General George S Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I’m not one for guns. I’ve no great interest in tanks. But I will admit to a certain fascination with war. Travelling east on the I-10 from Palm Desert on our way to Williams AZ, we stopped off at Chiriaco Summit for breakfast and noticed that the truck stop is also home to the General Patton Memorial Museum. The gas station, the restaurant, and the museum are a family business and have been owned and operated by the Chiriaco family since 1933 (the museum opened in 1988).

Chiriaco Summit

Alabama-man Joe Chiriaco visited CA in 1927 to see his state team play Stanford in the Rose Bowl. He fell in love with California and stayed. I can only imagine that telegram to his mother. When his job as a water surveyor with the LA Bureau of Water and Power sent him to the desert – to Shaver Summit – he fell in love, again. He quit his job and bought the site which is now known as Chiriaco Summit. With his ear to the ground, Chiriaco paid attention to whispers about a new road to be laid between Indio and Phoenix. He started building. The gas station and general store opened 15 August 1933. A year later, Chiriaco fell in love for the third time and married Ruth Bergseid, a Norwegian nurse from Minnesota who had also come East to work at the hospital in Indio. Business boomed. Roads meant cars and trucks and cars and trucks meant drivers who need refuelling along with their vehicles.

In early 1992, under the command of General George S. Patton, the Desert Training Center (DTC) was established at Camp Young, right by Joe’s place. And when the troops descended, his was the only place they could go off base. Years later, Margit Chiriaco Rusche would work with the Bureau of Land Management to establish the General Patton Memorial Museum, which first opened its doors in 1988.

General Patton Memorial Museum

The wealth of information on display brings to life the career of the General and the sheer scale of the desert training that he initiated in preparation for a heads-on with Rommel in the African Desert.  In the 26-minute video shown, one of the former soldiers told of how they graduated from big tents to pup tents to hard ground. Life wasn’t easy but to a man, when they got to where they were going, they were glad of their training.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The Matzner tank pavilion is home to lots of stuff including a 2.5 ton Japanese Cadillac and an M60 turret. One of the tanks is set up so that you can climb up and sit inside. All I could think of were sitting ducks – way too small an enclosure for my liking. Out in the tank yard, other tanks on show include the almost mass-produced Sherman tank, the most popular model of  WWII. It was pouring rain. The red soil had turned to mud. But I hadn’t come this far not to have a look around. Mind you, not on a good day could I tell one tank from the other but they were quite the sight to behold.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The documentary video shown in the General Patton Memorial Museum had mentioned two altars at Camp Iron Mountain, one Protestant, the other Catholic. Men of the cloth of each persuasion would say mass, outdoors, for the troops. The altars still stand but given the unseasonable rain, we thought it best not to try – even though part of me really wanted to see the reality this replica is based on. Next time, I’ll come in April.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The area covered by the DTC is massive.

The War Department utilized over 18,000 square miles of desolate land in southeastern California and western Arizona where it trained over a half million soldiers on desert warfare tactics and survival in extreme conditions. For two years, 13 infantry divisions and 7 armored divisions marched and drove over the vast desert landscape. This massive training ground consisted of 13 divisional camps and numerous railroad sidings, ammunition dumps, hospitals, airfields and quartermaster depots. By May 1943, the German Afrika Korps had been defeated and desert training was no longer a necessity. However, training lasted for another year until it was officially closed in April, 1944.

Perhaps most fascinating for me was that I hadn’t realised that General Patton died in a car crash or that there were whispers of suspicion around his death. Military historian Robert Shipman, in his 2008 book Target Patton, claims that Old Blood and Guts (Patton) was assassinated on the order of General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. Mad. Second in the line of fascinations is that all this is so recent. People alive still remember training here. And locals, like Madison Payne, are still driving the same truck they were back then.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I missed out on the Remembrance Walls at the General Patton Memorial Museum (an excuse to go back). But we were already two hours behind schedule and the rain was showing no sign of easing. Museums like these make road trips in the USA one of the best ways to travel. The freedom to explore is something not to be taken for granted. But never once, had you asked me what I’d be doing on Valentine’s Day, would I have said – ogling tanks in the Colorado Desert.  The museum is open seven days a week 9 am to 4.30 pm (except for Christmas and Thanksgiving). Admission is $10 ($8 for seniors). Count on losing a couple of hours here (especially if it’s not raining). Well worth stopping or detouring for.

