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The Last Show

A beautiful neon marquee drew us into the Foothill's well-landscaped grounds, in a niche at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Inside, the sound of music squawking from hundreds of ancient speaker units created a bizarre fun-house effect. (Most drive-ins long ago switched to broadcasting on locally unused radio bands.) The show was a double bill: Blade and Snake Eyes for just $5 per person. The first 20 minutes of Blade—nightclubbing vampires and gore—was a far cry from the family scene I remembered. We had to get away, and quickly learned that today's cars are not equipped to handle the one essential point of drive-in etiquette: no headlights. On most new models there's no way to turn the lights off when the engine is running. We slunk out to hoots from the other cars.

We woke up after an excellent—nightmareless—sleep at the pristine Circle C Lodge in the Morongo Basin town of Twentynine Palms. The Circle C is a classic example of good, simple motel design. Twelve rooms built of cinder blocks encircle a courtyard with pool, spa—and barbecue pit!

Route 62 heads west toward Yucca Valley, the basin's most developed town. We checked out the sights, especially Joshua Tree National Monument, and the thrift shops offering surprisingly well preserved wares. Back in Twentynine Palms, the Smith's Ranch Drive-In was just what a desert drive-in should be: utilitarian, simple, sturdy, and clean. The screen rose high on a turquoise metal frame in the middle of a field. Unfortunately, the double bill was Blade and Snake Eyes. Maybe we'd skip the first show.

After a dip in the Circle C's pool, we headed for dinner at the 29 Palms Inn. Founded in 1928 on the Oasis of Mara, the inn has been run by the same family for five generations. Over the years it served as a funky getaway for the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Durante. Its 17 rooms are spread among a number of buildings; nine of them are traditional adobe bungalows.

As we drove to the inn, we were baffled to see the landscape disappearing in the distance. A storm was kicking up sand, blocking our sight as much as any blizzard. We pulled over to let it pass. I couldn't help but remember Ralph Fiennes's discourse on winds in The English Patient as he and Kristin Scott Thomas are buried in the desert.

We survived. And minutes later pulled up at the inn and raced past the pool to the restaurant just as rain began pelting down. The weather saved us from another night of vampire carnage. Instead, we drank wine and watched an intense display of lightning miles to the east. It was better than any Hollywood effect.

Backtracking west on Route 10 in the morning, we nearly missed the famous "monsters" at the Cabazon exit. A new Burger King and Denny's all but block the view of the giant iconic tyrannosaurus (installed there in the early 80's) and apatosaurus (which dates to 1975). At Riverside we turned south toward San Diego.

Riverside is the birthplace of California's navel-orange industry. The town is also home to the baroque, labyrinthine Mission Inn, probably the state's first "themed" undertaking. In 1902 its founder remodeled an 1876 building to capitalize on romantic notions of California's Spanish history. The result is this sprawling, sentimental, decidedly quirky hotel. A cloistered walk, five-story rotunda, catacombs, and dozens of tiny decorative but purposeless chambers and byways all contribute to the sensation of staying in a real Spanish mission. Completely restored in the early nineties, it's worth a stop, if only for lunch at the Spanish Patio café.

Of all the theaters we saw, the two in Riverside—the Rubidoux and the Van Buren—were the best preserved: paved lots, bright paint jobs. I would have loved to watch The Avengers at the Rubidoux, but we wanted to reach San Diego and the South Bay Drive-In before dusk.

Just north of San Diego we found room at the unconsciously retro-hip La Jolla Cove Suites motel, a six-story confection above La Jolla Cove. The amenities are basic but the price is right, the location is prime, and the view from our oceanfront terrace couldn't be beat.

We had no time for the sunset, though—we roared south on Route 5 to make showtime at the South Bay. The bill included Blade, yet again. But there were also two other screens to choose from, and parked at the center screen we could look left and right to see the other flicks. We tuned the other shows' frequencies in and out at will. Channel surfing, lounging in our car, eating popcorn: we had found drive-in heaven.

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