Get Your Kicks At Zzyzx—Chapter 2: Springer Arrives and Zzyzx Takes Shape

Read Part One of the story here

THE NATION anguished over conflicts far beyond both coasts when Springer scrammed west, to Hollywood, slipping AMA and BBB gumshoes. At a used bookstore, he bought, for 25 cents, a tome about mineral springs of the Pacific Coast that told of such a fountainhead out at Fort Soda. (Pacific Press had published such a 143-page Bentley’s hand-book in 1884.) With Jack Renié, whom Springer called his father, and fiancée Helen LeGerda, Springer drove 200 miles east on Sunday, Aug. 13, 1944.

He secured excavation claims, via the General Mining Act of 1872, for 12,800 acres. Mining, however, was never on Springer’s mind. (And shouldn’t have been, since Frank and Sarah Riggs’ mining efforts proved futile in 1900.) With the lure of sketchy room and board and meager pay, Springer bused in skid-row laborers every Wednesday morning from the Figueroa Hotel in Los Angeles to build the compound. He professed its name to be the last word in the English language, or the last word in medicine, or the phone book, or the atlas or some such folly. He said he invented, copyrighted and patented the word.

A colorful Chilean sand wasp knew better.

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names would approve unincorporated Zzyzx, Calif., as a place-name in June 1984. (It uses Baker ZIP code 92309.) The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in Maryland, lists Zzyzx as the last populated city, alphabetically, on Earth, which must have disquieted 600 or so Zygians—inhabitants of Zygi on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus—when they heard. Fulton favors Zzyzxtani as a personal demonym that might enchant aficionado John McPhee, the acclaimed author who is partial to Vallisoletano (a citizen of Valladolid, Spain) as a favored resident-name.

McPhee described the violent tectonics around Zzyzx in Basin and Range Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), the general name of the region’s undulating topography. It emanated from his piece that ran in consecutive issues of The New Yorker in October 1980—“wild weirdsma, a leather-jacket geology in mirrored shades … its strike-slip faults and falling buildings, its boiling springs and fresh volcanics, its extensional disassembling of the earth.”

(In 2014, Anthony R. Kampf, curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, failed to coax the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification to name an unusual mineral Zzyzxite. Mostly copper and tellurium, with streaks of sky blue and greenish aqua, it can be found in the Soda Mountains. Based in Stockholm, the CNMNC settled on Mojaveite.)

Renié served as an accomplice to Springer by plugging “Zzyzx Springs” on the maps for which he would win acclaim. His first guides, of Los Angeles streets and Southern California routes, appeared in 1942 and 1943; they were renowned for their striking graphic artistry and hand-drawn, single-line crispness. On one from the late 1940s, Zzyzx Spgs at E-15, on the left-edge index—in the Pacific Ocean—is the last word.

That the cartographer was, in fact, Springer’s father is one more yarn, since Renié was born in 1900, just four years after the prevaricator extraordinaire. Soon after the trio had arrived at the site, Renié went to work connecting it to the highway. He later certified his position—that in 1945 he was “retained as a location engineer by The Dr. Curtis H. Springer Foundation to locate, blaze and construct” Zzyzx Road—in a letter dated Sept.16, 1964. He and a crew used two bulldozers, a giant earth mover, scrapers and graders. Twenty thousand gallons of propane and 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel were stored in large tanks. Five Caterpillar generators could produce 350 kilowatts of energy.

Springer planted thousands of shade trees, palms and flowering bushes. He angled a deal with ports in San Pedro and Long Beach to obtain wooden lifeboats from WW II-era Liberty Ships to use as building material. For a dime on the dollar, says Fulton, Springer obtained excess rebar at Los Angeles construction sites. The Riverside Cement Co. supplied him with 15,000 sacks of cement at cost. Within a few miles of the then-Highway 91 off-ramp, Springer planted large blue metal signs, with ZZYZX in red letters inside yellow arrows, to announce his spa.

A further inducement to go west could have been the relocation of his parents, Walter and Mildred, to San Bernardino, where his actual father died in 1947, his mother in 1953.

