EMINENT AUTHOR Christopher Hitchens wished he were anywhere else as he cruised the vestiges of Route 66 near the Mojave. It’s almost frightening, he wrote. “No—it is frightening … annihilating heat … the grim, dirty hues of the rock and the soil … ruthless monotony … dreamlike and hypnotic, but not in a relaxing way … the turnoffs on the map are to vanished places that are only names.” Had such a T-bone existed in Ludlow, in 2002, Hitch might have been piqued to steer his rented red Corvette right and discover the place behind the crazy label, and given it a degree of apotheosis in Vanity Fair. Instead he whizzed by, just as the Troups had done decades earlier.
John C. Van Dyke did hang around, and he captured its heat and monotony in his 1901 nature classic The Desert. “The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation … the beauty of the ugly.” But Van Dyke had benefited from the comforts of his brother’s desert ranch in addition to that sibling’s journals.
By contrast, the Zzyzx proprietor has merged with his environs. That gave him pause. It’s a patented formula for misanthropy. Not many people could do this, Robert Fulton admits. That wasn’t just a throwaway line during another demanding day of another demanding week managing the intolerant oasis. That introspection will be addressed.
Fulton was born and raised in Fullerton, Calif. His father ran a stationery store, his mother taught piano. He has a younger sister and brother. As a kid he enjoyed working with wood, building model cars and racing them. He fancied the sciences at Fullerton Union High. He majored in zoology for a bachelor of science degree at UC Irvine. At Cal State Fullerton, he sought a master’s degree in biology, hoping to teach at a community college. A grandparent’s inheritance helped fund his education. That first week of his advanced studies, in the fall of 1979, Fulton found, on a department bulletin board, an index card seeking factotums.
A man called Al arranged transportation, in two trucks, from a campus loading dock to somewhere out past Barstow. Zy-what? The desert was the subject of Fulton’s thesis, so he was eager to both explore and earn money. That first trip, Fulton was given sewer-line duties with the caretaker Jerry Gates, the lone holdover from the Springer era who had served in the Navy. He was rail-thin with a billy-goat beard, wore denim from neck to ankles, a cowboy hat with a feather in the side. A damaged tongue—cancer, Fulton believed—made his speech staccato. To this day, Fulton relies upon a sturdy clipboard, JERRY etched in thick blue ink along its bottom, to stay organized; Gates had used it to keep his days in order.
That first day, the 4-foot-deep sewer trench topped the itinerary. It needed to be dug all the way down the Boulevard of Dreams to a semicircle of palms where, improbably, a bleached-out, splintering Liberty lifeboat still lists against a palm tree. To the west, Lake Tuendae—Springer claimed it was an Indian term meaning “where the waters come together”—sparkles. Springer created it by tapping into the underground Mojave.
In the middle of Tuendae, a somewhat ornate stone and concrete fount gurgles where it formerly spewed magnificent arcs worthy of Bellagio’s front yard; Fulton regrets plucking discharge-concentrating algae from those bronze spigots. Caruso Fountain commemorates its craftsman’s supposed lineage to the great Neapolitan operatic tenor. Some erroneously call it Crusoe, a false nod to the shipwrecked island loner created by Daniel Defoe 300 years ago.
The lake contains 3,500 Mojave tui chubs, an ornery, mud-sucking endangered species—“that miserable, little freaky fish,” Casebier says—that Springer had plucked from a nearby spring. Their population, Fulton confirms, has stabilized. He surveys the lake every few years. Another lies across the boulevard. Springer invited guests to bring fishing poles. He had intended to excavate two more lakes and connect all four, the lifeboats offering guests tranquil sunset voyages.
Back to the trench. The temperature was triple digits. Fulton did not ponder hydration, but water was readily available from a 500-gallon container that was refilled in Baker. He wore a T-shirt and shorts, but the jean-clad roughneck was soon pulling Fulton out of the ditch and plopping him onto a couch in a room beside the library.
“I didn’t last very long,” Fulton says. “I just about passed out.” He recovered and was relegated to chipping paint off floors the rest of the day. On subsequent visits, Fulton found empty liquor bottles all over the premises. Let me tell you how it really was, the grizzled Gates told Fulton. (Today booze is not disallowed, with discretion. Fulton wasn’t so genial when he confronted a drunken Brit, to settle down or spend the night in the big house in Baker; the git wisely chose the former option.)
