Desert Sojourn - A visit to Zzyzx in the Mojave Desert

In the back of beyond - somewhere in the Mojave desert lies the former site of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. It got its name from a desire the be "the last place on earth" - at least alphanbetically.

It has a checkered history, the spa exists no more - but that is our destination.

In 1944, Curtis Howe Springer settled on three by eight miles by Soda Dry Lake in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Despite not having any legal claim to the land beyond a mining claim that he filed, there he built a spa with nine mineral pools in the shape of a cross. He wanted to give it a name with no vowels that sounded like sleep, and so "Zzyzx" was born.

The self-proclaimed Methodist minister and physician (he was neither - more a charismatic charlatan) broadcast daily a folksy, fundamentalist religious program from the radio station he built there, asking listeners to send donations for miraculous cures, which were a mix of vegetable juices, shipped throughout the United States and abroad.

The spa flourished with the elderly spending their life savings to spend time in the sparse rooms and to relax in the mineral waters until 1974, when Springer was arrested for alleged violations of food and drug laws and unauthorized use of federal land. The spa was confiscated, Springer spent a few months in jail, and now the spa is administered by the California State University at Fullerton as the Desert Studies Center.


6941 Driving there, we arrive towards evening in the town of Baker where we will spend the night. Dusk is already falling so we will postpone actualy visiting Zzyzx until the morning, and check into a motel for the night.

Darkness has already reached Baker, but the storm clouds (unusual in this part of the world) are high enough to still catch the last rays. Below, a billboard by the side of the highway is lit up.



6947 If you are checking in to the motel down the road, this is where you register (the gal behind the liquor counter) and pick up your key.

Prior research had told us there were three motels in Baker. It turned out that one of them was long closed and had been abandoned, there were tumbleweeds growing in the forecourt. In the second motel, only a few of the rooms were available due to a problem with the plumbing. The third motel was owned by the same people and had only sporadic hot water. So we got a room in the second one - having been encouraged to "check that it flushes" before unpacking and settling in.

It turns out that very few people actually stay in this town, which in reality is little more than an overgrown roadstop along the highway through the desert. Most visitors are on their way to somewhere else, and merely roll into town to fill up with gas, replenish the drinks cooler, maybe grab a hamburger, and roll right on out aagain.



6952 As you check into your motel room, this is the array of warning notices that greets you on the back of your room door.

In a room where the wall-mounted air-conditioner gave up the ghost a long time ago, and the only window opportunity is indeed the sliding glass door referred to in the warning on the left, it becomes a toss-up between sleeplessness due to heat build-up or fear of a nocturnal visitor of the serpent persuasion



6942 Dinner that night is very conveniently to be found right across the road - open 24 hrs a day to cater to the trucking trade.



6954 Next morning after breakfast finds us on the road to Zzyzx



6958 On the road to Zzyzx - view across the Soda Lake. Distant mountains are surprisingly sharp in the heat shimmer.



6960 The most striking feature of the old resort is "Lake Tunadae" - more of a pond really - about 100 ft by 400 ft but nevertheless host to some rare endangered species..



6972 Presumably this boat, abandoned under the Palm trees, took spa residents out on Lake Tunadae many years ago when this place was thriving with people "taking the cure".



6982 Now under the control of the Desert Studies Consortium, the site used to be the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa, run by Curtis Howe Springer from 1944 to 1974 without federal permission. After Springer was ejected, the California State Univerties negotiated usage of the abandoned buildings of the health spa with the Bureau of Land Management, and in 1976, they signed a five-year cooperative management study for the Desert Studies Consortium to manage 1,280 acres (5 kmē) at Soda Springs. The consortium continues to manage the site.

Each room with its own little verandah, is still occasionaly occupied by students attending a seminar or workshop hosted by the Desert Studies Consortium, but right mow devoid of anything living, with somewhere a door banging loosely in the wind...

