When I was a kid, my dad took my sister and I to all of the lower 48 states over two summers. We rented a Winnebago, followed a AAA map, visited over a dozen national parks and “experienced” dozens of roadside attractions. I remember most of it fondly, but I always got a special kick out of the random tourist traps on the interstate. South of the Border, Wall Drug, Casa de Fruita and all the “biggest balls of twine” were landmarks to me. Even then I knew these glorified rest stops were a bit hokey, but they were (and still are) great fun. And that was enough for me. Not everything needs to be gourmet, original, artisanal, organic and rarefied. Whimsical still counts for something, too. And if you are driving 6+ hours a day, whimsical means a lot.
Now sometimes we would get lucky and the roadside destination would involve good food. Peaches and Vidalias in Georgia, BBQ in Texas or sweet corn in Long Island- really, really good stuff. Heaven. I still love these places and seek them out whenever and wherever I can. And in Southern California, near Palm Springs we have Shields Date Garden, the home of Date Shake and other date delights. Roadside bliss.
Now we love dates and eat them regularly, but we cannot grow them here in NorCal, it is too cold. We do get dates at the farmers market; Medjool, Bahri and Honey dates are our faves. But dates come from desert areas in SoCal, and most likely from Shields or somewhere nearby in the Coachella Valley. You can see the Date Palms everywhere (with ladders attached) in the area, and it really does scream out “you are in the desert”. Except that you aren’t in the desert anymore. You are in the midst of suburban sprawl.
When Mr. Shields built his Date Garden, it was literally an oasis in the desert, over ten miles out from Palm Springs and well on the way to the Salton Sea. It was date palms and orange groves (most of which, sadly, are gone) as far as you could see. Now Shields is in the midst of Indio, a sprawling golf and retirement community. There is a mini-mall across the street and a 4-lane highway out front. Times change. Golf rules the world (or American subdivisions, at least).
But, even if Shields Date Garden is no longer a remote roadside attraction, it is still great fun. We had a Date Shake (ice cream and crystalized dates, yummy but super, super rich), bought some date sugar for baking and a variety of dates for eating out of hand. We even saw the famous movie “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date”. Mr. Shields, it seems, knew a bit about marketing. It turns out a promo film for date growing with a sexy title, an air conditioned theater and a cool milkshake are all very attractive options when driving through the desert. I spoke with the staff (very friendly, btw) and they serve about 500 Date Shakes a day, sometimes over 1000. It seems plenty of people still enjoy a good roadside attraction.