Get Your Kicks At Zzyzx—Chapter 1: A Desert Outpost, a Charlatan and a Wasp

DIM WITS, MACHISMO and myopia launched the driver and copilot of the monster four-by-four into the sallow slough. Wheels spinning. Zero traction. From afar, the mellow Robert Fulton grinned. The scene became slapstick when the duo hired a bulldozer to liberate the rig; the dense tractor soon became stuck in the muck, too. The dolts had to employ two 20-ton cranes to jimmy the dozer free, then the truck. The roster of dopes duped by the ostensibly dry Soda Lake, hard by Zzyzx Road in the Mojave Desert, had just increased by two.

The serpentine pathway leads to a hidden research compound the 63-year-old Fulton has managed more than half his life. He has witnessed maybe 30 vehicles, eight dozers and an immense earth grader sink into that bog. He ponders its merciless grip on him. With a wry grin, Fulton tells inquisitors that he worked the place for 10 years “before it started working me.”

Seven miles southwest of Baker, Exit 239—Zzyzx Road—has mystified and beguiled Interstate 15 travelers for decades. About 15 million vehicles pass it annually. Just past Zzyzx, heading to Baker, Calif., when the highway bends north, the view east—of the dastardly lakebed of alkaline evaporites, lava flows and cinder cones, Old Dad Mountain, the dunes of Devils Playground and the Granite, Ivanpah, New York and Providence ranges—can be bas-relief resplendence.

In his four-wheel-drive olive-drab Toyota FJ Cruiser, with the ZY6DUDE license plates and 130,000 miles of arid wear and tear, Fulton retrieves mail and temporary provisions in Baker (population: 750). He scales the freeway overpass and turns left, or westbound, onto I-15 to fetch long-term supplies an hour away in Barstow (population: 22,600). There have been long stretches, primarily early in his tenure, that the population of Zzyzx, Calif., has been one him. When I first met Fulton, in early 2014, he made a singular declaration: His home rhymes with RYE-six.

Zzyzx Road is 4.5 miles of jagged asphalt and potholes. It parallels the south side of I-15, heading east, and bends around the eastern edge of the southern ridge of the Soda Mountains. A clump of green eventually appears to the southeast, a vague thicket masking a dozen or so buildings. Those mountain nooks and crannies are full of life.

Death, too. Atop the unofficially dubbed Mount Zzyzx, the man who once planted a wooden cross on its peak had his ashes sprinkled around it. He was not slight. Fulton swears he has spotted a chunk or two of the man’s remains in crevices, mixed with pebbles and sand and brittlebush. Wind long ago felled the transverse bar and post. Fulton is mum about other such final requests.

The massive red Engine 53 of the San Bernardino (Calif.) County Fire Department’s Baker station once greeted me at the end of a long corridor of mesquite, where a left from Zzyzx becomes the Boulevard of Dreams. All of which was the conjuring of inexorable huckster Curtis Howe (Doc) Springer. The veteran firemen had only been showing the alien land to a greenhorn. On another occasion, Fulton played tour guide in a golf cart. The craggy, uneven dark surface snapped and crackled with each tire rotation.

We were traversing the 3,000-foot runway that protrudes over the lakebed, due north from the compound. It was built in the 1940s, over the old Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, by Springer, who called it his Zyport. Having possessed only mining rights, he constructed the buildings and invited all to his Zzyzx Mineral Springs Spa. He peddled Zy Mud for a premium facial that, in fact, was common wet dirt. Basic sodium comprised Zzyzx Crystals, for “poor, tired feet.” Springer claimed—in print and in person, from behind a pulpit in his low-ceilinged chapel or in a cramped adjacent radio studio—that his potions and elixirs and bread healed hemorrhoids and arthritis, even cured cancer. The New York Times took the bait. Many did. Springer made millions over 30 years. A strange story, he would admit about his life.

