A A R O N G I L B R E A T H
San Gorgonio Pass
The Gateway to Southern California, and the Way Out
33°54’38.89’’N, 116°44’ 04.57W
I’m quitting this job
It’s not fit for a rat
And I’m going back to Texas
Where the land is flat.
—The Helpful Helper
On a cool sunny day in February, 2020, I stood on a sandy rise at 1,500-feet elevation, facing California’s 10,834-foot San Jacinto Peak. I’d parked my rental car on a dirt pullout by a bushy salt cedar tree, off of bustling Interstate 10. Flattened soda cups and a candy wrapper blew by, as the same wind that turned 4,000 clean-energy turbines also rattled the creosote bushes that filled this desert valley. A train rumbled towards me, winding its way east from San Bernardino to cities beyond Palm Springs. “Private Property,” a Union Pacific Railroad sign said. “No Trespassing.” I ignored this and approached the tracks. This little sandy lump afforded a beautiful view of a location that is heavily traveled but rarely seen in the deeper sense of the word. It’s a landscape that I had mostly glimpsed from the windows of speeding cars, and one that remained serene despite the 71,000 cars and nearly 40 trains that passed through here each day – a train every thirty minutes. It’s called San Gorgonio Pass.
Wedged between the snowy San Jacinto Mountains on the south and the 11,502-foot San Bernardino Mountains on the north, the Pass is one of the deepest mountain passes in the lower 48 states. It runs for 19 miles between my location at the junction of State Route 111 and Interstate 10, on the east side, to the 2,400-foot elevation town of Beaumont on the west side, the Pass’ highest point, and by some measures, the beginning of Metro Los Angeles. Only two miles separate the mountains’ steep foothills at their narrowest.
The San Andreas Fault network created this pass over millennia, slowly prying apart the imposing wall of mountains to leave a narrow gap that runs along an east-west transect so perfect it seems it was cut to parallel the Riverside County line just above it. It wasn’t. Nature abhors a straight line as much as a vacuum. Tectonic activity will warp this linear orientation with time, because the faults are still prying. Earthquakes frequently rattle nearby desert communities like Cabazon and Desert Hot Springs. California is a living thing. Despite the fires, floods, and quakes, life must go on, and now the I-10 and Union Pacific Railroad tracks run side-by-side through this seismically active channel, alongside gas lines, power lines, and essential conduits in the state’s massive water transportation system. That means that annually, the Pass funnels 25,915,000 million cars, untold gallons of water, tons of imports, exports, gas, produce, human waste, medicine, industrial chemicals, illegal substances, exotic species and so much LA air pollution into the Coachella Valley that it’s surprising you can’t taste it on the succulent desert dates that grow there. San Gorgonio Pass is one of California’s most important pieces of geography, up there with Donner Pass – route of the first transcontinental railroad tracks, and site of the famous frontier cannibalism – and nearby Cajon Pass – which connects the Mojave Desert with San Bernardino – and Tejon Pass – a mythical romantic name in old westerns – and Altamont Pass – the windy gap which lent its name to the violent Rolling Stones concert that marked the end of the 1960s. San Gorgonio Pass defined the way the Indigenous Cahuilla and Serrano people lived for at least 10,000 years. It shaped California history by influencing Spanish and US settlement patterns, and it helped the Port of Los Angeles become the busiest shipping port in the US, which helped California become the global economic force that it is today. Now 83,160,000 metric tons of imported goods funnel through the Pass from the ports of Los Angeles each year. The constant winds turn the windmills that generate 650 megawatts of energy, enough to power 195,000 homes. The Pass’ roadside casino and 27-story hotel tower generate millions of dollars of profit for the Big Morongo Reservation and millions in taxes for the state, in a location not far from where the Native People lease land to the Desert Hills Premium Outlets, and allow the controversial Nestlé Corporation’s Arrowhead spring water brand to extract untold amounts of scarce desert water, even during the 2014 drought, filling the kind of cheap plastic bottles that rarely get recycled and that San Francisco has outlawed. And the city of Beaumont, in the Pass’ western end, is the forth-fastest growing city in California, a place where people can still afford a home close enough to commute to jobs in greater Los Angeles, even if that commute is along a stretch of I-10 that suffers hours-long backups. The Pass’ cargo is not its only material. As it exports goods, it exports California culture, and it ushers in the dreamers who come to southern California from all across the country to find their piece of the good life, their Hollywood fantasy, their chance for escape, growth, death, or reinvention, in the Golden State. In other words, the Pass is a major point of access to the California Dream.