It’s been five years since I was last in the Colorado Desert. [Confession: I had been referring to it as the California Desert (as it’s in CA) but actually the Coachella Valley sits in the northern end of the Colorado Desert, near the lower reaches of the Colorado River.] Back in the day, the valley was a sea and when the first settlers appeared, they found seashells. As the story goes, Conchilla (Spanish for little shell) became Coachella, perhaps because of someone’s bad handwriting. The state highway 111 runs right through, a retail corridor linking Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City. We drove it a number of times travelling between friends in Palm Desert and friends in Palm Springs and everything seems to run together. It’s hard to tell when one city stops and the next one begins.

Palm Desert, with its high-end shops on El Paseo, seems a little more upmarket than its sister, Palm Springs. Both though, cater for the more mature resident or tourist. I felt younger than usual. I was amused to see that shoppers on El Paseo can flag down a courtesy golf cart to get from A to B. Downtown Palm Springs offers more in the line of tourist-focused art galleries, general souvenir-type stores, and eateries. It’s far more alive and opens much later.

Shopping in Palm Springs vanity plates

Shopping in Palm Springs - Palm Canyon Drive

Sony Bono statue Palm Springs

1930s water bowl for dogs in Palm Springs

Has it changed in the five years since I was last here? Well, it still has its fair share of vanity plates that make the slow driving fun. The statue of Marilyn has gone but the one of Sonny Bono is still there.  And just about the only cigarettes I saw this time were in this 1930s doggie dish. Annoying that it’s being used as an ashtry.

Shopping for a slice of social history

On the advice of her hairstylist, a man who knows his stuff, the lovely DLW took us to the Sunny Dunes Antique Mall on 507 E Sunny Dunes Rd. It’s heaven on earth for serious shoppers and browsers alike. About 30 vendors have sections in which they sell their wares. Each takes it in turn once a month to run the cash desk. It’s all high tech. You can pick your bits from anywhere and everywhere and bring them to the check out by the front door. There, the codes will tell the prices and discounts. We made out like bandits. But were I living locally or if I had a bigger luggage allowance or if I could have driven home, I’d have done a lot of damage.

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

It was a trip down memory lane. The Kenwood mixer, the old tin buckets, the leather jackets, the comics, the jewellery. All of it recognisable. All of it once treasured. I spotted a mink stole for $135, perhaps evidence of how out of fashion fur is in the USA. I’ll admit to being tempted, more for the images it evoked that the stole itself. We passed a good hour there, if not more. And I could have stayed longer, but I was upsetting myself thinking about what I couldn’t take home.

These sorts of places are repositories of social history. They’re like windows to a bygone era. They say so much about the movement of peoples (just check where the glass and crockery come from), about pop culture (posters, books, records), about style (clothes, photos, pictures). If you’re in Palm Springs, treat yourself. They’re open 10 am to 5 pm every day except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Holiday hours may vary.

Sunny Dunes Antique Mall Palm Springs CA

Watching live crab at Redondo Pier CA

Way back when I moved to California, I remember feeling cheated. In my head, I was moving to Los Angeles, but my address said Torrance. I wasn’t living in LA. I was living in a city some 12 miles south of it. Granted, that city was in LA county, but that didn’t appear on my address.

