Exploring Family History

A view of the San Jacinto Mountains from Sam’s Family Spa


December 14 – We are settled in Desert Hot Springs, CA for one month (with a little side trip to Santa Cruz). After traveling around so much since August, never spending more than a week at a place, more often 3 or 4 days, it feels good to stay put for a little while. We’re at a great RV park: Sam’s Family Spa Hot Water Resort. Let me tell you, it does not take long to become accustomed to daily soaks in the mineral hot pools, followed by a couple hours at the huge, spring-heated swimming pool. Not long at all.

Never Leaving

Chris’ mother’s family is from the Coachella Valley. We learned more about his family history, in some unexpected ways, during our travels in Arizona before we arrived in the high desert. While in Tucson we visited Mission San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, where Chris’ grandmother was born and where his great-grandmother is buried. The Mission is gorgeous, well worth a visit on its own, but it was special for the kids to learn about their heritage while seeing it for the first time. When I posted a picture on Facebook, Chris’ mother Cec and his Uncle George shared stories about their mother, Josephine, whose humble origins are in stark contrast to the rich facade of San Xavier.

Mission San Xavier del Bac


Josephine was born in 1925, the third of six siblings, with an older brother and sister, a younger sister, and twins who did not survive infancy. They spent most of their time traveling between Tucson and Casa Grande, about halfway to Phoenix, living in a covered wagon and sleeping underneath it at night. Their father, Jose, made money by gathering firewood, and sometimes resorting to cattle rustling. Jose was in and out of jail. When the children’s mother, Maria, passed away at age 29, Jose left the four siblings to live with an aunt in the Coachella Valley in California.

This journey from Tuscon, Arizona, along what is now Interstate 8, included a crossing of the Imperial Sand Dunes on the Plank Road. Consisting of 13,000 wooden planks, the development of this road over the soft sands was spurred on by a competition between San Diego and Los Angeles for the fastest automobile route from Phoenix to Southern California. (The history of the road is fascinating; read here for more details.)

Chris found that a portion of the Old Plank Road was kept preserved as a California Historical Landmark not far from where we were staying in Yuma, Arizona. This 1,500 foot section was pieced together in the 1970’s from remnants found throughout the dunes. It was pretty amazing to walk along the weather-beaten planks and twisted iron rails, some almost completely buried in sand, so soon after learning the existence of this piece of history of the American West, and its place in our family history.

Rita walking in the footsteps of her Great-Grandmother


Once we arrived in Palm Springs we met up with Cec and Uncle George. The kids got to talk with them about visiting San Xavier and the Plank Road, and we heard more stories about Grandma Josie and her family, many of which had been told by Josie’s older sister, Rita. (Our Rita is named both for her great-aunt and for my grandmother.) This kind of immersion into history and serendipitous discovery is something we hoped for when we took the leap to travel full time.

A replica of the Plank Road, with the original in the background

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