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Many Queens at the Indio Date Festival

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Part one in a series. Read part two and three.

County Fairs in America usually make people think of late summer or early fall -- harvest of corn or apples, prize pigs like Wilbur in "Charlotte's Web" along with horses, cows, and chickens on display. Who would expect a county fair in February? But last Friday in Indio, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and warm sun beating 80 degrees on the crowd of 200 waiting at the gates, a priest blessed the date gardens throughout the Coachella Valley, and Queen Scheherazade and her court held up cups of date milkshake to toast the opening of the 66th Annual Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival (The fair is open from Feb 17-26th).

The Coachella Valley can be surreal in its geometry and lovely in the soft shades of gold, green and purple. Once you get past Palm Springs and Palm Desert, and enter the long valley which is the winter cornucopia that supplies the nation with 95 percent of the date harvest, along with grapefruit and oranges and strawberries this month, you can see the actual version of what Mitt Romney sang, oddly, in Florida last month. "For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain..."

This was a truly exotic American landscape back in 1903, when the first date palms were imported from Algeria. The extensive irrigation and plantings by early farmers were so successful by the 1920s that the date gardens -- with their beautiful geometric patterns of gray-green fronds held to the sky, and hallways of golden palm trunks shimmering in the heat -- became tourist attractions for people from all over the world.

Even the names given to the communities around the date gardens are beautiful: Indio, Coachella, Oasis, Thermal, and Mecca, and Niland (from Nile Land, and in this tiny place, one street is named Luxor.). Men have climbed ladders into the tops of the trees, some palms 100 feet tall, from the end of August until February. Right now, 7,000 acres of date palms have just finished the harvest, maybe the most expensive, time-consuming crop in America.

At the Date Festival, there are gold-domed buildings, a stage which looks like Timbuktu, camel and ostrich races, and every evening the Arabian Nights pageant. But the first Date Festival, way back in 1921 in Indio's city park, mostly featured dates, and a queen.

Photos of that first Scheherazade are on display inside the Taj Mahal Exhibition Hall, along with pictures of many other queens. Some might think the whole theme a bit old-fashioned, but if you run into Linda Beal, who owns most of the memorabilia on display, you'll think again. She was born in 1946 on a date ranch in Indian Wells, now one of the nation's most wealthy cities. (The Indian Wells City Hall is where her father's date garden once thrived.) She drove a tractor when she was eight years old, packed dates and citrus, and went to play in the wide open desert around the ranch, where she found Cahuilla Indian camps still holding grinding bowls of stone, and arrowheads. She left her beloved valley at 18, for the Army, but after six years, returned, and now lives on Deglet Noor Street in downtown Indio, in a historic home.

Linda Beal | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

For years she has collected mementos and photos of desert history. Her favorite on display now? A candy tin from the 1920s painted with Rudolph Valentino as "The Sheik," she says, holding the tin. "They filmed the movie around the Salton Sea, on the dunes. They got the Arabian horses from Point Happy in La Quinta!"

But there is a serious harmony to the odd exoticism in the Arabian theme, as she turns reflective. "Deglet Noor means Date of Light," Beal says. "During the Persian Gulf war and the other conflicts, warfare and blights ruined a lot of their date palm stock, so valley farmers have been shipping seedlings back to the area." Under UN auspices, Coachella is replenishing those date gardens. "The original seedlings came from there," as Beal points out. And her uncle, Paul Smead, has gone to Pakistan and Kenya to assist those native date farmers with California agricultural methods.

In the Taj Mahal hall, hundreds of dates are arranged in showcases, and even their names are lyrical, redolent of other places transported here to the desert. Zahidi, Khadrawi, Halawy, Deglet Noor, and the stars of this year: Medjools.

Queens of the Oasis Date Gardens | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Best of Division for 2012 went to the huge Medjools from Oasis Date Gardens. They were amber-brown, the size of small pears, and their wrinkly Shar-Pei skin hid intense chewy sweetness. Selling those Medjools outside the hall were Maribel Aguilar, Jovana Reyes and Monica Alvarado. Aguilar has been with Oasis Date Gardens for 15 years. Last year, she said, they sold 400 cases of dates here, along with hundreds of small packages like chocolate-covered dates, dates stuffed with walnuts and honey, and even M&Ms with date pieces inside.The annual date production for Coachella Valley is 30 million pounds. Dates are sent from here all over the world, including many to the Middle East, where dates are always offered to guests, especially during Ramadan when the evening settles and the fast is broken. At the Date Festival, where families are eating fish tacos, crepes, fried artichokes, and yes, dates, the end of a long hard harvest is celebrated.

Just at the edge of Indio, on Highway 111, Shields Date Garden is a historic tourist attraction where signs advertise "The Romance and Sex Life of the Date." Inside this 1950s era building, a diner-style long counter with red and blue-cushioned stools looks like something out of a movie. But the movie showing beyond a hilarious red curtain, in a theatre with cracked leather seats and a breathless air, really does show the Sex Life of the Date, which is as complicated as possible, and even though it's comic, yes, a good reminder that beautiful date palms involve some of the most difficult agricultural work imaginable.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

It's a perfect way to leave Indio, to stop and have a famous Date Shake, which my mother used to bring all of us to savor once a year, like many other Southern Californians. Date pieces inside the sweet milk, a package of chewy brown exotic dates in the car -- that's what the many snowbirds I met were enjoying on Friday. People from Colorado, Canada, Michigan -- thousands of Americans from colder climes migrate to the desert each winter, and they were lined up for dates.

But continue down the highway, just over the city limits of Indio, to La Quinta, the highway lined with country clubs and winter homes, and then keep going, down to Oasis and Thermal and Mecca, to see how hard it really is to grow those astonishing sweet dates, and to see the actual sex life of the date palm, and to understand how the desert divides into two completely separate worlds.

That's our next post -- in a few days.

Read part two and three:
- Big Donna and the Medjools
- Geometry of the Winter Desert: Field and Home

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March.  Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

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