Revisiting Torrance CA

I spent a month there in 1990 and came back again for another six months later that year. It felt like I was there for years, but doing the math a few lifetimes later, seven months was all I had. I worked at an Irish pub on the corner of Western and Del Amo, Friday nights from 10 pm till closing and then occasionally covering other shifts for other bartenders as needed. It was quite the education. I remember running after my first customer to give him back the change he’d left on the counter. The whole tipping thing had eluded me. I’d soon catch on, though. I made a mess of pouring my first few pints of Black and Tans (half Guinness half lager), and some random guy at the bar benefitted from my mistakes. I met lots of people – Irish and American and Australian – and some 25+ years later, I’m still in touch with a few of them.

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

We stopped by to see the old place. It changed hands after the sudden demise of the legendary Tubbs (a man who made 6’2″ look like 7’3″) back in 1998 and morphed into Paddy O’s, which fell in the wake of rising rents. I’d last been there, I think, in 1991 and yet it seemed like yesterday.

I’m spending this weekend back in Torrance with the inimitable JNP and his lovely wife SRP. Driving over to Torrance from the airport, I searched in vain for something I recognised, someplace that looked familiar. I drew a blank. I remembered, though, about the carpool lane where cars with two or more people get to drive a little faster. That helped. But I was blown away by the number of driver-only cars on the road and their lack of willingness to let you into their lane. I was distracted by the vanity plates and had to turn off the radio in case I missed my off-ramp. I’d forgotten how much attention it takes to drive the LA freeways and for the first time recognised why automatics might be better than stick-shifts.

I had a list of things I wanted to do – have an In ‘n’ Out burger, have a carne asada burrito (and we did at La Capilla – don’t miss it), and do the milk dud/malteser comparison check, just to make sure I remembered that maltesers are better. I also wanted to check out Walmart, Target, and RiteAid. And if I could fit in a few cemeteries, so much the better.

Redondo Pier

Riding the waves at Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

LA is having unseasonably cold weather and when I’m tired, the cold seems to take up residence in my bones. While I was well wrapped up, others walking the pier at Redondo Beach were in their shorts and t-shirts. It was a glorious day, perfect for some of Kincaid’s legendary clam chowder. The sea lions were bellyaching about the cold, too, much to the delight of the visiting toddlers. The fishermen were holding their own, despite the dire warnings posted about not eating the local catch. And the sea was a brilliant blue, not something I’d ever connected in my LA memory.

Fishing from Redondo Pier

Bait shop at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish cleaning station Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish warning at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

It’s a lovely part of LA county… beautiful on a sunny day. Revisiting Torrance CA, I’ve readjusted my LA memory bank to include the sea. And next time might just be tempted to rent a rod and try my luck.

 

 

I can’t get a handle on GPS. Being a moving blue dot on a screen just doesn’t do it for me. That annoying turn left, turn right, go straight is enough to drive me to distraction. So we navigated our way across the Mojave desert using a hand-drawn map that spanned 200 miles. There were times I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn but there had been no wrong turns to take. For miles and miles, all we could see was road, and desert.

IMG_6252 (800x591)IMG_6246 (800x577) (800x577)Lines of lonely mailboxes were clear indicators of the inhabitants and the houses that blended in so perfectly with their surrounds that they were invisible. We drove and drove and nothing much changed. And then we happened across Kelso Depot. Marked with an X on our map, it was somewhere to stop, to break the monotony.

Once a boomtown, Kelso is now home to a renovated train station that houses a museum and a café – a café run by a chap called Mike who wants to sell out and retire, yet again. The 2013 version of this town is a far cry from the 1943 version when troops, tanks, and trucks were shipped through here by rail, creating a hive of activity that begot buildings, people, and commerce. All was well until 1985, when Union Pacific pulled out and the trains stopped pulling in.

IMG_6274 (800x600) (800x600)The old jail – a two-cell steel contraption – was used to house those who caused a ruckus after a few beers on a Friday night. Open to the elements, no one spent more than a night here – anything more would have been close to torture. The town was called after a railroad worker who won a competition to have it named after him. Its main claim to fame in the 1970s was that it was a town without television. Now its main claim to fame is that it breaks the journey across the desert and offers root-beer floats to thirsty travellers.