Some of those poor laborers, however, might have been marooned, for Fulton has heard tales of derelicts darting out from the tumbleweeds, startling departing spa visitors and begging for rides back to the Figueroa. Select visitors were purportedly exposed to deviousness, too, Bruce Clark said in Le Hayes’ “Pilgrims in the Desert” (Mojave Historical Society, 2005).  Springer would feed and house older guests, and he would somehow steal their Social Security checks at the Baker post office, Clark reported, “and charge them whatever they had coming. He made his living, to some extent, that way.”

Bruce and his wife, Barbara, grew up in Baker, and they were surprised to find an unopened can of Desert Manna—Springer’s mixture of fruit and vegetable juices—on a shelf in Hayes’ home. The Clarks recalled eating ice cream made from goat milk with Charles, Terry, Lollie and Helen, some of Springer’s children, at Zzyzx. Bruce recalled the patriarch as “quite a preacher,” who always wore a white shirt, white pants and white shoes.

In May 1948, Springer hauled, in a mammoth eight-door Chevy superwagon that publicized Zzyzx on both sides, those six kids and a dozen more from the Baker grade school to Death Valley to watch John Sturges direct The Walking Hills. Clark said seeing John Wayne was a big deal, but the Duke might have just been visiting; Randolph Scott and Ella Raines starred in the film.

He also remembered the tragic death of the young Charles Springer, who had inadvertently shot himself while hunting rabbits. Fulton believes it might have been Terry who, many years ago, dropped by Zzyzx to wax idyllic of many happy campers and gospel music serenading all from the metal speaker on the hill in the middle of the compound. Terry died in North Carolina in 2012. Another son, Curtis Jr., served in WW II and became a longtime municipal court judge in Alabama. He died in 2006.

A raft of Zzyzx legalese began in July 1951, when the elder Springer first attempted to obtain deed to, or non-mining possession of, the land. He landed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as the government tried to discern what was happening out in the Mojave. His final attempt at ownership was dismissed in November 1964. He soldiered on.

Springer called a two-story residence The Castle. Today, 80 visitors can be housed in four buildings, whose ceilings are short and double rooms are narrow. A large commissary features stainless-steel amenities and receives A-ratings by the state’s health department. A pool house contained showers and changing rooms. Adirondack chairs were situated on the deck around the cross-shaped “mineral” spa and soaking tubs. A photograph from the halcyon days shows hospital beds on that deck, too. Today, the decrepit spa’s secret—underground piping, connected to a boiler—is exposed like an open wound.

The End of Springer

The AMA tagged Springer “the King of Quacks.” There is no legal gray area regarding the pilfering of Social Security funds, but quackery can be a vague charge. In 1899, obstetrician T.W. Eden told a conference of colleagues at Charing Cross Hospital in England, “Speaking loosely, any boastful pretender to healing knowledge and skill which he does not in reality possess may fairly be called a ‘quack.’” Paracelsus is regarded as the father of quackery; in Switzerland, in the early 16th century, he had an allergy to books and a panacea for all diseases. Paracelsus wore “the ornament of several universities,” The British Medical Journal reported in November 1892, and “in the art of blowing his own trumpet he remains without equal.” It called him the patron saint of self-advertisers and noted his motto, cribbed from Danton, of toujours de l’audace—always audacity.

That could have been Springer’s maxim. Legal action regarding Zzyzx’s business affairs began in 1966. Two years later, the Southern California Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Food and Drug Inspectors charged Springer with 65 counts of false advertising and misrepresentation. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of violating state business and health codes. He fished a roll from a pocket and peeled away 25 $100 bills, for the fine, as if he were tipping the paperboy.

A court order, to halt all advertising and activity at Zzyzx, went unheeded. Chuck Campbell, an official with the state’s public health department, went undercover, with his wife and two kids, to gather information in 1968. He took many Zzyzx photographs; one shows Springer with Mrs. Campbell and the children near a short porch outside what is now the library. But Fulton says Mr. Campbell is reserving those, and notes, for a book project. Springer would claim to have earned $750,000 in 1968.

