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Set in wartime Gettysburg in 1863 and in Southern California in the years immediately following, Moonlight in Dos Palmas brings together two strong, original characters---a devoted mother and her son's rebellious young widow in a compelling story of friendship and emotional healing.

Trail of the Bradshaw Stage Line at Dos Palmas

Short walk to oasis along San Andreas and El Alamo Trail and challenging hike to Dos Palmas Preserve

"New Fangled Slumgullion"

Bleak, chocolate-colored escarpments loom over the sun-blistered desert floor like sentinels. Clouds of dust stirred up by wooden wheels and pounding hooves signal an approaching stagecoach. Dressed in long black duster and leather hat, a "knight of the silk" cracks his whip.

Parched passengers, obsessed with water having endured long waterless miles and terrible alkali water, strain to see two green fan palm trees like exclamation points on the horizon marking an oasis. Dos Palmas Stagecoach Station is now in sight; a flat-roofed structure thatched with overhanging palm fronds. Arriving passengers and animals could now drink their fill of water. Travelers would relax in the grass and bathe in the warm pool in this utter isolation and reclaim their sanity.

What makes this torturous mode of travel in the Old West seem so romantic and exciting to us that we ended up in the Colorado Desert on the Trail of the Bradshaw Stage Line at Dos Palmas? Maybe we are as entranced with this past method of travel as Easterners were in the 1860s reading about "seeing the elephant" in the Far West. This common expression of the time meant either to venture out into new territory with high hopes or to return home having seen more than enough disappointment.

Is this why I had jumped from the car against the wishes of the "threshold guardian?" I now realized the historic Dos Palmas was not the small San Andreas Oasis we had just hiked near the parking area but an unknown distance and location down a gated road posted, "ONLY WALKING."

Dos Palmas

Walking furiously down the dirt road toward the unknown, I pondered the answer. Did I half hope that some remnant of the Dos Palmas stage station days would still remain? Was I perhaps chasing handsome William D. Bradshaw himself who forged the Bradshaw Trail? I longed for a stage coach to pull up, open the door and let me join the passengers.

A stagecoach and driver of a different sort does arrive in a strange way for me; the coach is not made of varnished live oak but of metal and steel. A large green vehicle with flat bed and bulldozer on top, a Bureau of Land Management truck comes to a stop courteously not wishing to pelt me with gravel. A bearded knight steps down from his cab and in answer to my question: "Where is Dos Palmas?" invites me to step up on the flat bed to scan the horizon for the faraway palms. Making sure my water bottle is full, he disappears down the undulating road, agreeing to tell Mom and Dad that I am on the right path. Following a sign and an arrow, I leave the road on a diagonal path toward the green oasis, passing ponds reflecting an aquamarine sky.

The BLM and Nature Conservancy manage the 30,000 acre oasis preserve I walk, a significant Sonoran desert wetland habitat nestled on the floor below the Orocopia and Chocolate Mountains. Abundant fresh water from a perennial flow along earthquake faults supports the fan palms, avian and aquatic life including the rare Yuma clapper rail and endangered desert pupfish. Dos Palmas, purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1989, includes 14,000 acres with old fish ponds. On the Pacific flyway between the Colorado and the Mohave Deserts, the Preserve provides an essential habitat for millions of resident and visiting migratory birds; this makes it one of the foremost birding areas in all the Southwest. I spot only one bird near the edge of a pond, my lone companion on the trail.

Gold Discovered

Native Americans used the Dos Palmas Spring as a major stopping point for travel. When gold was discovered in La Paz, (near present day Ehrenberg, Arizona across the Colorado River) in 1862, William D. Bradshaw was chosen to find the best route to the mines from the pueblo of Los Angeles.

It is said this charming Southern gentleman had a gift for speaking dialects. Perhaps this is why when he had a fortuitous meeting with Chief Cabezon and a visiting Maricopa Indian from Arizona, they drew Bradshaw a map of the ancient trade route across the desert and important water holes; information which had never been shared with Anglos.

The newspaper in Los Angeles printed Bradshaw’s description of the route helping to publicize this trail which ran through the Salt Creek wash between the Orocopia and Chocolate Mountains to the Colorado River. Dos Palmas was then used as a stage stop along the water-starved Bradshaw Trail. The sight of the oasis, Dos Palmas, when it was a "home station" must have been welcome indeed.

The "home station" provided a place to sleep and food usually of questionable quality. Whips or Jehus, as these fleet drivers were called, switched here to continue the trip on to Los Angeles. When it was only a "swing station" passengers got a less satisfying stop, maybe a mid-day meal. Replacing the tired team with fresh livestock was the main objective.

I keep my eye on the Oasis which seems close but it is as if I am running in place in a dream. This is a landscape where the imagination can run wild. The palms never seem to be in reach, only patches of white alkali and thickets of gray mesquite. I keep looking back, keenly concerned not to lose my sense of direction back to the road, and rush forward into the past.