Those dreamers might not even notice they’re in a pass, let alone know the Pass’ name. No sign announces your entrance. No park protects it. And few who drive here might notice that they’re driving parallel to one of the most profound ecological transitions in the United States.
Along the western edge of North America, the Pacific Ocean profoundly shapes the climate of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The ocean keeps the immediate shoreline cool and moist. Sometimes fog shrouds the land, locking in moisture that supports tall trees draped in moss. But in central and southern California, the high mountain chains that parallel the coastline – called the Transverse and Peninsular ranges – also stop Pacific moisture from moving too far east into the interior. That obstruction creates a distinctly wet side and dry side, which is partly responsible for the state’s incredible ecological diversity. The distinctly California system that scientists call a Mediterranean climatestretches along the coast from Baja California to the Golden Gate, and its cool moist winters and warm dry summers support the oak woodlands, coastal sage scrub, and chaparral that define the southern California landscape. East of the mountains, as you see around Palm Springs and Barstow, creosote, cactus, and scrub take the place of oak and chaparral. In peoples’ minds, coastal California is all oaks and palm trees. Eastern California is austere. The break in the mountains at San Gorgonio Pass puts those two separate worlds in contact.
Here in the Pass, the dry desert air from the mountains’ east side meets the moister Mediterranean climate from the west side. In the scientific language of the Köppen Climate Classification scale, the Hot-Summer Mediterranean subtype, abbreviated “Csa,” meets the Hot Semi Arid, or “BSh,” subtype. That makes San Gorgonio Pass an ecotone where these two very different climate patterns and ecosystems fade into one another, with plant and animal species switching over somewhere along the I-10. And so it is here that the southern California of popular imagination begins in increments so small that drivers hardly notice them, until they see the palm trees, Vons grocery stores, and housing developments that bear the names of demolished oak and citrus groves, and the larger change from desert to dreamland has occurred. I came to examine those increments more closely.
This Pass has always fascinated and confounded me. During the last 30-plus years, I’d driven through it countless times, heading from my native Phoenix, Arizona to the beaches of Los Angeles and points north. I knew what cultural and ecological changes occurred here. I’d watched them through car windows, either stoned with friends on our teenage beach trips, or on sober, solo, outdoor excursions in my twenties and thirties. But I had only ever stopped here for gas and food, and to visit the world’s largest concrete dinosaurs at Cabazon. Those were the roadside icons made famous by the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. (“I’m a loner, Dottie, a rebel!”) Everyone had to stop at the Cabazon dinosaurs once. I’ve stopped at least five times. In 1994, my friends and I stopped there early one morning after frying on acid all night in our Costa Mesa motel room, and we tried to eat breakfast at the Wheel Inn Restaurant until staff kicked us out. Here I was 26 years later, a 44-year old father, standing nearby to see the Pass itself. I wanted to finally experience it as something other than passing scenery. Saying that out loud might have made it sound boring had anyone else been around – it’s just a desert pass – but here alone among the brush, I could indulge my weird desert self, and few things thrill me more than exploring the American West. True intimacy requires getting out of the car, walking around, and talking to people. This particular excursion was unplanned.
To escape the winter gloom of our home in Portland, Oregon, my wife and I took a vacation to Palm Springs. We came to hike, swim, and absorb the sun. We needed to relax. But when I studied local hiking trails on my worn California map, my eyes drifted west from the palm canyons to the Pass. The place still intrigued me. So while our two-year-old daughter took her two-hour nap, I hopped in the car and drove west on a whim from our rental house.
Taking the smaller State Route 111 from downtown Palm Springs for the first time, I passed along the San Jacinto Mountains’ rugged northeastern edge, merged onto Interstate 10, and zoomed past Cabazon and the Big Morongo Reservation’s casino and outlet malls, all the way to the town of Beaumont, where the grade lifted me over the Pass’ 2,400 foot terminus, the foothills greened, vegetation softened, and the boulder-strewn ridges relaxed into rolling arcs as smooth as a dolphin’s back. Here ornamental palms towered over suburban red tile rooves, and names like “Oak Valley Parkway” and “North Highlands Spring Avenue” marked my arrival into the classic southern California landscape. I drove quiet residential streets that faced the foothills. Tiny yellow flowers bloomed in vacant lots colored with new green grasses. A few gnarled orange trees grew in scattered yards. When a chilly wind blew, I slipped a flannel over my t-shirt, a flannel I hadn’t needed 18 miles to the east. I had reached the Inland Empire. If I continued west, I’d arrive in Redlands, then Loma Linda, then eventually Pomona, downtown Los Angeles, and Venice Beach 96 miles away. I didn’t continue west. I’d only come to witness the changes.