Los Angeles Times writer Charles Hillinger first wrote about Springer, in a critical piece, on July 14, 1967, a Friday that desert historian, author and Springer ally Dennis Casebier remembers. “I’ve always said that was the beginning of the end for Springer,” says Casebier, in his early 80s. “Hillinger and Springer did not get along, I think, because in many ways they might have been alike; both were smooth-talking snake-oil salesmen.”

Steven V. Roberts of The New York Times missed that report and all jurisprudence regarding Springer. He visited Zzyzx in the summer of 1970. “An American original—part preacher, part doctor, part entertainer, part builder, part philanthropist and part free wheeling [sic] entrepreneur,” Roberts wrote. Springer told Roberts the mineral baths “really don’t help much, except psychologically.” He called it, “Suggestotherapy.” An 89-year-old woman bemoaned of her arthritic condition to Roberts before espousing the benefits of the spa and flexing a gnarled hand with ease.

Roberts underscored the 27 varieties of Zzyzx health products, including:

  • Dango (cures dandruff).
  • Alleroids (rich in Vitamin A).
  • Embroids (rich in Vitamin E).
  • Ban-O-Whey (appetite discourager).
  • Mo-Hair (hair-growth assistant).
  • Cosmo (an Indian remedy “for lovely skin!”).

Those items, like room and board at Zzyzx, were theoretically gratis, but Springer always appreciated—knowing precisely how to coerce—a tax-deductible donation to either his foundation or the Zzyzx Community Church, when Social Security funds weren’t within reach.

On a computer file, Fulton shows photos of five old buses—side by side in what is now the visitors’ parking lot, containing mechanical contraptions and boxes and labels—where Springer’s crew mixed and bagged product.

His radio preaching and self-promotion reached 400 radio stations in all 50 states, he claimed, and 120 foreign markets. The government upgraded its postal branch in Baker, from fourth to third-class, because of Springer’s brisk business alone. It gave him P.O. Box 1. When it became available a few years ago, the branch manager offered it to Fulton. It’s only fitting, Fulton was told. He accepted immediately. Springer told Roberts, “If you play the game fair, I believe the big boss upstairs will level things out. That’s my religion.”

Beginning in January 1966, Springer would be involved in at least 14 legal actions over the ensuing six and a half years. He was represented by the flamboyant Gladys Towles Root, who wore furs and feathers—often purple—and outsize costume jewelry in court. Her mother had influenced her to help “loose spokes on the wheel of life.” Her clientele included the three men who, in 1963, were convicted of kidnapping Frank Sinatra Jr.

Springer appeared at a hearing at the U.S. Department of Interior in Sacramento on July 6, 1972. Judge Graydon E. Holt called Springer a person “with considerable zeal and personal magnetism.”

Springer wrote “One of the Strangest Stories Ever Told,” a plea tagged Exhibit G, as evidence. When he first went to California he had retired, he penned, having accumulated “all he needed in life,” but Zzyzx wooed him. He said Navajo Indians—oddly, for the Chemehuevi and Mohave have left the major indigenous footprints in the area—had helped him form, by hand, the first concrete building blocks of the compound. He wrote,

We simply cannot let this beautiful place to the enemy and become leased out as a nightclub, golf club or any other type of worldly place … We will win this battle but need your prayers … Have you heard of anything like this before? … By simple stroke of a pen, the land could be ours as a grant.

The Bureau of Land Management leveled its Zzyzx account in April 1974, booting the loose spoke off the land for squatting and false health food claims. Springer offered BLM officials $34,187 for back rent. They declined. He spent 49 days in jail.

Federal marshals evicted each guest and resident, dragging some elderly patrons by their hair, Pilgrims reported When Springer was released, he was given 72 hours to gather personal items from the compound. In Baker, friends with trucks hauled away 200 tons of belongings. They had firearms, as did marshals; everyone crouched and drew when a vehicle’s tire blew. Mayhem was narrowly averted. That, however, was not Doc’s denouement; he retreated to Las Vegas, acquired P.O. Box 4700 and continued hawking the manna.

