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

From the June 2013 issue of Desert Report.

“This is a land of illusions and thin air. The vision is so cleared at times that the truth itself is deceptive.” – John Van Dyke, The Desert (1901)

In June of 1936, a Model A Ford Coupe chugged up a dangerous, twisting little road into the Santa Rosa Mountains. The road had been opened a few years before and followed the old Palm To Pines Trail out of one of the coves in the desert that was pushed up against the Santa Rosa Mountains. Forty-eight year old Randall Henderson drove the car and next to him was the twenty-year old J. Wilson McKenney. Both were partners in a newspaper business that owned a few papers in the desert. They were embarking on another of their desert hikes the two had been taking together since McKenney first came to work for Henderson at the Calexico Chronicle in 1930.

The depression still lingered on in America, and the great heat and dust storms from the middle west were creating a steady stream of cars coming out to California on Route 66 just fifty miles north of the Santa Rosa Mountains through the high desert.

Randall Henderson could understand the lure of California for easterners. In April 1907, not yet nineteen years old, he left his little Quaker hometown of Lenox, Iowa, and travelled west to California on a freight train. His first views of California were little more than flashing pieces he could see from peering out through the slatted sides of an empty cattle car on the train. But even through the small cracked openings of the cattle car, he could see California was a magical, magnificent state containing vast barren lands called deserts rimmed by distant purple mountains.

Norton allen
Norton Allen

He arrived in San Francisco on the first anniversary of the great earthquake and through the summer held a job with the Buckingham & Hecht Shoe Company and then travelled south to Los Angeles in September where he entered the University of Southern California. In the next few years he worked his way through USC maintaining various jobs and found time to captain the varsity basketball team. In his senior year and was president of the student body.

But the most significant part of his student life was a part-time job as a sports reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he worked next to ace reporter Harry Carr. Carr became a mentor to the young student and advised him to become a country newspaperman.

After graduating from USC in 1911, Henderson headed east to the desert town of Parker, Arizona, where he worked for a short time as a surveyor’s helper for the U.S. Land Office surveying boundaries and staking out ten-acre allotments for each of the Indians on the Colorado Indian Reservation. His days were spent hewing section lines through mesquite and arrowhead jungles of a fertile river valley. During these days, he became deeply interested in the life of the Indians and came to know many of them personally.

It was during these first months after college that young Henderson got his first real impressions of the desert. He found it to be a fascinating land of strange plant life and hardy creatures that had adopted themselves to the rigors of extreme heat and little rainfall long before the human species arrived. Apart from gaining his first impressions of the desert around the Parker area, he also gained knowledge of the relationship, interdependence and balance within nature undisturbed by the trespass or tools of man. Later this knowledge would become a science called ecology.

The allotment project in Parker proved to be a bureaucratic mistake and was soon abandoned. Henderson took a job at 25 cents an hour as a printer’s apprentice at the weekly Parker Post where he wrote news, solicited advertising and helped with presswork by learning to operate the typesetting machine. Within a year, Henderson returned to Los Angeles to marry the daughter of a painting contractor who had employed him during his college years. The married couple returned to the desert and lived in a small home in Parker.

The Post contained news of the Palo Verde Valley and copies of it were distributed weekly by horseback to Blythe, California. His employer sent him to Blythe to handle news and advertising sales.

Within months, Henderson found partner Myron Watson, and the two men set up their own print shop to publish the Blythe Herald.

It was Henderson’s first of many entrepreneurial ventures in the world of desert publishing.

But WWI interrupted his publishing venture, and he enlisted as an ambulance driver in the 35th Ambulance Unit in France.

Before Armistice, he transferred to the 101 Aero Squadron of the Air Corps, where he learned to fly. When the war was over, Henderson returned to his venture in desert publishing by purchasing the Chronicle in Calexico, California, which he ran for a number of years.

allen saguaro
Norton Allen

In 1930, a young man just of journalism school named J. Wilson McKenney came to work for Henderson at the Chronicle. The Great Depression was beginning to spread, and McKenney was happy to accept an offer to work for Henderson for the $18 a week. He was a native of the desert having grown up in Blythe. In the spring and summer of his first year working for Henderson, McKenney started taking short weekend trips into the desert and mountain country surrounding the Imperial Valley and writing a weekly column for the paper called “Little Journeys on the Desert.” Randall Henderson soon became interested in McKenney’s trips and was a frequent companion on many of them. The two travelled in a 1925 Chevy jalopy called Ol’ Breezy that had a natural gift for hopping over rocks and plowing through sand exploring the desert. And, when Ol’ Breezy finally gave out, Henderson bought a balloon-tired Model A Ford Coupe, and the two continued their trips into the deserts of Baja California, Arizona, and elsewhere along the Colorado River.

For each Monday edition of the Chronicle, McKenney wrote a column about his camping and climbing adventures in out-ofthe- way places all over the desert. McKenney’s column brought more favorable comment than any other piece in the newspaper.