After thirty minutes driving around Beaumont and Banning, I aimed my car east. Those green foothills quickly turned brown. The soft ridges became rough. The smooth blue sky hardened white, and the land around the interstate refilled with desert shrubs and roads named Cholla and Rockview, which cut through forlorn places where houses might never get built. The proximity of desert California to coastal California was astonishing. Even though these two worlds didn’t meet at a point as clear as the junction of two counties, the transition was sharp enough to make you think they did. Enchanted by the sudden change, you could imagine a scenario where, if you searched the hillsides hard enough, you might find a marker that said “Coastal California Ends Here,” or that you could flip over a rock and find two lizard species whose ranges weren’t supposed to overlap, but who shared this patch of shade. You could imagine finding where the Pass’ westernmost creosote bush pushed the sage out of the way and declared the land desert once again, somewhere near the line of demarcation where scientists decided that a certain median summer temperature meant the coastal Csa subcategory on the Köppen Climate system changed over to BSh, like a page turned on a paper calendar from one month to the next. I knew enough about ecology to know it was more subtle than that. I’d also traveled enough to know that few places were like the Pass. The two Californias merged at many different places here, in many subtle ways, from tax brackets to social services, architecture to the landscape’s texture. I wanted to find those ways. I also didn’t want to leave. This little drive had excited the exploratory part of me, the part that whispers Come closer. But our daughter would wake up soon, and 20 miles separated us. I still couldn’t help myself. Between work and life and parenting, when would I be able to come back? So on return to Palm Springs, I parked on this dirt pullout off a long bumpy frontage road named Railroad Avenue, for one final look from the Pass’ eastern end.
As the train got closer, I crouched beside a creosote big enough to hide me from the conductor. The lowland desert across the tracks was all San Bernardino National Forest property, which was unusual since the Federal Government had established National Forest to protect cooler uplands with timber, water sources, and better range land, lands like the towering San Jacintos. In fact, the National Forest system started nearby in the San Gabriel Mountains, where mining and grazing activities were damaging the watershed enough to mobilize Los Angeles business interests to urge the government to protect their downstream interests. Somewhere in the scrub, the Pacific Crest Trail made its way down those mountains, crossed the valley floor, and dipped under the 10-lane interstate before entering the San Bernardino Mountains to the north and continuing over 2,000 miles to the Canadian border. It was hard to believe that the far easternmost edge of the Los Angeles-Long Beach, California Combined Statistical Area – that sprawling metro area of 18 million people – was 15 miles from this windy, stunning vacancy. That’s part of what interested me: how such momentous things can occur in such a short stretch of earth, and right in plain sight of drivers who still can’t see them. Such unusual dimensions and illusions were part of the Pass’ magic.
Even though the land here at 1,500-feet elevation was arid desert, snow and evergreen trees covered soaring San Jacinto Peak, making it spring down here and winter up there. In fact, the canyon in front of me, the canyon that thrust the peak into the sky and ran all the way down to the sand – where dark rock met the tan granules like a living room wall that didn’t get properly sealed to the floor – was appropriately named Snow Canyon. The snow up there seemed so close I could reach out and touch it. The shapes of individual conifers were so clear that I could count some one-by-one. A friend had once asked how long it would take to hike up the mountainside to the peak. That was another optical illusion. The forested peak actually stood six miles from where I stood, often hidden in passing clouds that still warped a sense of scale.This side of the mountains rose nearly 9,000 feet straight from the desert floor, in a towering, unbroken rock wall that’s one of the single steepest rock walls in all of North America. Measured another way: the lower 48 states had no more direct routes from forest to desert in so short a distance as this single slope of the San Jacintos. In fact, the 16-mile Cactus to Clouds trail climbs 10,600 vertical feet to take you there, but the hike is brutal for even the fittest hikers. That sounds like a random factoid that only interests science geeks, but it shapes drivers’ perception of the Pass.