Fulton, with a little help from convicts, would legitimize Zzyzx. As permanent proprietor, his first order of business involved this runway. He watched a single-engine Cessna bump and grind to the end, flip its tail around and labor back down the rubber-grabbing track—toward the compound—and barely clear stubby California fan palms and tall, skinny Mexican palms. Fulton promptly disengaged the orange windsock that had flapped on a metal pole, halfway down the west side of the runway, and stuck it in a closet. His knowledge and experiences make him indispensable, the de facto Zzyzxpert. They’ve also vexed him, an internal struggle that would surface.

Zzyzx culminates at the Desert Studies Center (DSC), a field station treasure that Fulton nurtures for seven California State University campuses, overseen by Cal State Fullerton (CSUF). It is a world-class destination for the study of desert flora and fauna, if not the earth itself. Says a promotional video: “Nowhere is it easier to see evidence of the shifting earth layers, its folding, uplifts, stretching, expansions and contractions.” Geographers, geologists, climatologists, biologists, astronomers and archaeologists from all over descend on Zzyzx. Academics from many universities—including Bristol, Sussex, Sheffield and Northampton in the U.K.—are regulars.

On one visit, three cars traveled the other way; one passed as I departed. A score of interlopers a day snoop down the street from his double-wide, Fulton says. Visitors are stocked with erroneous information. Many think it’s a ghost town. He shakes his head. Where’d you get that? The internet. Fulton shrugs. One guy posted a YouTube video of his drive down Zzyzx, his voice-over detailing generics he poached from … the internet. Another online report claimed its first syllable rhymes with biz, self-indicting sloth.

This scorched tract is laced with truths and tales, orange UFOs, a South American sand wasp and a special snail. Magical and mystical, Fulton says. It has niches in cinema and literature, and a near-nexus with a famous song could have bestowed upon it immortality. “This is Zzyzx. As far as I can tell, it is the asshole of the universe,” the character Dei says in Michael Connelly’s 2004 novel The Narrows. Wearing a straw cowboy hat and silvery goatee, with a pachyderm choker of a neck, Fulton says he’s aware of Connelly’s reference to the outré off-ramp.

“But he missed it by seven miles. Baker is the asshole, thus [its] big rectal thermometer,” Fulton says of the 134-foot temperature gauge, billed as the world’s tallest, that stands sentry in Baker and has been working intermittently since 1991. “There’s the reality here, and then … the whole idea of Zzyzx and the mineral springs and Springer, it’s become like a legendary mythology. It’s completely valid. It’s an offshoot of something that started with interesting ideas.”

Transcendent Geography and History

THE GLACIAL EPOCH, Pleistocene shifting, Triassic meta-volcanic upheavals and Holocene disruptions blasted, cut, layered and strangled this merciless, infernal moonscape of loam and Permian limestone and Mesozoic granite, lex talionis.

It exists in a corner of a rough triangular noose, a vortex of opposite and like actions that make it exceptional, hydrogeologist Aaron Bierman says. The Garlock and San Andreas faults are some of the right- and left-lateral and slip-strike antagonists, along with no fewer than seven other fault lines. From the outside in, Bierman labels the concentric, oblong lake rings calcite, gypsum, halite and sylvite.

“You need a very unique environment for these sedimentary deposits to occur,” he says. Kindred turf? “Mars.”

That’s apropos, since NASA has tapped Fulton for Mars-like geomorphic conditions around Zzyzx to test Rover prototypes. Its harsh topography—along with Kauai, Hawaii; Salten Skov in Denmark; the Atacama Desert in South America; Arequipa, Peru; and Rio Tinto in Spain—is conducive for Red Planet experiments.

Snaking from the San Bernardino Mountains, about 110 miles to the southwest, the Mojave River culminates in an alluvial fan at Zzyzx, emptying into the lakebed, maybe 9 miles long and 4 miles at its widest, that seduces off-road enthusiasts. The river largely flows in subterranean fashion, and it floods—from the disintegration of a sill during the Ice Age, says Fulton—into Silver Lake just north of Baker, all of which once fed the Colorado River, 80 miles to the east.

