On an arid oblong in the California desert, hard by the Indian lands and 2½ miles from the glittering gulch of Palm Springs, a doughty band of the U.S.'s foremost executives play truant from their suites each winter, holed up amid the mesquite and burro bush of Smoke Tree Ranch.
There isn't a key on any door or a uniform on most employees at Smoke Tree, and except for a petunia patch in front of the office and a small lawn alongside the dining room to keep the dust down the 400 acres of ranch real estate remain unlandscaped. Guests live in squat bungalows sprinkled over the mesa which would, by a devotee of chrome and glass motels, perhaps be considered primitive.
Nor is there a bar, but in deference to conviviality a pickup truck distributes a bucket of ice to every bungalow about 4 o'clock. A dinner bell clangs out across the desert twilight, and guests report into the dining hall at 6:30 sharp. Having been given a wooden clothespin upon arrival, a guest will find it attached to a napkin at dinnertime, grouped with others on the long bunkhouse tables.
Although the first and last courses are served by a waitress, the captains of industry and their ladies, according to ranch rule, file into the kitchen for the main course, where they help themselves to side dishes as the chef stands in front of the range and doles out the roast. In the evening there might be square dancing or bingo in the lounge, a public room decorated in the mode of a respectable maiden aunt in modest circumstance, but lights snap out early. They have to. Breakfast is over at 9 a.m., and, as a sign in each room indicates, anyone who doesn't want to rise for this deadline can have fruit juice, toast and coffee served in the cottage as late as 9:30.
Despite the fact that it is not always full for its entire fall-to-spring season, Smoke Tree is one of the most difficult resorts in the country to get into. The ranch is owned collectively by a group of 70 colonists, who, having agreed not to keep hogs or goats on the land, or dig for oil, or shoot firearms, or train dogs, have been permitted to buy property on one end of the reservation. Among those who have built homes, which must be of early California ranch house design, painted white, with not more than 10% of their lots planted to grass, are Paul Hoffman; Donald Gilmore, chairman of the board of the Upjohn Co.; Paul Trausdale, Texas real estate promoter; Walter Disney; and George Murphy, the former actor who staged last summer's Republican Spectacular at San Francisco. Stuart Symington, the only Democrat in memory at Smoke Tree, has since sold his home and retired from the ranch.
To spend a vacation in one of the desert cabins at Smoke Tree, a guest must be recommended by one of the colonists and then pass a five-man board of admissions. "They are terribly screened," a hostess explained. "Wonderfully screened, I think," a guest added. One vacationist who passed this rigid code was Dwight Eisenhower, who visited here in 1953, staying at the home of the late Paul Helms, of Los Angeles bakery and Olympic fame (SI, Nov. 19).
Guests, who pay about $17 a day with meals, and colonists, who are taxed $10 a month, can swim in the pool, bowl on the green, play tennis on the concrete courts or join the breakfast rides into the canyons, over the lands of the Cahuilla Indians. Use of the extensive Smoke Tree stables, the only ranch facility open to the general public, costs extra. Some 90 horses are maintained on the grounds, including those kept at the Smoke Tree Relay Station, an outpost to which riders can travel by car before mounting their horses for the trip into the canyons.
For colonists and clothespin holders, Smoke Tree is an enclave of serenity, an unfettered track of desert where they can hold out against the jazz of downtown Palm Springs, whose glow, like an irrepressible neon-lighted glacier, seems to move closer every year. But, guarded by a gatekeeper, an electrically controlled redwood gate and a rigid set of house rules, the colonists are yet secure and only rarely wander into such lapses as occurred the other night. Considering what to do about spotty guest business in the early season, a colonist gingerly tossed out a suggestion. "Do you think," he said, "we ought to take in a few Democrats?" It was such a preposterous notion that the room rang with laughter for many minutes.
Breakfast riders cross Smoke Tree Flat toward Andreas Canyon through mesquite, grease-wood, indigo and desert sage just after sunup.
Olympic pool surrounded by lush green lawn at Smoke Tree is, as at all Palm Springs inns, a center of social life after riding or playing tennis.
Smoke tree ranch colonists Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Heath, also of Long Beach, Calif., watch lawn bowlers. Mr. Heath is vice-president of Signal Oil Company.
Stable foreman Bud Kinnaman, a former rodeo star, instructs such Smoke Tree youngsters as Becky Rounds of Wichita in western arts of roping, riding.
Old hands Channing Wells, ex-president of American Optical Co., and Donald S. Gilmore, Upjohn Co. board chairman, winter at ranch. Wells gave bowling green.