Palm Springs, Trailer Parks and and Traces of Gram Parsons

Before the Heat Dome, Before the Capitol Hill insurrection, Before COVID, we went into the desert to commune with boulders and shrubs. Truth be told, we had gone so that I might participate in a NUSA (Neighborhoods USA) conference…but we were intent on returning to Joshua Tree.

Zoning may not be a particularly intriguing topic, yet Palm Springs has very unusual checkerboard pattern of ownership. Half the checkerboard is owned by the local tribal clan, Aqua Caliente, members of the Cahuilla Tribe. Clan members who still own property on the checkerboard, are making out very well. If however, due to challenging circumstances, a clan member was forced to sell, those folks due not benefit from the land bonanza taking place. The Aqua Caliente Clan does have a sizable pot of social benefits for those in need. Next to the hotel where we stayed, a very large Casino and Spa is being built that includes the original spring. May the cash spring eternal.

Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel

Sunnylands, a 200-acre retreat built by Annenbergs, hosted eight Presidents and various other world leaders. Our tour did not include the modern, glass enclosed home filled with art…that takes planning and reservations made months in advance. We got as far as the modern annex for tourists. And there was some art to welcome us: a Augusta Rodin piece, Eternal Spring (1884) and The Bust of Diego on Stele 111 by Alberto Giacometti (1935).

The grounds highlight xerophytic plantings designed in various patterns. Their landscape designer clearing abhors chaos, and prefers a linear plant regimentation, perhaps reflecting the rigid, sharp rectilinear architecture on the grounds.

Clarification: This is not a composite photo. The water feature is adjacent to the building and the garden.

The Mid-Century Modern architecture remains a central draw for those who care to drool over the outstanding design of Desert Modernism. Frank Sinatra may have started the trend in house building, yet the architects need the real credit. Albert Frey, who worked with Corbusier, Richard Neutra and John Lautner worked with Frank Loyd Wright, George and Robert Alexander (with William Kreisler), Hugh Kaptur, A. Quincy Jones and the black architect Paul Williams. Convenants kept blacks and Jews from living in parts of Palm Springs, but Paul Williams designed houses for celebrities in areas of town where he could not have lived.

And then there are those who struggle to maintain a presence here, in dwellings of modern but much simpler design. Scattered across town are several Mobile Home Parks that have survived gentrification.

Image from 1935 of Ramon Trailer Park

The convention tour I chose, took us to three trailer parks ranging from the low to middle income abodes.

In the modest, lower income park amenities are simple and rental prices still reasonable. Regulations are in place to maintain a majority of units as affordable.

Activities remain classic, with bingo, ping-pong and Doris Day movies. A lively crowd and apparently fun is had by all.

At the higher end park, Palm Canyon, recent rent hikes had literally driven out many older mobile home owners. And in those spaces, $155,00 – $230,000 units are rolling in for sale. As the Paul Kaplan Homes web site states , “This is not your grandma’s mobile home park….”

In town, an exhibit demonstrated the future of trailer/ container homes- I present the ALPOD.

A Seattle friend and artist, Juan Alonso, gave us a brief tour of downtown during the weekly street fest. We stopped along the way to admire his work at the Jorge Mendez gallery.

And we did the promenade along South Palm Canyon Drive.

Running with his recommendation for dinner, we reserved a spot at the Tropicale. The decor was Art Deco, and the clientele a mix of older gay couples, young partners and a few families. This was not the Sinatra crowd, though you could imagine the place being quite suitable for the Rat Pack.

Once the convention was over, we headed to Joshua Tree and dropped by the Joshua Tree Inn, now a monument of sorts to the memory of Gram Parsons. One can book his old motel room, and right next door is a room dedicated to Emmy Lou Harris. It appears from the looks of one old rocker couple hanging out at the motel that Parsons groupies still pay their respects. When Gram died, his buddies tried to prevent his body from being shipped back east to his family, and absconded with the remains. The tried to cremate Gram in Joshua Tree National Park…but the smoke brought the Park Rangers and the job was not completed. The spot is on some pilgrimage maps I am sure.

If you ever head toward the Joshua Tree National Park, try a meal or an overnight stay at the 29 Palms Inn. The adobe cabins are very inviting as is the small pool. And the meals are excellent. It is here that a waitress heard that we had stayed at the Aloha Motel in Las Vegas, and she said the Rat Pack had frequented that Motel bar and the bartender knew where all the bodies were buried. Unfortunately now the Aloha Motel is buried. We know what that grave is.

Pastel by our next door neighbor Gary Faigin (partial image) of one cabin at 29 Palms Inn

In one of those serendipitous moments, the artist whose work was on display in the dining room had spent time in Vietnam, a country we had visited just a few years back. We had missed the Snake Lady of Saigon.

We drove our rental car down some sandy tracks to find remarkable trails among the boulder strewn landscape. I am grateful we had the opportunity before the fires hit the park.

Leaving Palm Springs is a trip in itself. The terminal was designed by local architect Donald Wexler and it was built after purchasing 600 acres from the local Tribal clan. Tent canopies stretch over an airy waiting area, and access is designed for the passenger.

Once in the air, I had time to ponder an indelible creepy image from the night before of giant babies crawling across a courtyard near the Palm Springs Art Museum.

About Whittoons

Cartoonist, and community organizer who has covered the globe as a doodlebugger, gandydancer, supernumerary steward, Able Bodied Seaman, Wireman, monkey man, Night Baker and dishwasher, Hobo, hitchhiker and husband.
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