Taking the Waters in Desert Hot Springs

By Ariana KellyAugust 16, 2015

Taking the Waters in Desert Hot Springs

Photo (detail): David Eng


THERE’S A CERTAIN KIND of person, according to Tod Hackett in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, “who comes to California to die.” They come from the Midwest, with “fever eyes” and “unruly hands,” sent here on doctor’s orders to rest after contracting pneumonia or asthma or tuberculosis from the wet, disease-ridden air east of the Rockies, or they come of their own accord after a lifetime of hard work, ready to enjoy what leisure remains to them in the “land of sunshine and oranges.” Ever since the health rush succeeded the gold rush in the 1880s, thousands of people have been lured to California not by its ore but by its weather. Abbot Kinney, who grew up in Washington, DC, and was a tobacco magnate before he was a conservationist and developer, pronounced himself free of asthma after spending one night at the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel. Harry Chandler didn’t come to Los Angeles from New Hampshire to work for the newspapers; he came to recover from pneumonia he contracted as a college student after jumping into a container of frozen starch. Newspapers came later.

For a brief time after its founding in 1941, Desert Hot Springs — a small city two hours east of Los Angeles, on the other side of the freeway from the more famous Palm Springs — was a boom town. Surrounded by the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountain ranges, the area was originally settled by Cahuilla Indians and is divided by the Mission Creek Fault, a splay of the more famous San Andreas. East of the fault, runoff from Mount San Gorgonio descends through cracks in the rock and then is forced back to the surface by geothermal pressure, where it emerges, hundreds of years later, at temperatures ranging anywhere from 140 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and feeds the city’s more than 20 mineral water spas. To the west, two separate aquifers supply drinking water that routinely wins awards for its quality and taste.

All of the spas in town boast of the water’s curative properties. Rich in minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, iron oxide, chloride, and silica, these “healing” waters, like those once popular in spas throughout Europe, are reputedly able to cure nervous and physical illnesses such as insomnia, depression, poor blood circulation, joint pain, and asthma. “Every sickness, every disease, every ailment,” states a testimonial on the website of The Spring, one of the city’s upper-end spas, “can be traced to a mineral deficiency.” Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant took the waters of Desert Hot Springs, as did Frank Sinatra and Al Capone, and a whole bevy of hopeful snowbirds.

Eventually, though, the boom went bust. The city grew exponentially in the 1980s and ’90s, vaulting from a population of less than 3,000 in the late 1970s to 25,000 by 2010, but much of this expansion was fueled by people buying homes they couldn’t afford and that they were eventually forced to abandon. At the same time, the spa business was losing customers to wealthier, more posh resort areas like Palm Springs. The city went officially bankrupt in 2001, when it prohibited a low-income housing development from being built and was consequently fined three millions dollars for violating the federal Fair Housing Act. It has been in danger of defaulting again since 2013. In order to avoid a second bankruptcy, the city council declared a state of “fiscal emergency,” eliminating jobs and drastically cutting funding for many municipal services. As many as 60 percent of the Coachella Valley’s parolees end up in Desert Hot Springs, making it famous for its high crime rate, gang activity, and abundant drugs. Unsurprisingly, a high percentage of the population has reported mental health problems, and there are proportionately few professionals equipped to deal with them. The city is now often known as “Desperate Hot Springs.”


I’ve spent my entire life vaguely obsessed with my own health, either pestering various doctors for appointments or, when something seemed seriously wrong, giving hospitals a wide berth for fear of being diagnosed with an untreatable illness. When I moved west in my early twenties I started tapping into the vein of alternative medicine that runs deep in this country, particularly on the west coast, trying to fast, meditate, and exercise my way to well being or, at the very least, cleanse my system of all the “toxins” it had absorbed over the years. For the past year I have been trying out life without the anodyne of alcohol and have found myself throwing all of my newfound energy and clarity into biking and yoga and counseling and participating in something called a “work clinic,” a series of classes designed to help people better deal with the stresses that come from simply making a living in America. There’s something unhealthy about how aggressively I need to pursue my own health.

I’ve also spent my entire life reading 19th-century novels in which characters regularly recuperate from various nervous and physical ailments by taking the waters at one spa or another across Europe. After Kitty Shtcherbatsky makes the devastating discovery that Vronsky loves Anna, not her, she is sent to recover at a German spa. To relieve his gout Admiral Croft, in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, goes to take the waters at Bath, where he comes into contact with the Elliots, who are there to socialize without burdening their already strained finances. When Effi Briest is unable to become pregnant with a second child, she travels to the spa Bad Ems, in Germany, during which time her husband becomes aware that she is having an affair.

