August 9, 2009

The Road to Palm Springs, Part One: Reaching Orbit

Orbit In entrance, July 16, 2009 (click all photos to enlarge)

Those of us who follow Route 66 and other old highways are all too familiar with vintage motels that defy age and cultural obsolescence, but typically cling to life by a thread and some well-placed duct tape. So it was a thrill to arrive in Palm Springs one hot July day and discover that the city's modernist movement has sparked the rebirth of several mid-century motels. Not only do they look better than ever, they carry a cool, upscale atmosphere and rank at the top of any Palm Springs traveler's must-see list.

Some personal backstory: midway through last month's photo trip (read here), I'd fallen into a bad slump after an evening by the Salton Sea where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. So I'd departed Indio with plans to head back to LA. While entering Palm Desert, a little voice suggested taking the long route back via Highway 111. I hadn't visited Palm Springs in over a decade, and being a fan of photographer Julius Shulman -- who had captured so many timeless images in this desert town -- the timing seemed right. Besides, I'd heard about this restored motel called the Orbit In . . .

That afternoon, with the mercury at 116 degrees, I stumbled upon the Orbit In with its atomic-era sign and closed gate. As I approached to peek inside, manager Jade Nelson spotted me and invited me in for a tour. For the next 40 minutes it was 1957 again, the year this hotel opened as The Village Manor. Portland residents Christy and Stan Amy purchased the aging motel in 1999; aided by Shulman's photos, they transformed it into today's Orbit In. The mid-century hotel reopened in March 2001 and Shulman himself was a guest at the grand opening party, signing copies of his book Modernism Rediscovered. In 2002 the Orbit was joined by an expansive sister hotel, the Hideaway, located nearby.

Julius Shulman was on my mind as I snapped photos of the courtyard in gorgeous late day sun. The Orbit lies at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains which add a stark, beautiful backdrop. As shadows slowly engulfed the pool area, it was time to tour "Atomic Paradise," one of the Orbit's nine rooms with decor straight out of a mid-century design museum.

The heat eventually drove me to the outdoor bar and its phalanx of misters, where I enjoyed the company of Jade and a fun couple who'd recently driven Route 66.

My thanks to Jade for an ultra-cool afternoon. If you're a fan of 1950s desert architecture, or looking to escape the bland sameness of today's hotel chains, check out the Orbit In. Their website is Yes, it's a shameless plug. Yes, I hope to return as a guest.

August 4, 2009

Snapshots from the Edge

Desert Speedboat, West Palm Springs
(click to enlarge)

I was waiting for enough free time to write something witty or insightful for today's post . . . but the way things have been lately, that might not happen 'til August 2010. So, here are a few snapshots from a pivotal trip to Southern California last month, shooting new material for a possible second book. The roadside-related project isn't exactly on a fast track . . . but it also won't take 18 years like the last one. :-)

Squeezed between two weekend weddings, these 5 days of shooting took me to wonderful extremes of geography and culture that make California famous, as well as some unexpected high and low points. Bottom line, I was happy with the first "test drive" for this concept -- a good sign. Hope you enjoy the samples below. (*click images to "biggify")

Safari Inn at twilight, Burbank

Tramway Road, Palm Springs

Signs, Echo Park, Los Angeles

Union Pacific eastbound, Salton Sea

House of Spirits liquor store, Los Angeles

PS - Watch for photos soon from the amazing "Orbit In" hotel, one of the highlights of an impromptu stay in Palm Springs.