Gary Gardner (grgardner) wrote,
Gary Gardner

The Old Road - An Immigrants Trail

I continue to be amazed at the large number of Washington license plates I see on cars here in the Desert. There are times when I’m driving and I’ll see four or five in my immediate vicinity, and it’s rare that I don’t see one or two in a shopping center parking lot anytime I go shopping.  A fair number of my former colleagues have part-time places here, and I see quite a few of my friends when they come to town for weekend visits. At times it seems like I’m back home – except for the absence of a Prius every other car.  I have to be careful though in cussing out the damn Washington Snowbirds – seeing as I am one, and both Angus and the Hummer have WA plates.

But why here?  Why the desert of the Coachella Valley? What is it that draws all us Washingtonians (and Oregonians and British Columbians) to the desert? The weather no doubt is the main one. Winter back home is miserable and if you can escape, why not? But there are other warm sunny places all throughout California, and Arizona, and Nevada and Southern Utah.  So aside from the weather, what is it that brings them all here to Palm Springs?  Why not San Diego, or Phoenix? I remember when I lived in Phoenix, most of the snowbirds came from the upper Midwest and the plains states and provinces of Canada – maybe because its in more of a direct line South, I don’t know.

It’s not the comfortable surroundings of off the cliff to the left politics that draws them here – this part of CA is surprisingly “red”, although they just instituted a plastic bag ban here (thankfully it’s already on the ballot for repeal next year, and hopefully will be repealed.)  It’s not the desire to become a resident of a high-tax, or income tax state – they all leave just shy of the six month residency requirement that would subject them to that. It is a very gay-friendly area of the country, and that could explain why a lot of my gay friends visit and have retired here.  But that itself can’t explain the large number of folks from the Northwest here in the Winter.
In pondering this question, I stumbled upon a theory that might explain it. Riding in Indio at the East end of the Coachella Valley the other day I noticed a sign saying “Historic US Route 99.” That triggered it. You see, at one time, in the days before airlines, and the pre-Interstate highway era, the main North/South highway through Western Washington was the old US-99. This road is how anyone headed South out of Washington left. It ran pretty much along what is now Interstate 5, down through Oregon and Northern California, and into Sacramento, and down the San Joaquin Valley, over the Grapevine, and then into Burbank and LA, before turning East and up through the San Gorgonio Pass and into the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. After Palm Springs it continued South along the West side of the Salton Sea and eventually ended at the Mexican border in Calexico.

This was the main West Coast highway, running from Blaine, Washington on the Canadian Border, south to Calexico on the Mexican border. In Canada it continued (and is still numbered BC-99) all the way to Vancouver, up through Squamish and Whistler before ending East of Lillooet BC at Cache Creek at BC-97, which itself connects with US-97 but that’s another story.  Old US 99 lasted from the beginning of the highway era to it’s final decommissioning in 1968 when I-5 was completed. The remaining segments were renumbered, and in Washington became SR-99.  In fact one can still see an old “US-99” sign at the entrance to Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct at the foot of Columbia Street in downtown Seattle where WASHDOT never changed the sign.
US-99 Seattle
So, my theory is that back in the day when we all drove everywhere, Palm Springs was on the direct route from Seattle, and it must have naturally become a place to drive in the Winter to get away from the gray and wet of the Northwest.  When people left the Northwest, this is where the road took them. They let their friends know and they all came, and they told their friends and so on.  A migratory pattern was established. Then as airlines grew and evolved, direct flights from Seattle to here became a natural, driving even more people to make the trek, come to love the warmth of the Desert, and make it a winter home.

So my theory?  It was the old road that brought them here originally.  It was the direct driving route South into the sunshine of the Golden State and the warmth of the Desert, and the tradition established by those earlier “pioneers” is what continues to drive (pun intended) the winter migration from Seattle and Washington as well as Oregon and BC to Palm Springs, and its why there are so damn many of us making our winter homes in the valley and why the parking lots are littered with Washington license plates.

My regular readers know of my fondness for the old highway and for highway numbering signs. I’ve been fortunate to ride most of the entire length of what’s left of US-99 in California (CA-99), Oregon (OR 99W) and Washington (SR-99), and all of it in BC (BC-99) as well as a big chunk of what was US-99 and is notw CA-111 up from El Centro, CA to Palm Springs.  Maybe this winter I’ll have to run the rest of it to Calexico.  Another one to cross off the list, and maybe take a picture at the corresponding southern end of the road like this one from 2007 when Tony and I rode up to the end of the road in Canada.

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