Beyond the Glitter of Palm Springs, CA

July 8, 2014
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

Palm Springs may be known for its former hold on Hollywood, but there's another side to the area for visitors looking to explore the Great Outdoors.

Photography by the authors

A friend of ours in San Diego who knows we often visit Palm Springs is grudging about that city’s charms.

“There’s nothing to do there,” he says, “but look at the homes of dead movie stars!”

That’s unkind and it’s not even correct.

What is true is the hold that Palm Springs formerly had on Hollywood. There are great stories here about the old days from the “stars” on the sidewalks to the names of the streets. But today is different.

The cities have changed. One of our favorite places closed in May 2014, at the time of our recent visit—the fabulous Palm Springs Follies where Riff Markowitz, a former movie and television producer, created an entire extravaganza using talent over the age of 50 for every part. With his former professionals he would show the audience that once you’re a performer, even a hoofer, age doesn’t matter.

Last Plaza poster, street signs, and Hollywood sidewalk stars show who came first.

Markowitz was hilarious as the maître d’. Once spoke about his elderly male friend who would go to singles bars in Palm Springs and try to charm women with his pickup line, “Do I come here often?”

Even as America ages, the clientele coming to town is younger and the cities are not the same. We say “cities” because most people call it Palm Springs when they really mean the greater area of 9 cities that run for about 20 miles from the city of Palm Springs in the north all the way southeast past the date palms to Indio, the date capital.

“There are so many young people in town, now you can get a pizza faster than an ambulance!” Markowitz says.

The tourists who come to the Greater Palm Springs area still arrive with their own agenda: some for the upscale shopping and, for us, the reduced prices in the summer hot season. Some for the fine dining—and there’s plenty of that. And some come to escape—to the languid life style of destination resort living, and few places offer more for that in America. There are also several excellent museums here founded and funded by wealthy older Americans who have made Palm Springs their home.

Beyond their exhibits, museums around the world have one similar attraction. If the outside is raining or freezing or windy or unbearably hot, inside is different and the difference is most welcome. May 2014 was surprisingly hot even for the Coachella Valley and we were pleased to check out the cool interiors of the various museums.

New to us was the extension of the Palm Springs Art Museum to its additional location in Palm Desert.

We find an attractive older woman studying a reclining nude, Joan 1990 by John Deandrea. Oil on polyester resin with synthetic hair. “Are you remembering the old days?” we ask rather impertinently. She grins at us and says, “I’m not telling!” Another exhibit is of chairs ranging from ones that look hard to sit in to the late 1940s “Listen To Me” chaise by Edward Wormley that would be perfect for any psychiatrist’s consulting room. Metal sculptures (bottom left) Palm Springs Art Museum at Palm Desert; (right) Palm Springs Art Museum.

We have enjoyed the exhibits in the Palm Springs Art Museum before, including the whimsy of the Duane Hanson figures. Many are shown seated because that was a more comfortable position for the models for the mold-process. Who knows how British artist Henry Moore positioned his subjects for his bronze Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3, 1961.

Our image of The Head by Modigliani sculpted in 1910-11 shows how he was influenced by African masks. Compared to the volume of his paintings he did not leave many sculptures.

The native Cahuilla tribe didn’t leave many intact sculptures, either, in the Coachella Valley. The Palm Springs Historical Society maintains its museum on S. Palm Canyon Dr. at the McCallum Adobe-Cornelia White House.

John McCallum, the valley’s first European American settler built his adobe home in 1884 and Cornelia White’s White House was constructed in 1893 from recycled railroad ties when the town’s railroad failed. The museum shows how Palm Springs evolved and offers historic walking tours. Five miles to the east, at the airport, lay the Palm Springs Air Museum on North Gene Autry Trail “one of the world's largest collections of flyable WWII aircraft.”

However, there’s another side to Palm Springs. That side where you can get dirt on your shoes and may have to climb a few dusty stairs: the Great Outdoors. Curious visitors still find things so cool and such fun to do they are, indeed, ready to swap their sandals for sneakers.

