“It's too dark. I can't sleep.”
“It's supposed to be dark for sleeping, silly.”
“It’s also too quiet. Except for that haunted-sounding whirly thing.”
That was his first night there. There was no sound of traffic, only the whirring of the wind turbine. The only light was the moon and stars. The sleeping conditions I craved were foreign to him. As my cousin said recently, I always was a nature girl.
We were at Zzyzx. More formally, the Desert Studies Center. Run since 1976 by the California State University system in cooperation with the BLM, Zzyzx was named by, and once home to, Curtis Howe Springer, who ran a health resort boasting mineral baths, meals of rabbit stew and other self-sourced ingredients, and religious services. Springer wanted to be the “last word in health.” And how. He reigned from 1944 until the federal government decided that was not the way he was supposed to use his mining claim on the land.
Zzyzx now welcomes visitors and students interested in a variety of desert-related studies. The first time I stayed there, it was for a hydrology class field trip. Hydrology in the desert, you ask? Oh yes. In addition to the natural springs along the edges of Soda Dry Lake, there is also man-made Lake Tuende. And some pretty interesting groundwater, too. We learned to study the limnology of Lake Tuende, got to install and test wells, and were introduced to the endangered Mojave Tui Chub, a little fish that has been found naturally only in one spring at the center.
I quickly fell in love with the peaceful beauty of Zzyzx. That was the weekend I decided I wanted to study the area more, and developed a project that would allow me to return again and again. I even took a job as a cook for a month so I could do a little of my own research and spend my days exploring and soaking up the atmosphere of my favorite desert oasis. During my visits I’ve met students measuring the respiration of ant hills, guests learning flint-napping, star-gazers, geologists, natural history enthusiasts, musicians, birders, streakers, and even a few wild critters who wanted nothing to do with me.
As for myself, I spent time with the water. All manner of it. Several springs dot the edge of Soda Dry Lake along Zzyzx Road between the highway and the facility. Groundwater samples were retrieved and tested from the many wells installed by residents and students. Of special interest has always been the spring at the base of a limestone hill, which is the only known natural home of the Tui Chub.
After graduation, I still found opportunities to trek in for a visit when I drove through on the way to Las Vegas. It’s a 4-mile dirt road, full of twists and turns and ruts and washboards. I loved every inch, knowing what was waiting for me at the end. On one visit a couple of years later, I fell in love with the idea of studying even more. So I registered for graduate classes and the fun began anew. This study was more intense and I was able to visit monthly for a year. I so looked forward to those weekends away from the crowds and pollution of Los Angeles. I’d pack up my sleeping bag, food, sampling equipment, and a field assistant if one was available, and return to that place of calm.
Not that the sleeping bag was for a tent, or even for sleeping under the great big sky. In fact, many of the buildings built during Springer’s time are still being used; as dorms with bunks (bedding not provided), classrooms, and meeting spaces. A fun way to pass the time was sitting in my dorm room, imagining how it looked back when Zzyzx was a resort full of people looking for a healthy retreat.
I moved to northern California in 2008 and owned a business that kept me from traveling very far for quite a while. Now that I’ve sold the business, my mind wanders again down that 4-mile dirt detour off the highway to the Desert Studies Center I love so well. Soon I hope to once again sit on the swing at the shore of Lake Tuende, watching the grebes and breathing the fresh air of the desert.
Written by Peggy Barthel