Two-hundred and fifty people bumped and rattled along a dirt road to Dos Palmas oasis at the foot of the Orocopia Mountains overlooking the Salton Sea in the Coachella Valley.
They were staff, members and friends of the California Nature Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving California land in order to save endangered plants, animals and water fowl.
The occasion was the annual meeting last Sunday of the Conservancy and the dedication of Rancho Dos Palmas, an almost 3,000-acre desert preserve purchased by the Conservancy.
With California's galloping population and houses springing up like toadstools after a rain, if there weren't organizations like the Nature Conservancy, California would soon be as bare as a plate from the Sequoia forests stumps to the contaminated ocean. The California Nature Conservancy is something people can join and then go out and see what it is working to save.
The Rancho's crown jewels are its springs and streams, almost the only water between the Colorado River and the coast. The water had brought oases to the desert, stands of dark green palm trees and desert undergrowth, which have shown humans and animals where to find good water for hundreds of years.
Dos Palmas has also been a place of sun and pin-drop silence, except for the rustle of the warm winds through the majestic palms.
The Conservancy bought almost half of the land from my friend Raymond Morgan, a tall, ambling man whose friendship I have counted as a yearlong Christmas present since we met in 1962. Ray's father bought 300 acres in 1940, and when Ray became one of the most successful advertising men in California, he added to the Dos Palmas land until he had 1,400 acres. The Conservancy now has increased that to 2,928 acres with other purchases in the surrounding area.
Bill Bradshaw, described by his friend and biographer Maj. Horace Bell as a "natural lunatic," built the Bradshaw Trail across the Dos Palmas land between San Gorgonio and the Colorado River somewhere above Yuma in 1863 when there was news of a gold strike with nuggets as big as a man's fist. Signs of stagecoach stops can still be seen along the old Bradshaw Trail.
In 1906, 43 years after lunatic Bradshaw had carved the trail across the desert, George Wharton James in "The Wonders of the California Desert" wrote: "There is no more danger of thirst, for only a few miles farther on are palms rising out the desert telling us of the presence of an oasis where there is an abundance of water. It is Dos Palmas, well-loved spot of desert teamsters and prospectors, the old stage station where two springs supply an abundance of good water so that men and animals can drink all they desire."
California State Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) was one of the speakers at the dedication. He told us that he had been honored by having a big-horned sheep named after him.
Steve McCormick, state director of the California Nature Conservancy, was master of ceremonies and presented staff members and volunteers with awards won through hundred of hours of volunteer labor.
Cameron Burroughs is the director of the new Dos Palmas preserve. He told me that Alex Cabrero, the caretaker who lives with his wife, Thelma, in the main house at Dos Palmas, has seen deer right at their front door looking for water and that there are big-horned sheep back in the Orocopia Mountains. Cameron said the preserve is a wonderful addition for the Conservancy because the water helps the migratory waterfowl in their trips on the southern flyway between Alaska and South America in the spring and the fall.
Ray Morgan was the perfect steward for these acres. It was almost foreordained that he would be the man with the sensitivity and appreciation of the sun, sand, solitude and blessed water until the Nature Conservancy discovered and realized the area's importance as Ray had years before.
Ray loved it for its historic and scenic beauty. Ray and wife Mickey, who loves Dos Palmas as much as he, took me with them to the dedication on Sunday. We had a marvelous time. Ray and Mickey Morgan now lived in northern San Diego County in Valley Center with a wide valley spread out at their feet. It is good fortune that Dos Palmas has been preserved and came to the Nature Conservancy from my Beverly Hills High School friend, Ray Morgan.