Post-Springer, a Place of Study

In 1976, the BLM created a 25-year co-op agreement that enabled the Cal State seven to use the compound as their Desert Studies Center In 1994, the Desert Protection Act created the Mojave National Preserve—Zzyzx lies in the northwest corner of its 1.6 million acres—and a revised five-year rollover agreement between the DSC and the National Park Service. California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) crews service the off-ramp and its berm, with regular sweeps, and remove stickers and other graffiti from the four green ZZYZX ROAD signs—at each off-ramp and a mile in advance of both. Alas, the bullet holes can’t be patched.

When university officials gathered to survey the grounds, formulate plans and converse with media, a primer-gray station wagon crawled into the Boulevard of Dreams. Its original weaver emerged with thin white hair, dark sunglasses, a blue three-piece suit, tie tight. The scene was captured in a feature, with old-time gospel piano music tinkling in the background, by Jim Brown of NBC’s Los Angeles news affiliate.

Preserved on YouTube, Springer slips into JFK-speak. “I have my Ph.D. / in psychology.” He highlights the hundreds of thousands of meals and beds that Zzyzx had provided to the needy and infirm, without taking a penny from county, state or federal coffers. He says he and Helen had spent $3 million building and preserving Zzyzx. In his “King of Quacks” book proposal, Christopher Zoukis claimed Springer made $20 million at Zzyzx. The man’s carriage, though, reflected parsimony.

A reporter inquires how they financed it all. “That’s none of your business,” Springer snaps. He says documents in his vehicle verify that he tried to “give this property back to the government,” for university work, in 1966, “and they wouldn’t take it.” He defiantly waves his sunglasses but makes no attempt to retrieve the evidence. “I’m 80 years old, and I can’t carry on too much longer.” He was pleased that “splendid folks” striving to make this a better world would be managing Zzyzx. “I’m with you a million percent. God bless you!”

On Oct. 18, 1984, the Baker Valley News ran an extensive article—supposedly written by Springer but whose true author, Fulton believes, was Casebier—under the headline “The Legal Rape of Zzyzx.” It detailed how Springer had been so wronged by the government.

Ten months later, at 88, the King of Quacks died in Las Vegas. Casebier denies writing that article. His anger about the 1967 Times exposé turned to fury, he says, when that paper glossed itself for outing Springer. “They said, in unequivocal terms, that they had blown the whistle on him … and they wanted credit for his demise, in print.”

Casebier refers to the old-time medicine man as “Brother Springer.” In the four years before Springer’s death, Casebier says he interviewed him 54 times, accumulating 400,000 words. “He wanted me to do a book on him.” He asked Curtis Jr. for his blessing on such a project, after the passing of his father, and says he was told, “You know, Dennis, [widow] Helen is the one who put up with that crazy bastard all these years; it’s up to her.” Casebier rang her and says he was told, “Dennis, we had something very special there at Zzyzx, and something terrible happened to it. I don’t think anyone will be able to represent it correctly, so I would not give my approval.”

Curiosity had propelled Casebier, in his Jeep, to the end of Zzyzx, what he calls “the end of the alphabet,” in the early 1960s. He became friends with Springer, and they would discuss life over refreshments at the 24-hour Bun Boy restaurant in Baker. Casebier met his wife, Jo Ann, at Zzyzx when he was lecturing a group of Cal Poly Pomona students there in 1980. He cherishes Baker artist Lois Clark’s oil painting of Springer standing by a car and waving. It hangs on a wall in the Casebier residence in Bullhead City, Ariz.

Staunchly anti-government, Casebier is congenial but curt on the phone, his distaste for Zzyzx-inquiring media occasionally surfacing. “You have to denigrate [Springer]—that’s what guys like you usually wind up with … he helped a lot more people than people like you give him credit for.”

He dismisses the fact that Springer never earned any of the degrees he claimed. He says his pal made a fateful decision in the early 1960s. “The biggest mistake of his life. I discussed this with him. They actually offered him 40 acres as a settlement. He thought he needed a thousand. The 40 would have included the springs. He should have taken it. He didn’t. That’s where he screwed up. They hunkered down and went after him.”

Casebier overlooks federal officials commencing action against Springer 18 months before that initial Times piece by Hillinger. When informed that the writer had passed away, at 82, in April 2008, Casebier says, softly but tersely, “Justified.”

