 people. At one point, on a visit to Palm Springs, the sun could barely be seen through the haze.
Exploring the Coachella Valley
To make the most of our rental car (if not to enjoy the air conditioning inside) we made several short excursions into the Coachella Valley. I’d pored over the tourist brochures and circled the places that looked most interesting and were within local driving distance.
The first we investigated was the Oasis Date Gardens. There we could expect to see, ‘a video show on date history and cultivation, a picnic area surrounded by our beautiful palm garden, a date palm and ornamental palm arboretum, a cactus garden and an antique farm equipment exhibit’. This sounded all very interesting, so we turned on our GPS and made our way there.
I think the information in the tourist brochure was somewhat out of date (excuse the pun) as there weren’t any gardens you could walk in, just a neglected patch of grass to the left of the run-down looking shop-cum-café. The cactus garden was a bit sad-looking, too, in fact the whole ‘garden’ area was very neglected.
Despite the less-than-encouraging exterior, we swallowed down our trepidation and went inside to investigate – we were hanging out for a cup of coffee, if nothing else. There was one girl working behind a counter and no-one else in sight. The left half of the room had some tables and chairs, and the other side had a table with bins of dates, a set of scales, bags, tongs, etc., surrounded by some packaged date products, and other ‘for sale’ items. In a back section there were some tired-looking posters with historical information on them.
The café didn’t appear to still be running, but we ordered a coffee anyway, only to be told that the machine wasn’t working. There was a comprehensive array of date-related products on the café menu, but we didn’t really care to try any. They all sounded too sweet and milky. The date shop itself was well worth the drive. There were about twenty different varieties of dates for sale, and you could taste them all before purchasing (which I did). We ended up buying quite a decent-size bag of Barhi dates. The usual ‘fancy’ and expensive dates you can get in New Zealand are Medjool, and I do like those, but to my taste buds, the Barhi* were the best of all. Smaller, very sweet, soft, tasting like butterscotch or caramel, and with very soft skins. Our bag cost us about US $3.50, which we considered very good value.
I was also fascinated by the date palms with their enormous bunches of dates. There were acres and acres of these in the area. If you can picture barren, arid, jagged hills, dusty ground, huge blue skies with tinges of smoke around the edges, and row upon row of date palms, then this would possibly give you an idea of the look of the place.
On another day we drove to ‘old’ La Quinta. The old part of town had the classic southern US border town look – dazzling sunlight, white plastered buildings, palms, fleshy plants (such as yucca and aloe), dark shade, tinkling fountains, and a hot, dry smell. Streets empty in the middle of the day, shop doors closed to keep out the heat, and the necessity of scurrying from shady patch to shady patch.
We’d encountered this same situation on a February trip to Hawker, north of Adelaide, where the locals know not to venture outside in the middle of the day and the place ends up looking like a ghost town. In the Coachella Valley, mist machines are deployed to keep the store entrances and outside seating areas, cool. We were intrigued by these as we’d never seen them before, so walked into the cool clouds whenever we could. And they worked!
We drove the thirty or so minutes to Palm Springs a couple of times. The smoke from the Cranston Fires was more evident there, as the city is nestled against the foot of the La Jacinta mountain range, and the fires were directly on the other side. A nice touch was that Ben’s brother Dennis and his wife Lauren drove all the way down from northern LA (about a 3-hour drive) to meet us for lunch the first time we visited. They suggested meeting for lunch at El Mirasol Restaurant and it was an excellent choice. The restaurant served very inexpensive, enormous Margaritas, and after a few gulps, there was no way the meal could go badly. But even without the Margaritas, we’d have loved the meals. The service was great, too.
On that visit to Palm Springs we were inside most of the time and didn’t really notice the heat, but on the second visit, it was so hot, I felt I could barely walk up the street, and it felt like the smoky air was sucking every drop of moisture out of my body. Needless to say, our visit was brief.
We fled to a mall, which turned out to be another Westfield – I guess they are everywhere, but I was still surprised (and not in a good way) to see the identical logo to that of our local mall in West Auckland, on the wall as we drew near.
In summary, the California leg of our trip was interesting and opened my eyes to a completely different part of the world. It was hot there… and we had expected this, but according to the local TV channel, the weather we experienced while we were there was the hottest for several decades and quite a few records were broken in the area. Only the smoky skies kept the heat from soaring even higher. Our only disappointment was the final night ‘gala dinner, of the conference.
The dinner cost the equivalent of NZ $145 per person, and the gap between my expectations and the reality of the meal, was enormous. We were given only one measly glass of wine for the whole meal, and the entrée was a small bread-and-butter-plate sized, flat selection of salad greens, just like you might purchase bagged up in plastic at the supermarket all ready to serve, but it had no dressing and nothing other than leaves in it, (i.e., no tomato, or carrot, or red pepper or cucumber). It looked very tired and as if it could do with a good rinse in some fresh water. The Main was okay… it was a piece of filet steak, cooked medium rare and tender, but small. Alongside this was a smear of possibly Béarnaise Sauce, with two spindly strands of asparagus trapped in it, and a tiny piece of roasted potato with skin on – perhaps the size of my watch face, and hmm… I think there was something else – perhaps a small flat mushroom or two. Dessert was some kind of ready-made tart – the kind you could buy from a generic cake shop. You had to crack the pastry crust to break into it. It was okay but adding the three courses together, plus the one small glass of unmemorable wine… well, we were very disappointed.
On our final day, we arose at around 5.00 am, and were on the road by just after 6.00 am. Then we retraced steps and drove to LA, dropped off the rental car, and joined the very long line crawling its way through the US Customs. This line moved somewhat quicker than on our entry and even though we’d been told to arrive three hours prior to our flight, we actually had a good two hours to fill in before our 5.15 pm flight to London.
* Barhi Dates – “Barhee or barhi (from Arabic barh, meaning ‘a hot wind’) – these are nearly spherical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavour. One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape, as opposed to dry, like a raisin). (Wikipedia)