Unanswered questions are what keep us going--or traveling. In a knotty-pine den in Ohio, during long childhood winters, certain questions--and fantasies--kept me somewhat obsessed with Palm Springs. Was it that my parents had honeymooned there? I don't know. I only know that at 8 I already knew enough (or was precocious enough) to be calling it The Desert. I knew that on New Year's Eve, 1939, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable had a long conversation at the Racquet Club bar--and I wanted to have been there. That's what Ohio winters do to you.
I also knew, somehow, that there were two deserts--there was the Hollywood Crowd, and then there was everybody else. My parents' post cards, year after year, promised a land of money and sun and magic. This Midwestern child got taken to Manhattan and Acapulco and Key West and so forth--but never to The Desert. That turf belonged to the honeymooners, the honeymooners my parents still were in many ways. I had to come all the way to California to college before I could go to The Desert. And by then I had a whole new crop of questions.
Like: Why does Palm Springs appear to be a small town at the turn of the century? Were there really Indian faith healers living outside of town? What exactly did Norman Mailer mean about "no trees bearing leaves" in The Desert? How could 30 members of the Forbes 400 coexist so comfortably with the poor homesteaders who dwell in Rancho Mirage and Cathedral City--and seem perennially on the edge of disaster? To get answers, it helps to become a reporter. Especially in Hollywood. People tell you things. One afternoon a longtime resident, Mrs. Kirk Douglas, quite casually revealed a lot. "The Desert can be seen from various angles," Anne Douglas said cautiously. "It just depends on who shows them to you."
The Hollywood Crowd was the natural fixation, at least at first. The rituals, the privacy, the $25,000-a-couple galas attended by the people who almost never wear anything but tennis clothes, the legendary black-tie sing-alongs. But finally, Hollywood transplants itself wherever it goes, and the rituals don't really change.
Gradually, the fascination switched to the other desert, the one that has nothing to do with the movie colony. Gradually, Anne Douglas' words rang very true: There are various angles to The Desert, if one gets guided. "It's an existential community," a writer friend had counseled, "with destiny and mortality mixed up together. Begin by going out to Palm Desert and finding the artesian wells."
What I found, sitting atop something called Miracle Hill, was an Art Deco wonder of a spa called Miracle Manor. Overseen by a healer-psychic-facialist named Lois Black Hill, Miracle Manor is a 30-year-old time warp. "Twelve years ago, I came here for a week to recuperate from a divorce," said Black Hill, whose psychic facials are said to work personal wonders. "I'm still here. Here in this quiet desert, I concentrate, and now I'm even channeling spiritual powers. There aren't too many people who don't think you're crazy, let's face it. Many people felt that way about the man across the street."
Black Hill was talking about the Indian museum called Cabot's that sits across the road from Miracle Manor and raises questions of its own. Especially about Cabot Yerxa, who built it. "He wasn't an Indian, and I'm not sure he even knew any Indians," Black Hill confided. "He was a white man who liked Indian myths and collected Indian artifacts. His family thought he was so crazy they disowned him. Poke around. . . . "
Do, and you discover behind the museum a small platform landing that Cabot Yerxa built for UFO sightings. "I've lived all over the world," Black Hill said, "but I've answered most of my questions right here in The Desert. The place reeks of history."
Indeed. In 1885, in search of a typhoid cure for his son, a judge named John McCallum met up with a Cahuilla Indian guide named Bill Pablo. The judge was led to a group of Indians living in a wild-palm grove near the San Gorgonio Pass. He decided to settle there, and 264 acres later, the McCallum family members not only were settled in but also were urging others to join them. Within 15 years, most of the Indian brush shelters had been replaced by adobe ranch houses and charming stucco hotels.