California State University, Fullerton
Former graduate student Rob Fulton has lived at the Desert Studies Center in the eastern Mojave Desert for 17 years as the center's resident manager. Thousands have visited the center to study geology, paleontology, climatology, astronomy, desert flora and fauna, and the natural history of the area.
Position: Resident Manager, Desert Studies Center
Other Stuff: California native Rob Fulton was a biology graduate student on campus when he heard about the newly acquired Zzyzx facility that became the Desert Studies Center. For years, Fulton said he was “geographically challenged” for a social life and remained single. That changed about six years ago when he was introduced to Sandra, an X-ray technician he later married. They live year-round at the center in an air-conditioned residence.
As resident manager of the Desert Studies Center – where the winter temperatures can dip to 8 degrees and summer temperatures soar to 120 degrees – Rob Fulton must have one of the most unusual staff jobs in the CSU system. He is responsible for managing the development and operations of the facilities, which can support up to 80 students and faculty members. This includes operating all on-site utilities, maintaining library and museum holdings, organizing lodging and equipment needs of visitors, leading tours, teaching classes and working on research projects.
Situated in the Mojave National Preserve at Soda Springs, the center is a scientific field station operated by a consortium of CSU campuses. Originally a resort operated by evangelist Curtis Springer, it serves more than 1,500 students, researchers and visiting scientists, each year, according to William Presch, professor of biological science and center director.
Q: How did you first learn about the Desert Studies Center?
A: When I became a graduate student in 1979, I saw an announcement requesting student labor to help renovate the center. Since I was already a bit of a desertphile and was proposing to do my research in the desert, I decided to sign up. I got a call from the center coordinator Alan Romspert, who said, “OK, here’s the deal: meet us at the loading dock on Friday night. We’ll pick you up, take you there and bring you back Sunday night, and we’ll take care of the food.”
Q: When was this?
A: I believe it was Oct. 5, 1979. It was about 105 degrees that week. I was a city boy and not acclimated to working hard labor in the desert. My first job was to help hand dig a four-foot-deep sewer trench. I was assisting then caretaker Jerry Gates. He was a very colorful individual and carried a .22 pistol in his belt – a skinny fellow with a billy goat beard who spoke in an odd manner. I later learned he had part of his jaw and tongue removed due to cancer. I thought, “they’re sticking me down in this hole with this guy that’s all dressed head to toe in denim, with a pistol on his belt and a big cowboy hat with a huge hawk feather sticking out, and I’m hot in my shorts and T-shirt.”
The two of us were using big steel bars to pry rocks loose while digging out the trench. After about three or four hours, I went to lift a big rock, blacked out and fell back down into the trench. I don’t think it was a heat stroke, but obviously I had overexerted myself. Jerry, who seemed so scrawny and insignificant to me, pulled me out. He got some others and they dragged me to the dining hall and laid me out on a couch, and pumped me full of water and salt tablets. That was my first exposure, my first day at the Desert Studies Center.
Q: Did you come back?
A: I continued to come back for the duration of my graduate studies. [Fulton graduated with a master’s degree in biology in 1984.] The bath and shower buildings and some other buildings were constructed by student labor. I learned to lay concrete blocks and to apply stucco. I had already learned some carpentry skills from my father, but I learned a great deal more working with the trades people from campus.
Q: So it was like a second education?
A: Yes, it was similar to the “Helping Hands” program that Doc Springer ran during the original construction of the resort. He brought out homeless and often untrained people from L.A.’s skid row and taught them to help build and operate the facilities. Now, instead of derelicts from Los Angeles, students were tackling the tasks necessary to operate the old resort as a university field station. Those were really formative years for me. I made a lot of friends in graduate school who worked at the Desert Studies Center, and are friends to this day. Some of us still get together and socialize and reminisce about our days here. We’ve all gone on to other things, but still get together to share vacations and other activities.
Q: So you’ve been here 17 years as manager?
A: I came here as resident caretaker for the first six months in January 1986 and have been here ever since. Living facilities have improved. When I first came here I lived in a small mobile home that is now used for visiting researchers. I only had power available for a few hours each evening, minimal cooling and heating during the hot and cold weather. I was much younger then! I had battery-operated radios for my entertainment. We had no telephone. Eventually things have improved. We now have cell phones; we have radio-telephone communications, satellite TV, satellite Internet, 24-hour solar power, a nice comfortable well-insulated house with full air conditioning and forced air heat – all the comforts I could expect. A lot of people think it’s odd that somebody would want to live out here. They think it’s so far from civilization and the conveniences of living in an urban environment. I can’t see living any other way. There’s no commute to my job. It’s not an inconvenience to get supplies from the nearest town, even though it’s a couple of hours drive. We combine our needs and our errands and do it in one big shopping trip. I conduct business by phone and do a lot of my thinking while I’m driving on the highway.
Q: So the desert suits you?
A: This environment is beautiful to me. I can enjoy watching the seasons change. There are limitless opportunities for continued exploration. There are many places where I have yet to go and get to know intimately. I’m learning more every year about the finer points of things that are not in my primary discipline [biology], such as earth science, climatology, archeology and cultural history. I really like this job and this place. I feel really fortunate to serve the university in such an interesting job.