About 14 miles northeast of the Art Museum sits Desert Hot Springs and its spas of the ’50s. It doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the more visited places in the Valley—and the names of famous Hollywood celebrities—but it has this: the amazing story of Cabot Yerxa and the Hopi-inspired pueblo he built singlehandedly over his 24 years in the desert. It is now Cabot’s Pueblo Museum.

The museum’s backyard is dominated by the 43-foot carving of the Lakota Sioux Waokiye (“Traditional Helper”) carving by Hungarian Peter Toth. He carved it from a 750 year-old Sequoia Redwood. The museum shop sells authentic American Indian pottery by Mata Ortiz and others. It offers art and jewelry, too. There are picnic grounds around the pueblo and walking tours offered. But that is not the emphasis. Nor is this oddity: a communal pueblo of 35 rooms with 150 windows and 65 doors.

No, the thought that visitors leave with is not what the hands of man hath wrought in the desert but, instead. what the hands of God hath wrought in such a man as Cabot Yerxa.

The Cabot Pueblo Museum. Below framed photos of both Cabot as a young homesteader and the bucket he carried 14 miles to get water.

His family was Dutch and came to the United States in the early 18th century. During the American Revolution the families split politically and some went to Canada. Cabot’s father Fred was born in Canada, the twelfth of 13 children. Fred moved back to Boston and married Nellie Cabot, a member of a prominent Boston family, then moved with some siblings to the American Midwest. The group of brothers developed many businesses: a trading post in North Dakota, a grocery business in the Twin Cities, prune orchards in California, then land development in Cuba. They finally became citrus farmers in Pasadena and were wiped out by the freeze of historic proportions in 1913. Cabot was born in 1883 in the Dakota Territory frontier town of Hamilton. (He died in 1965 in his Pueblo.)

But what a life he lived.

In his book On the Desert Since 1913 Cabot wrote, “The coarse desert sand wore shoes out rapidly.” His answer was to pound tomato cans flat and nail them on his shoes for half soles. When, with Native Indian help, he discovered water on his land, he dug wells and later did the same for other homesteaders. He kept a map of the wells, too.

Guide Dean Krumme takes a small group through the interior of the pueblo. He stands in rooms made of materials recycled from former cabins in the desert surrounded by photographs of Cabot Yerxa’s life. We shoot photographs of the photographs: one is of Cabot’s tobacco shop during the Klondike Gold Rush, a facade fronting an army tent. In the winter of 1901 he lived amongst and was befriended by the Inupiat people.

Cabot in a building whose floors were originally dirt created a kitchen and a bathroom with running hot and cold water for his wife.

Cabot decorated the walls with art he’d finessed from what he’d learned at the Academie Julian in Paris. His art skills must have seemed modest compared to its other 20th century students Diego Rivera, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood. He bought his art supplies and some of his furniture from Sears and in one of his 35 rooms Cabot provided a Singer sewing machine at his wife’s request.

An American Indian friend, Semu Haute, carved the figure that the sculptor called “Ah-ah-ota,” or “Two-Faced White Man.” Another Native American’s portrait hangs on the wall opposite. Cabot was a human rights activist and placed the statue prominently in the Adobe Room, the final room in the guided tour. Tourists leaving through the last door on their way to the gift shop are surprised at the quality and diversity of the local artisan art.

The mark of a worthy museum might be: Does it make you think after you leave? What did it mean? Did you learn anything? For us it was more than a building; it was more about the man, who really seized life, grabbed it and made it all worthwhile. Others have expressed their feelings better.

The Pueblo has been called “Bohemian performance art as an abode, a genius tribute to Cabot’s beloved desert and the tribes that came before him.” Another view says “The Museum preserves the rugged frontier spirit of the pioneer days in the Coachella Valley.” Others have said “A living salute to the Hopi Indians and a fitting monument to Cabot’s faith and love for this desert community, it’s the most fantastic structure in Southern California.”

In 2012 Cabot’s Pueblo Museum was named to the Registry of Historic Places.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.