Desert Hot Springs does not bear any resemblance to the landscape of Bad Ems, or Bath, but the very presence of natural water in the desert is ameliorative. It suggests a kind of elemental survival and, at the same time, a deeper geological time in which any individual’s survival is totally insignificant. The first time I made the two-hour drive along the San Bernardino Freeway, past the industrial cities and the smog of Commerce and Colton, Fontana and San Bernardino, I visited the Desert Hot Springs Hotel, the most affordable and family-friendly spa in the area, with three-dollar day passes on Tuesdays. It sits on the west side of Palm Drive, one of the main thoroughfares through town, and on the outskirts of the “spa zone,” whose boundaries are indicated by small blue and white signs with a single wave surrounded by a few bubbles.

While the rest of the area looked ghostly, with a few people scattered along faded streets lined with taquerías, churches, and fast food joints, the parking lot of the hotel was full: as always, life follows water. Outside the main office, the pool deck was swarming with kids and the atmosphere was more water park than sanatorium. I made the rounds of the multiple pools, but they were crowded, and it was more fun to people-watch than wade in. On the private balconies that looked out on the pools people smoked and drank liberally, while, near the bar, a local band called Muddy Sparks started tuning up.

Many of hotel’s staff seemed to have recently moved to Desert Hot Springs from somewhere else, like Hemet or Fresno or Santa Rosa, and so weren’t familiar with local politics, nor did they seem like they ever would be. Some spoke about the possibility of a Walmart coming to town, a prospect that divides those who think that most of the city’s problems originate from a lack of retail opportunities from those who want the area’s businesses to remain local. Most people who live in Desert Hot Springs find jobs outside of it and consequently spend their money outside of it as well. “This city has always been bankrupt,” Maria, a woman in her forties who worked at the front desk and had recently left a job at a nearby homeless shelter, said. She went on to talk about the area’s huge homeless population, whose continual growth has also taxed the city’s limited resources and which doesn’t look like it will diminish anytime soon.

A couple of miles away from the Desert Hot Springs Hotel is Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, an elaborate pueblo built by Cabot Yerxa, the man perhaps most responsible for the existence of Desert Hot Springs. Yerxa was an adventurer and explorer drawn to the region by the Desert Land Act of 1877. Similar to the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted ownership of land after five years of successful homesteading, the Desert Land Act gave people ownership if the land had been successfully irrigated within three years. The Act was only loosely enforced, however, and because it did not require residency, much of the irrigation was fraudulent, leaving large parts of the desert owned but unlivable. Yerxa’s discovery of a steady water supply was like striking gold. It was Yerxa who located both the hot- and cold-water aquifers when he was digging for water on his property in 1913, thus making the land inhabitable year round for the first time.

I had to look hard to find people at the Desert Hot Springs Hotel who were there for anything medicinal in the water, but I finally found a stained glass builder who told me that he soaked in the waters at least two or three times a month to sooth his aching joints, and to enjoy the company. “It’s too bad you weren’t here a few years ago,” he lamented, “because there were a lot of old-timers who swore by these waters and came every day. But they must have died off.”


People have been taking the waters therapeutically and socially for thousands of years. The waters that Admiral Croft enjoys were first made popular by the Romans, and ancient Rome is the culture most famous for its hydrophilia, having at the height of its empire 962 public baths as well as more than 1,300 fountains. But water cures were popular all over the world, from Egypt to Japan. Waters abundant with particular minerals became associated with cures for specific ailments. The paralytic and apoplectic went to Vichy, France, for example, while the infertile traveled to Forges, France. Waters rich in lithium, such as those at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, were popular with people suffering from “melancholia” as well as gout.

Eventually cures that involved simple regimes of immersion and rest gave way to hydropathy, a much more stringent, comprehensive therapy developed in Austria in the 1840s. This involved being swaddled in wet sheets, plunged into cold baths, taken on exhausting walks, and given endless glasses of water to drink. In the 1800s water cures resurged in popularity, as the scholar James Whorton notes in Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America, due to the dual influence of Romanticism, which encouraged a return to nature and found in water a potent symbol of both life and imagination, and Puritanism, which stirred a fanatical desire to wash the body clean of sin.

Most recently, taking the waters has been popular with the ecologically minded, and associated with rejuvenation and detoxification. One of the most prevalent arguments for water cures is the toxicity of our residential and working environments. Desert Hot Springs is located in the Coachella Valley, which is itself part of the Inland Empire, one of the fastest growing and most polluted areas of California. Unrestrained growth and poor public transportation has led to increased levels of particulate in the air, which the drought, now in its fourth year, has only magnified.