IMG_6278 (800x600) (800x600)I’d forgotten what root beer tasted like. But the concept of a root beer float (vanilla ice-cream floating in a glass of soda) was too all-American to pass up. And the decor, with its bar counter and  high stools, looked as if it had come off a TV set for a 1960s American sitcom. So we tried them. And didn’t like them. But struggled through. If you’re wondering what root beer tastes like, it’s remarkably similar to that horrible eucalyptus toothpaste – the pink stuff.  Bless him though, Mike didn’t want to take our money. But traffic was light that day so we compromised and paid just $5 for the experience.

IMG_6276 (591x800)America isn’t just big cities, skyscrapers, and football stadiums. At its backbone are people like Mike, ordinary people, trying to eke a living from the cards they’ve been dealt. America is more attitude than atmosphere. That instant familiarity can take a little getting used to but then you stop for sustenance in the boonies and spend a pleasant half hour talking about nothing with someone you know you’ll never see again. And that someone, that stranger, does something nice – like buy you a root-beer float – then you get it. However superficial it might seem, America has an abiding interest in other people’s business, a curiosity about the world outside, and a opinion on just about everything. And when you strip away the commercialism, the bright lights, the designer labels, and stumble across places like the Beanery, and see small-town America for what it is, the kindness comes out.

Someone commented once that all too often we are so preoccupied with the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey. We’re so focused on getting from A to B that we don’t see what’s around us. I’ve been arguing for years that life plans don’t suit me – I’m too afraid that I’d miss myriad opportunities were I to focus on one end goal. Granted, I have had one plan in life – when I was 17. I was going to be a teacher, marry a teacher, have two kids (boy and a girl, Tadhg and Maud) by the age of 27, and be ready to retire and travel by the age of 50. When I read that back, I see that my grand plan comprises a number of separate plans, not one of which has materialised. I failed from the outset because I didn’t get into Teacher Training College. I fell at the first hurdle. Never made the first milestone on my Gantt chart. Once I’d gotten over that disappointment (and it was a big one), I resolved that, in future, my plan would simply be to have no plan. And it’s worked – so far. When I travel, I might have a destination in mind, but I’m permanently on the look-out for some place interesting to stop along the way.

IMG_6207 (800x600)The city of Twentynine Palms in California is notable for three reasons. It’s home to the HQ of the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s home to the 932-square-mile Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command – the largest Marine Corps training base in the world. And it’s home to my mate AP’s brother.

The plan was to meet A&R for lunch and then head across the Mojave desert on the four-hour drive to Las Vegas. I was expecting a catch-up and a good lunch. I got both. What I wasn’t expecting was to find  the MAGTFTC and its 10 000 + military residents. I was fascinated and found myself talking in a rapid-fire parody of an AK47. Who? Why? Where? When?

IMG_6210 (800x598)Since falling for the man of all men, Jack Reacher, he of the Lee Child novels, I’ve had a fascination with Marine life. I would love to take a tour of a base and see for myself what I expect to be true – that they’re mini-towns complete with all the modern conveniences that any thriving town would have – cinemas, bowling alleys, shops, restaurants, etc., and there’s no real reason for anyone on them to leave. In Twentynine Palms, Marines get to train to be better Marines. A simulated rehearsal of sorts. Rumour has it that so real are their simulations, they actually go to Hollywood and hire extras so that the city/culture they’re simulating is accurately represented. Makes sense. But it could go horribly wrong. They would get some shock if they invaded Ireland expecting everyone to have red hair and freckles and talk like Tom Cruise in Far and Away. [I know I could pick ten bad Hollywood Irish accents but Cruise is the focus of my ire these days because he has the nerve to think that he can do justice to my hero Jack Reacher.]

So I read up on it a little and discovered that this place in Twentynine Palms provides training for any size unit from individual to regiment, for any warfighting discipline from infantry to logistics, and from all parts of the combat spectrum from full scale war to establishing local governance. And I found myself thinking how I’d like it if all that was going on in my back yard. But then I remembered the 6000 or so locals employed in civilian capacity on the base and figured that the US Marine Corps is just like another huge corporation … and Twentynine Palms is, in effect, a company town.

