February 11, 2012
Thousands of people drive between Barstow, California and Las Vegas, Nevada every day along Interstate 15. On your way north a few miles before Baker, CA the exit sign says “Zzyzx Road”. Many people I talk to have no idea what is there, have never bothered to get off the freeway to look, or even how to pronounce the word.
The word is usually pronounced with the ‘Y’ like a long “I”. This way it sounds like ‘Zeye-Zicks’ although sometimes it is pronounced with a short “I” for ‘Zi-Zicks. The road heads south a few miles to the Zzyzx site, and is now mostly paved.
That takes care of everything except for what is there and that is a long story. Originally it was a fresh water spring. Native peoples gathered there for hundreds or thousands of years. Archaeologists have found some early man sites in the area. Petroglyphs, projectile points, and arrowheads have also been found nearby.
By the mid 19th century it was called Soda Springs or Camp Soda. The Army had an outpost there. The old Mojave Road ran through as did the old Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. In 1944 a self-professed doctor and evangelist named Curtis Howe Springer settled the site. Doc Springer had no formal education as either a doctor or a preacher. Today he would probably be called a ‘snake oil salesman.’
Doc Springer filed a mining claim on federal lands to over 12,000 acres. On this land he built a resort and health spa. He named it Zzyzx so it would be the last word in health. He had been denounced as a ‘quack’ by the American Medical Association in the 1930’s, but this didn’t stop him or the people who believed in him.
At the height of his fame he had a syndicated radio program on over 200 national stations with another 100+ more worldwide. On the show he preached, sold his medicine cures, solicited donations, and advertised the spa. Funds went to erect a hotel/motel, a church, and some mineral baths. By the late 1960’s he began offering lots for sale to large ‘donors’. This may have been what caught the attention of the authorities. But he never produced minerals of value according to the terms of the mining law covering the claim so the federal government put a stop to his enterprise.
By 1974 he was convicted of squatting on federal lands and was evicted. The buildings were to be leveled, but a consortium of California State Universities took over the site and it is now run as the Desert Studies Center. Doc Springer died in Las Vegas, NV in 1985. Perhaps he enjoyed a final vindication of his efforts. In 1984 the name Zzyzx was officially adopted by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. It is the least alphabetical of all U.S. place names recognized by the federal government. It may no longer be the last name in health, but it is definitely the last name.
I first visited in 1996. I was on the way to Vegas, the sign was interesting, and I had a little bit of time to burn. I drove in, looked around quickly, then drove off. In 2000 CSU San Bernardino sponsored a Photography workshop there. I signed up and stayed a weekend.
On Saturday, Feb. 11 Fran and I were driving from Las Vegas back home. On the spur of the moment I decided to get off of the interstate, show her the place, and take a few photos.
We parked in the visitors lot, then walked to the main building, the reflecting pond, and the over to the old health pool complex. We saw another photographer shooting with a 4×5 field camera which to me was an amazing thing all in itself. I hope he was using black & white film because that late in the morning, about 11:45, the light was flat and so were the colors.
This post mixes photos from this trip and my 2000 trip. It also includes a few photos Francie shot.
First is the main building as it appeared the morning of our visit. It is well maintained as are the guest rooms. My memory suggests the buildings have been remodeled since 2000. This is a view west with some of the guest rooms in the distance. The main building holds a small museum, a kitchen, at least one meeting room, and a very small gift shop. In 2000 it held a nice common room. In Doc Springer’s time it also held a chapel. When I was there in 2000 the gift shop was only opened for about an hour late on Saturday just before the fountain was turned on.
Opposite of the main building is what I call the reflecting pond. This is one of Fran’s photos. The fountain is off. In 2000 electricity was only supplied by a solar array and batteries. The fountain was on only rarely to conserve battery power for the main building and the guest rooms. The solar array is still there today and looks no larger than it did in 2000.
When I was there in 2000 the ranger announced he would have the fountain on in the late afternoon. I caught this on Velvia film with my old Canon EOS 1V, the 28-135mm zoom lens I used at the time & a tripod. Just a few minutes later the sun fell below the mountains to our west and the light was gone.
On this visit I was mostly interested in the old mineral bath area. The complex has many pools both indoors and out, but they are long drained. Rainwater still collects at the bottom of some of the pools supporting the reeds and weeds growing through the cracks. To shoot the photos I stood on the rim of one of the old pools. A drop of about 8 feet was directly in front of me. Here Francie apparently felt she should photograph my best side.
From my point of view as a photographer the best part of this area is the old window frame facing east. It must have had glass in it long ago. For years the empty metal structure has framed the landscape. I have seen great photos taken from this spot. I still don’t think mine are composed well enough, but here are a few. Two have been converted to black & white. I am using my 24-105mm zoom, ISO 640 with all the depth of field I can muster at f/20 & f/22. The wider angles are in the 32-35mm wide range. The closer view of the peak is shot at a 67mm focal length. If I read my topo map correctly the peak is named Cowhole Mountain.
Next to the outdoor pools is the indoor pool house. It is closed to the public, probably because it is slowly falling apart. I shot this one from the outside looking through the building to the outside again. I should have backed off some because I was too close to the window. The closest edge of the window frame was outside of my depth of field so the focus softens on it quite a bit. This was also converted to B&W.
From the pool site we walked back toward the palm trees and the reflecting pond. Fran got another portrait of me at work. I have to admire her consistency of composition.
If you pass just beyond the palm trees you find the vast expanse of Soda Lake before you with chemicals leaching out of the dry soil. Sometimes there are pancake thin expanses of water on the lake bed from the short rainy season. The town of Baker is in the photo somewhere, but would be much more apparent at night.
Back in 2000 there was a long line of old junk automobiles at the western edge of the property. I didn’t look for them on this visit, but I got this photo back then with my old Pentax 6×7 camera. It probably had a 75mm lens on it. It shows an old U.S. Mail panel van in a sad state of repair. The color of the van at the time was banana yellow. I made the digital version black & white because it allows some detail to appear in the shadow areas that I don’t have the skill to retrieve from color versions.
March 17, 2012
P.S. See my first paragraph. Since this post went online I have had even more friends comment about Zzyzx. The comments are still the same: 1) I am asked to pronounce the name and/or 2) I am told they have driven by the sign on I-15 and wondered about it, but never stopped to explore.