Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday--A Desert Place

During Winter break, I spent three marvelous days in Desert Hot Springs, a town about 20 minutes north of Palm Springs. Though I grew up in southern California, Palm Springs had never figured much in my imagination; I thought of it (when I thought of it at all) as only a place full of bronzed women, aging movies stars, golfers, and martinis. I somehow never connected the word "Springs" with actual springs: rejuvenating waters that simmer underground.

I once spent four years (in the wild, mixed-up '80's) living and working at Orr Springs, a hot springs resort in northern California.

We maintained a 150-year-old bathhouse that had a huge redwood hot tub, an outdoor soaking pool, and four private rooms that housed old porcelain clawfoot tubs. Hot mineral water from the underground springs poured continually into these tubs, and you could sit a long time--listening to the river, the rain, the slap of wet feet on the bridge--perfectly content with yourself, your life. You felt coddled, like an egg: full of potential. 

Since then, I've sought out hot springs all over the world, a connoisseur of the bath, of rejuvenation. But I never thought--until now--to just hop on down to Palm Springs and see what kind of respite it might offer.

Though it ended up taking me forever to get there (cancelled flight; endless delays; lost cell phone--it started to feel like a mythical quest), I arrived 24 hours after my scheduled time and entered the gate at Hacienda Hot Springs, where my old friend Rhea was waiting for me. The minute I caught a whiff of the dry desert air and all the unfamiliar (yet familiar) smells--sage, rosemary, mesquite--I felt the stress of travel melt away, one layer of the crusty self already sloughing off. The air, though cold, felt drier, more expansive, than my soggy northwest home.

This shedding just kept going during my three days at the Hacienda. Rhea and I immediately got into the rhythm of sauna, hot pool, eat a little something, snooze, hot pool, snack, sunbath, maybe a little walk. The swimming pool, at 95 degrees, allowed us to float a long time, while the palm trees kept watch. We talked and talked: that lazy, slow, meandering talk that two women who have been friends for thirty years can have while floating in a body-temperature pool, glasses off, layers of the inauthentic self dissolving.

We walked up the hill to a weird open-air museum, and the minute we walked in we both felt a little, ahem, altered: as if there were some kind of drug in the air.

 We found out, from an overly helpful park ranger, that indeed "there is no place just like this place anywhere near this place..." We stood atop the largest warm water aquifer in the world—water full of an exact combination of healing minerals that infuse the air as well. We stood right on the San Andreas fault line, on a tectonic plate that extends all the way to Japan, divided from the rest of the country. 

It's only on fault lines that an oasis springs up, where water can escape from its underground well and nourish palms, grasses, animals, people. Only where there's a rift can you find the respite you seek. 

We kept walking up the hill to check out the totem we saw looming there.

He is called "The Traditional Helper," and is part of the Trail of Whispering Giants that spans in its quiet way across the country: totem after totem whispering whatever it is we need in that particular place. Up close, his face--with its intricately carved nooks and crannies--seemed sorrowful, deeply etched from witnessing so much suffering. We hammed it up a bit, put our palms together and pretended (or pretended to pretend) to beseech him for help; he suffered our irreverant gaze and helped us anyway. 

Back at the Hacienda, inside those adobe walls, protected, we watched the full moon rise. We sat in the hot tub with our cups of tea. We heard strange birds singing and smelled lemon trees putting out their many varieties of lemons: thin-skinned, thick-skinned, knobby, and smooth. When you pick these lemons, they smell like the flowers that precede the fruit. 

You pick them and pick them and there's always more; you pack them away in your suitcase, hoping to slice them open at home to release just a little bit of that respite into your day, remind yourself of what it means to take a deep rest in the desert air. 


  1. Sounds divine... :)

  2. Oh, I can feel the beauty of the desert as you describe your trip and the photos add of course, too--door ways to the unusual.

    I remember listening to a poem Denise Levertov read in which she described Lake Washington, the vast space of it, like a meadow from where she had come. I think it was a meadow, but maybe it was a desert. At any rate, she was talking about the way large spaces we look over invite us in and I enjoy thinking of where to find them even when I am home framed by furniture and automobiles.

  3. Thank you Sheila! Yes, sometimes my gaze gets so narrow. Need to remember to look up....


What say you?