A Role in Pop Culture

IF ONLY SPRINGER had possessed the prescience to have Jack Renié extend the road to Ludlow, Calif. In February 1946, Bobby Troup might have made the connection when his wife, Cynthia, leaned into his right ear from the passenger seat of their 5-year-old Buick and whispered, “Get your kicks on Route Sixty-six,” as they motored west on the Mother Road.

Cynthia’s coy susurration inspired Troup to write his classic road ditty “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.” It was only half-finished when Nat (King) Cole sat at the piano of the Trocadero Club, on Sunset Boulevard, to try it out on March 16, 1946. He recorded it five months later on a King Cole Trio album, and it made him a star. Chuck Berry, Bing Crosby, Buddy Greco, Rosemary Clooney, Mick Jagger and Depeche Mode, among many, would have perplexed fans with a catchy lyrical twist. Cole, of course, would have rhymed it with “Route Six Six.” (Two years later, future Springer attorney Gladys Towles Root refused to sign a petition to keep Cole out of her plush Hancock Park neighborhood, where locals named their mansions.)

Just like Springer, Bobby Troup was a wannabe doc. Unlike Springer, Troup’s illegitimacy was transparent, as Dr. Joe Early—opposite his second wife, the torch singer and actress Julie London—in the popular ’70s TV show Emergency! Fulton laughs deeply. “I remember Bobby Troup! Get your kicks / at Zzyzx!” If only …

Still, it has been represented well in the arts and even by an eccentric group of mothers. A 2014 internet poll established Zzyzx as the oddest-ever name for a baby, and a Social Security Administration review determined that five newborns over the previous 15 years had been so deigned; a Texas woman wrote that the reason had to be “pure torture, or revenge.”

It is the name of a band and songs—all dark and sullen—by no fewer than five groups. “A place both beautiful and blistering / innocent blood is crying from the ground,” croons Stavesacre. “We speak in riddles and talk in code / on our way to Zzyzx Road,” howl the Condors. The cover of the Norwegian musical troupe Zeromancer’s third studio album, in 2003, is an apocalyptic white glow behind a yellow-diamond Zzyzx sign.

Zzyzx Road Band member Tammy Peer confirms, in an email, that the peculiar sign inspired the group that’s based in Visalia, Calif. “It had everything to do with our name; we pass [the sign] going to Vegas … therefore [we] were born.” The all-saxophone Zzyzx Quartet took that name in 2007 because its members, according to its website, wanted something “catchy but meaningful.”

The demon prison in the Fablehaven literature series is called Zzyzx. In 1992, Michael Petracca published Captain Zzyzx, a ribald romantic-comedy novel with a guitarist protagonist. A few years ago, ABC Family’s Kyle XY incorporated Zzyzx as the name of a clandestine underground research company. Four movies have adopted the off-ramp, or bug, in their titles or themes. The one that borrowed the genus grossed 30 bucks, an all-time low Hollywood take, during its six-day release at a Dallas cinema in 2006. Just $1,199,970 more and investors would have broken even.

The compound itself, in 2009, became the blood-splattered, low-budget location shoot for The Last Resort, starring the sultry America Olivo. A bachelorette party unfolds at a supposed Mexican playground, “where mischief and nefarious things happen,” Fulton says. “It’s so bad, it’s good.” The crew so trashed the grounds the production company was forced, in court by Fulton, to forfeit its security fee of $50,000. Fulton produced a DVD, of behind-the-scenes escapades set to horror music, for posterity if not evidence.

In 2003, Bill Griffith referenced the mysterious path in his Zippy cartoon as a nod to loyal reader Jack Graves, who had sent Griffith pictures of the sign. “[He] couldn’t resist suggesting it for a Zippy visit,” Griffith wrote in an email. He inserted Graves’ name, in tribute, along a vertical edge of the first of the three-paneled “Road Wary” skit. Zippy thumbs for a ride at the sign and gets one, in a car with the California license plate SYZYGY. The driver asks where he’s going. Zippy says, “Anywhere with a lot more vowels!!”

Read Part Three of the story here

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.

 

 

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