Comforting to know there is a stretcher and First Aid kit on the premises, but both appear to have seen better times



6975 The few "streets" have names - an eerie feeling to realise that this was once a small spa resort with residents taking the cure - now wind-blown desolation and empty except for a few researchers



6979 On a nearby table are some relics retrieved from the desert. Among them a bottle of peppermint schnapps and one of "Lobotomy Bock". Somebody once had a major hangover in the desert somewhere.



6981 Some more bottles retrieved from the desert.

Some are relativley modern, but the ones with the marbles in the top I can't figure out. They might be rare examples of Codd style bottles which are readily identified by their marble stopper. The Codd bottle was filled upside down so that as soon the filling stopped, the stopper was forced down to seal the bottle against a rubber or wax ring. Pressure inside the bottle would keep the marble pressed against the top of the bottle. To open the bottle, the marble was pressed down where it would fall into the neck chamber below. If the bottle is held the right way, the marble stays inside the chamber when the bottle is tilted up for drinking. Most of these bottles were destroyed when children would routinely break open the bottle to get the marble inside, which accounts for their rarity. Over time the ubiquitous "crown cap" as we know it today took over the function.

These actual bottle however also have the glass rim at the top of the neck wich is characteristic of "crown cap" bottles as used to this day - so I'm not sure of what we're looking at here. The bottle on the left is particulalrly suspicious as the marble appears to be outside of the bottle-neck. But the other two are clearly inside and functional as stoppers.

Also on the table can be seen a bit of an old bed spring, a ceramic fuse holder, a deck of cards and an automobile number plate that started its life in Wisconsin around the time of the Model T.



6974 Behind the main buildings, a board walk leads a little way out on to the soda lake. Although we experienced no actual rain here, the air appeared crisp with almost no haze.



6984 Also to be found nearby is this classic desert wagon - examples of which litter deserts in many parts of the world incuding Tobruk in North Africa. Built in large numbers during World War II, many were salvaged or sold as surplus after the war and saw new life in various civilian roles. I immediately recognized it as an old friend, a sibling of which I drove as a youth in East Africa and which had been rebuilt after being abandoned and subsequently "found" in the North African desert.

Known as a Dodge Powerwagon, this model started out life as a 3/4 ton Weapon Carrier which started to be built in 1942 (thus its name - the WC-42) and 1000's of them were manufactured for the duration of the war. This model specifically did not have a steel roof over the cabin, unlike the ambulance version which did.

Not many are left outside of museums, but this is one that apparently still sees regular use. Recent enhancements include the red blinker lights mounted on the front grill, and two modern-style rear-view mirrors mounted either side of the windshield.



6990 For simplicity in manufacture (and repair) everything is flat and curves are minimised. The windshield, the door panels, the dashboard... And the windshield is built of two panes, each hinged at the top to allow for air flow in lieu of air conditioning. This truck appears to have most of its original components - in third-world countries such trucks sometimes have a large proportion of replacement parts crafted by the local blacksmith.



6992 If you were to drive through Zzyzx and keep going, you would leave by the southern exit and head into the desert - and not run into anything for a long long time. If your car broke down, chances are nobody would find you until too late - there is no traffic - which is why you need a permit to go beyond this point.



6995 A row of old poles heads out across the desert towards the nearest town. These may have been for power or telephone, or both - it's hard to tell now.



7002 On the way back to the main road, we encounter this sign.

There is life out here.   I expect to find rattlers and scorpions and maybe even a tortoise - but I would not have expected a large mammal to be able to survive out here. We didn't get to see one, but apparently they do



7022 Mountains on the other side of the Soda Lake.

On this rare occasion we were treated to clouds in the sky - the shade from which mottles the colors in the desert.



6973 Palm trees are only found near Zzyzx itself - contrast this with the next image where there is little vegetation that is more than knee-high.



This is a special photo that covers a 180 ° sweep. The road you see on the extreme left of the image is a continuation of the road you see on the extreme right of the image. (You may have to scroll the screen to see it)

This panorama is actually made up of 5 separate shots that were subsequently "stitched together" to make one continuous wide-angle image.