By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
@body:Maybe the most colorful of the colorful remnants of the date industry in Arizona is the community of Dateland, located between Yuma and Gila Bend off I-8, out of the reach of almost everything except a couple of radio stations from Mexico. It's well worth a day trip. Try the Mexican food. Ask at the restaurant how to get to the Horn Monument, which commemorates seven soldiers in Patton's army killed on maneuvers there during World War II.
Dateland used to be a roadside attraction before I-8 replaced U.S. 80. Under new ownership since last year and now managed by Paul Whipple, who introduces himself as "Mr. Whipple" and describes himself as "the ugly fat guy in the restaurant," Dateland is changing its image from tourist trap to travel center. A motel. Diesel fuel. Advertisements on late-night truckers' radio. That sort of thing. They ran out of dates a month ago, and don't care.
Some 500 souls live in Dateland, almost all of them farmworkers who harvest the grapes, lettuce, cotton and other crops, so that although the number stays the same, the faces change. Paul Whipple has very little good to say about the Border Patrol or the U.S. government in general, and thinks being out of range of television and three days behind on newspapers is as close to heaven as a man can get. He would, however, like to spread the word about the chile rellenos in the restaurant. He claims they are the best in the United States. (They're not bad.)
They're made by Ismael Vargas' mother. She used to have a restaurant in Durango. Ismael takes care of the palm trees, which had become quite sickly under the old ownership. He is lavishing love and care on the trees to increase their health and productivity. He would even like to plant more. This is the love of a man for living things; it has nothing to do with Paul Whipple's travel-center plans, which severely shortchange dates. Despite having turned the curio shop into a convenience store where the local folks can rent videos of Mexican movies, Paul Whipple is still forced by popular demand to sell date milk shakes.
"I had one date milk shake when I got here and I will probably never have another," he says, sounding unlike a man in the throes of addiction. Date milk shakes taste as you would imagine: a perfectly good vanilla milk shake mucked up with pieces of old, dried-up brown fruit that would taste a lot better in, say, a nut bread. @rule:
@body:Elaine Joyal keeps track of botanical specimens at Arizona State University, and can tell you how many kinds of palm trees there are in the world, and make it sound interesting. She is the kind of nonstuffy scientist who will describe one species she doesn't recognize as "a cute little palm tree." Just now she is standing on the desk in the tiny office she shares with two other graduate students, grabbing down some hats and bags fashioned from palm trees. She is wearing olive-drab shorts and a shirt with a leaf pattern, which seems highly appropriate.
Joyal is a botanist, but she's interested in the uses to which human beings have put plants like palm trees. This means she has to do her field work in little towns in Sonora, traveling scenic back roads buying hats from peasants. Oh, the onerous demands of academe. Contrary to what one has imagined, she explains gently, palm trees are native to Arizona. Although they didn't grow in Phoenix until folks planted them, they did grow as close as Palm Canyon in the Kofa Mountains south of Quartzsite. That's the state's most famous native stand of palms. There's another stand of palm trees in a canyon near Castle Hot Springs that may be native; the argument continues.
The native species in both these canyons is Washingtonia filifera--California fan palm in English--and is the squat, dumpy one with the big, shaggy skirt. Some excellent examples of Washingtonia filifera with intact skirts are viewed daily by thousands of commuters stalled in traffic at the eastbound exit to the Hohokam from the Maricopa Freeway. Hopping off her desk, Joyal leads the way down a hall and stops in front of a floor-level window that gives out on an interior courtyard in the life-sciences building. In the courtyard stands another fully skirted Washingtonia filifera, into which birds are flying. The skirts are great places for wildlife to hide, including snakes, scorpions and all kinds of spiders.
"That's what a palm would look like in a natural oasis," Joyal says. "Most palms are in wet areas. The few palms that are native to arid regions grow in the wet sites. Usually you only find them in drainages."
Joyal remembers the first time she saw Arizona's native palm treesin the Kofas. "I was doing collecting for another project and I remember looking over and seeing them and thinking, 'Are those palm trees?'" The palm trees in the Kofas, and similar palm trees in similar canyons around Palm Springs, used to emulate movie images and stand along a shoreline. That was some time ago, geologically speaking, when a large body of water called Lake Cahuilla occupied much of Southern California. When the lake disappeared, the palm trees were stranded, and fled to the canyons. They huddle at the canyon bottoms, California author Kevin Starr writes, "like soldiers waiting to go over the top."