Over three years of weekends and summertime adventure, Fulton worked with shovels and cinder blocks and plaster and mortar and pipes and electrical lines. The coed crews worked hard, he says, and played hard. beer was consumed around midnight campfires; dips in Tuendae were clothing optional; something other than Viceroys could have been toked; and there might have been some hijinks in the communal showers.
To protest Springer’s removal and a chain across the Zzyzx entrance, Casebier contributed, in 1982, to a San Bernardino Sun critique about the compound’s future. Casebier beams about flying, in a light aircraft, over the area to take photographs of alleged shenanigans. He says he dispatched two moles to unearth misdeeds. He giggles today about such antics.
Fulton says Zzyzx was “in a shambles,” that much had to be done to meet certain building codes and safety standards, and tools and other valuables had to be protected in off-hours; thus, the chain. Casebier terms those conflicts the “Zywars,” but they were long ago. “It’s a place of great importance to me,” Casebier says. “I just don’t go there anymore. I think I’m welcome.” Fulton nods.
Fulton had a master’s but poor prospects; a horrible economy sapped public education in California when he tried entering its workforce. He could find only part-time teaching gigs at three different junior colleges, instructing a single biology lab at one institution, a lone lecture at another. In January 1985, he received a phone call from Gerald Sherba, the director of the research center. A handyman had broken a shoulder in a fall, prohibiting him from fulfilling the remaining six months of a contract. Sherba had heard of Fulton and asked if he could finish the terms of that pact.
Guaranteed money for six months? Fulton, who had long pondered staying at Zzyzx more than a weekend, accepted. He settled into an uninsulated 10-by-50-foot trailer. He became acquainted with the terrain. That June, Sherba met with Fulton in the curved-wall storage room.
Asked what Zzyzx needed to become a viable, efficient research facility, Fulton was frank. Someone needs to be here full time, he said, not just as a janitor or custodian, and it’s imperative that he or she possesses a wide background in the natural sciences, to relate to what everyone would be doing here, and know the lay of the land.
A laboratory, with modern equipment, would be essential for physiologists. A library—right here, where four levels of shelves already existed on the curved wall—would be mandatory, as would updated and dependable energy sources, clean overnight accommodations, an inviting dining room. And the candidate had better be damn curious.
He was unaware that he had just auditioned for the job. Sherba called a week later to offer him the post, and Fulton was installed as the first permanent Zzyzx manager, with a one-year contract that they would address the following summer.
“That led to another year, and another year … things started developing that I became involved and invested in,” Fulton says. “Then, at some point, I began to realize that I’d locked myself into this.” Pigeonholing might be the proper professional term. However, returning to the hamster wheel of civilization in Orange County had become anathema to his soul.
Married to the Desert
Epoxy-coating the water-storage tank—it sits atop the compound’s central hill and, by gravity, feeds two spouts—and improving the reverse-osmosis purification system were next on his to-do list, after ditching that windsock. For personal use, he stores water in 3- or 5-gallon jugs; well water facilitates plumbing functions. Early on he got downright spooked by floating orange orbs in the southern night … until learning they were part of classified maneuvers at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 65 miles away in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Orange County, Calif., teachers Bill and Helen Gillette were among the audience of 100 who had trekked to Zzyzx to view the faint tail of Halley’s Comet at 4 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1986, through telescopes hauled in by astronomers. It will again pass Earth in 2061. “You could see it, but it wasn’t clear; it was shadowy,” Helen says. The Gillettes had been visiting Las Vegas since the 1950s, always wondering what lurked behind that funky sign. “Just the name draws your attention,” Helen says. “We read about the comet in the paper and decided to do it.”
Beginning in 1990, with what Fulton called “The Inmate Program,” the Baker Community Correctional Facility supplied him with a workforce that brought its own lunches and provided about 120 hours of free labor a week. That cozy arrangement ended with the closure of the minimum-security prison in 2009. Fulton’s only aid now comes from assistants Jason Wallace and Brock Pennington. The scramble to prioritize hauling trash, maintaining and cleaning rooms and facilities and thoroughfares, and landscaping is a weekly as-needed affair, hectic when occupancy is high.