IMG_6213 (800x600)Now, I’m a peace-loving gal at heart. The closest I get to war is reading about it. My opinions on the subject can’t be boxed with any regimental accuracy. Yes, it fascinates me. In my darker hours, I see it as a great evolutionary joke  – we used to send our best and brightest way to fight our great wars and what was left behind added to the gene pool. I’ve written recently about the USA and its outward display of respect and appreciation for its troops and while the individual should be applauded rather than maligned for fighting for their country, those in charge occasionally leave some doubt in my mind as to their credentials.

The closest I’ve come to the US Military scene is a friendship with a couple of Coasties in Alaska, a date or three with a Army reservist in LA, and a quick conversation with a retired Marine here in BP some months back. Other American and Australian friends have sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and parents in the service and I know that this blood tie gives them a different perspective, one I can never appreciate fully.

I am curious though – so curious – about a living a life that has unquestioned obedience at its core. To my mind, with that obedience has to come an irrefutable trust in those higher up the command chain – trust that they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons in the best interests of all concerned. In what some might seem a little strange, I have no problem believing in God but I simply cannot get my head around blind trust from a military perspective. The invocation ‘following orders’ brings me out in a cold sweat.

Twentynine Palms was simply a stop along the way – but it now has me questioning so much. As Henry Miller said:  One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. Let the journey continue.

IMG_6205 (800x582)

I met Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton back in 1983. We had a chat for 10 minutes or so in what was then the TV Club in Harcourt Street in Dublin. I had no clue who they were and I’m sure none of them remember meeting me. I was singularly unimpressed with yer man then and not much has changed in the intervening years. When I think of U2 now and play a word association game in my head, the ones I care to mention that come to mind are Boy, War, and Joshua Tree.

IMG_6183 (800x600)Yet if the 64 million dollar question had asked me to describe a Joshua Tree, I’d have gone home penniless. I didn’t know it was an evergreen that could grow as high as 40 feet,  2 to 3 inches a year, and take 50 to 60 years to mature.  So if their ’21’ is 60, it’s not surprising that they can live 150 years. Growing only in the Mojave desert, they have an exclusive pollination agreement with the Yucca Moth, who has evolved special organs to collect and distribute the pollen onto the surface of the flower. She lays her eggs in the flowers’ ovaries, and when the larvae hatch, they feed on the yucca seeds.  Adds a whole new slant to the chicken and the egg debate.

IMG_6173 (800x600)Curious, I couldn’t resist a detour through Joshua Tree National Park, an area in California that covers about 1,234 square miles. But the song that buzzed in my head wasn’t anything from the album of the same name but rather The Fall, by the Black Lillies and that line where he talks about flowers being so rare in the desert.  And yet, all around us, the Mojave desert was blooming. Admittedly the colour palate was pretty short on pastels, but it was beautiful for all its sameness.

IMG_6146 (800x600)Declared a National Monument in 1936, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t designated as such until 1994. When stopped to buy our pass, the ranger on duty, hearing that we weren’t exactly from around those parts, gave us a lecture on the dangers of dehydration and the record-breaking temperatures expected. Now, I believe that I’ve been in a state of constant dehydration since I was born, a fact reinforced by every beautician who has ever given me a facial. Cream of any sort soaks into my skin in a matter of milliseconds, no matter how much water I drink, yet even I was surprised at how many litres we put away on the two-hour detour on the road from Sedona to Palm Springs.

IMG_6153 (800x600)Dehydration aside, though, I was once again mesmerised by the desert landscape and the variety of what’s on offer. Apparently 250 different species of birds have been spotted here, including the Roadrunner, but he must have had a casting call that day.

