other Desert Cities

by Rob Horning

3 October 2006


Part of my trip to Southern California was spent in Palm Desert, one of the “other Desert Cities” referred to on the I-10 exit sign for Highway 111, which runs from Palm Springs out to Indio, before it heads to that environmental disaster area known as the Salton Sea. ON the way there from L.A., you first pass through the wind farms in the mountain pass and the creepy rows of wind turbines that render the landscape alien and forboding. Harvesting wind energy seems a good idea, but still, the hills seems to have been colonized by some relentlessly churning alien life-form—I felt like I understood the concept of visual pollution at a visceral level. The whirring blades are mesmerizing, in a bad way. They create a delirium of planes and angles shifting and changing in a lulling rhythm, making it impossible to see anything else. It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents on that winding downhill stretch of the freeway, where it seems like the average traveling speed is around 85 miles per hour. Beyond the turbines, you enter Palm Springs, the desert city that is not “other” and is the oldest of the group. It’s an unremarkable town that sits in the shadow of a stupendous mountain. The sublimity of the landscape makes the human doings there seem a bit insignificant, piddling, so it’s suitable that most of what goes on there is golf and tchotchke shopping From there, on 111, you enter Cathedral City, then Rancho Mirage (home to the Betty Ford Clinic, a rehab center), then Palm Desert, where we stayed. From the highway these towns are indistinguishable—just one shopping strip after another, with some hotels interspersed here and there. Streets are named for moribund performers: Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Fred Waring. I could think of no good reason to be there, and that was what made it perfect.

Unlike most touristy places, which garishly try to cajole you into doing and spending, thrusting temptations your way and working to intensify your restlessness, Palm Desert was an oasis of sobriety. No wonder the rehab centers are there. No wonder people talk of going to the desert to dry out. At night—we were there on a Saturday night, and it was quiet as the moon—even the lights were subdued; so much so that most of the stores and restaurants seemed to be closed, seemed indifferent to our business. There were activities imploring us to attend—no bands playing, no limited-run reperatory cinema, no places to see or meet people, no night life of any kind. It seemed like we were so alone. It was beautiful.

Having nothing to do and feeling no pressure to do anything exciting are two very different things. It seem like anything we turned to was going to be fulfilling. We went to the outdoor pool in the warmth of the evening and sat in the hot tub and when we got too hot, we went swimming. We met a few recent graduates of the “program,” which seemed to be a Betty Ford euphemism. We went to eat at an anonymous chain restaurant and recieved pleasant, generic service. We felt like nobodies in nowhere land. I wished we would have booked a longer stay.

I’m always troubled by forced leisure, so much so that vacations rarely feel warranted or comfortable to me; they often seem like an alternate form of work. I feel like I’m trapped in what Baudrillard calls the fun morality, the obligation to treat leisure productively, to use it to manufacture distinction if nothing else. It’s very hard to just waste time, to let yourself destroy it. The pressure can become intense to find something useful to do with the vacation time, made artifically precious by the meaningless work it’s framed with. It can lead to moments of self-consciousness within the vacation—which remove one from the present moment and place in time and sends one to the purgatory of hypotheticals and second guesses: Am I really living up to the time I’ve been alotted? Has this all been worth it? Worth what? What is the point of comparison?

Living in New York, I’m constantly aware of ambitious people, and the pressure they put on themselves and the people around them. It’s in the pace of everything that happens, and I become infected with it—it shows in the way I am ready to run people over on the sidewalks when they aren’t going fast or in the impatience I freely exhibit when the person in front of me dodders around for exact change while I’m anxious for my coffee. Los Angeles has similarly ambitious people, though it seems to exhibit itself there as a kind of desperation to be paid attention to rather than a heedless haste. But when you reach the other Desert cities, ambition seems a million miles away. Urgency is unthinkable there. It dawned on us that this could be the point of the place, to evaporate ambition in the dry heat and leave you adrift in endless expanse of undifferentiated time. The ultimate vacation is from ambition, from the need to score distinctive accomplishments—to remove yourself from the ongoing competitive status game that haunts our every action. In the desert cities, places that don’t especially want tourists so much as retirees, who are beyond ambition and anxious only to fill out the rest of their days with pleasant distraction, that vacation, possibly a permanent one, is always waiting.

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