As we may have mentioned before in this space, it gets hot in the low desert during the summer. As a result, people who don't enjoy being broiled alive tend to avoid coming here when it's, say, 113°, and those of us who live here tend to hunker in air-conditioned rooms. Or we leave.
But then summer ends, and the temperatures slacken, and the desert gets to be a more attractive place to spend time. This is especially true if you're comparing it to places back east, with their blizzards and driveway-shoveling and driving on sheet ice. During winter months, the number of people per square mile in the touristed sections of the Coachella Valley from La Quinta west to Palm Springs rise dramatically.
As a result, the business and social communities in the Coachella Valley tend to have distinct seasons. Increasing numbers of year-round residents have made the summer earnings trough a bit shallower in the last decade or so. Service industries have better year-round business now, as do non-tourism retail and a few other businesses. But still, during the summer many businesses and attractions conduct severely restricted hours of operation. Palm Desert's popular Living Desert Reserve, a sort of zoo-cum-botanic garden, is open mornings only throughout summer -- though the giraffes and cheetahs swelter it out in the afternoons anyway. This summer, two relatively upscale restaurants in Palm Springs -- Cafe Zin and the Kaiser Grille -- closed entirely, taking advantage of the slow business time to do a few weeks of remodeling work.
Though it took a while for things to cool down this year, October is the month in which "the season" starts. On October 1 the above-mentioned Living Desert Reserve goes back to being open until 5 p.m., restaurants begin to add lunch and afternoon hours, and events start popping up on the social calendar.
In Palm Springs, where a significant percentage of seasonal visitors are part of the nation's LGBT community, gay- and lesbian-oriented events begin in earnest in October. This year's AIDS Walk, held last weekend, attracted record crowds as 1,500 people converged to raise funds to fight the disease under the auspices of the Desert Aids Project. (Though AIDS is certainly far from being solely an LGBT concern, Palm Springs' cohort of older gay men who experienced the first wave of the epidemic in the early 1980s ensures a special connection to the fundraising event.)
In most cities, across the U.S., Gay Pride Week is celebrated in late June, to commemorate New York City's Stonewall Rebellion of June 28, 1969. In the Coachella Valley, temperatures in late June make the notion of parading and partying outdoors somewhat less attractive. As a consequence, Palm Springs' Pride is held in early November. This year it's the weekend of November 5–6, and you can find more information at the Palm Springs Pride site.
The season continues throughout the cooler months, culminating in spring with Dinah Shore Week, an annual lesbian gathering in Palm Springs that in 2012 will take place March 27 through April 2, and the White Party about a week later (April 6-9, 2012), a huge circuit party that attracts upwards of 20,000 gay men each year.
There are plenty of not-specifically-LGBT events throughout the season as well. On the weekend of December 3-4, for instance, the Tamale Festival, a tradition two decades old, brings the smell of steamed masa and redolent fillings to the streets of Indio. Some of the most prominent Coachella Valley events are golf tournaments such as the Humana Challenge in January, which event was formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic. The Humana kicks off a series of five major tournaments and a slew of lesser-known ones.
January also brings the increasingly lauded Palm Springs International Film Festival, and in March the BNP Paribas Open -- the world's fifth-largest tennis open, according to the organizers -- takes place in Indian Wells.
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla of the Coachella Valley season comes toward that season's end: the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which is apparently going to happen this season after all, now that the city of La Quinta has dropped some of its environmental opposition to the two-weekend April festival.
Then, after April the desert heats up again, and things slow down, and the painted ponies go up and down. Until then, even for those folks who aren't necessarily events-going types, the valley's hiking trails, spas, restaurants and other amenities prove a serious temptation to the snowbound. At least that's what the valley's various chambers of commerce are counting on -- and what retail and restaurant workers hope for -- as we ease toward yet another year of economic depression. Without the Tourist Season, the Coachella Valley would be a bleak place indeed.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.