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In the Mojave, an oasis turns 75

As desert rats go, few are hardier than the Chiriaco clan.

They came to this lonesome hilltop when it was little more than sand, scrub and venomous reptiles. Brooding mountains stared down from above while a handful of residents huddled in remote towns below.

"My father always wanted to go into business for himself, and this was where he chose to do it," said Margit Chiriaco-Rushe.


FOR THE RECORD:
Chiriaco Summit: An article in the California section Aug. 24 on the 75th anniversary of Chiriaco Summit reported that the landmark is in the Mojave Desert. It is in the Colorado Desert. —


And so Chiriaco Summit was born, a desolate outpost of howling winds and Spartan comforts, offering what founder Joseph Chiriaco said were "all the necessities and a few of the luxuries" of life. That meant gas, water, a hamburger and maybe a bed in a creaky cabin.

Yet times have changed.

What began as a rough-and-tumble gas station is now a community of some 60 full-time residents. And this month, the now-booming hamlet along Interstate 10 celebrated its 75th anniversary as a landmark way station for travelers heading through the Mojave Desert to Phoenix.

The old Chiriaco family home is now a post office. A modern Chevron station dispenses gas and organic coffee. The General Patton Memorial Museum is open, with an array of vintage tanks on display. There is a Vietnam Memorial Wall, a cafe, classic car garage, trailer park and even an airport.

"We have come through a lot of hard times here, some really lean times," said Chiriaco-Rushe, 70, sitting in a back booth of the coffee shop. "I don't think just anyone can live in the desert. It takes a certain person to see the beauty here."

Appreciating the desert is often an acquired taste, and there were times when she yearned for a change. She once moved to Bloomington, near Fontana.

"One of the reasons I came back is because my family needed me," said Chiriaco-Rushe, chief executive officer of the business. "I wanted to be an artist. I dreamed about maybe moving to New York, but I felt the pull to stay here. It really has been a wonderful life."

And one that has touched many others.

On Aug. 15, hundreds of travelers stopped by to congratulate Chiriaco-Rushe and her extended family on the anniversary.

"We go to the river a lot and always stop in for dinner or a malt," said Nancy Barnes, 77, of Riverside. "It's a unique place with a personal touch. There is a pull that makes you want to come in. I can't go by without stopping."

Judy Duff drove by without stopping for decades until learning that she shared the same birthday -- Aug. 15, 1933 -- with the summit. The retired Riverside nurse felt the story was too good to keep to herself, so she drove up to share it.

"I used to see this place all the time on the way to Phoenix, but I never went in," she said. "I thought it was fascinating that we shared the same birthday. I worried though, what if I got there and Margit wasn't there? Who would I tell? The cook?"

Chiriaco-Rushe circulated among the local dignitaries like the chieftain of a small kingdom. She hugged Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff and posed under the cannon of a Sherman tank.

"Hurry up, I think I'm going to melt," she told a photographer as the sun beat down relentlessly.

The garrulous Huell Howser, host of KCET-TV Channel 28's "California's Gold," showed up with a camera crew and embraced her.

"Margit is a piece of history," he declared. "In a place like this, that seems so empty, you have two people who came out to find their dream. If that's not an example of California's gold, I don't know what is."

Chiriaco-Rushe smiled broadly, then ducked into a back room of the post office.

"This used to be our bedroom when we were kids," she said, standing in the narrow room now serving as her office. "We had four cots lined up in here. Each day we would take the school bus down to Indio."

Her father came from Alabama, working as a surveyor for the Los Angeles Bureau of Water and Power and then the Metropolitan Water District. His wife, Ruth, was a Minnesotan. They built their gas station along a two-lane highway about 30 miles east of Indio.

"My mom was a Norwegian blond, my dad was an Italian, and they both loved the desert," she said.

"We grew up without air conditioning in pretty crunched conditions. People out here made their houses from boxes and their fences from ocotillo sticks. But we had good values, and we were all straight-A students."

In 1942, Gen. George S. Patton came calling. He had chosen a site just a mile east of the summit as headquarters for an 18,000-square-mile training site designed to prepare soldiers for desert combat. When he died in 1945, the family erected a monument in his honor and donated the land where the museum now sits.

Joseph and Ruth Chiriaco died within months of each other in 1996. Their children took over and continue to run the summit, along with their children.

Many of the cooks, waitresses and clerks live in trailers behind the post office. Chiriaco-Rushe also lives on the property.

Over the years, the community has seen a parade of celebrities come through. President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, stopped in for ice cream. Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal ate a hamburger in the cafe.

Chiriaco-Rushe wants to put in a motel and maybe an RV park. But for now she is savoring the present.

"I am sure Joe and Ruth are here with us today," she told a small crowd as she teared up.

At the outdoor chapel, the Rev. Jack Keefe offered a blessing.

"May this be a place where people can shelter a little and then move on feeling renewed," he said. "May they not only find shelter but a home."

david.kelly@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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