The presidential hospitality came from the Annenbergs’ Sunnylands estate, which has hosted summits between American presidents and other world leaders. More of that later. The less than hospitable welcome came on our visit to reservation land on the edge of Palm Springs. OK, so we weren’t actually scalped – I was using poetic licence. Although our supply of cash took a significant haircut.
I was actually nervous about using the term ‘Indian’, as I’ve been told it isn’t politically correct. But it’s used on the website of the ‘Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians’, so I guess I shouldn’t get into hot water. Just as well, as the reference to all those old (politically incorrect) Westerns wouldn’t have worked as well with ‘Indigenous Americans’ or ‘First Nations people’.
So what’s my gripe with the indigenous peoples of the Palm Springs environs? Well, being keen walkers, when in Palm Springs last month we were keen to do a hike (as our American cousins call any walks that involve anything other than smooth tarmac). We selected a trail a short distance out of town, up Mount San Jacinto. Unfortunately, due to rain the previous night (how unlucky were we – it hardly ever rains in Palm Springs!) that trail was temporarily closed. We were directed to another, which was still open.
We parked the car, and then headed up to the start of the walk (hike), where we had to join a queue. For a walk! (I mean hike). I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that before. We queued for 20 minutes to get to the counter, where we had to pay a fee. To do a walk! (I mean hike). The fee for the one we’d planned to do was $8. For this one, it was $12.50 each. For a walk! (I mean hike). Eventually, we got to walk (I mean hike) the trail. All 1.5km of it (I believe that was there and back). It was a nice little walk, up to a nice little waterfall. Except, it was like Oxford Street on a Saturday morning. So we queued for 20 minutes, and payed 50 bucks, all for the privilege of a 30 minute walk (I mean hike!) through crowds of people.
Now, I have two problems with this. The first is the price. I understand that walking (I mean hiking… sorry – is this becoming annoying?) trails need to be maintained. But how much work is involved in cutting back a few branches or consolidating an eroded path now and then? For not too much more than what we paid, in the UK you can spend the whole day at Chatsworth, looking around the huge mansion, finely manicured gardens, and large areas of parkland. Imagine how much all that must cost to maintain – you can really see what your entry fee is paying for.
The second problem is more to do with freedom – the basic human right to exist. Centuries ago, in the UK, there was such a thing as common land. And then the enclosures began, and the wealthy annexed the land and denied access to the common people. Later, in the 20th century, we finally won the ‘right to roam’. It doesn’t get us in everywhere, and most of the land is still owned by a few wealthy individuals (apparently half of England is owned by 1% of the population), but there are large areas of what we call wild land (even though it isn’t truly wild) where we can pretty much roam freely.
There’s a principle here, espoused by people such as Marion Shoard, in her book ‘This Land is Our Land’; that the countryside shouldn’t be fenced off from the people. We shouldn’t be restricted to towns and cities, and to the narrow corridors of tarmac that join them, just because we aren’t fortunate enough to have been born into the right family, or to have made a fortune. We’re free-born animals, and we should have the freedom to move about freely in the natural environment. To quote Billy Bragg: ‘this land was made a common treasury for everyone to share’ (I take issue with the word’ made’, but I appreciate the sentiment). This land is our land!
You’ll say, of course, that I was only a visitor, that it isn’t actually my land, because I don’t live there. But those who do live there have to pay too. And in what kind of a land is it customary to fleece (or scalp – I’m mixing my metaphors) visitors, rather than offer them hospitality? And in any case, aren’t we all citizens of the world?
Now, I know that their ancestors were violently displaced by invading Europeans. But I’d say that what happened in the past, many generations ago between ancestors of different sets of people to whom I have no relation, isn’t my responsibility. I’m more interested in the here and now. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your ancestry, it’s the poor who are denied opportunity. Always. To me, it doesn’t make any difference who owns a tract of land. It might be someone who received it, down the line, from a distant bloodthirsty ancestor who invaded a country and took it by force (such as the Duke of Westminster). It might be owned by someone who made a fortune through their own business activities, or those of their ancestors, whether from coal, steel, or slavery, and who used it to take possession of the countryside. Or it might be a group who claim possession by virtue of the fact that their ancestors once lived there, before being displaced and treated most cruelly. Whoever they are, and however they came by the land, if they deny access to open countryside, or demand a fee for access (particularly such a high one) then they’re tyrants who are denying the common people a basic human right.
All that land sitting there doing nothing, and they only give us access to a few short trails, and charge us a fortune for the privilege! Reading between the lines, I get the impression that if you know your way around you can find trails to walk without having to pay. But in Donald Trump’s ‘we don’t dial 911’ USA, poking around where you might not be welcome could be a dangerous business. As a visitor, I suppose you could say it comes down to hospitality. The mean-spirited hospitality of the Agua Calientes can be contrasted with the generosity of the Annenberg family, who own the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs. I’ll tell you about my visit there in my next post, for which I promise lots of beautiful photographs, and far fewer words…
text and photographs © Graham Wright (although the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians will probably expect royalties)