As Tom Waits so eloquently puts it, “When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back.” And I do, believe me, I do, especially when there are cacti in the garden. And so it was that I went in search of a place called The Devil’s Garden, supposedly located at the western end of the Morongo Valley. One of my sources for this expedition was a postcard bearing a photograph by Stephen H. Willard, one of the great, and increasingly well-known photographers of the Mojave desert. His postcard looks like this:
Who wouldn’t be impressed? And if you think that a vintage and undated postcard might not be the very best guide for a walking expedition, well I also had some information from a book by Choral Pepper titled Desert Lore of Southern California. In it she says of the Devil’s Garden, “Here more species of cacti were observable than anywhere else on the Colorado desert. In 1905, desert explorer George Wharton James wrote that the cactus thrived here as if specially guarded.’” This is what George Wharton James looked like:
“Unfortunately,” Choral Pepper continues, “the spiny devils weren’t lethal enough. In the late 1920s when rock gardens were in vogue, truckloads of magnificent barrel cactus … were hauled away. Although the area has never really recovered, there is still a good display.” Well, that was first written in 1994, though the edition I have of the book is from 1999, and she didn’t see any reason to update the text, so I still had some hopes.
Anyway, the map showed a dirt road called “Devil’s Garden” just that, not Devil’s Garden Road or Devil’s Garden Trail, and it looked accessible enough, and really not that long. The plan, as is my way with these things, was to drive some of the way, walk the rest.
Well let me tell you it was a hot day, and the road was very, very much steeper than I’d imagined, and I although I believe I went most of the way to the end, it’s just possible that I missed a vital turn or gave up too soon, but in any case there wasn’t any kind of "garden" and no a barrel cactus in sight, and certainly nothing that looked remotely like that Stephen Willard postcard. Such cacti as there were were scrubby stringy things, like these (admittedly nicely backlit) chollas.
There were however a couple of satisfying finds. One: a good old wrecked car. Sure, of course I believe that people who dump cars in the desert should be taken to a warm, well-lit place and run over a few times, and yet I can never quite get over the fact that a wrecked car always looked pretty good and cool at home in the desert; and sure, maybe clichéd as well.
And then, far more mysteriously, I found that someone had gone to a high place and dumped a number of photograph albums. I think they must have had a very special reason to do a thing like that, but the reason remains unknown to me, not least because the albums had been out in the sun for so long that except for a few tantalizing spots and edges, every one of the photographs had been bleached to a desert whiteness. No need to labor the symbolism there.
Next day I was in Moorten’s Botanical Garden in Palm Springs. Stephen H. Willard used to live in a building that’s now part of it. There’s nothing very devilish about the place, and although it’s fun to walk around, it really isn’t much of an expedition. On the other hand it’s a very good place to see barrel cacti.