Surface water tends to accumulate by the compound. Two spearheads—one big and opaque, the other smaller, reddish-brown and sharper—were discovered by two Sussex students in that alluvial wash. Tests determined that they are about 2,800 years old. Much younger arrowheads have also been found on the lakeshore.

More recently, in March 1776, Francisco Garcés, a Spanish friar called Father Pancho, is believed to have been the first person of European descent to trek by Soda Lake. (In downtown Las Vegas, east-west byways are named after prominent North American explorers; among them Frémont, Carson and Garcés avenues.) A crude brick-and-mortar wall, once a part of a small mid-19th-century U.S. Army fort dubbed Hancock’s Redoubt, is now a load-bearing partition in the Zzyzx library. Charles T. Russell, the founder of a sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a group of expat Germans were here in the early 1910s and left five concrete frame-house foundations.

The Tonopah and Tidewater, known as the T&T, laid tracks that ran roughly 250 miles from Tonopah to Ludlow—25 miles south of Zzyzx, on what is now Interstate 40—in 1905. When Francis Marion Smith went bankrupt, British partner Richard C. Baker took over a mining and shipping conglomerate, and a tiny outpost adopted his surname. The railroad had been struggling when a flood closed the Ludlow station in 1933. In the early ’40s, its rails were sold as material for the war effort.

Birth of a Charlatan

That’s when Doc Springer, from Pennsylvania, fled west. Born in Alabama in 1896, he was an Army private who putatively taught boxing Stateside during World War I. He worked at a school in Florida, flitted around the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. He would be forever influenced by the bombastic oratory of William Jennings Bryan, who railed against the sauce and lambasted Darwinism in the epic 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.

Springer also pushed sheet music in the aisles of Billy Sunday’s exuberant crusades. He melded their bluster and lexicon into his manner and fabric. The blue-eyed Springer had a high forehead, reddish-brown hair that flared at the ears and pursed lips, approximating the scowl of actor Bruce Dern in an old Western. Duplicity, the good lord and mineral springs would define him.

The American Medical Association (AMA) put Springer on its radar in October 1929. In a newspaper ad in Davenport, Iowa, he called himself the Dean of Greer College, a defunct automotive trade school. He migrated to Scranton, Pa., and lectured on banishing disease and the joy of living, representing the Extension Department of the National Academy, which, like the Springer School of Humanism, was pure fiction. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) would compile its own dossier on Springer.

In December 1930, he printed Vol. 1, No. 1, of Symposium Creative Psychologic magazine—bearing PICKING A HUSBAND FOR “KEEPS,” WHY NOT BE HEALTHY, HAPPY SUCCESSFUL [sic] and A MAGAZINE FOR THINKERS WHO THINK on its cover. He also published The Elucidator. Magazines ruled that era. Radio was an infant. Magazine content, however, could be shady. Even the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog fell prey to ambiguity. Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker in 1925, tried stemming the falsehood tide. On his pages, Lucky Strike cigarettes vowed to be “easy on your throat,” Viceroys promised “pearly white” teeth. Thomas Kunkel, in his Genius in Disguise (Random House, 1995) biography of Ross, says the publisher tried valiantly to deflect blatant and moral lies.

Others didn’t. Springer, with first wife, Mary Louise, bopped around Pennsylvania and Maryland, visiting Chicago occasionally to work his chicanery. He tried to buy radio airtime on WGN and was successful at WCFL. He started a Temple of Health in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and a Haven of Rest in Maple Glen, 15 minutes north of Philadelphia. He bought resort land in Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania. He peddled Springer’s Health Bread and other concoctions through his Basic Foods, or Basic Food Products.