Dos Palmas played a major role along the trail and became a junction for roads leading to mines in the desert and mountains. A serious blow was dealt to stage travel in 1878, when the Southern Pacific Railroad opened lines to San Bernardino making travel in this unforgiving stretch of desert less hazardous.

The Bradshaw Trail, though used less by travelers, remained in service throughout the mining era of the turn of the century. An ore mill built at Dos Palmas serviced the miners working the Orocopia mountains. Desert prospectors found rejuvenation in the spring for themselves and their trustworthy pack burros.

Tales of missing gold always pique keen interest in amateur prospectors. One such story figures in Dos Palmas history. A road agent held up the stage from La Paz, murdering the driver, getting away with the "treasure box," the stage coach strong box filled with gold. Confident enough to rob the stage but arrogant to the extreme, the bandit bought a round of drinks for passengers at the bar at Dos Palmas. The bandit becoming suspicious that the sheriff had been notified tried to escape but was killed. Because very little gold was found on his body, the story circulated that he had buried the rest of his booty somewhere along the trail. Many searches have been made but the treasure is always undetected and only the desert sands know the truth.

The Dos Palmas property changed hands many times until 1939 when it was operated as a guest ranch. In World War II, the land was used by General Patton as part of his Desert Army Training Center. The series of mirage imitating pools of water remain from the days when Dos Palmas was more recently a commercial fish farm.

In the distance, hundreds of palms instead of the original two proliferate, screening the heart of Dos Palmas Oasis from me. I feel the exhilaration of being alone in a wild place which now belongs only to the palms. Estimating it would take another hour or two of exploring, I think of Mom and Dad sweltering in a hot car waiting behind the gate. Abandoning my attempt to reach the phantom station and its mysteries, I stop chasing the past and race back to the car. With the scent of mesquite in the cool wind behind me, retreating in defeat, I realize I have found not the romance of stage days but the loneliness, the separation and the uncertainty of the stage traveler in a hostile environment.

At the end of my run and at the car I am greeted with: "You look hot as a beetle!" Just starting to get irritated and worried about my long absence, Mom says the earlier morning exploration of the San Andreas Oasis was certainly an easier task! But I had seen the "elephant" and they had not.

Before my trek to Dos Palmas, we had walked the San Andreas and El Alamo Trail. Here our footprints mingled with the prints of a road runner, a coyote and a little snake who had crossed the rock-edged path to the spring ahead earlier. Entering into the palm-protected grotto, we meandered through a small oasis. When we left our tracks were soon brushed away by the wind but we took away the remembrance of unseen life and things past.

Travel Notes:

From Palm Springs take Interstate 10 southeast to Indio. Exit on Dillon Road and turn right toward Coachella. At the first stoplight just over the railroad tracks turn left, southeast, onto Highway 111. Stay on Highway 111 by taking the left fork toward Niland at the junction with Highway 86. Proceed on Highway 111 through the towns of Coachella, Thermal and Mecca to the Salton Sea about 10 miles southeast of Mecca. Look to your right for the Park Headquarters for the Salton Sea State Recreation area. Turn left opposite the park onto Parkside Drive. Take Parkside to its end, about 2 miles, and turn right on Desert Aire. Follow Desert Aire to its end and turn left onto the unnamed dirt road. Take the next left fork and follow the signs to Dos Palmas. There is parking near the San Andreas Trail. Dos Palmas is reached on foot only.

In 1974, Riverside County officially named the road from Dos Palmas east to Ludy Boulevard in Palo Verde Valley, the Bradshaw Trail. Nothing remains of the Dos Palmas stage station.

Western frontier slumgullion was a meat and vegetable stew unflatteringly named for the mud that comes out of the downhill end of a sluice, a trough used for washing gold-bearing dirt in a placer mine. Possibly it was served at the home station at Dos Palmas. Perhaps by newspaper, this recipe was circulated in the Midwest and my Grandmother made her own version which incorporated macaroni.

New Fangled Slumgullion


1 pound lean ground turkey or hamburger

1 tablespoon oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 stalk celery, diced

¼ red or green pepper, diced (if desired)

One 28 ounce can diced tomatoes

¼ teaspoon sugar

1/3 pound small elbow macaroni

1 cup water

Sea salt

Freshly ground pepper


Heat oil over medium heat in heavy skillet. Sauté meat until no longer pink. Add onion, celery, garlic and red or green pepper and continue cooking until onion is opaque. Add tomato, sugar, salt and pepper. Cook 20 minutes more. Add 1 cup water and uncooked macaroni. Cook 20 more minutes until macaroni is tender. Serves 5-6.

©Copyright 1999 Linda McMillin Pyle

Excerpt from Peaks, Palms and Picnics: Day Journeys in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley of Southern California




Set in wartime Gettysburg in 1863 and in Southern California in the years immediately following, Moonlight in Dos Palmas brings together two strong, original characters---a devoted mother and her son's rebellious young widow in a compelling story of friendship and emotional healing.