Red foxes visit frequently. Sidewinders, speckled rattlesnakes and the dreaded Mojave Green, with venom nine times more potent than the average rattler, have dropped by lately, requiring attentive strolling. Fulton sports a smartphone video, filmed at a Zzyzx Road curve, of two bighorn sheep slamming horns; the defeated outside agitator skulked away after losing the sheaf of his right horn in the attack.
More than 20 years ago, he discovered, around another bend, an ivory-shelled snail with a tar-black body. It proved elusive, only exposing itself in specific damp winter conditions every few years or so. Fulton rang an expert, igniting years of study. In 2012, the gastropod mollusk—which does not possess a dart sac (don’t ask) or certain mucus membranes—was determined to exist only by that off-ramp. A malacologist dutifully named it after Fulton, creating a full-circle Zzyzx species symmetry that might have delighted Linnaeus.
Zyzzyx chilensis to Cahuillus fultoni.
Fulton, understandably, is somewhat dubious about this naming business, which is governed globally by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature in London. He described a flat, black lizard that had always been known as Sauromalus obesus being altered to Sauromalus ater—fat, mean lizard, to black, mean lizard. He shakes his head at such inanity.
He did smile when a colleague informed him of a species of tarantula found in the foothills of the Western Sierras, near Folsom Prison, being named Aphonopelma johnnycashi. Yes, it’s black. (A Uruguayan entomologist and Beatles fan named a large, red Amazonian tarantula Bumba lennoni, after John Lennon.)
By 1989, a girlfriend and her two young sons—who snoozed in bunk beds and attended the Baker elementary school—had been living with Fulton in that trailer for a couple of years. Rationing diesel fuel provided four daily hours of generator power. In an annual written evaluation, Fulton implored Sherba to make permanent housing a priority. Now. Within two months the 1,200-square-foot double–wide arrived; the girlfriend and her boys, however, had bolted. Only the heartiest of breeds can weather such traumatic desiccation.
Perhaps Zzyzx is only fit for a Martian. That gal pal could only take so much, same with a wife. Fulton was married from 2000—when the university granted him full-time status—through 2010; their union diminished as she steadily rebooted her career in Redlands, Calif. They remain friends. During a barbecue by his pergola, friends presented Fulton with a silver ring of intertwined snakes. They said, “You are married to the desert.” He did not object.
GENERATORS, POWERED BY propane and diesel, had long powered the compound. But when I visited him in early 2014, Fulton had just boosted the operation by installing 10 rows of solar panels, 28 per row, connected to shelves of batteries housed in a small cinder-block building. In summer, the building’s air conditioning is kept at 78 degrees, with allowable fluctuations of six or seven degrees. In winter, the batteries and equipment produce heat whose billows of steam escape through vents. A windmill also provides power, mainly to a well. “Backups, backups, backups,” Fulton says. “We are off the grid.”
On that trip, Joe Constance and his wife, Marilyn, septuagenarian retirees, munched on ham, cheese and tomato on mayo-slathered sourdough. She sat inside their white Chinook E350 on the gravel berm just past the off-ramp. Joe strolled around the periphery, kicking a Lanzhou cigarette butt by a cracked porcelain toilet. They’d never been this way; they winter in Los Cabos, Mexico, and were taking a circuitous new route to friends and relatives in the Great Northwest.
“Well, we’re curious,” Joe said of that sign. “We thought we’d see what’s here.” He pressed his curiosity, following me to the end of the road, and marveled over the reverse-osmosis mechanics. He vowed to improve a similar plant at home in Baja. Fulton seemed to welcome the unexpected company and attention.
Fulton has overseen the installation, or rehabilitation, of three different sewage systems, four underground plumbing structures and four types, or mixtures, of power grids that have either evolved or been completely swapped out. He spent most of the final day of 2015 mending the water configuration. Until reparations were made, Zzyzx had no water access. He had it working before midnight. He went to bed. Happy New Year! Nobody else was around, so he didn’t consider it an emergency. While those tanks were refilling on Jan. 1, he did consider running around naked, he wrote in an email, if only the mercury had climbed above 48 degrees.
During his tenure it once hit 125 out here. In early 2017, it reached 93, a record—by seven degrees—for a winter day. The record winter low is 8, and 72 hours is the longest below-freezing stretch he has endured at Zzyzx. On April 1, 2017, a record 75 mph wind (a new standard by 7 mph) whipped anything not tied down into everything that was tied down. Debris took out the rear window of his vehicle, which had been tucked into a carport. The compound lost another carport, whose fragments might have settled in Utah. Those gusts also took out an entire row of solar panels, which took months to repair.
