Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, Palm Springs, California was transforming into a resort town for health tourists and movie stars. My great-grandfather worked as a carpenter back then, and helped build famous Palm Springs hotels, such as the El Mirador, in 1927. The El Mirador Hotel was demolished and replaced by a hospital in the 1970s. But its iconic tower on Indian Canyon Drive was spared, and remains standing to this day.
One of my great-grandfather’s sons, my great-uncle Clarence, became the first movie theater projectionist in Palm Springs, during the 1930s. This “movie theater” was not much back then, consisting of just a large tent, with some chairs, a screen, and a projector. But it was where my great-uncle’s career began. This was the only job he would ever have, apart from a few years serving in a different kind of theater, while in the U.S. Navy. That was World War II’s Pacific Theater, where he saw action at Iwo Jima.
After the Navy, Uncle Clarence returned to Palm Springs, bought a house with a G.I. loan, got married, and returned to work running the movie projector at the local theater. Which by this time was a solid building. There he stayed contentedly employed for the next 40-plus years.
One of my favorite memories was when he allowed me to spend a shift with him, in the projector room of what was now a large cineplex. This was in 1979, and the original Superman movie was one of the featured films. But I didn’t give a damn about watching Christopher Reeves save the planet. Rather, I was fascinated with my uncle’s explanations about how projectors work, and watching him load the reels onto the big machines.
We lost touch with each other until about 20 years later, when I was working as a mailman in Palm Springs, subbing on someone else’s route. I recognized his house and brought his mail to his door. He was in his eighties by this time, and his memory was slipping a little. But after about a minute of reminding him who I was, he remembered and invited me inside.
This was one of the few times I broke my work ethic, and extended my ten-minute break beyond its limits. Uncle Clarence and I had some catching up to do. Thank god no postal manager decided to check up on me, or I would have had some awkward explaining to do after I returned to my mail truck a half-hour later. But I made it up to the U.S. Postal Service, by skipping a few breaks over the next several days. So it’s all good.
Uncle Clarence lived near the union hall, so after that I would stop and visit him on my way to union meetings. And he would regale me with stories of the old Palm Springs, when it was just a dusty, dirt road, hole-in-the-wall.
For instance, he told me about how Palm Springs had no school back then, so he and his schoolmates would have to ride a bus 40 miles, one-way, to attend classes in Yucaipa. Kids had to behave on that bus, or the bus driver would kick them out and make them ride standing, on the back bumper. I guess those were different times, when we had fewer lawyers.
But that’s not why I’m writing this post. No, I’ve brought up my uncle Clarence so I can bring up the subject of Little Morongo Canyon. Uncle Clarence gives me a good excuse to do that.
When he was growing up, he became friends with the McKinney family. They owned a ranch in Little Morongo Canyon, on the south side of Morongo Valley. Morongo Valley is about 15 miles north of Palm Springs, and 2,000 feet higher. In fact it’s located at the very southwestern tip of the Mojave desert.
Little Morongo Canyon hosts the Little Morongo River. This river flows mostly underground, from the rugged foothills of the San Bernardino mountains, traveling about 10 miles to Morongo Valley. There it crosses the valley on a subterranean and transverse path, and continues another 5 miles or so through the Little San Bernardino mountains, finally playing out near the city of Desert Hot Springs.
Although it’s mostly underground, here and there the river gurgles up, forming small and large springs. Probably the largest springs are located at McKinney Ranch. The McKinney family are the original homesteaders of this sparkling jewel of the Mojave desert, and my uncle was friends with these pioneers, from way back in the 1920s and ‘30s.
My uncle had a daughter named Melinda, who eventually married one of old man McKinney’s grandchildren. I barely knew her, but even so, this marriage made me kind of a shoestring relative of the McKinney’s. And my sister too. My sister owned a large horse ranch near Little Morongo Canyon, and once in awhile she’d take me on rides to the McKinney Ranch. Because we were relatives, we were allowed to tromp on their property.
This is a heavenly piece of land. Here, the Little Morongo River bubbles up to feed large ponds surrounded by palm trees. It’s a stunningly lush oasis in the midst of the blistering, harsh elements of the hot and dry Mojave. I’ve always been impressed with the McKinney Ranch, and feel fortunate to have ridden its trails.
But Melinda eventually divorced her McKinney spouse, and my sister and I lost our relative status as relatives. Nonetheless, it was an amicable divorce, so we still retained entry privileges. And my uncle Clarence continued to remain old friends of this family, also. In fact, they adored him, and visited him frequently.
Sadly, Melinda developed brain cancer, and passed away. This happened about the same time my uncle’s wife also died from cancer. So in just a few quick swoops, life turned against my aging uncle, and he was left devastated and alone.
The last time I knocked on my uncle’s door was in 2006. He was 88 at this time, and growing more and more forgetful. He didn’t recognize me, and appeared frightened. I had to spend several minutes reminding him who I was, until his face finally lit up and he invited me inside.
But he still seemed a little unsure about me, and our conversation proceeded in fits and starts. After this I decided it was probably best never to return. I didn’t want to scare him anymore.
He passed away in 2011, at the age of 92. And his ashes were scattered at his favorite spot on Earth. The McKinney Ranch.
But again, that’s not why I’m writing this post. This is merely an excuse to bring up Little Morongo Canyon. I’ve had some memorable adventures in this canyon, myself, just like my uncle during his youthful years. Here I confronted my fear of bears. Here I worked as a real-life, genuine cowboy. Here I was recruited to break up a romance. And here I nearly died, along with my father-in-law.
I’m getting too old for anymore such adventures, so I doubt I’ll ever follow the trails through Little Morongo Canyon again. But I’ll always have my memories. And it’s these memories that I’ll be posting about, during this six-part series.
This is the first installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 2: Touching a Bear .