December 4, 2008
Wilhelm's Metate Ranch
Today I went with Great Outdoors to Wilhelm's Metate Ranch for a tour led by Desert Adventures (i.e., the red jeep tour company). I was eager to go on this trip for three main reasons: (1) the ranch is more than a thousand acres of private land in the Indio Hills with significant archaeological material, and this is the only way to get in to see it; (2) I've read gushing reviews of Red Jeep Tours by visitors to Coachella Valley and by the Desert Sun and I wanted to see if it was true; the Desert Sun will gush about anything and everything tourism-related (not long ago they gushed about the automated ice dispensing machine in Cathedral City); and (3) I wanted to find out exactly where the hell this place is. Tourists are never good at identifying a location in the desert, the Desert Sun is probably intentionally vague in order not to encourage trespassers, and out of town media are just as bad. Some sites describe it as "15 minutes due east of Palm Springs." That would put it at about I-10 and Ramon.
Working in reverse order, here's the location. Now, of course, if you want to visit or go on a tour, you contact Desert Adventures ahead of time (760-340-2345 or 888-440-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org). From I-10 and Monroe in Indio, just go north on Monroe toward Granite Construction. Just before the entrance to Granite Construction there's a dirt road on the right going to a large parking lot. This is where Desert Adventures meets you and takes you into the ranch, which is further along that dirt road. The place is well fenced and has a very secure gate. Our guide told us the area is patrolled, as well, so trespassing is not advised.
As for gushing, I would highly recommend it for visitors to our valley who are interested in our unique geology, geography and our history before Mary Pickford. If you're an expert in those fields or you've already explored the Coachella Valley a lot, I'd say you won't find a whole lot new at Wilhelm's Metate Ranch. What we took is the tour they call the Indian Cultural Adventure which consists of a nature hike around the area during which the guide points out evidence of animal life and identifies plants and their uses. There's an explanation of the dynamics of the San Andreas fault. You visit a spot where Cahuilla shelters have been re-created. Then you Jeep up the canyon a bit to see some petroglyphs. There is also the Faultline Adventure which gets more into the geology and the San Andreas, but it also takes place on Wilhelm's Metate Ranch. They have other tours to other parts of the desert including Joshua Tree National Park.
The ranch itself is made up from some homesteads of the Wilhelm family. Louis Wilhelm settled in Thousand Palms after buying the oasis there from the original homesteader in 1905. His son Paul built a guest ranch there. That land at Thousand Palms was transferred to the BLM, to become the heart of the Coachella Valley Preserve, in exchange for a thousand acres of BLM land that adjoined homesteads of other Wilhelms down in Indio on what is now called Wilhelm's Metate Ranch. Our guide said he thought this land transfer happened about 1999, but Paul Wilhelm died in 1994, and I'm sure the transfer would have happened prior to his death. A few years ago Desert Adventures got exclusive access to the ranch for tours.
Our guide was an upbeat, non-stop source of information, 90% of which was probably correct - which is a pretty good rate. Here are a few of his more obvious errors. He said that the Cahuilla who built fish traps along the shoreline of Lake Cahiulla caught and ate tilapia. In fact, tilapia are an invasive fish from Africa, introduced into the Salton Sea in the 1960s. He said creosote is a source of aspirin and is closely related to the willow. I am sure that aspirin was derived originally from willow, and that the creosote is not closely related to the willow at all. While I know that creosote has many medicinal uses, mostly for bronchial ills, I had never heard of any part of it used for pain relief. In my Googling I have been unable to find any source that links creosote to pain relief, aspirin or willow trees. He pointed out that I-10 is an east-west highway and that the San Andreas fault runs north-south, so how can it be that they run parallel in the Coachella Valley. The obvious answer is that both of them are actually on a roughly northwest-southeast direction while passing through the Coachella Valley. His explanation, however, is that "we are on the big bend." The big bend of the San Andreas fault is actually much further west. He said that President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1868. It was one of those moments illustrating why you have to learn all those dates back in school. Lincoln actually signed the Homestead Act in 1862. He also told us that President Clinton signed the act transforming Joshua Tree National Monument into a National Park in 1989. We all know that George Bush The Greater was President in 1989. Bill Clinton signed the Desert Preservation Act in 1994.
OTOH, he explained plate tectonics, fault gouge, Lake Cahuilla, the creation of the Salton Sea, the effect of fire on palm trees, and the uses of native plants for food, medicine and tools flawlessly (except for the creosote thing), and he did a pretty good job of explaining the system of Indian reservations in the valley, which is pretty hard to do in less than three minutes. He took us on a walking tour through the oasis near the former site of a Cahuilla village. This involved, as all desert hikes do, climbing and scrambling on some dirty hillsides. In my Googling I found some out-of-towners whining about dirt and wind on the Desert Adventures tours. Sorry, but the country clubs and resorts are the place for the clean and windless vacation in Coachella Valley.
We got to see a couple of their namesake metates. A metate is an area worn into a granite boulder used for grinding. Over the years I've seen some in the desert, but never have I seen any so huge as the ones on this ranch. Big boulders with very deeply worn grinding holes. They say they have about a dozen of these big ones, and have given smaller ones away to museums. Our guide said that, assuming a constant rate of wear, the metates we saw may have been in use for something 2,500 years. That necessary assumption may not, of course, reflect reality.
They've re-created about half a dozen Cahuilla style shelters. They've incorporated some modern materials to build them, but I'm not going to whine about that. What did bother me were the many obvious intrusions of 21st century humanity. Our guide pointed out the ramada which the Cahuilla had carefully positioned in relation to the sun so that the interior was always in shade. Very nice, but its main use seemed to be to protect a big 60-gallon plastic trash bin. They do nighttime events at the ranch, too, so there is lighting equipment stored up alongside one structure, smaller colored lights lying around openly on the ground, and lots of tiki torches all over. I know that installation of more discreet lighting and storing other modern materials out of sight would be expensive and time-consuming. I'm just saying the current arrangement lessens the beauty of the place. There is a re-created sweat lodge, too. I didn't hear if they had tested it or not, but I think if we came up with enough money, an evening of testing the sweat lodge would really bring out the suppressed Cahuilla in all of us.
After this walking tour, it was a short drive (maybe a mile and a half) further into the Indio Hills to see some petroglyphs. A Jeep-like vehicle is advised for this little drive. The route goes past the current homestead of one of the Wilhelms, a couple of trailers and other structures in the traditional desert homestead style, including an above-ground hot tub fed by hot mineral water coming from somewhere in the hills.
There were not many petroglyphs (Google satellite image of approximate location of the petroglyphs) there, and I got photos of every one we saw. They are all probably less than two or three hundred years old, and looked very fresh. I would like to hear a professional archaeologists opinion on them. Our guide suggested excessively literal interpretations of them; for instance, that a snake drawing was a warning that snakes were in the area. About as likely as warning your fellow Indians that day follows night and it's hot in the summer. Here are photos of the petroglyphs:
Other photos from the trip:
Here's your big, genuine metate. It's in a lovely, breezy spot just above the site of the village with great views.
Genuine Cahuilla-constructed ponds fed by the genuine, natural flow of spring water. But a lining has been added under the pond to retain more water.
Detail from a map showing territories of "North American Indians." Sorry that I failed to note the date of the map.