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People, Places, Stuff


Some families get together at a cabin in the mountains or a house at the beach. My family never owned a vacation home so I can’t rhapsodize about the old place. When we assemble it’s in rented condos in Palm Springs because that’s where my mother and father used to spend a month every winter.
Mom and dad are gone now and the family is widely-dispersed. But a little band of Spanos keeps returning to Palm Springs, last year for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. My sister Martha, the planner and keeper of the family flame, arranged the get-together, much-needed in this year of economic insecurity and change. With some of us moving, others changing careers, the only constant was the Palm Springs condo complex my parents found back in the 1980’s.
They lived in Washington, D.C., at the time so the weather was a big attraction. But my niece, their first--and as it’s turned out, only--grandchild had just been born in L.A., an even bigger inducement for grammy and poppa to winter in Southern California. They tried Santa Barbara and San Diego, then met up with the Angelino branch of the family one year in Palm Springs. Maybe the desert is in our genes; anyway, they took to it. Little Sarah brought her water wings and tattered blue binky, loaded by my brother John in the back of their car, together with board games and jigsaw puzzles.
For the first few years mom and dad were peripatetic. They must have tried every moderately-priced hotel in town, sometimes moving after just one night from one to another, ever in search of perfection. One year they scored affordable rooms at the luxurious La Quinta, but the place didn’t have to be fancy. It just had to have a swimming pool and hot tub; we Spanos are a slothful people.
Everything fell into place the year my parents landed at Mesquite Country Club. Its two-story condo units built around a manicured public golf course on the east edge of town are divided into what the rental agency calls phases, each its own little gated community. Mom and dad liked having a kitchen, barbecue and patio and for a post-war couple who’d raised a family in the middle-class suburbs of St. Louis, there was something familiar about Mesquite’s quiet, well-ordered subdivisions. The layouts repeated from building block to block, but some of the units they rented over the years were better-equipped than others, and the decorations--pastel sketches of mystery people, cheery welcome mats, fake flowers--always reflected the taste of the owners who moved out to earn high-season rental income. A neat trick. But where did they go? we wondered.
Mom and dad usually got there first and settled in, followed John’s family, Martha and Scott, also from D.C., then me, the New Yorker. The reunions have run together in my mind like an old home video, but I still remember my first trip to Palm Springs, landing at LAX where John picked me up in his yellow Chrysler LeBaron convertible. A recent transplant to L.A., he was awfully proud of that car, symbolizing the golden California lifestyle, then still a novelty to him. It wasn’t all that hot but, of course, he had to take the top down. I watched in a jet-lagged haze as we passed West Covina, Pomona and all the other towns along the 10 east of L.A., only coming to attention when the scenery asserted itself in the windmill-lined pass between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.
That year I got to know my niece, a toddler who had hair so baby-fine she couldn’t stand for it to be brushed. She scared me at first because I wasn’t used to children. What do you say to them? I wondered as I watched her riding her trike. One night before dinner we were on the couch watching the news when I felt something soft against at my side: Sarah, cuddling. No words required.
She was probably 8 the time we all came down with rashes from the Jacuzzi: Hot Tub Fever. On other reunions we took the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, drove through Joshua Tree, hiked into Indian Canyons and got date shakes at Hadley Fruit Orchards. Eventually we exhausted the tourist attractions, never saw a movie star and all but missed the town’s Mid-Century Modern rejuvenation. We Spanos traveled far and got sophisticated, but never lost our affection for Palm Springs, in all its kitschiness. This past January, driving Palm Canyon Road, which links all the little communities--Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert--that have grown up since our first desert reunion, my brother pointed and said, “There’s Sarah’s favorite place in Palm Springs.”
Boomer’s Miniature Golf Course.
Every year, there was a dinner at Melvyn’s in the old Ingleside Inn, with pictures of movie stars who’d passed through, a jazz club where wannabes croon Dean Martin‘s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,“ velour banquettes and bananas Foster, flamed at the table.
I doubt anyone in my family will ever forget celebrating my parent’s 35th anniversary there, a big event with a cleverly oxymoronic theme Martha devised and printed on tee shirts: The Unique Pair. Which they were, as individuals and as a couple who stayed together for almost 50 years without ever getting boring.
Who would have predicted that when they both died in 2002 holding a reunion in Palm Springs would be so important? After all, we‘d already seen each other twice that year at their funerals. There was a certain quiet to our Scrabble games and poolside sunning, but it was a happy quiet, full of remembering two lives well-lived, no less a celebration than their anniversary.
Are you bored yet? Does anyone care how one family stayed together by renting a condo in Palm Springs, like birds that keep stopping in the same place on migrations? Why didn’t we try the Caribbean or Hawaii, or break down and buy a place if we were so crazy about the desert?
With the town’s real estate sector on the rocks, we thought of that in January. In fact, a few days before we arrived the rental agency that handles Mesquite called to say we had to choose another unit because the one we’d reserved had suddenly become unavailable. A foreclosure, we suspected. While the town isn’t at the top of the California distressed property list--according to Irvine-based RealtyTrac, that title goes to Menifee in Riverside County--it’s definitely a buyer’s market.
I even stopped by Palm Springs Realty Pros when I was there last time and chatted with agent Richard Pearson who said that two-bedroom condos at Mesquite like the one we’d rented were currently selling for as little as $130,000; and despite economic hard times, business is booming as buyers snap up bargains. Canadians who weren‘t laid low by the financial crisis and continue to enjoy the benefits of a favorable exchange rate especially love Palm Springs. Pearson told me that many of them buy a place anticipating retirement, renting them out in the meantime, earning as much as $10,000 a season.
Sounds good, but where would we go when we vacate? Would we want strangers sleeping in our beds, using our microwave, making jokes about our tchotchkes? Besides, it wouldn’t be the same if we owned a Mesquite condo. It would be home, with all the responsibilities, plus a few palm trees. And even if we could buy a vacation place somewhere, I’m not sure we’d choose Palm Springs. The thing that makes it so right for Spanos doesn’t have to do with movie stars and golf courses. It’s us, our history, the way we keep nesting under the same rafter, laughing, barbecuing, arguing over Scrabble. Remembering the people who aren’t there anymore and tightening the ties that keep the rest of us together. Read More 
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I’m not afraid of plane crashes, pickpockets or most other sorts of travel-related hazards. But I am deathly scared of flash floods based on stories I’ve heard about them. Remember the tragedy that occurred at Zion National Park in September, 1961, when rapidly-rising water trapped 26 people and killed 5 in the famous Narrows of the Virgin River?

