Im driving east on the I-10 freeway on a recent Saturday, blasting Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” loud enough to rattle the windows of my Mini Cooper. Never mind that it’s only 8:16 a.m. (Ordinarily, I would be nodding indignantly to the world news on NPR.) Or the fact that I belted out this anthem more than 40 years ago in my tween bedroom. Just as I get my first glimpse of the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountain ranges, which cradle the desert outside Los Angeles, the lyrics hit me hard: I’m definitely not “just a small town girl” anymore—and even worse, I didn’t “hold on to that feelin’.” Can a weekend alone in a dusty desert town known for its rejuvenating mineral springs make me believe again?
This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.
Hilda M. Gray thought so. In 1909, at the age of 37, the petite former schoolteacher trekked by herself to my destination—Desert Hot Springs—to become the area’s first white settler under the Homestead Act of 1862. She ultimately staked ownership of 160 acres not far from the resort where I’ll be spending my first night. According to lore, Gray planted a makeshift flag near the local water hole where she bathed in the nude every week. Her little dog, Trixie, barked if others approached. At the time, Gray had no idea she was soaking in healing mineral-rich geothermal water that would become the area’s main tourist draw. The second known homesteader, Cabot Yerxa, came across a running hot spring in 1913 when he dug a well outside his rustic cabin. A century later, the chance to soak in that spring and others attracts thousands of wellness seekers to the nearly 40 hotels, spas, and resorts in Desert Hot Springs.
I have never been one of them until today. To reach Desert Hot Springs from Los Angeles, you zip by the exit for Palm Springs and swing a hard left onto Highway 62, which cuts through San Bernardino County and eventually leads to the Arizona border. (The town of Joshua Tree also dots the 62, about 27 miles northeast of Desert Hot Springs.) Along the way, you won’t see much except the looming mountains that flank the road like a natural fortress. Incidentally, Palm Springs may steal all the glory as a glamorous desert destination, but the city should go by Palm Spring because there’s just one source of mineral water there, on land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. A cultural center with a museum and a spa is set to open this year. Until then, Desert Hot Springs is the only locale in the area offering veritable fountains of youth.
As I pull into town, it’s not hard to imagine Gray’s first gander at the area. The views of the mountains are panoramic. But present-day Desert Hot Springs doesn’t welcome you with lush emerald lawns and sleek midcentury architecture like Palm Springs, 11 miles to the south. Many of the vaguely Spanish-style houses clustered in developments are drab in hue; empty plastic bags cartwheel along the side of the road like toxic tumbleweeds. In fact, entering Desert Hot Springs would be forgettable if it weren’t for the promise of the hot and cold aquifers that burble about 35 feet below the streets. The context is literally buried, so it’s hard to get a sense of place as I pass a half dozen fast-food joints along the main thoroughfare.
Desert Hot Springs has been touted as the next big thing many times since land developer L.W. Coffee proclaimed “When you’ve got water, you can build a city” in the early 1930s—and opened the first spa about a decade later. I know that feeling. If you’re middle-aged, like me, you’ve had your share of fits and starts too. Maybe a teacher saw promise in you early on? Or you landed a job with a fast-track trajectory? If you think back, you can still recall feeling like a crisp $20 bill: no rips, no wrinkles. Now, you’re spent. Desert Hot Springs had its heyday as a destination in the 1950s and ’60s, when more than 200 hotels and spas were sprinkled across its 23 square miles. It became known as Spa City. Decades later, there isn’t much hotel development on the horizon—but there are still lots of options, from the quaint and shabby-chic, Casablanca-inspired El Morocco to the rowdy, nudist Sea Mountain Inn to the newest property, Azure Palm Hot Springs, a two-story boutique hotel with a café, a Himalayan-salt room, and a gift shop.