Often Henderson accompanied McKenney on his camping trips to remote canyons where the silence was broken only by their voices or the occasional call of a coyote. The two sat around campfires on these trips talking about subjects in the vast new desert land they lived in. The thought occurred to them that they might be able to give readers a whole magazine full of articles about this desert exploration.

They envisioned a monthly periodical devoted to the desert, its people, wildlife, arts and crafts, minerals, history, lost mine legends, ghost towns, Indian life and lore as well as its travel and recreational opportunities. The magazine would contain photographs and maps and as much human interest as they could pack into it.

The magazine at first was just a dream of both of them. But they began to discuss seriously the feasibility of a desert magazine as well as the details of its production.

On their trips the two were often poetic and even prophetic.

They would change the prevailing concept that the desert is a desolate and hostile wasteland. They would take future readers of a desert magazine behind the grim mask of the outward arid landscape to the land they had come to know. It was a land having character and charm only for those who come with understanding.

They seemed to know that the health-giving sunshine, night skies studded with diamonds and breezes that bore no poisons, and landscapes of radiant pastels were fragile things that could be destroyed. They wanted the words and pictures of their desert magazine to reflect this new world the two of them saw, lived within, and wrote about.

Randall Henderson was becoming more and more tied to the desert during these years. In addition to camping with McKenney, he went on long wilderness expeditions with his teenaged son Rand.

They left records of their ascents in the cairns at the tops of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio peaks in Southern California and Mt. Lassen in the northern part of the state. One night in fact, the two of them slept in the summit cabin of Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the California Sierra.

Although Henderson was becoming more influenced by the vast desert around him, he was also becoming influenced by the unusual, eccentric characters who lived and wrote about the desert during this time. In the background there was that early classic called The Desert written in 1901 by the eastern art critic John Van Dyke that first brought the desert into modern attention and wrapped it in a romantic presence. And there was Mary Austin the prolific author of desert novels and defender of Indian rights.

But Henderson was also influenced by the eclectic group of characters that inhabited the desert during the early decades of the twentieth century. It was really the last American frontier. There was the former Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver, who first visited Borrego Valley in 1916 and began adopting his Desert Rat persona that would later become the popular Desert Rat Scrapbook in the 1940s.

There were the members of Pegleg Smith Liar’s Club founded by Oliver and “Desert” Steve Ragsdale made up of Los Angeles desert enthusiasts and Anza- Borrego area homesteaders. In the following decades, Hollywood and Los Angeles artists and literati established a small vacation colony at Borrego Springs, more remote and modest than the Hollywood colony in Palm Springs.

There was Steve Ragsdale, an itinerant preacher and cotton farmer from Arkansas, who founded the town of Desert Center when his car broke down in 1915 on a trip between Phoenix and Los Angeles near a place called Gruendyke’s Well. Ragsdale later returned to buy out Gruendyke and moved his family to this remote spot in the desert where they established a famous motorist stop for early desert travelers.

And of course there was Marshal South, perhaps the greatest of all desert eccentrics at this time. In 1930, Marshal South and his wife drove their Model T Ford into Blair Valley, a desolate area west of the Salton Sea maintained by the General Land Office (what was later to become the Bureau of Land Management) before it became Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Both Marshal and his wife Tanya were writers and artists who reached the end of their financial resources during the first part of the Great Depression and went into the desert wilderness to establish a new home and life.

A desert historian once suggested there is a running debate among desert aficionados about whether the desert attracts eccentrics or whether there is some mystical quality that turns normal people into oddballs once they get there. Perhaps the truth is somewhere between the two and always will be somewhere between them.

Who would explore this truth between these debates? Rejoining Henderson and McKenney on that hot day in June of 1936, the two men travelled high up into the Santa Rosa Mountains. The white ball of the fierce summer sun hovered in a cinema blue sky behind clouds that came and went overhead as if they were on their way to important destinations. The great heat wave from the east was having an effect in the desert and the atmosphere was filled with an invisible, crackling electricity like an epic storm was approaching.

After an hour of travelling over brutal switchbacks, the road leveled off in a valley at the top of the mountains. Up here, the brutal heat of the desert floor had lost thirty degrees, and there were trees and shrubs and soon a scattering of buildings called Pinyon Flats. They left the road at Pinyon Flats and drove down a rough, narrow and steep road to the top of the Santa Rosa Mountains and camped for the night in the log cabin of their friend “Desert” Steve Ragsdale. They were at a place called Pinyon Flats and drove up the road to the top of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

The night was clear of the clouds of the day and the stars never seemed more brilliant or the air more bracing.

The next morning they walked eastward along the forested ridge, pausing often to marvel at the magnificent panorama of desert and mountains that stretched to the far horizons in all directions.

They talked about starting a magazine with growing enthusiasm. Their talk ranged from the coldly realistic to flights of idealism, from problems of selling advertising space to the values of a poetry page.

“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.

To be continued in the next issue….

Please see the Notes section of desertreport.org for references and author’s notes.

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.