The Discovery Channel featured “Gems of Pala” on a travel special in 2007. My father, loosely employed as a fire sprinkler installer, watched the episode from the comfort of his eighty-year-old mother’s leather couch. Though I never saw this particular episode, I had seen similar episodes highlighting travel activities like spearfishing and zip lining. Unlike the Florida gator farm that permitted air boating, Gems of Pala could be reached in a two-hour drive from Orange County, CA. Gems of Pala had one other appealing feature: Pala Casino was right down the road.
This episode appealed to my father. Not in the sense that, “Hey girls, I found something fun for us to do this weekend,” but in the same way that palm tree seeds enlightened my father when I was a child. My father took four-year-old me to Balboa Fun Zone. We did not play arcade games. Instead, we dug inside the pointed bark of low-lying palm trees by the public restrooms while the sound of skee balls rolling up ramps vibrated in the distance. Laughter of those winning games sounded in the background as my father showed me where to find seeds. His fingers dug inside the crevices of the trees. At home in our apartment in Santa Ana, I helped him fill paint buckets with dirt and plant the seeds as the last of the sun’s rays set through the slats of our backyard fence.
“Palm trees,” he said as his hands worked through the dirt settled in blue buckets. “Are good business. Once they grow tall, you can sell them for a lot of money.”
“We’re going to be rich,” I said. I couldn’t count, but the amount of buckets filled with soil was vast.
My parents divorced shortly after the trees were planted and aligned in our cement-paved backyard. My mom threw out the buckets. The palm seeds piled next to the dumpster, barely sprouted, and my father cast roots beyond our walls.
Around the time my father had discovered Gems of Pala, he was also calling me at eight o’clock every night to drive him to Morongo Casino. With ten DUIs on his record, Dad could not drive himself. Despite the fact that I had class at the local community college most mornings, I agreed to drive my dad to the desert after my waitressing shift at the Macaroni Grill. I routinely turned my forty-dollar night into an eighty to two hundred dollar win. Losing happened on occasion, but my father, wanting to stay longer, always invested a few more dollars in my gambling so that I could leave “up.” By the end of spring, my Toyota Corolla had more miles on it from driving to Morongo than it had from driving to class. We were regulars. The cocktail waitress had my Diet Coke order down, resting under a cocktail napkin, three cup holders from the left, Roulette table—digital only. Eventually, my younger sister joined our casino gang, also smelling like the olive oils rubbed on the peasant bread at the restaurant. Eighteen, soda and a cigarette, she knew her place beside me: left side and a Morongo card plugged into its slot.
My sister and I considered the Gems of Pala dig something new, something you do once for family bonding. It wasn’t a routine like Hadley date shakes after Morongo. Our grandma, aunt, and boyfriends joined us on our trip to Pala, making our assumption that this outing was outside our usual, outside our gang of three, seem true. Passing flower farms and small wineries, we saw few restaurants on our trip to Indian territory. Hearing our hungry complaints on the way, my father suggested we stop at the Pala Casino for food. We wanted to eat quickly. The entrance, lined with slot machines, enticed my father. He told us he would meet us at the restaurant.
“Order me something, I’ll be right there,” he said before disappearing into flickering lights and card tables that weren’t ours. They were Pala’s.
The casino’s restaurant had a patio facing a wooded area and hills. We were cold and my father’s food, enclosed in a Styrofoam box, was also cold. We ate and we waited. My sister and I took a toothpick to the white box and dug in, “The Gambling Addict’s Sandwich.” We found Dad on the way out, down.
When I see some of the places that the Discovery Channel features on its travel specials, the first thing that comes to my mind is the camera lens. The camera never captures the mass amount of trashcans, and abandoned army vehicles along the unpaved dirt roads, the beyond items that mirage together. These things, like the lady with an upsetting amount of gold nuggets masking as teeth leading the “gem-digging introduction,” are edited out.
Our guide, the woman with the teeth, to gem digging brought us over to a pile of dirt.
“See,” she said, scooping a gem-mining tin into the mud. “You want to fill it then stick it in the water.” Swish Swish, the muddy water swirled over the brim. She had one hand on the pan and the other in her pocket. The pocket hand emerged from her jeans, fisted, and reached inside the pan. She pulled out a two-inch rock of tourmaline and handed it to the youngest boy in the crowd.
“Pass it around,” she motioned to the rest of us. “This is what you are looking for. People find gems like this all the time.”
My sister and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. “Dad,” I whispered. “We’re only getting lucky if we have pockets like hers.”
He didn’t respond. He held up the gem as it was passed to him and said, “Look at this. I’ll make you girls some jewelry. Do you like pink like this or green?”
Two months later, I visited my father at my grandma’s house. He was working on her patio. When I say patio, I should preface my exaggeration with the fact that she lived on the second floor of a senior living community. My father had lined paint buckets of dirt on her patio.
“What are these?” I asked.
“You can buy a bucket of dirt from Pala for twenty bucks.”
“A bucket,” I said. “Dad, you have like a hundred dollars worth here.”
The ten buckets proved that my father had been returning to Pala. He hadn’t been asking me to drive him so I assumed, seeing that my grandma had let him turn her once-potted, garden-garnished patio into a gem panning facility, that my grandmother was now indulging his fancies. Instead of going to lunch, I helped him sort through dirt. We found, just like we had on our family trip to Gems of Pala, slivers of poor quality tourmaline that my father insisted we save. While viewing Dad, all twitchy and fast paced, sort through the dirt, it became apparent to me that he was investing his time and money into things other than buckets of dirt. He was drinking again.
My father knew not to call me anymore. Caught up with schoolwork, I had started to deny his requests to be his taxi driver. The last call from him came during school finals. He was in San Diego, CA. Odd, I thought, miles away from Pala.
“Mom,” he said on the phone, referring to my grandma, “left me.” On a gambling spree to a casino a few hours south of us that had also included a short tour of the Del Mar racetracks, my father had lost all of his money and had no way to get home. I had too much work to leave and drive two hours to pick him up so I paid the thirty-six dollars for him to take the Amtrak home.
Shorty after this, as it became even more apparent to me that my father was once again routinely drinking more than anything else, I stopped talking to him. My grandma moved to Arkansas and my father, reliant on the enabling tendencies of my grandmother, followed her there. Since then, letters and text messages have arrived sporadically.
Put Him first. I’m not drinking. I don’t even smoke. Jesus told me “XYZ.”
For my birthday this year, five years after we went to Gems of Pala, my father sent me a Tiger gem necklace that he had made. He no longer digs for gems. He purchases them with his paychecks. He works now. High-end gems strung on wire. The necklace came with a letter. My father devoted three quarters of the space to describing the quality of the gems. The other quarter lay out an escape route for the end of the world. Apparently, Jesus told him that California is heading for disaster. A tsunami is eminent. The Gems of Pala people will remember me, he said. Go there. They have a water supply. They will let you in.
Danielle Farrell holds a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. She is also a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California, Irvine, where she studied English and Creative Writing. She currently volunteers for the Orange County Christian Writers’ Conference and shares stories from her childhood at churches in Southern California. She resides in Santa Ana, California. You can follow her on Instagram at @dbfarrell.