Travel

The Californian desert city of Palm Springs, former haven of Liberace, Sinatra and Monroe, transports the visitor to a timeless Space Age. By Gillian Terzis.

The eternal New Age in Palm Springs, California

Ace Hotel, Palm Springs.
Credit: Jonathan Brent

There’s something about the desert that enlivens the imagination. Barren landscapes trigger thoughts of new possibilities and hopes – a topographical blank slate – as well as the apocalypse. In America, sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s theory-infused travelogue, he likened Californian deserts to an “extraordinary piece of drama”, a cinematic spectacle that is testament to the sublimeness of both nature and artifice. I witnessed this for myself beforehand on Instagram. When I searched for Palm Springs, I was flooded with compositionally perfect photos of indestructible Mojave yuccas, glimmering jewel-toned pools, and Jetsons-inspired architecture. Everything appeared unreal and nothing seemed impossible.

For more than a century Palm Springs has stoked desires for a decadent brand of escapism. In the ’50s and ’60s, when actors were contractually required to reside within a two-hour radius of Hollywood in the event of spontaneous meetings and photo shoots, the town was a glittering oasis for the Reagans, Jerry Lewis, Liberace, Sammy Davis jnr and Marilyn Monroe. Frank Sinatra’s estate, with its sleek lines, piano-shaped pool and floor-to-ceiling glass walls, can be hired for private parties and public tours. In the ’70s and ’80s, it became a gangsters’ paradise – a playground for Chicago mafioso Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo, Frank “The Horse” Buccieri and James “The Turk” Torello. Nowadays it is primarily seen as a hotbed for cashed-up retirees and golf enthusiasts. 

In Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, published in 1991, a trio of disaffected and egregiously articulate twentysomethings transplant themselves to Palm Springs after deciding to ditch their “McJobs”. One month before arriving in Palm Springs I too had quit my job and, like the novel’s protagonists, one could say I was overly susceptible to “option paralysis”. Mostly I feared the spectre of diminishing horizons that would confront me as my 30th birthday loomed. I chose Palm Springs for a break because it represented to me a kind of parallel fantasy world. In this respect it did not disappoint. It is a literal paradise smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Swaths of verdant foliage and glinting pools lend it a gauzy unreality. Its imperious mountain ranges, neon skies and groves of palm trees recall the tropes of the internet’s vaporwave aesthetic, while the town’s ubiquitous Desert Modern architecture – a design trend that is very much in vogue, thanks to Mad Men – makes the town seem both preserved in time yet timeless. Some dwellings in the downtown area display elements of Googie architecture, which is characterised by cantilevered roofs, geometric shapes and retrofuturist designs. The onslaught of nostalgia is hard to resist, but I did not know what it signalled: a longing for a bygone era or a future that had failed us?

Palm Springs looks as aesthetically divine as the most flattering Instagram filter, but desert life has its downsides. Although temperatures are balmy most of the year, the town is unbearable in summer, recording an average temperature of 42 degrees Celsius. The destructive twin forces of dry heat and Santa Ana’s “devil winds” produce what Joan Didion has described as “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse”. The Palm Springs portrayed in Generation X is barren and economically depressed, a place with plenty of sunshine and few prospects. The town, then and now, relies almost solely on tourism for economic growth, and its reputation as a haven for the glamorous suffered as it surrendered to the onward march of senior citizens. People I met on my travels would tell me there would be little to do, that I would surely tire of cocktails on the lanai.

But I soon found that Palm Springs is more than just a geriatric getaway. A predominately older, white community is becoming more diverse: nearly a quarter of the population is Hispanic, and the town is home to one of the highest concentrations of same-sex couples in the United States. What is equally fascinating is how the town thrives on competing narratives. The world’s oldest wind farm, which powers the entire Coachella Valley, abuts the luxury resort where the climate-denying, dark-moneyed Koch brothers hold their donor retreats. Tanned specimens clad in athleisure (neoprene jackets, aerodynamic leggings) mingle with octogenarians in clothes categorically designed for leisure (elasticated pants, bumbags). Cycling around the palm-lined back streets is the best way to take in the town’s austere beauty, but car culture still reigns. It is rare to see pedestrians in the wild. The swelling popularity of the Coachella music festival has seen an influx of younger visitors rediscover the town’s charms (flower crowns are a common visual signifier). This so-called retirement village is being reborn.

I stayed at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club, which used to be a Westward Ho motel and Denny’s. Its defining aesthetic is a kind of artisanal New Age spirituality, targeting a demographic that is less hippie and more hipster. It hosts a variety of events each week – pool parties, bingo nights, karaoke, vinyasa yoga – most of which are open to the public. The diner serves superfoods, frozen pina coladas and a variety of tequilas.

I was drawn to the idea of the hotel’s drumming circle and full moon party, in which I sensed an opportunity to transgress the rules of adulthood. Initially too self-conscious to take part, I surveyed proceedings from an elevated terrace above the pool, a plastic cup of vodka in hand like a poor man’s Don Draper. Drumming began in earnest, then gathered fervour as people became emboldened by booze. They drummed, chanted and yelped with feverish intensity. A long-haired man in tie-dye scaled a palm tree and ground his hips against the trunk as the crowd hollered. It was all a bit much. Eventually I made my way to the circle where a woman in her 50s lent me her djembe. At first I patted it gingerly, unsure of my technique and embarrassed about making a spectacle of myself, but after a few minutes I was swept up in the ecstasy of those around me. At one point a circle leader implored the crowd to “Feel it, really feel it!” So far, so California. 

Invigorated by this quasi-spiritual experience, the next day I headed to the Integratron, a tabernacle structure and “energy machine” 25 minutes from town founded by George Van Tassel, a prominent UFOlogist and contactee. He claimed that it was constructed under the telepathic directives of extraterrestrials, which explains why it looks a lot like a giant spaceship, and that it supposedly sits on a tract of land that contains unusually high geomagnetic activity, although this has not been confirmed by scientists. I went there for a sound bath, in which about 20 people lie down on the floor in a whispering chamber while a series of crystal bowls are played for 25 minutes. The process is said to heal and rejuvenate – it’s common for people to doze off during a session. Many people said they felt lighter afterwards. I definitely felt relaxed, although I was unsure if the $25 ticket price could be justified.

A younger me would have disdained this embrace of New-Age spirituality and its irrational logic. Still, there’s something therapeutic about embracing a fantasy that we know to be untrue. I think this is why Palm Springs is so comforting. The suspension from reality is temporary and self-imposed. I’m not sure I’d want to live in a town transfixed by its past, but I can’t deny the allure of finding a sliver of stasis in an uncertain world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 2, 2016 as "Springs eternal". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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