At the same time, I find hiking in watersheds where flash floods are common incredibly enticing, which is why I agreed to tackle Orderville Canyon, a tributary of the Virgin River, with my brother several years ago. The park runs a shuttle to the trail head, but issues stiff warnings about flash flooding in the deeply-incised slot canyon. The sky can be perfectly clear, but if it’s been raining in areas that drain into Orderville, the park service cancels the shuttle. That’s what happened the day we planned the expedition and I felt deeply relieved.

My brother, a desert canyon rat if ever there was one, was disappointed, even though he has lived through a couple of flash floods in southeastern Utah, once taking shelter in a small cave where he watched water in the stream below build, crest and then die away, all in about 30 minutes.

I can vividly imagine flash floods in a slot canyon but even so failed to take account of the danger they pose in flat land while driving through the Amargosa Valley just east of Death Valley National Park in the big El Nino winter of 1998. It was dark and raining hard with water breaching drainage culverts and streaming over the shoulders of the road. Pretty soon my car--an insubstantial economy-class rental--started to surf and there was no safe place to pull over. I didn’t breath easily until I saw the lights of Barstow where I finally admitted to myself that I’d just driven through a flash flood.

Before that, while passing through Red Rock Canyon State Park on the northern edge of California’s Antelope Valley, I caught a video shown at the Ricardo Visitors Center of a flash flood that tore through the area in September, 1997, burying vehicles in the muck and undercutting the highway. It was the most damaging flash flood in recent history at a park especially prone to them. “If you look at satellite photos, a very large area (approximately 20 square miles) of drainage is channeled into one main dry wash that flows through the park,” explains Red Rock Canyon Peace Officer Matthew Williams. Other people speculate that flash flooding occurs with unusual frequency in the state park because of off-road vehicles that plow across the fragile desert terrain, scouring off vegetation, leaving the land unable to soak up and hold back fast-flowing water.

If you’re ever in the Red Rock Canyon area, it’s worth stopping to see the 1997 video--not just for the wow factor, but because it teaches you to respect the power of a flash flood. Half of flash flood fatalities occur in vehicles, which is why safety experts say you should never drive through a flooded area; if your car becomes submerged, take off your seat belt, roll down a window, then get out and seek higher ground. And remember, flooding occurs not just in narrow canyons, but on wide-open ground. “Travelers should look out for low, dark clouds on the horizon,” says Matthews. “Even if it is not raining where you are, a heavy cloud burst only 5 miles away can trigger flash flooding.” Read More 
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