He filched the titles M.D., N.D., D.O. and Ph.D. In its Journal of Sept. 14, 1935, the AMA detailed three tiny-type pages of allegations, compiled by its Bureau of Investigation, against Springer. It reported, “A most thorough search fails to show that Springer was ever graduated by any reputable college or university, medical or otherwise.” Fulton says Springer failed to advance beyond the sixth grade, in West Virginia. Springer professed to have mined coal, which might lend veracity to his whereabouts when he should have been in the seventh grade.

Before being exposed so publicly, Springer marched brazenly into the AMA headquarters in Chicago to visit the director of its investigative unit. He tried to explain that his M.D. status was obtained at something called the First National University of Naturopathy. Rubbish, responded the AMA. He skipped out of the meeting.

Six months later, at BBB offices in Chicago, officials grilled him over alleged connections to an American College of Doctors and Surgeons in Washington, D.C.; an osteopathic college in Meyersdale, Pa.; and the Westlake West Virginia College, none of which ever existed. He claimed to have obtained a Ph.D. from a New Jersey school of osteopathy, but his lips remained pursed when told that such a school could not legally confer such a degree. He trumpeted 1933 earnings of $76,000 from the sale of his Antediluvian Tea and Re-Hib mixture. He fled from the BBB building, too.

He stayed a step ahead of the cuffs. In April 1935, the Philadelphia County Medical Society inquired with AMA investigators about Springer’s Re-Hib and tea products; it was told that the man was not a physician, that “the [bureau] considered him a blatant faker,” the Re-Hib was mostly baking soda, the tea was a crude blend of laxative herbs. The Journal equated Springer with loquacious fakers and faddists, and it cited radio’s burgeoning popularity as a source that could multiply his opportunities to further confound the public with misinformation. It continued,

Springer is but one more example of what to the thoughtful citizen must appear as one of the most dangerous social phenomena of the American city life; the person with an ignorance of the human body and its processes that is wide and deep, who by virtue of an unblushing effrontery combined with a flair for garrulity dupes an ignorant public.

A Wasp Gets a New Name

As Springer fine-tuned his chutzpah around north-central Pennsylvania, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., entomologist V.S.L. Pate was informing students of a yellow-legged wasp, bearing key lime rings around its black body, whose genus name he had recently altered.

The German entomologist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz had first discovered the arthropod, according to his Entomographien and other scientific journals, in central Chile in 1822. He called it Stictia chilensis. The wasp’s genus would be tweaked to Monedula, then Therapon, by J.B. Parker. In 1937, Pate upstaged Parker when he heard the critter before he saw it, providing him with the impetus to rename it Zyzzyx chilensis. A finer onomatopoeia might not exist.

The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia ran with Pate’s findings. Springer might have read about Pate and his insect in that newsletter, or in a local paper, or heard about the buzz on the radio. Maybe he even sat in on a Cornell lecture.

Perhaps Springer picked up the 103-page issue of Pate’s American Entomological Society Journal, No. 9, dated July 23, 1937. There’s a long list of species and genera, and Zyzzyx chilensis, is in there. “Confusion,” is the first word of the article. Then, “ … a plethora of fixations.” Pate wrote of Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century Swede known as the Father of Taxonomy, who formalized the modern system of naming organisms, called binomial nomenclature. The fixation on altering this arthropod’s name might have confounded even Linnaeus.

It is no stretch to envisage a certain evangelical charlatan, adept at snatching a name or idea or recipe for his own future wont, storing such a distinctive buzzword in the recesses of his imagination for potential appropriation down the road, maybe even a dusty, desert road.

Read part two here.

About the Author of the Definitive History of Zzyzx

Rob Miech has been a journalist for more than 30 years, much of that as a sportswriter covering college basketball, and his work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, the Pasadena Star-News, Las Vegas Sun and other publications. He has authored three books—The Last Natural (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012), Eleventh Heaven (, 2014), Of Cowards and True Men (, 2015). Zzyzx Road first bit him in the fall of 1985 and, well, it still hasn’t unlocked its clench.