Zee Zzyzx zis zpring

Heading to Southern California on I-15, you have probably seen the sign for Zzyzx Road. Like many people, I was always intrigued by the name, yet too much in a hurry to check it out. But after passing it by countless times, a friend and I recently decided to take that road less traveled, and were pleasantly surprised. There is a lot more to Zzyzx than an odd name.

Zzyzx is located on the western edge of the Mojave National Preserve, just south of Baker. It’s a wonderful place to kick back, have a picnic or just wander around the unique area.

Once off the interstate we followed the road south as it wound its way through the desert toward Soda Dry Lake. During the Ice Age this was a wet lake, which today’s geologists call Lake Mojave. It spans about 10 miles from north to south and five miles from east to west. At first I wasn’t sure if we were on the correct road, for it appeared to dead end until we turned a bend and in the distance could see the outlines of buildings and palm trees.

The area has a long and varied history. Its natural seeps and springs were among the few reliable water sources in the area, and critical to man and beast for many centuries. American Indians lived or traveled through this area as far as 10,000 years ago. By the mid-19th century, people began calling the place Soda Springs. In 1860, and then again in 1867 and 1868, this was the site of a military outpost along the Mojave Road. After that, things quieted down except for a brief period of mining. In 1906 and 1907 a railroad was built. The Tonapah & Tidewater offered a stop here on its way from Ludlow to Death Valley. That railroad operated until 1940; two years later the rails were removed, reportedly to serve again in Egypt, carrying supplies for the North African Campaign of World War II.

Things became extremely interesting in the mid-1940s when a self-proclaimed minister and doctor named Curtis Howe Springer filed mining claims on the land and developed the property into the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort.

Various explanations have been given why Springer renamed the place Zzyzx. Some say he wanted a name using only consonants, others that he wanted it to be the last on any list of California place names or the last word in the English language; others that he wanted to suggest the restful experience of sleep. He might have been considering all those angles. Springer invented the name’s usual pronunciation, "zai-ziks," with accent on the first symbol and rhyming with "Isaacs." Who’s going to argue?

He built many of the structures still standing today and offered hot mineral baths, healthy foods and optional religious services. But Springer’s efforts came to a crashing halt in 1974 when he was forcibly removed from the property by the Bureau of Land Management. Some of the allegations against him were false advertising and misuse of mining claims.

With so much colorful history, the town has been nominated as a national historical district for the National Registry of Historic Places. This is for a combination of things, including its pre-historic American Indian sites, historical military and mining features, the oasis and the Zzyzx resort period.

Today it serves as the Desert Studies Center, a field station of the California State University system. It was established under cooperative agreement with the Department of the Interior in 1976. The mission is to provide a venue that supports educational and research interests among several disciplines.

Rob Fulton, resident manager knows the place better than anyone, as he has spent 22 years here.

"We host a variety of guests and institutions, with a capacity of up to 80 people," Fulton said.

During March, the center was busy with a varied group of researchers. One group who was working on a long-term project conducted by the United States Geological Survey on sand and dust storms in the Southwestern deserts. A graduate student from California State University, Fullerton was studying reptile population responses to massive wildfires within the preserve in 2005. The Canadian Space Agency and a private contractor were using the Mojave landscape to refine laser imaging of terrain, and other instrumentation packages, to be used for future planetary exploration.

The highlight of our visit was walking around the perimeter of the main pond, known locally as Lake Tuendae. It covers about 1.5 acres and was constructed during the Zzyzx Mineral Springs Resort times. We found an obvious trail and were treated to cattails, sedges and other marsh plants.

"We are still trying to understand the evolution of water sources and historical improvements," said Fulton, as this might have been the site of a historically described pool used throughout the late 1800s and into the mid-1900s.

The water is not technically up to state standards for human consumption.

"It’s a little too high in mineral salts," Fulton said, before going on to say the magnesium sulfate in the water can act as a mild laxative, so the center purifies it before drinking.

"Historically, people coming here had to take the water as it is, and the Native Americans obviously used it," he said. What Fulton heard, which he attributed to Springer, was that when coming to Zzyzx Mineral Springs Resort you could be, "cleansed externally, internally and eternally."

Around the pond and elsewhere on the property we found a variety of palm trees. The tall, slender trees are Mexican fan palms; the thicker ones are California fan palms; and there are a few date palms that are recognized by the featherlike leaves. The California fan palm is native to oases farther south, but doesn’t naturally grow here; all the palms were planted during the resort period.

Since it’s the only significant body of water around for quite a distance, this is the main watering hole for area wildlife including bighorn sheep, coyotes, gray fox, ringtails, badgers and bobcats. The Pacific tree frog breeds in the pool, as do aquatic insects. Year-round birds include the golden eagle, marsh wren, barn owl, long eared owl and the pied-billed grebe.

Most of us humans, however, will be satisfied with a shorter visit.

And the prudent will bring their own drinking water.

Contact writer Deborah Wall at deborabus@aol.com.

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