IMG_6158 (800x600)Just two hours from the California coast, it’s pretty hard to imagine the size of this desert unless you see it for yourself. That a cool ocean breeze could be blowing so relatively near while the desert air was stifling hot boggles my sense of climatic diversity. This intrastate variety is one of the many reasons that California is so ‘special’, and I use that word advisedly. I had  CA driver’s license for two years. I’ve served my time in a state where 80% of your personality depends on the type of vehicle you drive and the word ‘like’ is a form of running punctuation (Ok, so, admittedly, I was down South.)

IMG_6152 (800x600)If ever you want to feel how insignificant we homo sapiens really are, spend a few hours in the desert. It simultaneously reinforces both the tenacity and the fragility of the human spirit. And if you’re a solitary soul, the sense you get of being alone on this planet is one to treasure.

I’ve a strange fascination with statues. I’ve been known to talk to them and always listen to what they have to say. That’s probably more indicative of my mental state than their ability to converse but that said, I’m drawn to them and often find myself wondering what they’d say if they could talk.

There’s a giant-sized statue of Marilyn Monroe in downtown Palm Springs. She stands 26 feet tall and weights 34000 pounds. The child of Johnson and Johnson heir, 80-year-old Seward Johnson, Marilyn’s sculpted pose is one from the movie The seven-year itch.

Marilyn formerly reigned in Chicago but the city has passed her on to Palm Springs where she’s quickly become part of the scenery. And she’s in good company. Another of Hollywood’s famous ladies is also in residence.

Lucille Ball is quite the Palm Springs heroine. The Lucy House, one of the first homes she owned with Desi Arnez, is now open for residents. She is one of my  all-time favourites. I even named my first doll (which I still have) after her. I have fond memories of splitting my sides at the ‘I love Lucy’ show which generated what is thought to be the longest laugh in live TV history. She was one funny lady.

Another statue that keeps popping up in Palm Springs is that of Sonny Bono. He’s everywhere. When he first went to Palm Springs, he tried to open a restaurant and was apparently so frustated by the red tape that he decided to be the change he wanted to see – he ran for Mayor.  He served four years (1988 to 1992) but you’d think it a lot more!  In 1994, he became a member of Congress and is still the only member ever to have had No. 1 hit. But his political career was cut short when he died in a skiing accident in 1998.

Sonny might have been king in his day, Marilyn queen, and Lucy Matriarch, but for me, the most interesting statue in town is that of Frank M. Bogert who was Mayor from 1958-1966 and again from 1982-1988. Truly a legend in his own lifetime, Bogert once described Einstein ‘the nicest little guy you’d ever want to meet’. He’s one man I’d like to have met.

Palm Springs might be a little gentrified, but it has its share of homelessness, too. It might have an aging population, but young people are starting to return home – the boomerang babies, victims of the current financial crises. At the airport, as the dolls of downtown line up in their wheelchairs, made up to the nines, bedecked and bejewelled, they gave me pause for thought. These feisty ladies are a different kind and seem determined not to go gently into the good night. They truly are an inspiration. The motto above the town hall says it all: The people are the city.

Palm Springs has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. An oasis in the desert, the city itself was incorporated in 1938. It’s a  place where the mountains literally rise out of the ground and stand sentry. The sun highlights some peaks and casts others into deep shadow. Palm trees reign surpreme and I assumed that this was where the city got its name. But palm trees don’t grow in straight lines – at least not naturally!

When they happened across the area in the early nineteenth century, Spanish explorers called the place, ‘Ague Caliente’ (hot water). So we have the ‘springs’ part explained. They also referred to it as  La Palma de la Mano de Dios or The Palm of God’s hand. Hence the palm. Others say that there were two palm trees beside the spring but that’s a little too obvious if, perhaps, the most likely explanation.

First inhabited by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the reservation itself officially began in  1896. Then the movie stars came east from California and in the 1920s, the city began to boom. Home to the greats like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, and Bob Hope, the street names still tell their stories.

