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Palm Springs from above

How to find snow and other unexpected things in the California desert

A robotic phalanx of windmills marches in place outside of Palm Springs. This crop of turbines in otherwise naked soil is the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm. Wind is harvested on those huge spinning blades. Wind that is fast and hard because there is nothing to stop it. Wind that shoves my car to either side of the lane as I grip the wheel. This is what I came for, to be overpowered and wicked dry by the desert. In Los Angeles, it’s never so hot that I have to stop running. I need to be scorched into inertia. Pool water feels best when it’s your only option. Cucumber water tastes crisper when there is sand at the back of your throat. You come to Palm Springs, largely, so you can escape it.

"You’re going to freeze." warns a woman at the Valley Station at the bottom of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. I’ve passed this place several times on my way into writing retreats or coming home from vodka-soaked girl’s trips. It’s a gondola in the middle of nowhere off Highway 111 that climbs the sheer cliffs of Chino Canyon. I don’t know where I thought the tram would take me. Maybe a good view to more desert nowhere. Certainly not the freezing cold. I am wearing shorts and a t-shirt. This felt like too much on the walk from the car.

The Aerial Tramway was conceived on a high noon in 1935, when electrical engineer Francis F. Crocker was driving down Highway 111 with a friend. Uncomfortably hot, he looked up at the snowy peak of Mount San Jacinto, the way a kid eyes ice cream that isn’t theirs. "I want to go up there where it’s nice and cool."

palm springs aerial tramway

Crocker wanted to go up there immediately. So he spent the next 28 years making it happen.

Crocker hatched an idea to build a train in the sky. He teamed up with O. Earl Coffman, a prominent figure in Palm Springs, which had only recently been habituated to by white people. (The region’s Native Americans had been decimated by smallpox 46 years prior.) Crocker and Coffman rallied the desert people around their idea. Then World War II broke out and the people forgot. Crocker pressed on. Through peace, the Korean War, peace again, a delay in groundbreaking—Crocker remained singularly focused on this idea he’d had in 1935 (which was really just small talk about the weather).

By the time construction commenced in 1960, the use of helicopters had caught up with Crocker's plan. Long before wind turbines were planted on the other side of the highway, these propellers descended into the desert. Their claws were laden with material for the tram’s concrete pillars.

Cooper’s hawks, golden eagles, and violet-green swallows are some of the wild animals Palms Springs visitors—now celebrities in hiding and the nouveau riche hoping to be seen—could see when Crocker’s tram opened in 1963. He had finally realized his dream to ride to the top of Mount San Jacinto. He never walked completely away from it. Until his death in the early 1990s, Crocker was known to regularly stop by for a ride on the toy he’d needed for so long.

In Palm Springs, the still mornings keep the mountains clear. The quiet night sky keeps the stars visible. The shops keep everyone busy. On the main drag, breezy sarongs tempt, everywhere, as they wave on sale racks. There is an entire store devoted to moccasins. And one for paintings of golf courses. And one for organic dog food. Sofas in showrooms are called "pieces"—beautiful, modern works that are curated by a dealer and serve no real function other than to make you wish you were the type of person who could afford them. Everything looks more attractive in the desert because nothing, really, should be here at all.

palm springs aerial tramway
palm springs aerial tramway

There’s a gift shop at the Valley Station and I want everything in it. The comically oversized mug that’s shaped like a coiled rattlesnake—but my coffee would get cold. The long feathered earrings—but I have enough earrings. The painted rock that says "Be the type of person your dog thinks you are," but my dog would never guess that I'd rather be left alone in this room full of crap than with my thoughts or stuck talking to the other tourists.

As we wait in the boarding area, a few other passengers and I stare through a plexiglass cutout in the floor. Here, we have a view of the live mechanisms that move below us, steel rope feeds methodically into yellow, blue, and red gear wheels. This same cable shoots out of the building and up the long chasm outside.

It is crowded when we step onto the tram. The doors close, but there is plenty of air from the open windows that line the interior. The car begins to ascend. A recorded voiceover warns us to hang on. The floor rotates slowly so we can consume a gradual panoramic view as we are lifted. Our hands grip bars on the stationary walls and slip, over and over again, away from us.

palm springs aerial tramway

We feel safe because the doors are locked tight, but actually, there have been disasters up here. In 1984, a woman died when a shock absorber snapped and a 30-pound piece of metal came smashing through a car window. In 2003, one of these steel cables broke and 50 passengers were stranded midair for four and a half hours.

"The car may rock as we switch cables," warns our virtual guide. It does. We all grab the safety bars harder, like they’ll save us if the cord snaps. Stretched out ahead is the desert floor. Cracked across the baked dirt is the San Andreas Fault, which we usually try to forget about because it threatens, in the back of our minds, to cleave the state in two.

