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From Phoenix to Los Angeles through Desert Center, Indio, and Palm Springs


I've driven back and forth between Phoenix and Los Angeles more times than I can count. And I've always hated the drive. Sitting in a car for hours and hours, staring ahead of me at just about nothing but taillights, and the annoyance of passing trucks, isn't my idea of fun. So I've always tried to make it more interesting by stopping at Desert Center, Indio, and Palm Springs.

I haven't been there in years, but I'd imagine that Desert Center, Indio, and Palm Springs are still there. Most of the people that I talk to who have driven from Phoenix to LA are familiar with Indio, it's right on the freeway, but few people have stopped at Desert Center or Palm Springs, which aren't on the freeway.

Desert Center always made me feel as if I was half-way there. I don't know if it's geographically true, and I'm never going to bother to measure the distance, but the name makes me feel as if I'm in the center of my journey. If you've ever stopped there, you can see what's left of the original highway. And there was even a coffee shop that was open the last time I went there, looking as ratty as the rest of the area. It's quiet there, and you can feel the desert.

To me, Indio was the first place that I felt as if I were really in California, where I could get an In-and-Out burger. Of course nowadays you can get In-and-Out burgers in Phoenix, but for years it was strictly a California place. So I would eat an In-and-Out burger in Indio. At this point you've probably figured out that I don't set any speed records, going from Phoenix to Los Angeles! It's true.

Palm Springs isn't really on the freeway, and it's an example of a town that did just fine even though it was bypassed by the freeway. It's nestled in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, and you can even take a trolley from the desert floor up to the peak, over 10,000 feet. I did it once, in the summer, when it was over 100 degrees in Palm Springs, and it wonderfully cool up on the peak. I looked around for a few minutes and rode back down. I'm not rich and famous, so to me that's what Palm Springs is, and I would usually stop at the KFC. I would sit there and eat my chicken, wearing my sunglasses, but I doubt that anyone thought that I was a celebrity.

When you leave Palm Springs, you hit a rise where you can feel the Pacific Ocean for the first time. It's downhill all of the way to LA from there. Most people, who travel with their windows tightly shut and the air conditioning on, don't feel it, but I would always wait for the exact moment. It's when the windmills are on your right. I'd roll down the windows, and there would be a magical moment when I would feel the ocean air, and the desert would be behind me.

Thank you for traveling from Phoenix to LA with me!

I found the map at the top of this post in a 1946 edition of Desert Magazine, and it's a reminder of how much used to be on that road. Nowadays you just set your cruise control and maybe listen to an audiobook. But it didn't used to be like that, and I like to imagine how it was.

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