During World War II, General George S. Patton’s troops used the desert to train for their invasion of North Africa. The old El Mirador Hotel (that had a full grown lion in a cage over the entrance) and which is now the site of today’s Desert Regional Medical Center, once served as Torney General Hospital, treating US wounded. The hospital was staffed by Italian prisoners of war, housed at the adjoining detention camp. More recently, it’s famous as a film location with the likes of Ocean’s 11 and Diamonds are Forever being shot there.

The city practically closes for the summer (May-September) and reopens in October. With temperatures as high as 120 degrees, it’s not surprising really. Many residents are snowbirds – those who come to the desert to escape the winters of Alaska and Canada. Many are retired. For the first time in a long time, I was the youngest in the room. But even that wouldn’t entice me to move. Lovely place with some jaw-dropping scenery. But it’s too damn hot.

 

I had a birthday last week. Another one. They seem to come around with increasing regularity. But as I’m firmly stuck on 36, they’ve long since lost their hold on me. Gone are the days when I’d spend the weeks leading up to my birthday contemplating all I didn’t do that year, berating myself for not being more… well…  something, and bemoaning the fact that I was one year closer to maturity without the associated trappings: house, car, husband, kids.

These days, it’s more about chalking one up to success. A retrospective of this last year gets an 8/10 from my inner jury. On the plus side, I’ve travelled, been involved in interesting work projects, met some fascinating people, read some great books, discovered new corners of Budapest. I’ve entertained and been entertained. I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried. And I’ve finally put handles on my doors. On the minus side, I’ve put on a few pounds, been scammed, not been too healthy, and lost a very dear friend.

This year, I was in Palm Springs on my birthday with the lovely DL-W and VB. We’re three Chinese horses – not quite three generations but close enough. On the actual day, I gave a talk at D’s church. Another retrospective – this time of travel and tolerance. The community was open, friendly, and very welcoming. The discussion afterwards was insightful and thought-provoking. It gave me hope. Hope that we might actually learn to live with one another, without judging.

This week, I’m grateful for shared experiences, for having the chance to travel, and for having opportunities to meet new people. I’m grateful for simply being alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Palm Springs, California. Flat land surrounded by the San-Bernardino and the San Jacinto mountains that seem to rise up out of the ground. It’s hot. Bloody hot: 46 degrees in the shade (116 F). Posted signs give you an idea of how old the population is and yet when driving around, I didn’t spot any cemeteries. It took a while to reason why. There are no headstones. The only thing that gives it away is the wall surrounding a seemingly empty field.

We came across the Wellwood Murray cemetery, built for the first white settlers in Palm Springs. Wellwood Murray Jnr was the first to occupy this small plot of land in 1894. Once in there, his parents allowed other white settlers to be buried alongside him and in 1914 WM Snr , the pioneer hotelier, was laid to rest. He had opened the first hotel in the area, the Palm Springs Hotel, and set the town on the road to fame and fortune.

A ribbon of towns wends its way through Coachella Valley: Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca with barely a discernable difference visible to the novice eye. Over in Cathedral City, on Ramon Road lies  Desert Memorial Park, another quiet cemetery with nare  a headstone in sight. Home to the some more famous internments (as the guiding map so eloquently puts it), I stood for a while over Frank Sinatra’s grave.

Once, in London, waiting for afternoon tea in the Ritz, I sat near the pianist. He asked if I’d like him to play something for me.  I asked if he new any Sinatra. Knew him? He’d played with the man himself in South America. He asked what I’d like him to play. I told him to choose. He started playingI’ve got you under my skin.

Some weeks later, I was in a pub near Waterloo. The owner, a karaoke-loving freemason, told me he’d sing me a song. What would I like? I asked if he knew any Sinatra. He said he knew just the song for me. And yes, he started in on  I’ve got you under my skin.

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous – and while I have no idea what He was trying to say to me, this song remains a  favourite.

Used to the more ornate and decorative European cemeteries I’ve visited, these two were rather quiet and somewhat sad. The more I think of it, the more I’d like to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in all those places I never got to visit…