Home, Home on the Ranch: A Brief Job Stint in the Desert

RANCHO MIRAGE. To a New Englander newly arrived in California, the name implied a certain lack of reality and permanence. However, that was my destination on a hot September day in 1959.

A couple of weeks before, I had answered a help wanted ad for someone to work at the headquarters of a travel agency located on a guest ranch. Since it sounded interesting and I very much needed a job, I applied, was interviewed, and now friends were driving me to that uncertain-sounding location.

Following the directions given me, we finally saw the sign for the ranch and drove down a long lane to an attractive low stucco building. There I was greeted by a member of the staff and said good-bye to my friends. The staffer took me to my room, which was in another long, low building, this one lined on either side by tall palms. I was amused to note that each tree had its own electric light and its own water spigot. I'd never known a New England tree with either - but then, of course, I'd never known a palm in New England.

When I reported for work the following morning, my new boss showed me to a desk. "Have you ever used an electric typewriter?" he asked.

"No," I replied.

"Have you ever used a Dictaphone?"

Again I said, "No."

"Well, there's a typewriter and there's the Dictaphone; there are the instruction manuals, and there are three tapes to be transcribed," he said, pointing to each in turn. Before I could sit down he was gone.

This was obviously a very real mirage!

The office staff consisted of five Americans, a young man from the Tokyo office, and a young woman from the Hong Kong office. We each had our own tasks. Our boss was a workaholic, but none of us were. We left promptly at 5 each day, leaving him at his desk.

My job turned out to be rather boring. I was tied to the Dictaphone most of the time, typing out letters and itineraries. At least the itineraries offered an opportunity to daydream about the interesting places and events materializing under my fingers. If I stayed a year on the job, I had been told, I would be rewarded with a round-the-world trip.

Then suddenly I was put in charge of African tours. There were no instruction manuals for this job - no verbal instructions either. My phone would ring, and a caller might say something like, "I've been able to book two more rooms at the hotel in Kampala for August 25," or "I've taken care of the reservations for the Zambezi cruise for the July 6 tour."

To which I'd reply, "Thank you very much," and make careful notes of everything said. I found it fun and was just beginning to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, when the head of the Paris office appeared one morning to work at headquarters for the winter. Just as abruptly as the African tours had been thrust at me, they were taken away and given to her. I was back to typing letters and itineraries.

One afternoon as the days grew shorter I looked out the window over my typewriter and saw the distant mountains dyed purple by the setting sun. "Purple mountain majesties!" Suddenly the words from "American the Beautiful" made sense to me.

Living in the desert and on a guest ranch was a totally new experience for me, and I enjoyed becoming acquainted with some of the ways of the Southwest. There were the September noontimes when the temperature hovered around 115 degrees, followed by chilly nights that were so quiet you could hear the silence - except for the occasional howling of distant coyotes.

One unforgettable night before the guests arrived, several of us rode horseback into the desert under a full moon.

Once guests began to arrive, the staff was included in the delicious barbecues served weekly at the fire-centered pit where our boss's wife entertained us with old favorites sung to her guitar accompaniment.

The members of the staff ate with the guests in the dining room, and what wonderful meals they were, too. A guest seated near me almost always asked, "How long are you here for?"

And I would answer, "I work here."

"You do! What a wonderful place to work!"

I tried not to let my unhappiness show. At the end of one trying day, however, I heard one of the guests talking to the receptionist, and I could tell the guest was getting an earful.

The next morning, the boss called me into his office and told me that the head of the Paris office had overhead the conversation, too, and he wanted to know what the problem was. I spent about an hour telling him about the frustrations the receptionist and I felt, after which he suggested that it would be better if she and I both left. That was fine with me, especially since she had a car and I could return to L.A. with her.

It was a difficult four months, but I was grateful to have a taste of desert living on a guest ranch - something I never would otherwise have had. It was also good to learn new skills that were soon put to use more enjoyably elsewhere. In the years since my desert interlude, Rancho Mirage has grown. I don't know if the guest ranch still exists. I've never been back, but I'm glad I was there.

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