On my second visit I skipped the waters entirely and instead met with Larry Buchanan, the president of the city’s historical society. I expected a native, but Buchanan and his husband Ernie retired here from the Bay Area only five years ago. Still, they are among the city’s biggest boosters. After pointing out where I could stand to see the slender seam of the San Andreas Fault, detectable by the traces left by the plate movement, Buchanan listed reasons to be hopeful. A vacant lot has been purchased for the purpose of building a community garden. In the Visitors’ Center, part of one wall has been devoted to choosing a city bird and flower. This past March, Sun Grow, the city’s first approved marijuana dispensary, opened its doors in Desert Hot Springs with a ceremonial ribbon cutting presided over by the city’s major. The dispensary is already doing a robust business and is considered to be part of the marijuana “green rush,” half of which is based in California. And the spas, which don’t bring in a huge amount of revenue, are notable for surviving while others have disappeared, the aquifers that supply them dried up from overuse.

The recession hit the area hard, Buchanan told me, and the economy has been slow to recover, but the downturn ended up being good for the water supply. Because the area has been governed by tiered water rates since the 1970s, water usage was one of the first areas of spending people tried to save on. Relatively recent ordinances encourage drought-tolerant landscaping and, according to John Soulliere, the spokesperson for the area’s water district, the reputed quality of the water itself encourages conservation. “Brown is the new green,” reads a prominent billboard about a mile down the road from the Desert Hot Springs Hotel.


After the gold rush there were a lot of sickly people wandering around the west, a lot of people who had staked their entire existence on finding a vein of gold or silver and come up empty. One thinks of them at the end of The Day of the Locust, half a century later, when all of the people who have come to California hoping for and believing in a miracle find pleasure only in violence. These are people for whom the “sun is a joke,” and for whom oranges have long since ceased to “titillate their jaded palates.” One thinks of them while reading the numerous articles currently being written about how Los Angeles is booming, and how the more paradisiacal it becomes for some, the more unlivable it becomes for many more.

Recently, my husband and I made reservations at Hope Springs, a small mid-century modern spa whose broken neon sign still reads “Cactus Springs,” a remnant of an earlier brand identity no one has bothered to replace yet. When we arrived, in the mid-afternoon, it was 110 degrees in the shade and every air conditioner hummed in its effort to make a dent against the heat. A few guests floated silently in pools shaded by cypress and palm trees, cacti and Mexican bird of paradise, and no one in the entire compound spoke above a whisper. A small plaque beside the door of our room reminded us of the high quality of the tap water, and we drank copious amounts of it all weekend, finding it pleasant to think of the minerals having all sorts of beneficial, if invisible, effects on our digestive and cardiovascular systems. Toward evening the red lights on the windmills at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains began to blink on and off at a slow pulse, and we watched them until we were tired enough to sleep.

The mornings were still but by late afternoon the wind that moves down the San Gorgonio Pass, between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains, rattled the palm fronds, picked up what was loose and scattered it. The other residents spent long hours reading, and no one felt the compunction to make small talk. I spent most of the time drifting aimlessly around the pools, staring at the way the light striated the pool floors, making them look like the salt flats in Death Valley. “Yes, as everyone knows,” Ishmael says toward the beginning of Moby-Dick, “meditation and water are wedded forever.” Water cures only make this relationship explicit. Lakes, ponds, streams, tarns, rivers, oceans, quarries, pools — all offer physical pleasure and psychological solace. In water we can become clean, begin again. In water we can, like Ishmael, ward off the spleen.

The dwindling supply of water in the west, most of which was already spoken for long ago, makes us fear for more than our physical wellbeing. The bath rings around Lake Mead and Lake Oroville; the earthen patterns left by receding waters; the detritus long thought lost to the deeps suddenly appearing, only half submerged in water; the dried up sump the Colorado River becomes by the time it reaches Mexico; the utter absence of any snow pack to be measured in the Sierras: these images are so terrifying because they are images of exposure. Whether or not El Niño rains relieve southern California’s drought in the coming months, as many are predicting will happen, it won’t be easy to forget how vulnerable — how desperate — the last four years have revealed us to be.


Ariana Kelly’s first book, Phone Booth, is now available from Bloomsbury.

LARB Contributor

Ariana Kelly lives in Los Angeles. Her first book Phone Booth will be out in September 2015.


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