Hands down, Two Bunch Palms is the most upscale and luxurious spa resort in town right now. (Who can forget the scene in The Player where the heady studio exec played by Tim Robbins lies in a mud bath at Two Bunch that looks more like a fresh grave?) It’s also the most expensive—about $500 for a weekend night—and the most expansive, with 63 rooms featuring mini patios spread out over 72 acres of succulents and winding paths. I check in and immediately clock the abundance of Teslas. (Note to Elon Musk: Picture a “spa-dealership.” Just a thought.) During my overnight visit, a congenial millennial wedding party dominates the mineral-spring grotto pool, but there are plenty of scattered wooden tubs that you fill with 100-plus-degree spring water from copper spigots. Tasked with the tall order of “finding myself,” I promptly plop into one for a soak and stare up through the palm fronds at the cloudy sky. The odorless, lithium-laden water buoys me so that my knees rise above the surface. My skin looks plumper and feels silky, as if I’ve just applied almond oil. I close my eyes and reflect on the present. Am I where I want to be in life? Not exactly. I vowed to write a novel by 40. That hasn’t happened. And why haven’t I mastered a handstand after 14 years of doing yoga? My 401(k) is a disgrace… When a thirtysomething couple takes over a tub a few yards away and starts cooing, I’m grateful for the distraction from my failures.
Two Bunch Palms dates back over 80 years and has reinvented itself as many times as Madonna. The story goes that Al Capone built the original stone structure in the 1920s and used it as a hideaway, which then became a mob magnet in the 1950s. Currently, you can stay in the Capone Master, Junior, or Studio Suite, but a local historian, water activist, and former spa-resort owner named Jeff Bowman assures me that the gangster legacy was completely “made up” by a previous owner of the resort and remains an inside joke among the town’s residents. (Apparently, a fake bullet hole once marred a mirror, and someone scratched “A.C.” into a desktop.) The present proprietor has wisely leaned into spiritual well-being as an amenity. I take a gentle vinyasa class in the very cool Celestial Yoga Dome and attend a wonderfully communal “Angel Messages” workshop with psychic Donna Sacks, who asks all 15 of us to pick two cards for a brief individual reading. “Monica, you’re a creator, and you finally have the freedom to do whatever you want. Don’t worry about what you haven’t done. Now is your time,” she tells me.
Existentially, I agree. And the first thing I do with that freedom is move to my next stay, at Miracle Manor. En route, I stop at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum to tour the mammoth Hopi-
inspired scrap-materials house the settler Yerxa built to showcase his Native art and artifacts like cans of “elbo spaghetti” and bottled quinine elixirs. The cramped rooms and narrow staircases feel especially confining in comparison with the vast surrounding desert hills. It’s almost as if Yerxa needed to feel larger than life somewhere. A framed handwritten note from his wife, Portia, to a friend reads, “Have a darling hubby—artist and writer. We are very happy.”
I contemplate Portia’s simple summation of their life as I languish in the mineral-spring hot tub at Miracle Manor. Unlike Two Bunch Palms, this former motel that originally opened in 1949 feels authentic to developer Coffee’s vision: a quaint, affordable place “where wealth in health greets you.” The rooms, starting at $240 per weekend night, are chic but also spartan: a comfortable platform bed, macramé wall hangings, straw hats for exploring the nearby hills or lounging by the mineral-spring pool. My room has a kitchenette, which harks back to the days when visitors would stock up on groceries, cook meals in the room, and stay for a week of restoration. (Many still do shop at the local Vons and set up camp.) There is no TV to tempt me to mindlessly zone out in bed and avoid introspection, like I did the night before. To enhance my self-awareness, I engage local masseuse Rhonda Duval for strenuous bodywork. She manipulates my muscles like I’m wet clay on a potter’s wheel and finishes with some life-energy healing. Duval lives on a nearby ranch with her mustangs Miracle, Natoma, and Medicine Woman. I inquire about my energy. She tells me, “Monica, you’re very healthy.”
On my final night, I devote an hour to utter stillness and stargazing while submerged in the healing water. Some claim that Desert Hot Springs is an energy vortex, or a place where natural forces converge. With its geothermal springs and earthquake faults alone, the area qualifies. Add to that medley some mountain peaks and high winds, and you can convince yourself that you’re in the cradle of spiritual awakening. That’s what I do, anyway. For a moment, I shut out the stars, sigh, and reflect: So what if I haven’t finished a novel yet? Who really cares about handstands? I’m a creator. I have freedom. I’m very healthy. Really, isn’t that all I need to start believin’?•