October 22, 2008

Oasis of The Quack

Desert Rattler

By Ken Layne
LA City Beat

Soda Springs. Photo by Ken Layne

Just a few miles south of Interstate 15 and its spastic weekend traffic of creeping truckers and cretin Vegas tourists, there is an oasis out of some cheap Saharan dream. It sits at the end of a gravelly road that wraps along the glossy brown volcanic rock piles to the west, as the desert gives way to saltbush and actual wet marshland, thick with cattails and tall green reeds, busy with dragonflies and hidden water birds.

This is Soda Springs, where mineral waters are forced from the Earth at the western edge of a vast dry lakebed circled by the jagged mountain ranges that run across Mojave National Preserve. Out of this wild panorama rise neat rows of palm trees – monster California and Mexican fan palms, six decades of dead fronds reaching to the ground. The palms lead to a small village from another time.

The lonely boulevard is divided by a wide median stocked with more trees, an old nesting box for owls or bats, and park benches facing the small lake ringed by willows. The coots have the run of the pond, a half-dozen of the goofy white-billed black creatures gliding across the water.

On a steamy still day as the season’s last monsoon thunderstorms cook up over the eastern mountains, I walk down the empty street in the 104-degree heat, stopping in the shade of huge smoke trees. The town, abandoned on this Saturday, consists of a handful of white plaster buildings along the grandly named Boulevard of Dreams – rows of dorm-style guest rooms are across the way, with small shared patios between them. The grandest building, also closed up, has an outdoor dining room with the whole Eastern Mojave for a backdrop, a crescent of those giant Mexican palm trees framing the scene.

This is, ultimately, the reward for living in this desert with its foreclosed exurbs and off-road motorcycle morons and campaign yard signs warning against gay marriage when neither marriage nor gays seems to exist in these strip-mall trailer-park pawn-shop wastelands: The most stunning parts of the Mojave, the ones that still remain, are always empty of people.

I walk back along the water and kneel down for a look. Just below the pond’s surface, handsome little fish dart around – Mohave tui chub, the last pure specimens, accidentally saved from extinction or cross-breeding by a curious character who introduced the rare critters from a nearby spring, their last natural existing refuge, when he built his little acre-and-a-half lake.

For 30 years, from 1944 to 1974, the self-appointed doctor and preacher lived out here, presiding over his arid empire of health potions and faith. He was “The Reverend” Curtis Springer, “Doc Springer” to his friends, and anybody who mailed an envelope of cash to the world-famous Zzyzx Mineral Springs was indeed his friend.

To build his Moroccan-inspired oasis, Springer bused in Los Angeles winos from skid row – they got food and a bunk for their troubles, but most headed back to Fifth Street once they figured out booze wasn’t part of the menu.

When his hotel and cross-shaped soaking pool and radio studio were completed, Springer broadcast his invitation to anyone with the means to travel out to Soda Springs and take his many cures. Generous donations were expected. To those who couldn’t afford a visit to his enchanting resort on the desert but listened to his sermons carried by more than 300 radio stations, he offered mail-order cures both commonsensical and absurd – it’s hard to argue with carrot juice and mineral baths, but his “Mo-Hair” baldness cure consisted of rubbing Soda Lake salts on the scalp while hanging your head upside down and holding your breath.

The quack complaints eventually made their way to the Law, in the late 1960s, after Springer had plied his weird trade for a quarter century. In 1969, while another Mojave mystic prepared to bring his Family back from Death Valley to Hollywood, Doc Springer went on trial for selling bogus medicine. He served 49 days but his troubles weren’t over. The Feds went after him for squatting on Bureau of Land Management property – he had nothing but a mining claim on the 12,000 acres, and he was selling Zzyzx Springs residential lots to his loyalists.

But why Zzyzx? It was the last word in the English language, Springer claimed, so it was the last word in health. Go to the Kelso Deport museum in the Mojave National Preserve and you can hear recordings of Springer’s smooth bullshitter’s voice.

Doc Springer was forced off his creation in 1974, and died in Las Vegas a dozen years later. He was an old-time crook who never really hurt anybody and provided some adventure for bored, gullible Americans during our long-gone Era of Prosperity.

Today, Zzyzx is the Desert Studies Center, part of Cal State Fullerton and home to UC Riverside’s occasional extended education outings for the peculiar few who want to spend a weekend learning about rocks and bugs. There are no services for the traveler and no reason to exit the interstate.