What Happens When You Talk Around Campfires And Hike Up Desert Peaks

This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report. Part I of this article can be found in the June, 2013 issue of Desert Report.

“Let’s sell the Herald,” Randall finally said. “And I’ll dispose of the Chronicle. It’ll give us some limited capital to get started.” “Yes,” agreed the young McKenney. He was sure that it was the right thing to do.

Eventually, the men reached what seemed to be the peak in the Santa Rosa Mountains. From their lofty point it seemed possible to toss pebbles into the barren desert cove below.

A decision was made at that moment to start a desert magazine that would embody this vision and feeling they had about the desert and to establish it in the open desert below that would become Palm Desert in ten years.

Drawing by Norton Allen
Drawing by Norton Allen

But the actual Palm Desert location for the enterprise would have to wait. A little over a year after their trip into the Santa Rosa Mountains, the two launched Desert Magazine in El Centro, California in November of 1937. In the first issue, Randall Henderson stated the mission of the magazine in a famous article titled “There Are Two Deserts.” Henderson observed that there are two deserts: “One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insects, of vicious thorn-covered plants and trees, and of unbearable heat. This is the desert seen by the stranger speeding along the highway, impatient to be out of ‘this damnable country.’ It is the desert visualized by those children of luxury to whom any environment is unbearable which does not provide all of the comforts and services of a pampering civilization.

It is a concept fostered by fiction writers who dramatize the tragedies of the desert for the profit it will bring them. But the stranger and the uninitiated see only the mask. The other Desert— the real Desert-—is not for the eyes of the superficial observer, or the fearful soul or the cynic. It is a land, the character of which is hidden except to those who come with friendliness and understanding. To these the Desert offers rare gifts: health-giving sunshine—a sky that is studded with diamonds—a breeze that bears no poison—a landscape of pastel colors such as no artist can duplicate—thorn-covered plants which during countless ages have clung tenaciously to life through heat and drought and wind and the depredations of thirsty animals, and yet each season send forth blossoms of exquisite coloring as a symbol of courage that has triumphed over terrifying obstacles. To those who come to the Desert with friendliness, it gives friendship; to those who come with courage, it gives new strength of character. Those seeking relaxation find release from the world of man-made troubles. For those seeking beauty, the Desert offers nature’s rarest artistry.

This is the Desert that men and women learn to love.” The magazine is published out of El Centro for a number of years but in November of 1944, the two men move the publishing operations from El Centro to Palm Desert and into a famous adobe building that became known as the Desert Magazine Building. It was right at the beginning of a new street called El Paseo in Palm Desert created by Randall’s brother Clifford as the cornerstone for his new town. The brothers were very different. Clifford was the great developer of the desert and Randall the great conservationist of the desert. The magazine was published from this location for twenty years into the late 60s, when Randall sold the operation and retired to write his memoirs of his amazing life. Randall Henderson passed away on July 6, 1970. He was 82 years old.

Today, Desert Magazine is considered one of the greatest regional publications in American history and the greatest periodical the desert has ever had. Through its pages, thousands and thousands first learned about the wonders of the “other” desert that Randall first wrote about in 1937 in his famous essay. In its pages were contained the writings of a wondrous collection of characters like Steve Ragsdale, Harry Oliver and Marshal South who became the magazine’s most popular writer with his dispatches from Ghost Mountain.

Much has changed in the seventy-five years since Desert Magazine started publishing. The barren little cove the two men once looked down on is now filled with the sprawling city of Palm Desert that stretches out towards Interstate 10 and the big casino of the Aqua Caliente Indians. The Desert Magazine Building was turned into a steakhouse for a number of years and then lost its status as a historical building and is now wedged behind a modern office building. There is talk the building will be torn down to make room for some new development in the bustling desert city.

Clifford Henderson’s El Paseo has become a legendary, world-class shopping street attracting the world’s most exclusive brands to its mile long length.

Right in the middle of the El Paseo shopping district on a median strip meticulously maintained by the City of Palm Desert, there is a bronze statue of Clifford Henderson and a plaque recognizing him (in effect) as Mr. Palm Desert. A few miles away, right off the Palm to Palms Highway (now a busy road with a steady stream of traffic coming and going down towards San Diego) is a plaque recognizing Randall Henderson as Mr. Desert. The two designations for the brothers are appropriate. Clifford Henderson promoted his town in the desert while Randall always promoted just the desert.

The plaque for Randall Henderson is appropriately on a desert boulder at the beginning of the Randall Henderson Trail. The trail meanders through a small canyon in the beginning foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. It is rated as an easy hike in Philip Ferranti’s local hiking guide. But still, a forty-minute hike will take you to a ridge where you can see ten miles into Palm Springs at the bottom of the mighty San Jacinto Mountain in the west and Indian Wells and Eisenhower Peak in the east.

Drawing by Norton Allen
Drawing by Norton Allen

While the view from the ridge at the top of the Randall Henderson Trail is not the view Henderson and McKenney saw from the top of the mountain in 1936, it does serve to inspire visitors and tourists who want a quick escape from the golf courses, restaurants, hotels and shops of Palm Desert, who want to get away like Randall Henderson from the “comforts and services of a pampering civilization” and see the world with new eyes if only for a few minutes between the demands of electric screens and buzzing devices.

But for the more hearty hikers, Palm Desert today contains one of the greatest collections of trails of any city in America.

There is the Bump & Grind Trail that rises right behind the local Target store and gets your heart pumping within two minutes out from the trailhead. There is the Art Smith Trail that relentlessly ascends high up into the Santa Rosa Mountains right across the road from the Randall Henderson Trail. There is the Hopalong Cassidy Trail that runs along the rim of the Santa Rosa foothills above the exclusive Big Horn community. In large part the trails of Palm Desert (and all of Coachella Valley) are testaments to the vision of Desert Magazine and the spirit and passion of Randall Henderson.

And, although much has changed in the seventy-five years since Desert Magazine started publishing, there still seem to exist those two deserts Randall Henderson observed in his first editorial for Desert Magazine. There still is the “mask” of the real desert seen by “the stranger and the uninitiated” and the “superficial observer.” But under the mask, there is still the real desert, its character hidden except to those who come with friendliness and understanding.” There will always be these two deserts of Randall Henderson because there will always be these two deserts that wage perpetual battle inside all of us. The visible “mask” of the outside cultural world and the invisible, hidden world of nature behind the mask.

On certain days when the winds have kicked up dust in the Coachella Valley, a pinkish haze hovers between the two centurion peaks of Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio and the haze in the pass through Banning takes on the quality of some boundary line between civilization and nature so that Los Angeles seems much further away than just two hours west behind the pink haze.

Five years before Randall Henderson ventured to California inside the empty cattle car, the art critic and early desert explorer John Van Dyke wrote “The desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years. It never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover.” In Randall Henderson, the desert finally has both a lover and a sacred poet.

John Fraim is President of GreatHouse Marketing Strategy and GreatHouse Images in Palm Desert, California. He grew up in Los Angeles and has been coming to the desert since he was a few years old. He has a B.A. in History from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School and is the author of Spirit Catcher: The Life & Art of John Coltrane, Battle of Symbols and Editor of Point Zero Bliss as well as many articles and essays.