PALM SPRINGS — We cruised into town late one afternoon on the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway and stopped at the tourist office for directions to our hotel.
“That’s easy,” said the clerk. “Just turn right three blocks after the big statue of Marilyn Monroe.”
We had selected Palm Springs — where Hollywood star power met Modernist architecture — to launch our road trip through a land where pop culture and the almost surreal desert landscape go hand in hand. We knew immediately that we’d made the right choice. That tourist office occupies a landmark former gas station designed by Modernist architect Albert Frey. (That 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn will be on exhibit at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J., May through September.)
Palm Springs may have attracted its first settlers in the 1880s, but it didn’t blossom until the 1940s, when Hollywood stars turned it into a movie colony. Yet the history goes back another 2,500-3,000 years to the arrival of the ancestors of today’s Cahuilla tribe, as we learned early the next morning when we joined a guided hike into Tahquitz Canyon on reservation land.
We picked our way across the boulder-strewn landscape dotted with creosote and sagebrush as tribal ranger Chris Castro pointed out markings on a sacred rock used for shamanic rituals and the cup-like indentations in rocks where Cahuilla women ground seeds to make flour. The modern world seemed far removed — until we turned a corner and had a Hollywood moment. A waterfall tumbled off a high cliff and plunged into a pool below. “This is where Frank Capra filmed ‘Lost Horizon,’ ” Castro said, referring to the scene of Jane Wyatt on horseback at the falls in the 1937 movie.
The seemingly remote canyon is actually less than a five-minute drive from downtown Palm Springs, where a bronze statue of the late Sonny Bono, once the town’s mayor, sits at the town center and mid-century Modern collectibles shops inhabit the Uptown Design District. Subdivisions are filled with mid-century Modern architecture. Some houses are famous for their architects — the Kaufmann house by Richard Neutra, for example — while others are better known for their former occupants. On a short bike ride we found Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s digs, Liberace’s guest house, and the Elvis and Priscilla Presley honeymoon retreat. The estate where Frank Sinatra lived in the early 1950s was invisible from the road. Locals maintain that Frank raised a flag to signal the beginning of cocktail hour. The Palm Springs Art Museum, known for its Western landscape paintings and superb collection of art glass, has a sculpture court named for Frank and Barbara Sinatra (his last wife) and a cafe full of Rat Pack-era photos.
Not only movie stars flourish in the desert. In the early 20th century, date farms sprang up in the Coachella Valley east of Palm Springs, and in the early years of auto touring, date stands were a popular roadside attraction. On our way out of town, we made the short detour east to visit Shields Date Garden. Founded in 1924, this survivor attests to the showmanship of Floyd Shields as much as to the intrinsic appeal of the small, sweet fruit. To attract visitors, he put together a talk (later a slide show, now a film) called “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.” It is best enjoyed while sipping a “world famous” date shake made with date crystals, one of Shields’s inventions.
Roadside attractions are synonymous with Southern California, especially along fabled Route 66. We couldn’t drive the whole 286 miles of the state’s piece of the Mother Road, so we decided to sample a particularly rich stretch beginning with the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville. Not quite 20 years old, the free museum resembles a flea market with its hodgepodge of artifacts. Enthusiastic volunteer guides regale visitors with the design details of the teardrop trailer and the history of fuzzy dice. Ask about a bite to eat, and they tout Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe, a Route 66 fixture known for giant breakfasts and the Brian Burger topped with green chile peppers and cheese. The good food and cheerful patter of waitress-in-chief Shawna Gentry have helped the modest spot survive the competition from more generic chain eateries.
Speaking of which, Dick and Mac McDonald opened the world’s first McDonald’s Self-Service Drive-In Restaurant in nearby San Bernardino in 1948. Completely unsanctioned by the McDonald’s Corporation, it’s now an unofficial McDonald’s museum, stuffed with memorabilia from milkshake machines to Happy Meals figurines. Even more fascinating, the exterior is covered with murals of San Bernardino history conceived by cartoonist and Uncle Jam magazine founder Phil Yeh.
Not even the cadre of plastic Ronald McDonalds could have prepared us for the sheer kitschy delight of the WigWam Motel. Built in 1949, the fanciful encampment captures the allure of the open road in the postwar years. We arrived at sunset as a pink sky cast the tipi-shape rooms into silhouette. Our cozy tipi was well restored and comfortable, if a little short on windows. After a good night’s rest we were ready to continue down Route 66, a.k.a. West Foothill Boulevard, to Pasadena.
If Palm Springs emerged as a getaway for Angelenos, Pasadena was built as an Edenic escape for winter-weary Midwesterners. It offers a veritable smorgasbord of high culture, but we were fixated on the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Held on the second Sunday of each month, rain or shine, it rings the exterior of the 1922 stadium, which looks especially spiffy after a $181 million renovation.
Since we had arrived on Saturday, we bided our time with a tour of the Gamble House, a showcase of Craftsman architecture and design created in 1908-09 by local star architects Charles and Henry Greene. They posited that anything useful should also be beautiful. From the perspective of New Englanders, the most striking aspect of the house is how it marries English Arts & Crafts with Asian influences, all in service of warm-weather living. (The Greenes were known for their sleeping porches.) While we were about it, we also ducked into the downtown Pasadena Museum of California Art, where the parking garage-cum-gallery is plastered with Kenny Scharf’s trippy graffiti art.
It was a brilliantly sunny Sunday morning when we joined the throng of 2,500 vendors and 20,000 buyers at the flea market. The quality of goods is no better than you’d find at the Brimfield fairs, but because it’s Southern California, the pop culture is different. Serious buyers with rolling luggage and shopping carts come looking for mid-century Modern housewares, Streamline-era cocktail bars, vintage couture, yesteryear’s designer sunglasses, and the Bakelite jewelry that is so plentiful that display tables look like someone spilled a big jar of Jujubes and butterscotch lozenges. The aisles are replete with Modern furniture literally designed for those low-ceilinged California ranch living rooms. Items embellished with sunbursts and sputniks abound. Veterans kept mum about their favorite dealers and bargaining strategies, but did advise us to start at the far end so the sun would be at our backs. The thought of squeezing anything substantial into our carry-on luggage curbed our impulse purchases, though we did succumb to a set of vegetable peelers that the vendor pitched with a zeal worthy of cable TV.
Our road trip was almost over when we hopped back into the car for the 26-mile drive to Santa Monica Pier. Amid the amusement rides, games of chance, squealing children, and thicket of food vendors, a sign planted firmly in the boardwalk reads simply: “Santa Monica. 66. End of the Trail.”