The narration tells us to look out for a waterfall. There isn't any water. Instead, a stream of bright vegetation paints the tan earth where the water used to be. The promise is there, still, that we are headed where there is innate life, where it’s nice and cool.

There is plenty of borrowed water below us in Palm Springs. The city is turquoise with swimming pools and fountains and damp with mists that blow delicately from hoses as you wait with a cocktail for brunch. The golf courses are saturated with a uniform green. There is a placid denial, everywhere, that water is in short supply, that anything could threaten the slow leisure of this indistinguishable perfect day. The plastic monotony here is both comforting and a little sickening, the way chain restaurants are when I’ve been away from home for too long.

palm springs aerial tramway

But wildness also charges constantly through the carefully planned strip malls and outside of the steakhouses where the menus never change. The soundless hills that surround the city are a license to dress loud and party louder. Late at night, barefoot women stumble through karaoke songs. The young bars—the new ones, the gay ones, the hip ones that serve good dessert—light up with last call shenanigans. It’s too hot to sleep and too easy to order another round. We are all here because we want to get away. And up in the San Jacinto Mountains a couple miles away, bobcats stalk their prey in a frigid patch of forest.

The alpine air hits at my bare legs when we step off the tram at the Mountain Station. Pine trees blanket the hillside. It feels like we’ve traveled not just 6,000 feet, but through time and into winter. It reminds me of a commercial for Santa’s Village in San Bernardino that played ad nauseum on the shows I watched as a kid: over bad footage of reindeer and rides, a voiceover promised, "You can see Santa in the summertime!" The kids here run up and down the uneven concrete steps that lead to paths and vistas. There are coin-operated telescopes. No one uses them, the view from our bare eyes is fine. The dichotomy between the wooded mountain we stand on and the blank desert below informs each vista with a pleasant sharpness.

palm springs aerial tramway
It feels like we’ve traveled not just 6,000 feet, but through time and into winter.

"The Accidental Sea" is what the basin to the west of Palm Springs is called, according to an informational sign on the ledge. In 1905, the Colorado River swelled so full that its contents spilled into the region, creating a temporary lake.

The water is gone, but Palm Springs is still a sea of accidents. Creatures swim together whose paths would never otherwise cross. Every Thursday at the weekly street fair on Palm Canyon Drive, hand-painted lamps illuminate a booth across from a boutique full of sequined drag queen dresses and a table full of Donald Trump supporters. In a tract home on a cul-de-sac near the aerospace museum, Cheeta, an octogenarian chimpanzee who starred in several Tarzan movies, lives with his grandson Jeeter and their human handler Dan Westfall. For a small donation, you can visit them and watch Cheeta play the piano.

"I only buy two things when I travel," says a woman standing next to me on the mountain. "Christmas ornaments and flamingoes. I get a flamingo everywhere I go." Finding a flamingo in Palm Springs seems easy. I wonder, though, how she accomplishes this elsewhere. Another woman nearby wobbles in her wedges as she makes her way up the steep and lopsided stairs.

A man with poles pops up over the safety railing. "I hiked here from Palm Springs!" He announces. We tourists crowd around him. I look down the rocky drop he’s just scaled. "Nine miles of gain," he tells us, of the trek he’s just completed—the Skyline Trail. The Skyline Trail is one of the steepest, most difficult hikes in California. He started this morning at 5 a.m., at the trailhead that picks up behind the Palm Springs Art Museum.

"You don’t smoke," says one of the tourists.

"Not cigarettes. I won’t comment on the other stuff," the hiker replies.

I follow him. He can’t explain the path he took. It’s best, he says, to go with someone else your first time. Every weekend, dozens of people conquer this hike. It’s good training, he says, for something like Mount Whitney. That's what I'm going to do, I decide. Get some poles. Learn how to use them. Find a few extra hours—in between working and sleeping and drinking and running and yoga and walking my dogs and going to Trader Joe’s—to conquer the Skyline Trail. You can see Santa in the summertime.

This hiker is going to ride the tram down with the tourists, but some people stay up here for days. There are trails of varying lengths and skill levels, and rustic camping for those who haunt them.

palm springs aerial tramway

"People die doing it all the time," a docent at the visitors’ center tells me when I ask him about the Skyline Trail. "It’s very dangerous. We don’t recommend it." He’s much more enthusiastic when he tells me about the WiFi service that will be coming to the mountain soon. "We’re missing out on a million Instagrams a year," he explains.

Heat usually rises. On the aerial tram, you descend into it on your way down. When I get back to my car, the air inside is stale. It feels like a fever in here. I get back on Highway 111 toward Palm Springs. I roll down my windows, it's hardly cooler outside.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler