My favorite thing about winter in Southern California when I was a kid...
. . . was my mom and I going to the desert to visit her best friend “Aunt” Grace and her two daughters. I’d spend most of the drive there reading, even back then I would read any chance I got. The only things that could pull me away from my book were watching the wind turbines (I knew that meant we were getting close) and our tradition of indulging in sugary date shakes at Hadley Fruit Orchard.
As a kid, the desert meant long afternoons of playing with Grace’s kids outside, snacks of pita bread with marinara sauce and cheese, escaping the heat (yes, even in the winter there were hot days) in the mall where they had an indoor ice rink that led to a short but intense obsession I had with ice skating (I even begged my way into an actual skating dress and those thick nude colored tights) and getting to see my mom with Grace, which meant seeing her as someone other than a mom. I loved seeing my mom like that. Catching snippets of their conversations about their wild days smoking cigarettes in the grocery store parking lot when they ditched school. Those weekends were so simple but there was always something magical about being in the desert, pretending I wasn’t only a child and that Grace’s girls were my sisters, daydreaming about being an Olympic ice skater and getting a glimpse into who my mom used to be.
In my 20s and 30s, boyfriends and I would drive out to the desert from Hollywood where I lived in a tiny apartment on a busy street. We’d always stay at the 29 Palms Inn near Joshua Tree. Weekends there became a litmus test for possible long-term boyfriends. If they fell in love with the eclectic charm of a hotel with no TV, phone or internet, the restaurant that features items from their garden (this was WAY before farm to table was a thing) and the wonderment of the inn’s claim to fame, an actual oasis in the middle of the desert, then, they had potential. Those weekends were spent drinking too much at the local dive bar in town, reading for hours by the pool and what I thought were genius artist desert photoshoots – they were mostly out of focus and overexposed.
It had been almost a decade since I’d been to the desert when The Good House, a boutique hotel in Desert Hot Springs, invited me to visit. My husband and I dropped off our toddler, Luca, at my parent’s house in Southern California – for only our second solo trip since we’d become parents – and headed out to the desert.
We had 72 kid-free hours in the desert and I wanted to see everything I could while still sleeping in, reading, and doing other things that seem impossible when you have a two-year-old. The event planner in me was in full force as I researched and reached out to friends who lived and traveled in the area to create an itinerary that married both my husband’s and my passions: food and quirky historic spots for him, thrift stores and local maker shops for me AND interesting places to have a cocktail for both of us.
It all started with the drive… flat landscape and the hypnotic movement of the wind turbines that flashed me back to my childhood trips to “Aunt” Grace’s and 20-something adventures filled with reckless abandon. Just like back then, we stopped at Hadley’s for date shakes, only this time, the hand-painted signs and old-fashioned shake machines were gone. The whole place looked like a modern grocery store and the shakes came out of an automatic machine. I wanted to hate these new and improved shakes but they were delicious.
Next stop, The Good House in Desert Hot Springs. I opened the gorgeous carved wooden door onto the property and fell in love immediately. Lush desert gardens, a perfect pool watched over by palm trees, yellow and white umbrellas and lounge chairs that reminded me of photos of Hollywood starlets from the 1960s on a desert getaway…. a hot tub, and little nooks with loungers, chairs and fire pits tucked into the property. It was love at first sight.
When we walked into our room, the love grew. A modern kitchenette, a patio with a hammock, a big low, almost too perfect bed that I didn’t want to leave. I knew the hotel had recently been bought and remodeled and I’d been lucky enough to see before photos from a friend who was considering buying it. Now, being in the “after” of it all, it was obvious the new owners not only had an artistic sense of style but also that they knew exactly which elements to upgrade and which to keep.
I ordered a mezze plate and a Mind Eye mocktail (lavender blueberry lemonade with honey) and spent an hour sitting by the pool snacking and reading. If you don’t have a toddler, you may not realize how even just an hour of something as simple as eating alone with a book in a beautiful place can make you feel so damn good.
That night, I convinced my husband that a night swim in the 24-hour pool was exactly what we needed. That first night was unusually windy and the feel of the cool air on my skin as I came out of the water reminded me of my favorite part about being in the desert: nighttime. Way more stars than I’d ever seen in the cities where I lived, the sound of the desert wind through the palm fronds, the deep quiet… that night swim in The Good House’s mineral pool made me remember how easy the desert makes it feel to relax and be still.
I’d traded late nights in strange dive bars for eating dinner at 6 pm and being in bed by 9 pm. My ice skating days were far (like really far) behind me. But that familiar feeling of a perfect desert night, THAT hadn’t changed at all.
In the morning, we headed out of Desert Hot Springs and spent the next 72 hours crisscrossing the desert and exploring Palm Springs, Palm Desert and 29 Palms.
