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Desert Campaign

Parched and parceling out a strategy for hitting the trails

March 16, 1997|JOHN MUNCIE | Formerly special projects editor for the Times' travel section, Muncie is Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Baltimore Sun

PALM SPRINGS — Driving down the east slope of the San Jacinto Mountains on California 74, headed toward Palm Springs, I pulled over to take a photo. It was 4:30 on a Friday; shadows filled the Coachella Valley, though the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the north shone a cheery orange.

This part of Highway 74 has more curves than a sidewinder. It was the setting for the frenetic opening of the 1963 movie "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Perhaps in homage to Jimmy Durante, whose character literally and figuratively kicks the bucket in that scene, my camera went dead before I could snap a shot.

Fortunately, it wasn't an omen; our Palm Springs trip was quite lively. And it probably wasn't much of a loss--my photos tend to capture the desert's cat-box qualities more than its austere beauty.

About an hour after the photo fiasco, we were at Palm Springs' Casa Cody Country Inn, a slightly frayed-at-the-collar, low-profile hotel fringed with bougainvillea and fruit trees. Much of the Casa was built in the '20s and '30s and, according to the current owners, some of Gen. George Patton's officers supposedly stayed there during World War II while preparing troops for the North Africa campaign against German Gen. Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox."

My plan for the weekend was not dissimilar. I was going to use Casa Cody as a base from which to maneuver through the surrounding desert. There wasn't a swimming pool or golf course in my itinerary. (My girlfriend, Sharon, had a different plan. She brought a stack of reports to wade through.)

The Casa's breakfast buffet of muffins, cereals and juices is served at 8, too late for our coffee needs. So Saturday morning we walked three blocks to the downtown Starbucks, where I finalized my strategy over a latte. My first desert adventure was to be with an outfit called, appropriately, Desert Adventures. The company, based in nearby Cathedral City, introduces visitors to the local desert environment. I had signed up for their two-hour tour at 10.

Guide-driver Jim Viglione herded me and four tourists from Baltimore into one of the company's trademark canvas-topped, red Jeeps. In less than 15 minutes we were on a dirt road at the base of the Santa Rosas, a mountainous area just southeast of the San Jacinto Mountains.

"We are on an eco-tour, not a yahoo-through-the-desert tour," said Viglione, with pride. As we wound slowly through the parched hills, professor Viglione started his Desert 101 lecture by pointing out dozens of native plants--including wild apricot, agave, pygmy cedar, cholla cactus, cat's claw and jojoba--and outlining the hunting-gathering techniques of the native Cahuilla.


We started at elevation 600 and by the time we reached 3,200 feet, the 6 1/2-mile turnaround point, we had learned that roadrunners eat snakes and belong to the cuckoo family; that the seeds of the local fan palm are scattered in coyote scat; that the creosote bush was the Cahuilla medicine chest; and that cooked cactus buds have a "nice asparagus taste."

It was a mostly sunny day in the upper 70s. The air was as dry as an old Cabernet, and the vistas were vast, with dead agave stalks framing snow-dappled Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto.

From a 3,000-foot vantage point, Viglione pointed out a row of low, crumpled hills on the Coachella Valley's north side that marked the path of the San Andreas Fault. The valley and surrounding mountains are doing the jitterbug, geologically speaking. According to Viglione, some of the mountains here rose 14 inches during the 1989 San Francisco quake.

After Jeeping all morning, I was ready to stretch my legs. When the tour ended at 12:30, I headed for Palm Canyon (also called Indian Canyon), the most popular hiking spot near Palm Springs, and only five miles south of town. Much of the canyon is on Cahuilla reservation land; it costs $5 per adult to drive to the trail head.

Palm Canyon, with its numerous forks and branches, stretches for 15 miles. It has permanent rivulets and pools of water and more than 3,000 palms. Several trails crisscross the area, including one that connects with the Jeep road I was on that morning.

I bought a trail map at the trading post by the main oasis and headed up a trail, passing fan palms as much as 200 years old. The oasis was filled with noisy kids, oldsters wearing white shorts and golf caps and smooching teens. In this area, many of the palm trunks have been singed by fire, making perfect blackboards for graffiti.

After a mile or so, the trail left the bottom of the canyon, and most people, behind. For more than an hour I hiked, heading south toward the ridgeline of the Santa Rosas.

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