The illusions occur on both sides. Driving west, the steep mountains grab your attention with such force that you hardly notice the way the desert scrub disappears, or the way the hard white light softens into the moist, Los Angelean sky. By the time certain small shifts in texture and architecture register, the big change has occurred, and the sparsely populated lowlands have filled with a dense grid of humanity, where confusing freeway signs and weaving aggressive drivers demand so much of your attention that the Pass’ magnificence fades too quickly to even lodge as a memory. It was there. Now it’s gone. In the rearview mirror, the hump of land at Beaumont hides the incline you just climbed for 19 miles, pushing the towering mountains down into molehills in a way that reduces the Pass to a hilly horizon line, rather than a gap. The illusion is as profound as the mountains’ true dimensions. Magnificence arisen. Magnificence erased. Most of this is impossible to absorb at 80 miles an hour. But to me, it’s all too important to remain invisible.
The chugging train slithered past me, aimed for the salt cedar wind breaks at Thousand Palms. As we desert natives say, the day was warm enough for snakes, so as I crouched to hide from the train conductor, I scanned the ground and spotted a baby one coiled at the mouth of its hole in the creosote’s shade. It lay perfectly still. It looked like a dried twig. At first I feared it was a baby rattler. They can strike so fast that the whole attack lasts under a tenth of a second. The young ones were especially dangerous, because they haven’t learned to control the amount of venom they inject, so if they empty their venom into you, you’re doomed. I was crouching right in front of it.
I scoot to the side and looked closer. This snake had the rattler’s triangular head. Instead of a rattler, a pink tough nub capped the tip of its tail. Strangely, as the wind rocked the branches above it, it didn’t move. Its tongue didn’t even flicker. I assumed it was lethargic, having emerged from its winter torpor to gather warmth on this sunny day. Maybe it was dead. When I gently rocked it with a stick, it simply tipped over in its coiled position. Wow, I thought, a perfectly preserved dead snake. I wanted to take it to my friend Dean, who collects snake skins and bones and loves all things reptilian. I texted Dean a photo. He said it was a sidewinder, possibly hurt from surviving an animal attack, possibly dying from internal injuries. That would explain the nub. To be sure, I lifted its body with the stick. Instead of striking, its tongue finally flickered. Slowly it gathered itself into a tight coil, then retreated backwards into the hole like smoke sucked into a flume, its head aimed at me before disappearing completely.
I started walking to my car. A jack rabbit watched me. A few steps away, I stopped suddenly at strange bush. A White Bursage bush had nestled inside a larger waxy green species I couldn’t identify, forming a single fluffy orb. This green-and-grey yin-yang seemed to embody all I thought about this Pass as an intermediary zone. It was the Pass’ coastal portion, facing west, and its desert portion, facing east. It was a symbol of two worlds that coexisted here.
As shade covered the snake’s den and the train disappeared, I looked up canyon and decided to come back. There was so much life here, so much to learn. I know how I am: I wouldn’t be satisfied until I knew more. Racing east on I-10, sometimes at 90mph, I plotted future trips, dictated random thoughts to Gmail, and made a list of locations to visit in the Pass, then I got off at Date Palm Drive at 2:42pm. After adjusting for my brief stop, my total drive time from Beaumont to this Palm Springs turnoff was 27 minutes. It would take a lot of repeat visits to understand this place, many years, books, trips, flights, and interviews. I’d done this before with California’s rural San Joaquin Valley, over the course of 20 years, and the experience let me understand my favorite state far more than I had when spending my time in the redwoods and on the beach. I’d visited the San Joaquin Valley so frequently, and in such off-beat places, that people asked if I’d ever lived there. No, I’d say, as much as I want to, I’ve never lived in California. I’m just here because I’m interested. The same reasons brought me to the Pass.
Aaron Gilbreath's essays have appeared in Harper's, Kenyon Review, The Atlantic, Brick, The Dublin Review, Paris Review Daily, and been nominated for a James Beard Award and named a notable in Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Sports Writing. His third book, The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley, was a finalist for the 2022 Oregon Book Award. He recently serialized the multimedia book Deconstruction: Portrait of a Quiet Masterpiece, about the overlooked cult classic album from the 1990s. He runs the Alive in the Nineties music series on Substack.