A Mind-Emptying Kind of Place

Bingham is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

It was a weekend stripped down to the barest of elements: wind, water, earth and fire. Brandi, the clear-eyed young woman who runs the tiny retreat of Miracle Manor in Desert Hot Springs, across the valley from Palm Springs, had warned me of its simplicity.

"No phones, no television, no shoes in the rooms, no smoking, no children, no pets." Her voice, though warm, had a snap of stern. The place's new owners, L.A. architect Michael Rostini and designer April Greiman, had just finished stripping all the kitsch out of the funky '40s motel that housed Miracle Manor, opening it anew last January.

To two moms often overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern family life, it sounded fine. It was drizzling when Gloria and I headed out of Los Angeles on a Friday morning in early October. Just over two hours later, we pulled up in front of Miracle Manor. The parking lot was gravel, a camper shell and dumpster the only decoration. My first thought was, "Oh no, we've made a horrible mistake." I said nothing to Gloria, though her silence spoke volumes. But our deposit was nonrefundable, so silently, oh so silently, we hauled our suitcases, our shopping bags stuffed with Donna Karan (we had not resisted the Desert Hills outlet stores along the way), our CD players, our grocery bags of food and our makeup cases into the entryway. And then everything changed.

Incense wafted out of one of the rooms, and the only sound was the soft rustle of wind in the palms. Inexplicably, I felt peace rush into me as palpably as if a hand had brushed across my face. We found a note on the office door. Brandi was "having a massage. Your room is open." Next to the door, flashing digital letters marched across a display board: WELCOME . . . TO . . . MIRACLE . . . MANOR . . . AND REMEMBER . . . NO THINKING . . . IF THINKING . . . THINK NOTHING.

Our room was down at the end of a walkway, the last of three in a row. Across the angular irregular courtyard that was filled with stones and an occasional artfully placed rock were only three more rooms. We had sprung for a room with a kitchen so we wouldn't have to go out for breakfast or lunch. We held our breath as we entered.

The room was a minimalist gem, pure and simple. The walls were a putty color, the floors highly varnished wood, the curtains--simple slabs of textured linen--hung from a sculptured steel staff. Three flowers stood in a glass vase at just the angle to catch the light pouring in from outside. Mt. San Jacinto was framed in the large steel-framed window. There was no closet, only a curved steel rod from which hung four hangers, each a work of art.

Immediately everything we had brought felt like clutter; we jammed most of it into the rolling bins placed beneath the high bed on which lay stacked the most wonderfully comfortable mattress, homespun bedding and huge pile of pillows.

Most assuredly, this place is not for everyone. Some come, look around, get nervous and leave within 15 minutes. Others last a night and then apologetically sneak off in the morning, muttering about there being no closet. But we found hooks in just the right places and marveled at the placement and grace of the gooseneck lamps.

I went for a run up into a wash in the desert hills behind the manor. I chased up several coveys of quail, spooked jack rabbits and almost stepped on a baby rattlesnake skin. As I was coming back down, the sun set behind Mt. San Gorgonio, where billowing clouds showed that L.A. probably was still under drizzle.

The retreat sits up on a hill overlooking the entire Coachella Valley, with one of the steepest escarpments in the world. From valley floor to peak, in less than six miles, Mt. San Jacinto's elevation vaults from less than 1,000 feet to more than 10,000. The San Andreas fault itself lurked just behind us, like a lazy scorpion in the foothills that lead up to Joshua Tree. It is an exposed landscape; the elements are at play.

Back at the manor, we dove into the hot mineral spring waters, then moved back and forth between the pool and the hotter, screened-off spa. We heard the wind rushing up the plain toward us. The moon popped up, almost full. Suddenly the pull of the moon seemed more important than the pull of my day planner. And the consciousness of my breath moving in and out became more significant than my daughter's college applications.

Later, as we headed off down the hill toward a Korean restaurant, the sound of drums and an aboriginal didgeridoo, a musical pipe, floated out from Brandi's quarters. The restaurant, though low on charm, was high on food: spicy, tasty and cheap.

The next day we drove to Two Bunch Palms, our more upscale neighbor. I had made reservations that morning for spa treatments and dinner at Two Bunch--only possible "the day of" if spaces aren't all taken by regular guests. We treated ourselves to hot mud baths and body wraps. After my attendant finished wrapping and steaming me, she leaned over and whispered, "As you go into your inward journey, don't go too far, your dinner reservation is soon." The restaurant was lovely, the waitress was great, but the food was kind of crunchy and not as good as it should have been given the price. (The next day, we had lunch at a fabulous Mexican restaurant, La Michoacana, on Palm Drive just south of town, where the fresh shrimp came in a big bowl of cool broth with lime and cilantro and onions and avocado and was one-fifth the price.)

By Sunday morning, several young couples had joined the Miracle Manor group. One couple was bicoastal, here for a romantic rendezvous. Another beautiful pair from Europe were both designers. "I like it. It's so simple," she said. Her husband murmured that it was the ultimate in "techno postmodern simplicity."

Lovely doe-eyed Sheila from Iran arrived to give us massages in the healing room just off the entrance. At the very end, as she cupped her hands over my face and forehead, I thought nothing.

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GUIDEBOOK

Budget for Two

Gas: $21.96

Groceries: 56.83

Dinner, Palm Korea: 25.27

Miracle Manor: 275.50

Spa treatments: 190.00

Dinner, Two Bunch: 96.19

Michoacana lunch: 27.00

Massages: 150.00

FINAL TAB: $842.75

Miracle Manor, 12589 Reposa Way, Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240; tel. (760) 329-6641.

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