To the Bench

When I tell people that my hometown is Banning, California, they nod and recall their drive through the place on the way to Las Vegas. This is a sure sign they don’t know what I’m talking about. Or maybe they do. Banning is a place one only recalls having driven through. But, no, it’s not Las Vegas, which generally involves a drive through that other “B” desert town of Barstow. It’s Palm Springs. The last burg before the resort town is Banning.

Jane and I just returned from two days in Palm Springs, where my brother and sister-in-law hang out for a couple of winter months each year to escape the Seattle rains. And there seemed no escaping it. We had to visit Banning. Jane was curious. I was dubious. But curious too. If memory serves me, and these days it barely does, I was last in my birthplace 50 years ago.

Banning is all about washes. That is to say, wadis or dry riverbeds. It is a place where the Upper Sonoran desert gets even more uppity, tilting from sea level to about 2000 feet in a few imperceptible miles. Two fierce and rugged mountain ranges somehow gave up the tectonic battle at Banning and called a sort of geologic truce, otherwise known as the San Gorgonio Pass. This created a handy conduit for interstate motorways, gas pipelines and a transcontinental railway. Making Banning forever a place on the way to other more important places.

I felt this acutely as a child. I too wanted to get the hell out of town. Meaning, away from my troubled family. And on last week’s brief visit, I still felt much the same way. Still, being a big boy at age 72, I tried to experience being there, as I actually was for most of 16 years. Our former house is still standing. Time has shrunk it. And the house looks a boxier than I recall. The adjoining quarry is either closed or approached through a different gate. And our side of town has fallen into the status of a sort of desert slum. But then that can be said for much of Banning.

The neighborhood I recall closer to the center of the little town has the same feel from my youth. But from this very advanced and adult perspective, its roots are clearer. That is to say artificially planted, by a man whose name I even recall, John Repplier. As I write this, curiosity sparked a quick Google search, revealing that the man, who had a street named after him, was charged with planting trees throughout the desert town. The most effective, and wise arboreal choice, was Italian cedars. These have lasted, and still give the place a distinctive and rather pleasant look. Unfortunately, my Google search took me to the most informative homepage of someone who is a big Trump supporter, and couldn’t avoid mixing Banning history with recommendations to build the wall. Never mind.

As I say, Banning is all about dry rivers. Naturally we drove up the bed of the bone-dry San Gogornio River to an upland area that all locals know as The Bench. The name is apt. The river formed a canyon with remarkably steep walls, and to the west a large plateau extends for miles. Here, the elevation is high enough for cold nights, occasional frost and the growing of peaches and apricots. As a kid, a summer industry sprang up annually, canneries cranking out tinned fruit in reliable quantities. But most of that seems to be gone. 

The drive up The Bench still provides the best view, and the best sense, of the town. Everything is dry. Even dusty. Still, there’s the outline of something else. The San Gorgonio River empties out of the 11,000 foot mountains with the same name where the occasional rain and snow melt can send enough water down the canyon to scour out its geological channel and, in 1938, virtually wash out the town at its base. Banning is crisscrossed by rather attractive storm channels, V-shaped ditches lined with desert rocks, engineered in the wake of the disaster.

Best of all, from The Bench, the other mountain across the desert pass looms in all its conical, snow-capped glory. Mount San Jacinto stares down at us, the same way I stared up at it as a kid. Quite luckily, I went to summer camp in those mountains. Not so many years later I was no longer physically equipped for camping, of course, so the miracle is that I had the experience when I did. It guides me somehow, my time in these mountains. 

It taught me that even in dry, lifeless places, water can suddenly appear to sustain human life. It also taught me that land can rise so steeply that crossing it is more or less impossible, and climbing it is arduous. But that climbs both exhaust and reward, for life in all its forms can appear suddenly and surprisingly. That at 9000 feet, long after cacti have given way to chaparral, then to grass and oak, then pines, one can reach the level of the treeless Alpine zone, water oozing from the ground in mossy springs. Very satisfying to my genetic roots, northern European and not easily attuned to desert.

As for the rest of Banning, my father’s office in the apartment he carved out post-divorce for a residence…it’s still there. The town’s center seems half abandoned, stores shuttered, shop windows blank. Oddly, maybe miraculously, the Fox theater still stands. The marquee describes current films. While on the fringes of Banning, even chains have fled. The town’s Safeway is no longer there. It all looks dry, forgotten, a town to drive through fast on the way to Palm Springs. Which, in the end, we did.

From Palm Springs one gets a different, but more informative view of Mount San Jacinto. I stared at the peak and its recent snow from the morning’s desert rain, as we waited for our flight home. Even Palm Springs, which is very much a going concern, would be nothing without the mountains. They loom, their sharpness unforgettable, their heights astounding. And somehow they beckon. Climbing them is unthinkable, of course. It is also their message.

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