Revisiting old haunts and venturing out to new ones helped me remember who I was on those other desert trips. The dreamer who actually thought I’d become an olympic figure skater or marry the guy who I’d dragged out of Hollywood to an actual oasis in 29 Palms. The practical one who always made sure there was a first aid kit in the car and an extra book in my backpack. Like Hadley’s date shakes, there was so much of me that hadn’t changed but also so much that had. The same is true of the desert.
Because, like any place worth going back to, “the desert tells a different story every time one ventures on it.” I’m still unfolding the story the desert told me as a 40-something new mother desperate for a little alone time but also wishing my son was there to taste his first date shake or watch his first desert sunset. While I’m figuring it all out, here are some snapshots from the moments that made me fall in love with the desert all over again and a list of some of my favorite spots – some I got to see this time around, and some that I am sure to make happen next time.
DESIERTO ALTO – I basically only drink two things, tequila and water. Yeah, I rarely drink tequila straight these days but if I order a drink, you bet it’ll be one with tequila. I’ve even invented my favorite easy-to-make cocktail for bars that don’t feature my favorite spirit on their cocktail menu. It’s a cosmopolitan with tequila instead of vodka and I call it a Sexy Mexi. Now, before you get all bent out of shape for my 90s drink choice and Sex in the City reference, try this cocktail, it’s damn good. OK. Now that you know how much I love tequila, you’ll see why I went out of my way to stop into Desierto Alto, a Yucca Valley wine and spirits store featuring a collection of high-end tequila along with other spirits, craft beer and my favorite ice cream Jeni’s. Even if you don’t love tequila and ice cream as much as I do, this place is worth a visit for their specialty groceries, gifts and more.
MOJAVE FLEA TRADING POST – You know what’s a bummer? When you find your favorite shop and it’s hundreds of miles from your house. But seriously, it’s probably better that I love so far away or I might actually have to go back to my $3 canned tuna meals because I want to buy every single thing in this place. It’s an extremely well-curated 10,000 sq. ft marketplace featuring makers & merchants from Joshua Tree, the Coachella Valley + beyond. This is where I spent my entire vacation budget.
PAPPY & HARRIETS & PIONEERTOWN – Back when I lived in Hollywood and escaped to the desert on the regular, pretty much no one had heard of Pappy & Harriet’s and no one understood why I’d trek out to the middle of nowhere to this honky-tonk, barbecue restaurant and music venue. Of course, there was a chance a music legend would show up and hop on stage but more than that there was and still is this magic you feel right when you walk in the door. Pappy & Harriet’s is in Pioneertown, a tiny town created by and for the movie industry in the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Today, the shops that line the main dirt road feature pottery, vintage, soap and more.
THE END – Way back when I lived in Echo Park, I had the opening for my solo art show at a gallery/cafe on the same street as another artist Kime Buzzelli. That night, I wandered down to the shop where her paintings were and bought one. Over the years, I’ve sadly lost so much of the original art I’ve collected but I still have this one. When I found out Kime opened a vintage shop in the Mojave Desert, I added to my “If I ever end up in the desert again, I have to go here” list. Kime’s shop was just as I hoped, an eclectic yet well-curated collection of vintage finds and treasures from local makers and artists. I can’t wait to frame and hang the 60s graphic print I bought there.
THE 29 PALMS INN – It had been a decade since I’d been to this spot and I was scared it had been modernized and lost its charm but as we pulled onto the dirt road to the property I saw the familiar hand-painted signs, the same buildings and breathed a sigh of relief. We walked up to the bar and the bartender/waitress/hotel clerk checked us in and handed us the room key – an actual key on a wood slice keychain with the name of our adobe bungalow and the hand-drawn map of the property. Not much had changed. The rooms are simple, still no internet, the restaurant still had their famous garlic mushrooms, and there was still the magic of seeing an actual oasis in the middle of the desert.
BOOZEHOUNDS – I met up with Craftcation Conference alums Rebecca Saylor of Oodle Ba Doodle and Angie Chua of bobo Design Studio at this dog-friendly, aesthetic forward restaurant/bar/cafe/co-working space. If there is one spot that seriously had me considering moving to the desert, this is it! The decor is eclectic, mid-century, tropical all rolled into one and without missing a beat. The service, food and drinks were the best I had on the trip.
PLACES I MISSED BUT THAT YOU SHOULDN’T (Click the location to learn more!)
And, here are a few spots I didn’t make it to because they were closed when I was there but are on my list for my next trip.
BOBO PALM SPRINGS: This shop is owned by Craftcation Conference alum Angie Chua and features a variety of stationery and lifestyle brands from a mixture of women-owned, POC-owned, LGBTQIA+ owned, and CA-made brands.
COVET PALM SPRINGS: This shop features curated collections of beautiful things that are effortless and bring joy, with just a touch of whimsy. They highlight makers from around the globe, including their in-house line of handcrafted jewelry and it’s owned by Craftcation Conference alm Adrienne Wiley.
HI DESERT DAYDREAM: This co-op style collective focuses on local makers and features everything from clothing to apothecary goods and more.