Exploring Zzyzx, California
A Town Reclaimed by the Desert
Fun fact: at one point, Zzyzx was the very last word in the English language. So on a road trip out to Death Valley, detouring to explore this once lavish, now abandoned resort in the Mojave National Preserve was at the top of my list.
Initially, my fascination with Zzyzx had to do with its name, but as I drove in towards the town, the scenery evolved from strange to stranger, and before long I was totally captivated with its offbeat obscurity. This place is a perfect example of short lived opulence and optimism that eventually began to disintegrate and devolve into the dust surrounding it.
Back in the mid-1940s self proclaimed “old time medicine man,” Curtis Howe Springer established this area of the Mojave as the Zzyzx Mineral Springs Resort and Health Spa. Springer, who the American Medical Association subsequently dubbed “the King of Quacks,” was an interesting character to say the least. His intention was to create an appealing place for high end guests to spend their money while investing a minimal amount of his own dollars to get it off the ground.
Building faux hot springs (pools heated by a broiler), broadcasting from a radio station while requesting donations in trade for miracle cures to major ailments, and recruiting a group of homeless men to construct an airport, a church, and a castle for the resort are all pieces of what make this endeavour so intriguing. They paint an image of the foundation Zzyzx was built upon.
Eventually, the Bureau of Land Management took issue with Springer’s original claim to mining rights on the land, and evicted him from Zzyzx. The Federal Government turned Zzyzx over to the California State University. This area is now designated as a part of their Desert Studies program, and it’s clear they are also watching as the desert moves over the eroding remains of Springer’s creation.
Pulling into the remains of this town, you’ll see a parking space underneath the street sign ironically lettered “Blvd of Dreams.” The sign is now rusted and weathered, bent by the wind, but you can easily imagine what it might be like to to enter this upscale resort in the 1950s with oversized expectations of experiencing the luxurious California lifestyle. Walking down the broken streets of the boulevard you’ll pass several structures including old bunkhouses, a common dining area, and most notably, a large, ornate fountain in the middle of a giant pool. At one time this fountain produced water from the natural spring beneath.
This was used to market the resort as a health spa. Now, the water is stagnant and the fountain is cracked from age and lack of care. Move forward on your self guided walking tour through Zzyzx and you will continue to see superb remnants of material decay – spa pools with faded paint and chipped edges, maintenance buildings with doors painted “keep out” that no one will ever pay attention to, and street signs with glorified names that stand out strangely now in this abandoned place.
To get to Zzyzx, take Interstate 15 in California to exit 239. Turn left on Arrowhead Road, then continue on Zzyzx Road until you see the town. The road ends there. When you arrive, be sure to walk out beyond the failing buildings onto the sand flats and take in views of the Soda Mountains that surround Zzyzx on all sides.
Here's what I love most about Zzyzx – in this story the desert wins. When you spend time in the Mojave it’s obvious that this is not a place intended for buildings, or man-made structures. This is a glimpse of the pure desert, everything that belongs here already exists. The sand dunes, the coyotes and rock lizards, the yuccas and pinyon pines – these are the foundation of what makes the Mojave such a special ecosystem. And Zzyzx is a satisfying snapshot of a town reclaimed by the desert it was built upon.
Erin Lizzo is a freelance travel writer who focuses on unique destinations in the American Southwest. She splits her time between Oaxaca, Mexico and Missoula, MT with her husband and their 11 year old black lab. She spent time exploring Zzyzx on a road trip through the Mojave and Death Valley and was smitten with this bizarre relic in the desert.
1. Rasmussen, Cecilia (16 June 2002), "Zzyzx: An Unlikely Home of Hucksterism and Miracle Cures", Los Angeles Times .
2. "Zzyzx now last word in research", Lawrence Journal-World, 18 November 1976, p. 32.
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