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A Pioneering Idea

Explorations of the historic desert reveal the harsh life of California's settlers and tales from the Wild West

March 19, 2000|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Larry Gordon is an assistant city editor at The Times

We'd been rolling for nearly two hours through the harsh, windy landscape of the high desert, home to more kangaroo rats and rattlers than humans. Our mules, Liza and Lil, bravely pulled the covered wagon over dirt paths and dry hills on the edge of the San Andreas fault. The children were hungry, and we had no food.

Then it suddenly appeared: the oasis. The lovely spot of green beckoned us into its shade of palms, providing haven from the elements and hope for victuals. The mules slowed down. We breathed deeply and--did we imagine it?--took in the fresh, damp odor of water.

Yes, all that is true. But, to be honest, we were hardly roughing it, no matter how hard we tried to conjure up that pioneer spirit.

We were riding in a mule wagon, albeit a tourist attraction, with cushioned seats, shock-absorbing springs, lap blankets to keep us warm against the chilly air and a guide to inform us about desert flora, fauna and topography. We had traveled about four miles on bumpy dirt, although not terribly far from civilization, in the 20,000-acre Coachella Valley Preserve, a no-development zone in the mountainous area just north of Interstate 10 and Palm Desert. And our entry into the oasis was dramatic, but it also meant that we were near our final destination, a chuck wagon tent where a hearty cowboy dinner would be served before we drove back to our hotel beds.

Despite those creature comforts, the two-hour ride and the next day's visit to an old homestead ranch fulfilled our weekend goal of learning about desert history and nature with two fourth-graders who are studying early California colonization and American Indian culture. We city slickers--my wife, Leda, our daughter Ellie and her friend Nastassia and I--got a taste of how tough and basic everyday life was for pioneers and American Indians a century ago. We also got to understand how much they must have savored the desert's pristine beauty, when gambling casinos and ritzy spas could have been only hallucinations of a drought-addled mind.

We began our historic explorations in earnest at the tent headquarters of Covered Wagon Tours, about 10 minutes from the Ramon Road exit off Interstate 10. The fare is not cheap: $55 per adult with dinner, $34 without; half-price for children 7 to 17; free for ages 6 and younger. The cost was at first off-putting, comparable to tickets to musicals at the Ahmanson Theatre, but we later agreed we were glad we had taken the ride.

Before the 3 p.m. tour began, we watched the friendly crew get the mules ready and start cooking our beef and chicken dinners outdoors in large wood-burning smokers and on a grill. To avoid the worst heat, Covered Wagon Tours start in the late afternoon (be sure to double-check the times) and don't operate, except for some groups, in July and August. On our trip, they loaded up two wagons each to capacity with about 30 people, sitting in two long rows face to face. Each wagon was pulled by two powerful mules. (The girls were fascinated to learn that mules are the offspring of a donkey and a horse.)

The kids loved the ride and paid close attention to our on-board guide, Michele. She pointed out a quail family, the odd mounds created by pack rats and the burn scars on palm trees that hardily survived wildfires. She passed around samples of local palm dates to taste and discussed the San Andreas fault--very close to which we were traveling--and the fault's seismic role in California history. We stopped for a 10-minute stroll and a photo at the edge of a 100-foot-high cliff at the fairly barren Pushawalla Canyon.

Back in the wagons, we rode downhill into the Hidden Palms Oasis, whose allure grabbed young and old. Our guide detailed a debate about whether the oasis trees grew from seeds in animal droppings or whether the ancient Cahuilla tribe, knowing about underground water, planted the trees there.

"It's weird to see palm trees in the middle of the desert," Nastassia said.

"Maybe we're imagining it," Ellie answered.

It was getting close to sunset when we arrived back at the big tent. Inside, red-and-white checkered cloths covered picnic tables. Hot chocolate and coffee were served in metal cups, chuck-wagon style. A log fire burned in a big metal stove and cut the chill as outdoor temperatures dipped to the high 40s. A cowboy guitarist serenaded us with songs like "Red River Valley," and some folks sang along. Then the chow triangle clanged, and we lined up at a buffet table, where waitresses dished out a tasty supper--beef, chicken, beans, coleslaw, bread and apple pie--onto metal plates. I had second helpings. Afterward, the girls were delighted to roast marshmallows on sticks in the stove.

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