It's 6:30 am and I'm on my way to Thousand Palms Oasis and Nature Preserve, east of Palm Springs. I want to get there by 7:00, when the gates open, before the spring-break crowds descend around 10:00. I'm driving on Ramon Avenue into the rising sun, realizing this road would be in direct alignment with the Spring Equinox sunrise a week earlier. (Note to Siri: Did a lost tribe of Mayans ever get this far north to celestially plot Ramon Avenue?)
I park the car on the road above the entrance, knowing that the small parking lot will be jammed to capacity with sun-crazed visitors, all backing up at once, after the visitors center opens. But for now the area is deserted, and I enter the dense oasis of California Fan Palms (Washingtonia fillifera), the state's only native palm. The trees grow here along the San Andreas Fault, sustained by water seeping up from the activity beneath the surface. I turn to climb a steep hill where I can clearly see the fault line stretching south out into the desert, with the palms below resembling green and brown push pins plotting its course through the oasis. The air is cold, so the rattlesnakes are still on their first cup of coffee.
Descending the hill, I go into the entrance area, and stand in front of the still-closed visitor's center, an original log cabin. To my left, about 20 feet away are the restrooms — they sit on the Pacific Tectonic Plate. To my right is the visitor's center — it sits on the North American Tectonic Plate. The plates meet and grind here on the Mission Creek fault line, part of the linear fracturing of the San Andreas Fault.
The fault line leads into what looks like a Disney dinosaur movie set. Two giant columns of Fan Palms, each appearing to wear long grass skirts, or fur coats, depending on the light, cast menacing shadows broken only by sharp daggers of sunlight. The palms stand guard over a dark trail that disappears into what looks to be a primeval swamp. About 20 yards in, I climb onto a wooden walkway with railings, to walk above the 82-degree water seeping up from the fault below. The walkway meanders in and out of darkness, occasionally getting too close to a giant palm, requiring the palm's grass skirt to get a Beatle-type haircut. I've been in the oasis for half an hour, moving back and forth along the walkway, shooting the changing shadows and light overhead. Reaching the end of the walkway, I step out from the moist coolness of the oasis into the bright, oven-hot heat of the desert.
It's still early morning, but the air has turned hot. By May the trail will be too hot for visitors, forcing it to close until October. Thinking that the rattlesnakes have finished their coffee — there have been two bites so far this month — I walk in the middle of the trail that follows the fault line to McCallum Pond, a mile away. The pond's small oasis is fed by over 30 natural earthquake seeps from the fault line. Walking under the tall palm sentinels, I'm again immersed in the oasis coolness. It's quiet, except for occasional soft wind gusts rustling through the paper-like fronds.
Leaving the oasis, I'm back in the hot-oven heat as I traverse a series of wide washes, the remnants of the 'Pineapple Express' river of moisture that flooded the Palm Springs area earlier this month. One benefit from that deluge is the eruption of desert super blooms all over the area. Moving through the last remnants of yellow and purple flowers, I continue uphill along the Moon Country Trail, climbing high enough to see miles of desert spreading out ahead. When I notice my water supply is half gone, it's time to turn back. Plus the light has flattened out, and someone has turned up the dial on the oven heat. In the distance, I can hear that the selfie nation has arrived, their noise piercing the quiet desert air, pinpointing their advance.
At the visitor's center, I'm sitting in the shade of a giant palm, watching the people stream in, sometimes in waves that overwhelm the docents. The docents are volunteers; many are retired teachers, while others are professionals in related fields. They love the desert and are there to greet the visitors. For their work — sometimes having to deal with sun-crazed folks under desert stress — they receive a hat and a coveted parking place close to the entrance. Their purpose is two-fold: to give visitors basic information about the oasis, and to make sure they are prepared for their trek into the desert. Many visitors arrive ill-prepared, dressed for the city and thinking a tank top and flip flops — and no water — will do the trick out here. The docents kindly give the fashionistas subtle suggestions about proper foot wear, and give out water and maps — for a voluntary donation — to be recycled in a green cylinder near the entrance. Their advice is valid, because last week a visitor in nearby Arizona undertook a 10-mile trek through the desert wearing a fashionably flimsy pair of sandals, and had to be carried out by rescuers. Apparently, the palms know the trick to surviving the environment — while their heads are in the sun, their feet are in water.
As I sit listening to the docents, one visitor shrieks when she sees the sign warning that rattlesnakes are active in the area. She swears she's not going to risk meeting a rattler, and turns around and leaves.
I leave also, but I won't have to spend the next half hour backing up in the parking lot. I'll be back with tomorrow's sunrise.
For more information: https://coachellavalleypreserve.org/
Text and Photos: © David Björkman — Coachella Valley Preserve, Thousand Palms, California