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A Utopia Spelled Z, Z, Y, Z, X

With the addition of a few numbers and Greek letters, the name “Zzyzx” (pronounced zeye-zix) might be a complicated equation to orbit rockets around Mars, but the site has a colorful history that stretches back almost two centuries. A rare and bountiful desert spring situated at the base of chocolate-colored mountains attracted the first Spanish expeditions through eastern California in the late 18th century. In 1860, the U.S. Army maintained a fort at the site named Hannock’s Redoubt, but a 20th century maverick give it its lasting epitaph.

The enduring legacy of Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Resort is a testimony to the extraordinary vision of a self-proclaimed evangelist and health guru who moved out to the ass-end of nowhere on the shore of a dry salt flat, and proceeded to make a Utopia in his image—part religion and part hucksterism. Ingenuity and a lot of fast talk made this spot on the map shine for thirty years, and for awhile even made the nearby post office in Baker one of the busiest in Southern California.

Millions of travelers on Interstate 15 have passed the remote exit a few miles west of the Death Valley highway, possibly noting the unusual name, but too busy getting to one Sin City or another to bother with it. Four and a half miles south over a gravel road lay the ruins of the dream of one of the Mojave Desert’s most legendary characters.

Curtis Howe Springer had made a name for himself as a radio evangelist in the 1930s, beginning at radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh. Like many of his ilk, he eventually pointed his roaming crusade towards the West coast, where spiritual fads and miracle cures were starting to find a willing and gullible audience. Like his predecessor, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Springer put down new roots in fertile soil and set about expanding his vision.

Springer was no spring chicken when it came to managing vacation retreats. He had founded and/or managed six resorts in other states before he and his fiancée Helen, with their (gasp) daughter in tow arrived at what he called “a mosquito swamp” in the Eastern Mojave in 1944. He filed a mining claim on 12,000 acres and began building his new base of operations. Three days a week, he lived in a hotel suite in Los Angeles, where he made tapes for his national broadcasts and conducted other business. He would then board his crusading bus and round up derelicts on skid row, offering them meals and shelter in exchange for construction work with his new desert outfit. Some of them left immediately when the no-alcohol policy was revealed, but many stayed—some for years, and a few for the rest of their lives.

 

When Springer was done, the new town on at the foot of Soda Mountain boasted a chapel, a cross-shaped pool with soaking tubs, an artificial lake, a two-story/60-room hotel and even an airstrip he named Zyport. With some assuredly high-falutin’ wrangling, Springer managed to buy an old seagoing freighter, and dismantled it for parts to add to his growing compound. A launch or lifeboat from the project still sits at the site, high and dry and rusting, but so far preserved in the desiccating desert sun.

The main drag was dubbed the “Boulevard of Dreams.” Springer then went into high gear, promoting his new retreat on his international radio sermons. People calling in to his Los Angeles phone number heard a recorded voice beckoning them with, "Hello, this is your old friend Curtis Springer coming to you from Zzyzx Mineral Springs out in the heart of the great Mojave Desert." He touted the place as the “last word” in health and vitality. Free bus rides left every Wednesday from the Olympic Hotel on Figueroa Street in L.A., ferrying the hopeful out in droves.

A day at Zzyzx included a hearty breakfast of goat milk and Springer’s popular Antedeluvian Tea, said to prolong life. Though he tried to be relatively self-sufficient, the only livestock that could be sustained on the alkali flats besides the goats were rabbits, which formed the bulk of the meat served. All of the veggies were trucked in a couple of times each week. Guests stayed for a reasonable sum, but were also heavily encouraged to make free-will “donations” to the Springer Foundation. They were also subjected to rousing sermons delivered twice daily by Springer over a booming PA system.

Springer built a printing plant and functioning radio station on his humble mining claim to better deliver his message of folksy Christianity and market his miraculous cures, which included the aforementioned tea, the “Hollywood Cocktail,” and a $25.00 do-it-yourself hemorrhoid cure kit. One of his most successful remedies was “Mo-Hair”—a baldness cure. Springer instructed the soon-to-be hairy to rub the concoction vigorously into the scalp, then to double over and hold their breath for as long as possible. The resulting flush to the cheeks and scalp was proof, he said, of the virtues of his discovery. One man who took Springer to court over his continued baldness after extensive use of Mo-Hair watched in astonishment as the preacher reached into his pocket and peeled off the $2,500.00 fine “as casually as if he was taking care of a $2 traffic ticket.”

Well after Zzyzx was established, Springer began to offer lots for sale on the adjacent property, so that the well-to-do faithful might take 24-hour advantage of the healing waters and lifestyle he had so generously made available to the world. This act, along with occasional complaints to the authorities about his “cures,” eventually focused government attention on his operation. In 1974, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) informed Springer that he could not sell land that he didn’t own. He counter-offered to the tune of $34,187, which he claimed would cover the “back rent,” but the feds didn’t buy it. He was evicted off the property that was never his, along with a few hundred followers. Curtis Howe Springer died in Las Vegas in 1986 at the age of 90, after he had served several jail terms for sundry felonies.

In 1976, the California State University system entered into an agreement with the BLM to use the site, and it remains so to this day. The Desert Studies Center is a research facility that draws thousands of scientists and students year-round. The center used the existing buildings and transformed them for their use, adding a water purification system and solar and wind-powered generating stations. Although z+z=yz∫x won’t get anyone into orbit, NASA did use the area near Soda Lake for testing the Mars Rover vehicles.

Zzyzx was finally entered as an official geographic name in 1984, proving that Curtis Springer did indeed have the last word.

Zzyzx Road exit—eight miles west of Baker on Interstate 15, then south on a paved road, which soon ends at a graded gravel road.

Weird California

 

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