Saturday, June 25, 2011

Zzyzx: A nice place to visit ...

... but you can’t stay at this scientific outpost in the Mojave Desert

The Desert Studies Center, located between Barstow and Las Vegas about five miles south of Interstate 15 on the asphalt and dirt Zzyzx Road, is surrounded by rocky hills, desert mountains and (left) Soda Dry Lake. Ron Ham

By Ron Ham
12:01 a.m., May 29, 2011
Sign On San Diego, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Zzyzx — “Zzyzx”

The sign along Interstate 15 on the way to Las Vegas is full of questions.

Is it a town, or what?

Would it be OK to take the off-ramp and check it out?

Where did the name come from?

Well, first off, there is no town. The sole resident of the place between Barstow and the Nevada state line is the Desert Studies Center, a field station operated by a handful of California state universities to teach about and research the local environment.

Yes, casual visitors are welcome to drop by, and there’s even a self-guided tour.

Zzyzx was named by Curtis Howe Springer, who opened a health spa on the property in the mid-1940s featuring its mineral spring.

“The self-proclaimed Methodist minister and physician (he was neither) broadcast daily a folksy, fundamentalist religious program from the radio station he built there asking listeners to send donations for miraculous cures, which were a mix of vegetable juices, shipped throughout the United States and abroad,” the research center’s website says.

He wanted to give it a name that sounded like sleep, one that had no vowels, and came up with Zzyzx — “pronounced Zee–zix or Zie–zix, whichever source you read,” the website says.

Springer was arrested in 1974 for unauthorized use of federal land and for violation of food and drug laws. The spa was shut down, and two years later the California State University system decided to operate a field station there.

The oasis is now managed by the California Desert Studies Consortium, an organization of seven CSU campuses: Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge, Pomona and San Bernardino.

Drive about five miles south of I-15 on Zzyzx Road and you come to a dozen dull-colored buildings that look more like a desert motel complex than a college campus. Then you see a giant panel of photovoltaic cells, electronic monitors atop a rocky hill, and the big pond with birds, palm trees, and – it turns out – an endangered fish, the Mojave tui chub.

The center – on the edge of Soda Dry Lake at the western entrance to the Mojave National Preserve — has a laboratory with microscopes and other equipment, a computer lab and wireless network, a small library, two classrooms, a kitchen, a bathhouse, and dorms that can sleep 75.

About 7,000 people a year visit the site in San Bernardino County, according to William Presch, the administrator who is headquartered at Cal State Fullerton.

“Students and researchers come in from colleges around the world,” and professionals with the federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, state Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also visit regularly, he said.

“Then we have the casual visitor who drops by off the freeway.” Presch estimated their number at 400 to 500 a year.

No camping is allowed on the campus, but there is a way for the general public to stay overnight and get a closer look at what goes on there. They can take one of the extension classes offered by UC Riverside that use the facility.

Classes for April and May covered such topics as desert lizards and snakes, spring migration of local birds, the Central Mojave, and earthquakes, volcanoes and ice age lakes.

At the Desert Symposium last year at Zzyzx, geared for college students and scientists, the topics were a little more esoteric: “Radiocarbon and Optically Stimulated Luminescence Ages of Pluvial Harper Lake, Mojave Desert,” for example. Also offered were “Expanding the late Oligocene/early Miocene tectonic, magmatic and sedimentary history in the South Bristol Mountains,” and “Coalescent analysis of fifteen nuclear loci reveals low genetic diversity and Pleistocene speciation in the Mojave Fringe-toed lizard, Uma scoparia.”

Presch said education is the center’s No. 1 goal and students represent a variety of undergraduate and graduate majors, from biology, geology, geography and space science to anthropology, archaeology and landscape architecture.

Visitors to the center are studying the desert all year long – “even when it’s 120 degrees.”

“Cal Tech brought the Mars Rovers out here before they went to Mars,” and a new species of snail was discovered at the center, Presch said, but a lot of the research is long-term – say 30 years.

Casual visitors are free to stop for a picnic lunch, walk around campus, or hike and photograph the scenery around Soda Dry Lake, which actually has water in it during wet weather. The arid environment is home to a rich array of animal and plant life, and nearly 200 species of birds have been sighted over the years.

Visitors also can see dilapidated buildings that once were part of Curtis Howe Springer’s Mineral Springs and Health Spa.

In the winter, the weather can be cold and windy. If you hike when it’s hot, be sure to wear boots and a hat, carry plenty of water, and never hike alone.

Water, food, gasoline and lodging are available in the town of Baker a few minutes drive north on I-15, and campsites are nearby.

If you go

The Desert Studies Center

Where: Zzyzx – about 56 miles northeast of Barstow, and 4 to 5 miles south of Interstate 15.

Hours: Open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas from sunup to sundown.

Cost: Free for day use.

Phone: (657) 278-2428