BY DAVID HOCHMAN
The first time I ever went to Palm Springs, the woman I was dating drove us there from Los Angeles late one moonless Friday in her red Miata. Even with the convertible top down, when we pulled into town we couldn’t discern much in the darkness beyond a few tall cacti and some floodlit palms.
The thrill hit us the next morning. How had we not noticed the 10,000-foot snowcapped peak towering above our hotel, or the perfect patchwork of pools and fairways stretching to the opposite horizon? The rising sun turned the mountains lavender and gold. I’d never seen skies so blue.
Arriving somewhere new at night can trip you up like that: On a taxi ride into Manhattan from the airport at 9 or 10 pm, you miss the traffic and emerge from tunnel or bridge to find the city in hair-down mode – Wall Street types are out walking their poodles; you might even win a smile from a cop.
Getting in late is a kind of beckoning. You’re there, but not yet fully aware of the true power of a place. The unknown is filled with promise and opportunity – I tend to relish the just-under-the-wire quality of it all. Let’s say you trade your frenetic urban routine for somewhere languid and tropical. The barefoot, laughing couple you glimpse stretched out casually with drinks holds the possibility of what future you – relaxed you – might become. Just give it another 24 hours, right?
So much of what makes life alluring is anticipation, and I’m perfectly fine not receiving the whole enchilada the instant I touch down someplace. Allow the journey to unfold slowly, and you’ve mastered the endangered art of savoring. Consider it the same as with getting to know people: What fun would dating be if my girlfriend and I had somehow acquired full dossiers on each other the day we met? Half the pleasure we were having was the constant discovery, of each other and the world, side by side.
Once, in the coastal cowboy country south of Puerto Vallarta, she and I arrived late to a small hotel we’d been talking about excitedly for weeks. Under cover of night, it looked nothing like it had in the travel magazines: The place was actually more magical. The Milky Way arched overhead, and armies of fireflies glittered around us. Hundreds of candles lined the gravel pathway to an open-air reception area, which turned out to be an antique desk under a crystal chandelier dripping with flickering votives. If the true meaning of the word “awe” is to feel small, almost fearful, in the face of something vast and inexplicable, then this entrance – and sharing it with someone signicant – was as awesome as any I’d experienced.
On the road, I like to let go of my usual habits and hang-ups. That’s somehow easier at night too. It’s acceptable to be a little wacky from jet lag or to excuse yourself from small talk about your flight delay and politely march off to bed. You can be as wrinkled or as polished, as animated or as pensive, as you care to be. Night is the territory of sleep, but also of dreams. In an unfamiliar setting at the end of the day, you’re as much a mystery to the new destination as the new destination is a mystery to you.
In a letter to his brother, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.” I can see that, especially in a place like, say, Miami Beach. Motoring down Collins Avenue into the Art Deco District along South Beach is enjoyable during the day, but at night, with the hotel names illuminated in pink and turquoise neon, and the neighborhood’s retro futurism in full shimmer, there’s no place like it on earth. And let’s not even compare arriving in Vegas at lunch to getting there for late cocktails. It just wouldn’t pack the same punch to hear Sinatra sing, “Luck be a lady this afternoon.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my girlfriend and I ended up getting married two years later in Palm Springs. After that first trip, we made a tradition of arriving in the desert after nightfall. It’s just too irresistibly romantic. Even on the day of our wedding, we waited patiently until the sun sank behind that tall peak before we exchanged our vows. Our original trip set the tone for a lifetime together. Like the best arrivals, the best relationships are about the potential of what’s to come as much as what you see in front of you.
Top illustration courtesy of Partners In Crime Studio.