After stopping to appreciate the abandoned motels and restaurants of Baker, California, I continued down the homestretch toward LA. Seventeen days had passed since I left home to explore abandoned places across the Western United States. It was an epic journey, one of the best road trips I'd ever taken, but I was ready to return to the familiar comfort of home.
There was just one more place I needed to stop along the way: Zzyzx Road. I'd driven past it countless times and wondered what the heck it led to. It was time to get some answers.
I followed the rough unpaved road along a beautiful salt-crusted dry lake bed.
After about five miles I reached a bizarre grove of palm trees that looked very out of place in the middle of the barren salty landscape.
The empty boulevards had interesting names.
The site has been an important way point since prehistoric times because of its natural spring, which was later named Soda Springs. Explorers, missionaries, and settlers stopped there to rehydrate while traveling along the Mojave Road, a rough trail used in the 18th and 19th centuries to cross the Mojave Desert.
In the 1860s a temporary stronghold, Hancock Redoubt was built there by the US Army to protect civilian and military travelers. Hancock Redoubt's stone fort was manned by three soldiers at any given time, and was considered an outpost of Camp Cady, which lay 35 miles east.
In the late 1800s the outpost became a trading post operated by George Hetzel, who named it Soda Station.
In 1900 Frank and Sarah Riggs established an ore processing facility, which they named Hetzel's Mill Site. It did not take long for them to realize that the nearby mountains had very little valuable ore, at which point they abandoned the site.
In Nov 1905 the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad built a crossing at Soda Springs.
The Pacific Salt and Soda Company set up operations there to collect sodium salts, which included washing soda, baking soda, and caustic soda. Water from Soda Springs was channeled through ditches into evaporation ponds. After baking in the sun, the minerals were scraped up and transported on the T&T railroad to be further refined. When the refining process became too expensive, The Pacific Salt and Soda Company abandoned the site in 1912.
Severe flooding occurred periodically throughout the following decades, causing significant damage to the railroad. Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was never able to fully recover and ceased operations in 1940. The rails were then salvaged for scrap iron for the US military during World War II.
Near the end of the war, Curtis H Springer, a radio evangelist from Los Angeles, filed mining claims on the public lands at Soda Springs.
Springer was a charlatan who called himself "last of the old-time medicine men" and falsely claimed to be a doctor. He and his wife created a religion-oriented health resort called Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa. The word "Zzyzx" was thought up by Springer as a gimmick to draw attention to his health spa. He said Zzyzx was "the last word in the English language".
He developed the site quite a bit, adding a sixty-room hotel, which he called The Castle
a spa with mineral baths,
a church, a radio broadcast studio, and a private airstrip that he named Zyport. He also dug ponds,
upgraded the road (which he renamed Zzyzx Road), and planted rows of Tamarisk and Palm trees.
Future plans included a mobile home park.
Did I mention Springer was a complete scoundrel? He was known for selling folk remedies, making grandiose false claims about their curative abilities. At Zzyzx he created fake hot springs, using a boiler to heat the spring water and passing it off as genuine to his guests/patients. The American Medical Association even labeled him "King of quacks."
In 1974 Springer's dishonesty began to catch up with him. The Bureau of Land Management realized he had made false mining claims in order to use the land and evicted him. Later he faced legal trouble for making false claims about the medicinal value of the products he sold.
In 1976 the Bureau of Land Management established the Desert Studies Center at Soda Springs. It is managed by a consortium of California State University campuses and used as a field research facility. Some of the structures from Zzyzx Health Spa were repurposed,
while others were left abandoned.
The buildings all had name plates from the Zzyzx era.
I walked around careful not to disturb anything or attract unwanted attention from the university staff working there. Fortunately I barely saw anyone else while I was there.
An old canoe sat marooned among a cluster of palm trees.
One of the old spa buildings sat decaying, so I went inside to have a look at the indoor tubs.
There were also several private rooms with in-ground tubs.
After exploring Zzyzx I got back on the road and finished the short drive back to LA and my home sweet home. I'd had an amazing couple of weeks on the road, but nothing feels quite as nice as home and I was glad to be back.
Stay tuned. Next week I'll share a new adventure with you, featuring an abandoned water park in the Mojave Desert.
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