One of the great things about travelling as a spritely youth is you have a high tolerance for inconvenience. In this case, that meant a seven-and-a-half-hour layover in Dallas, hauling our carry-ons around the West End District in 37-degree southern sunshine. But between quality checking chicken-fried steaks, standing right where Oswald shot JFK in the haunting Sixth Floor Museum, and feeling not quite white enough for star-spangled cowboy emporium Wild Bill's, we ended up being pretty thrilled about our Texan detour.
Three hours and one glorious airport milkshake later, we touched down in Palm Springs. From the air, it looks like a green-and-white QR code stamped in the middle of the desert, a Silicone Valley nestled between spiny mountain ranges and arid national parks. From the ground, it looks like Florida and Colorado had an illegitimate love child in the '60s and hid it in California, where it marinated in sunshine and celebrity scandals for the next half-century, still dressing up like Frank Sinatra because it doesn't know he died, like, a popstar-lifetime ago.
Ten minutes after landing, we were swaying sleepily to Tame Impala in the Ace Hotel & Swim Club lobby (PS has one of the most convenient airports in the world, a six-minute drive from the main strip of hotels). I'm just going to show photos of this place, because my meandering descriptions won't be able to capture how cool it is. After three fish tacos, one outrageous tuna melt and six house beers in a bucket, we passed out.
Almost all of the hotels in Palm Springs are a good eight-minute Uber from downtown, so the free two-hour bike rentals at the Ace were key (they were mint-green low-riders, because Instagram). We took the scenic route, reminding ourselves how to backpedal-brake through enclaves of gated bungalows, retro motels and midcentury-modern McDonalds', before joining the brunch-going ranks lined up outside Palm Springs fixture Cheeky's (goddamn Tripadvisor). Highlights: The Bacon Flight, which is basically like a wine tasting for bacon (!!!) and the magical chilaquiles topped with scrambled eggs—every patron with this volcano of breakfast nachos sopping in salsa verde was emitting borderline pornographic sounds. Sold.
After stocking up on Bikini Blonde Lager from the local everythingstore (AMURRCA), we walked down to the Moorten Botanical Garden. I'll spare you the yellow Comic Sans on their website and just say this place is so weird and so wonderful and worth the $4 visit—especially the cactarium, which is basically the greenhouse from Harry Potter. 97% sure you'd have a mandrake situation on your hands if you uprooted one of Clark Moorten's prized pricklies.
We capped off the day in one of the nicest dinner settings either of us have experienced—a private balcony affixed to the side of Matchbox, a restaurant on Palm Canyon Drive, where we ate way too much pizza and watched the sun set behind terracotta mountains, playing name-that-sports-personality with the people strolling below. I dragged Cainan down the street for salted caramel milkshakes at Great Shakes for desert dessert, solely because they put a mini donut around your straw and I'm a sucker for gimmicky accoutrements (see: this).
Backpacks filled with massive water bottles and all the granola bars we could find, we set out on what was supposed to be a four-hour hike in Mount Jacinto State Park. After polishing off our sustenance on the 10-minute aerial tramway up to the Mountain Station—aka THE START—pausing to watch the world's tackiest proposal play out (spoiler alert: she said yes), then proceeding to eat a plate of Cheez Whiz-chips (calling them nachos would be offensive to nachos), we opted for the hike the most children seemed to be doing. It was a very Survivorman-esque experience.
The view from the not-so-top of Mount Jacinto is breathtaking. Mainly because of the elevation. It's 8,500 feet up, and the temperature is at least 10 degrees cooler than Palm Springs—conducive to survival when you decide to go on a hike in the late-summer desert.
A couple of tips: The tramway station is about twenty minutes outside of downtown. There is no cell service, so we got our Uber driver's number (S/O to Amrik, King of the Springs) and called from the front desk phone when we needed to get back to the hotel. Also, you need to check in at the park ranger's cabin and get a permit before doing any of the major hikes. Basically they just want to know what name to repeat soothingly as they wrestle your body from the jowls of a mountain lion. Or something. I didn't read the brochure.
When checking in at the infamous Le Parker Meridien, rumoured birthplace of the Brangelina affair post-Mr. and Mrs. Smith, nothing screams "I booked this on points" louder than showing up covered in mountain matter, backpacks in tow. This hotel is otherworldly. The interior was designed by Jonathan Adler—think suits of armour, Moroccan wedding blankets, and a giant vintage pharmacy sign that says "DRUGS" (in 2000, Robert Downey Jr. was escorted past it after being arrested for possession in room 311. If you can't tell, this place was my kind of history class). The grounds are a 13-acre maze of 10-foot hedges and Alice-in-Wonderland clearings filled with everything from croquet sets to lemonade stands to a giant, life-sized chess board—here's the Gray Malin photo series, if you're interested. We spent the rest of the day ogling the decor and eating like we were trying to gain 15 pounds for a movie role.
How to Joshua Tree: A Beginner's Guide
1 - Head to the airport to pick up your $14.99 rental Chevy.
2- Get upsold to a yellow Camaro convertible in about 30 seconds. Make Hertz employee's day.
3- Blast Drake and drive forever through super-sized boulders, Gumbi-shaped trees and strata of cacti I imagine look like an art-directed acai bowl from above.
4- Take a detour up to Pioneertown (exactly what it sounds like) for late lunch at Pappy & Harriet's.
5- Relive vicariously through photos whenever you are sad or cold.
B-story of this trip: While we were in PS, two of our best friends from university got engaged (!!!) while driving the Big Sur coast. It took a total of three texts to get them down to Palm Springs to celebrate. We spent our last night cruising around in the obnoxious Camaro, drinking happy-hour margaritas and keeping everyone at the Parker up until 3AM.
We all woke up smelling like stale Blue Moon and headed downstairs to Norma's for fancier-than-thou brunch (this is the home of the John Legend-approved $1000 lobster-caviar frittata we're talking about). Highlights: the fresh-squeezed OJ, huevos rancheros and Wa-Za waffle. Ben and Janelle headed to Las Vegas to catch their red-eye home, and Cainan and I headed to Smoke Tree Stables, because apparently we hadn't jammed enough activities into this extra-long weekend yet.
"Y'all wanna get some elevation?" Our guide, Jeff, turned up what seemed like a 90-degree incline of sheer rock before I had a chance to conduct my rattlesnake safety drill. Having fallen off horses no less than seven times as a pony-obsessed, not-very-coordinated kid, I was starting to rethink my choice of cowboy hat over helmet. Especially when the incline levelled into a skinny trail that snaked around the side of the mountain and visions of horse avalanches were starting to dance in my head. I don't know if she sensed my terror, but my horse Copper was a saintly beast who gingerly tiptoed along, ignoring Jeff when he clicked his tongue for her to go faster. After our feet were planted back on the ground, we both agreed this was one of the coolest things we did in Palm Springs (even though I was frozen in horror for about 40 minutes of the hour-long ride). Pro tip: Don't wear Birkenstocks.
We dusted the sand off our shorteralls (okay, just me), grabbed our bags and headed to the airport, sunburnt and smelling like horse.
We came, we saw, we closed our thigh gaps. Best XXL Labour Day weekend ever.