From either Baker or Barstow, he can return to Zzyzx in his Cruiser without using I-15 when congestion—generally eastbound to Las Vegas on Friday afternoons, westbound to L.A. on Sunday—is as pitiless as a midsummer sewer trench on the Boulevard of Dreams. He changes basic fluids and filters on his 8-year-old whip and tweaks its brakes in Barstow, where he gets his teeth cleaned and undergoes routine medical checkups.
The Cruiser also boasts nine speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer, vital to a man who might have pursued a music career. As it turns out, he plugs his electric guitar into an amplifier and creates reverb, off Mount Zzyzx, that McCartney would envy. The installation of a satellite dish in the early ’90s allowed Fulton to keep up with The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, 60 Minutes and whatever might be on the History Channel.
The compound, though, allows for scant relaxation. In the spring of 2016, Fulton upgraded the Wi-Fi network, which required new underground wiring. He reviewed decades of blueprints and drawings. Lines from electrical charts that predated even Fulton had to be calculated and traversed. He had Pennington run a trencher only 8 inches deep to be extra safe. Fulton went about his business elsewhere.
When he heard, “Oh, crap!” he ran to Pennington and saw wires and a conduit above the ground. “They’re still hot, going bzzzzzzz.” V.S.L. Pate knew that din. The durable roots of a tamarisk tree had foisted those wires up over the years; they were lying in wait for Pennington’s machine. Fulton killed a breaker, fortunately had a spare concrete junction box in storage, and forged a commercial-grade splice on aged high-tension cables, part of his vast array of skills.
“Like when someone asks me, ‘Where can I find Peromyscus crinitus [a canyon mouse] around here?’ ‘Uh, they’re common up in the draws. Here’s where you want to set your traps.’ So, it’s a weird job.”
What the Future Might Hold
AFTER THE DIVORCE, in 2010, Fulton somewhat withdrew, like his namesake snail. He curtailed hanging out with guests at campfires. Twice the age of some of them, he didn’t care to be viewed as the lonely old guy hanging out with college kids, telling stale tales. He never morphed into Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but cabin fever was unavoidable when hot August days restricted him to hours of office paperwork.
The ennui evaporated in 2015. He engaged with visitors. He became invigorated. He sat at campfires. In May 2016, a group studying bats inquired about the various species in the area; he connected them with a chiropterologist recording such data on the other side of the preserve. Both parties spent quality time learning about Townsend’s big-eared bats—just before the springtime dawn, insects hatching out set the stage for a feeding frenzy.
Fulton ponders retirement, likely by the end of 2018. He has bought land in Idyllwild, Calif.—at 3,900 residents, a megalopolis compared to Zzyzx —on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains from Palm Springs. Friends reside there, and he is partial to its artistic spirit.
Of average height and build when I first met him more than three years earlier, he seems to have thinned. As he discusses his future, he shifts in a metal chair every 15 seconds, a combination of sciatica and scoliosis and spinal compression that will likely require epidural attention.
His professional concerns include those solar batteries. He and his helpers turned three banks of uneven storage into two dependable banks, but two hours of usage drains 80 percent of their energy, pressing the entire system. So Zzyzx relies on diesel fuel too often; in the summer of 2016, 380 gallons were being delivered weekly. That’s inexcusable for a compound whose major aim is to operate on 90 percent solar and wind, whose superiors have used words like “green” and “sustainable” in conferences.
Fulton knows better. Federal aid might split, with the Cal State system, the $250,000 cost for new batteries, but negotiations have been moving slower than that snail. The morning of my final meeting with him, he and Wallace, his main lieutenant, had another discussion about what they term AS—Abandon Ship. In the heat of a summer day, if the power in those solar batteries drops to zero, and backups fail, they will grab what they can and scat.
He has also long rued a remuneration fissure, but Fulton opts for discretion. In August 2016, Darren Sandquist replaced William Presch, a 70-something largely absentee caretaker since 1992, as DSC director, based at CSUF. (When Presch emceed a 40th anniversary celebration of the Cal State governorship of Zzyzx, Fulton went on a rare holiday—to New Zealand.)
