Connecting with the Ancestral Past
by Ingrid Hart
The first thing I notice as my plane descends into the Palm Springs airport is the stark contrast between the rugged, three dimensional, snow-covered peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains and their counterpoint: the flat desert floor.
At the juncture of this compelling nexus is Indian Canyon, a holy oasis of endless palm trees, meandering streams, and the occasional croaking toad. This sacred haven is the resilient, yet fragile heart of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indian tribe. On this mild afternoon, I will pilgrimage into the arms of the canyon’s spiritual embrace.
The trail map describes Murray Canyon as an easy two-hour hike leading to the Seven Sisters, a twelve-foot waterfall at Indian Canyon. The footpath traverses a stream for one-point-five miles. After a rain-weary southern California winter, I say a hearty hello to a two-foot water crossing. Uh-oh, what to do? Is there perhaps a fallen tree bridge? No.
I don’t disappoint the three-man crew working on the trail, watching this lone woman wearing North Face khaki shorts, a black lace tank top and a backpack come to a complete stop and grimace. They laugh and cheer me on. “You got it, girl.” I take the iced-tea plunge and completely baptize my shoes and socks. Slosh…slosh…slosh.
Spiritual pilgrimage, I think to myself, will require sacrifice. I am here to cleanse myself of the electro-magnetic virtual realm: cell phone, Internet, and teleconferencing. I want to envelop myself in the sensuality of Earth—to rest in the bosom of her scent and marvel at her grace and beauty.
This afternoon, the price of admission on this journey is soaking feet and true grit, both of which are in abundance. On the other side of the stream, in high spirits, I thrust my arms in the air and shriek the universal cry of victory: Whoo-hoo! The crew laughs.
Little did I know this was the first of ten similar water crossings I would endure on the two-hour hike.
Earlier in the week, I took part in Desert Modernism Week, a tribute to Palm Springs’ atomic era, the 1950’s and 60’s when our nation’s prosperity was equal to its possibilities. Think James Bond meets the Jetsons. The city of Palm Springs claims to hold the largest collection of mid-century modern architecture in the country.
Swanky landmarks abound: the Frey House—perched on a hillside, built into the mountain; the Tramway Gas Station—a prime example of modernism architecture with its cantilevered, wedge-shaped canopy; and the Twin Palm Estate, home to Frank Sinatra, the hippest cat to ever dwell in Palm Springs.
Still, I wondered what was the flashpoint bringing these people with their visions to the desert? These iconic attractions and posh homes took some serious coin to build. What was the inspiration? What gives?
A Sense of Place
Lydia Kremer, owner of public relations firm “Vortex,” drives me in her Lexus SUV back to the hip and quirky Ace Hotel where I’m staying for the week. I’m curious what she likes best about Palm Springs.
Her response conjures a connection to the land: the people, the community—a sense of place. “The spirituality of the mountains and the desert—how the two come together,” she says. “Most people think of the ocean as cleansing because of the negative ions. The desert is that way for me.”
Eric Nash, a Desert Modernism artist whom I met at the Backstreet Art District, paints, among other things, the orange 76 gas station orb, an enduring icon of the urban California landscape, both a happy and nostalgic symbol of our commitment to cars and oil.
Eric moved here from Illinois ten years ago. His inspiration to dwell in Palm Springs is the openness of the desert, its beauty and calm.
“The desert is dangerous,” he says, “almost like an ocean. It’s a scary proximity to open tract. There are ocean people, mountain people and desert people. I’m a desert person.”
Who am I? Right now, I’m a hiker with soggy feet, feeling the energetic vibration of earth, sky and water. The scent of the fresh aromatic California sage plant lifts my spirits. I stoop over and select a batch to pick.
I watch small lizards scaling granite rocky outcroppings. Surrounding me are honey mesquite, jimson weed, and yucca plants. In a sage-induced natural high, a bucolic vision of a lone Cahuilla Indian medicine woman carrying a hand-woven basket approaches me. Her skin is dark and leathery, her hands skilled at gathering healing plants.
I imagine she’s my mentor, teaching me the aboriginal ways of her people. She is both kind and soft, yet firm and strong.
I ask for permission to pick the sage. She ponders my request and tells me it is my home too—be gentle.
From her satchel, she extracts a mortar and pestle and begins grinding the fragrant leaves and stems of the freshly picked plant. She tells me the scent will bring back pleasant memories. It’s old, but it’s good.
Carry it with you for the journey.
The vision fades when I spot a man and woman walking toward me with purpose. The woman asks me, “Do you know a place in Palm Springs where I can get my hair cut?” Really? I want to offer her the herbal medicine I’ve just been gifted. Please, take some. It will relax you.
Instead, I re-enter the electro-magnetic realm and pull out my cell phone, marvel that I have reception and call the public relations lady who drove me home and give my fellow hiker-sister some much needed four-one-one, her kind of medicine.
“You know how women can get when their hair isn’t right,” the man says, winking at me as they leave. She offers thanks and I continue my gentle, uphill hike to the Seven Sisters.
The sentinels watching over me along the hike are the Washingtona filifera commonly known as the California Fan Palm. These skirted, stately guards grow to 60 feet. Being surrounded at all times with the palm trees of Indian Canyon makes me feel safe and protected, like when I was a little kid holding the hands of my grandparents.
I continue to hike until I reach my destination; the Seven Sisters waterfall. The abundant flow of water represents my perspective on the day: fluid, graceful and consistent. I find a flat granite rock and lay on my back, looking up at the sky. A jet plane leaves a contrail. The sound of roaring water obliterates Zen-time. I am left with the pulsating energy of life force that must have its way. Earth.
Sky. Water. Nothing else exists. The moment is all there is. I am released.
“Are you a local?” the tribal ranger asks me—his long, braided ponytail held by a leather tie. I’ve just finished the two-hour hike. I’m sweaty and my uncooperative hair is sticking out of a black visor. I look from side to side. Is he talking to me? “Uh, no, not from around here,” I say, with a lilt in my voice.
“Well you must have a twin,” he says with a smile, his eagle eyes crinkling. He hops inside his white Ford pickup and drives away. My heart races. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of my Indian mentor, making her way back into the palm tree oasis.
I quickly feel in my backpack for the sage. Still there? Yes. Exhale. I take some out and smell the pungent herb. The sweet scent conjures dreams and visions of days gone by, the perception of reality, both physical and virtual, and the illusion of my place in it.
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