Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Zzyzx Phenomena

by Steve Reiss (Dalmdad Landscape Photography - and

(Note: See our new Desert Studies Center/Zzyzx image album at Flickr.)

Anyone who has looked out their car window while driving in the dull desert between Barstow and Baker on the I-15 have probably noticed the sign for Exit 239 - Zzyzx Road.  The name is so darned mysterious and intriguing that the short road has become a strong magnet to back road and desert explorers.  Zzyzx Road's popularity has led it to even have its own Yelp entry.

The mystery and intrigue may stem from (or have led to) any or all of the following:

  1. The name Zzyzx and the history of the exit area;
  2. The origin of the name Zzyzx;
  3. Two similarly named films produced in the area at around the same time;
  4. The series of songs and albums that have some form of Zzyzx in their title;
  5. Captain Zyzzx (book);
  6. The Narrows (book);
  7. Bighorn Sheep Spotting
 1. The Name Zzyzx and the history of the area (from wiki-footnotes removed).
Zzyzx, California /ˈzzɨks/, formerly Camp Soda and Soda Springs, is a settlement in San Bernardino County, California. It is the former site of the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa and now the site of the Desert Studies Center. The site is also the location of Lake Tuendae, originally part of the spa, and now a refuge habitat of the endangered Mohave tui chub.

Zzyzx Road is a 4.5-mile (7.2 km) long, part paved and part dirt, rural collector road in the Mojave Desert. It runs from Interstate 15 generally south to the Zzyzx settlement. The nearest town is Baker, California, 7 miles (11 km) north on I-15. Las Vegas, Nevada is the nearest major city, about 100 miles (160 km) northeast.
Soda Springs, a natural spring, has long seen human activity. The area was a prehistoric quarry site, and projectile points and rock art can be found in the area. The Mojave Road ran past the spring, as did the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. Remnants of a wagon road stop and railroad artifacts are readily seen. Evaporative salt mining and mill sites can be found here as well.
Curtis Howe Springer established the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa in 1944 at the spot, which was federal land, after filing mining claims for 12,000 acres surrounding the springs. He used the springs to bottle his water and provide drinks for travelers through the hot desert. Springer also imported animals from around the country to attract more families to visit his ranch. He used Zzyzx until 1974, when he was arrested by the United States Marshals for misuse of the land as well as alleged violations of food and drug laws, and the land was reclaimed by the government. Since 1976, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed California State University to manage the land in and around Zzyzx. A consortium of CSU campuses use it as their Desert Studies Center.
 2, Origin of the word  Zzyzx (from wiki-footnotes removed):
The made-up name Zzyzx was given to the area in 1944 by Springer, claiming it to be the last word in the English language.
Word Ways magazine verified the source of the lexicography as an undated San Bernardino County map published by the Automobile Club of Southern California. The magazine characterized Zzyzx Springs as "a hydrologic feature and a privately owned spa catering to the senior citizen, about 8.5 mi (13.7 km) south of Baker on the western edge of Soda Dry Lake, off the abandoned right-of-way of the old Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad."

Zzyzx was approved as a place name by the United States Board on Geographic Names on June 14, 1984. As is the case with the road, Zzyzx, California, is the USBGN's lexicographically greatest (alphabetically last, at least in English alphabetical order) place name.

In this sense, Zzyzx is very similar to that other phrase popular in the desert, in Road-Runner/Coyote cartoons, "Acme", which was intended to be first in any directory:
The name Acme became popular for businesses by the 1920s, when alphabetized business telephone directories such as the Yellow Pages began to be widespread. There were a flood of businesses named Acme (some of these still survive). For example, early Sears catalogs contained a number of products with the "Acme" trademark, including anvils, which are frequently used in Warner Bros. cartoons
....Whenever we played a game where we had a grocery store or something we called it the ACME corporation. Why? Because in the yellow pages if you looked, say, under drugstores, you'd find the first one would be Acme Drugs. Why? Because "AC" was about as high as you could go; it means the best; the superlative.— Chuck Jones
3. The Battle of the Zzyzx Films.

There are two films with names similar to the area.  They are Zyzzx and Zyzzyx Road.  Note that Zyzzyx Road purposely misspell's Zzyzx.

The producers of these two movies got into a comments battle on the IMDB boards.  I hope to summarize the battle at a later time.  However, the crux of the battle was over who's movie was better or worse.

Zzyzx (renamed Burned for some reason) and Zzyzx Road (ZR) are very different movies (summaries from IMDB).

Zzyzx is Zzyzx, the road, may lead to nowhere, but three people find themselves baking in a desert of murder, mystery, manipulation and greed when the legendary road becomes the place where their destinies collide.
IN ZR, :The family man accountant Grant travels to Los Angeles and meets the lascivious "Lolita" Marissa in a casino. While in the motel with Marissa, her violent ex-boyfriend Joey surprises them on the bed, hits Grant on the head, but he kills Joey. Grant brings Joey's body to bury in the desert Zyzzyx Road, but after digging a grave, he finds that the body is missing in the trunk of his car. Grant chases Joey with a shovel in the desert, and when he finds the man hidden in a abandoned mine, Joey discloses a secret about Marissa.
More recently, a movie called The Last Resort (2009) was filmed on-site at the Desert Studies Center (see pictures)The swings, the Castle, and the Pool Enclosure Wall, at the DSC are predominantly shown in te movie.  However, the movie is supposed to take place in Mexico and there is no reference to Zzyzx.

On a stranger tone, a B-movie style internet series FemVamp filmed an episode at the exit.

4, The Zzyzx Songs...

On, I came across a number of songs with Zzyzx in their title, none of which seem to have anything to do with the road.

The list includes:

* the song Zzyzx Rd, by Stone Sour.
* Zzyzx Scarecrow", is a song by the band Stavesacre 
* Zzyzx (album), an album by Zeromancer
* Zzyzx - a song and album by Alphadiabetic - this song is an instrumental.
* ZZYZX - a song by In Desolation, off the album Off with their heads.
* Zzyzx Road, a song by Ivan Ives

5. Captain Zyzzx (book);
Captain Zzyzx is a book by Michael Petracca.

Despite the prominence of Zzyzx in the book's title, Zzyzx only plays a minor role in the story line. However, the book does refer to the compelling feeling passers-by have to stop and explore Zzyzx Road on their way to or from Vegas.

6. The Narrows (book)
The Narrows is a crime novel written by Michael Connelly.

A significant scene in the book takes place at Zzyzx Road.  While I don't want to give spoilers, it is my opinion that it is unlikely what is said to have happened at Zzyzx Road in the scene could.

7.  Bighorn Sheep

Zzyzx Road in the area before the Desert Studies Center is a prime location for spotting bighorn sheep when they water up and mate in April.  I have been there many times to see the bighorns.

 If you have a Zzyzx story, let us know!

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