In an email, Sandquist confirms that the battery issue is “indeed urgent,” but progress, albeit slow, was being made. He hailed Fulton as “the MVP” of Zzyzx. “A list of all the things he has added to [Zzyzx] would be incredibly long, but what stands out most to me is his depth of knowledge on virtually anything ‘desert,’ be it science, facilities or arts,” Sandquist says. “The beauty of this is that he can contribute to practically any conversation. It’s impressive.”
In 1992, Zzyzx played host to visitors who spent a combined total of 6,000 user days for the first time in a fiscal year. It remains popular. In the fiscal year that ended in June, nearly 1,000 visitors logged 5,477 user days. (A party of six staying three nights equals 18 user days.) Those numbers were a bit higher than the annual average since 2010. Visitors affiliated with the Cal State system pay nine bucks for an overnight stay, outsiders pay double. A catering service in Barstow delivers three daily squares, for $50 per head.
That Zzyzx does not pay for itself, Fulton knows, concerns some in the ivory tower, but he tries to impress upon them the worldwide recognition value of the oasis.
When patrons press Fulton about his time here, he’s prepared for peculiar gazes. He says he thinks he’s viewed as odd because he’s been here so long, and it is such an eccentric, unconventional post. A wasted career, he sometimes believed. He would rebuke himself. What have I really done? What’s my legacy? And the resentment, “for what it’s taken out of me, the challenges it’s placed on my life.”
When he retires, will he completely cut the Zzyzx cord or, as Sandquist suggests, serve as consultant emeritus? Will Zzyzx revert to the stewardship of a part-time janitor or custodian? He utters the universal four-letter expletive, only to later request that it be deleted so as not to expose to his mother her son’s base tongue.
“After I leave, there won’t be anyone working here that has a love for the job, or cares. … My circumstance will have been unique in the history of this place. I do look back and smile, and feel really good. It’s a life’s calling.”
SIT-DOWN MEALS are atypical for Fulton. Breakfast consists of yogurt, or an English muffin covered in guacamole and coffee, a daily joe fix that fuels his personal power grid. He nibbles on dried cranberries and wasabi almonds, crackers and hummus, smoked turkey slices wrapped around slivers of Swiss. Grazing, he calls it. Prepackaged salads supply vegetables and roughage. An occasional batch of chowder or chili can last four or five days. He is so economical he uses only half the space of the double-wide.
Like Casebier, Fulton wants to believe that many did benefit from Springer’s artificial springs and contrivances and suggest-o-therapy; that even if they were placebos they had positive effects; that the AMA’s audacious Quack King did not solely deal in effrontery or garrulity, or boast of unattained ornaments, for profit. Without Springer, Fulton knows this ugly beauty would not have been available to study by so many for so long.
When anyone speaks ill of Springer, Fulton intercedes. If not for him, Fulton says, “the university wouldn’t have anything here, so let’s appreciate it a little bit.”
I inquire about John Donne, the English poet who 400 years ago, in his Meditation XVII, declared, “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe.” The oft-solo Zzyzxtani nods. “A man is the sum of his life and experiences, and that includes people who have helped him or hindered him. … You’re not an island. I mean, here and now, in the present and everything, we are individuals. But an island implies that you’re self-sustaining, you have all that you need right there, and no man can provide all that he needs in life by himself, in one spot … like here. You know?”
Man, every man, he deduces, requires a Baker seven miles to the right and a Barstow an hour to the left. “I need a Baker and a Barstow. I need human contact. I need a purpose, to have something to do that I feel good about, like I’m contributing something important.”
The Zyport crunches under our shoes. He peers north over the vast lakebed. A dust devil kicks up, and another. The thin wisps remain 50 yards apart as they reach for the heavens and frolic, bow, pirouette, dip, twist and twirl. Like maidens, says Fulton. He’s staring. He has seen as many as half a dozen perform one-off minuets, elegant stage shows—across the desert floor.
Just for him.
A Look at Zzyzx Today
About the Author of the Definitive History of Zzyzx
Rob Miech has been a journalist for more than 30 years, much of that as a sportswriter covering college basketball, and his work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, the Pasadena Star-News, Las Vegas Sun and other publications. He has authored three books—The Last Natural (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012), Eleventh Heaven (Booklocker.com, 2014), Of Cowards and True Men (Booklocker.com, 2015). Zzyzx Road first bit him in the fall of 1985 and, well, it still hasn’t unlocked its clench.