A Doug's Life: Becoming a Desert Rat

I think I was right after all.

When I moved from the San Gabriel Valley to Menifee, I told people I was relocating to the desert. They pictured a cabana next to the pool in Palm Springs and cactus everywhere. OK, I said, it's the edge of the desert.

Then I sat and waited almost eight months for the desert weather to set in. Last October, I could sit in the spa at night and look up at the countless stars. But much of the time since then, I have endured gloomy skies, rain and nighttime temperatures in the 30s. I thought summer in the desert would never get here.

Now this is more like it.

Say what you want. Granted, I haven't seen a whole lot of cacti nor one roadrunner since I got here. Seems there are more horses than lizards or snakes. But you know what? Even if this is just the edge of the desert, I'll take it. I find it kind of therapuetic, if the heat and desert breezes stick around.

The dry heat, clear skies and solitude of the desert has always meant vacation time to me. It started when I was a kid, when my parents would take my sisters and me to Desert Hot Springs for weekend retreats. They would relax in the whirlpools of hot mineral water. I would jump in and out of the cold pool, stare at the stars at night and look for scorpions.

It was the ultimate get-away. Oh sure, we would frequent the beach and the mountains, each of which have their own appeal. But to me, the desert was the premier destination for die-hard adventurers.

Of course, weather conditions were not always perfect. My grandparents lasted only about a year after retiring to a mobile home park in Desert Hot Springs in the 1960s. Grandma hated the windstorms. Said she was tired of cleaning sand out of the window sills (on the inside). And so ended my weekend trips for hours of swimming, hiking and shuffleboard.

Even when I grew to adulthood and experienced more of the desert's weather challenges, I stood firm in my passion for the desert environment. My first newspaper job was in Barstow, where my bare feet would hit the cold tile floor every day at 5 a.m. with the temperature near freezing. It wasn't my idea of the perfect desert experience, but there were always enough old men with sun-scorched, leather-like skin around to keep the vision alive.

Then there were the ghost towns.

Just outside Barstow, it was Calico, the remnants of an old silver mining town. It has a mine shaft you can walk into and an old train to ride, plus a few authentic western buildings among the sand dunes. But it was renovated by the folks at Knott's Berry Farm several years back and is a bit too commercialized for my liking.

You want real desert and a real ghost town? Drive up Highway 395 past Ridgecrest, head east toward Death Valley and explore the adobe remains at Ballarat, where gold was discovered in the 1890s at the foot of the Panamint Mountains. I took the wife and kids out there in a van one hot, dusty summer afternoon. I was fascinated. They wondered where the coke machine was.

Keep heading north on 395 and you'll find the turnoff for ghost towns on both the California and Nevada sides of the highway. The best I've ever seen is Bodie, located east of the 395 and a few miles south of Bridgeport. But now we're getting out of the desert and up toward Lake Tahoe, which is another story.

For now, I'll stick with Menifee. We have a good mix of dry desert heat, sparkling lakes, Indian ruins and old mine shafts within easy driving distance. Yep, it's going to be quite a desert summer. Now where's the sunscreen?


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