Robert Fulton, Manager of the Zzyzx Desert Research Center stands in front of the pool in the shape of a cross that is sinking into the dry lake bed.
Zzyzx Desert Research Center
Baker, California sits 93 miles south west of Las Vegas. Here the tallest thermometer in the world measures the temperature at the mouth of Death Valley. People who live in Baker joke: There are less residents in Baker than there are gas stations. But most bizarre is the funny name of a nearby road: Zzyzx. South of town this concrete freeway overpass leads to dead ends. The name was coined by a preacher, and he declared it to be the last word in the English language. What the preacher built there is the site of a rough example for a $20 million dollar project in Southern Nevada. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: The Mojave Desert is home to less than a dozen oases. Places where water seemingly at random trickles from rocks and sustains life. Robert Fulton is thin, wears shorts, big brown boots and lives at such an oasis. He's made the oasis at Zzyzx home for 19 years.
SOUND: Riding in golf cart
PLASKON: He rides around the oasis in a green golf cart and sometimes looks out the kitchen window of his trailer, across the flat salt covered dry lake and thinks about the history of this watering hole. Native Americans guided the first U.S. overland expedition into California from here. Later, countless wagon trains used it and the early 19-th century Tonopah- Tidewater railroad too.
FULTON: It just amazes me sometimes to think of large steam locomotives and all the box cars and hopper cars taking ore from the mines of Death Valley and rolling right by my kitchen window for decades and seeing a column of smoke rising on the horizon and hearing the chug of a locomotive. It's a lot different now.
PLASKON: As mining faded so did the locomotives and this oasis was silent until 1944 when an insurance salesman turned religious radio preacher and self-proclaimed doctor filed a 12-thousand acres mineral claim to it. Then Curtis Springer dragged old Los Angeles city busses to this spot and declared it Zzyzx resort. A word he believed to be the last in the English language. He promoted the resort on a radio show.
SPRINGER: I want to invite you and your loved ones to come and worship with us here come with or without money and spend a day or a week or a lifetime and enjoy our 12-thousand acre estate that belongs to god."
PLASKON: As people came Springer had them manufacture his own brand of questionable medicines and create concrete buildings from the water and salty sand. They made residences around what imitated hot springs. Former Zzyzx resident Mike Dougherty knew there was only cold water though.
DOUGHERTY: You never knew the man to lie but he could really get you going down the garden path. You heard all the people on the tape talking about the springs and the hot water. No, the water was heated, I rebuilt the boiler that heated those pools.
PLASKON: Eventually the BLM kicked preacher Springer and his un-authorized "church" off the property. The buildings crumbled and began to sink into the soggy dry lake nearby. But what he built wasn't altogether lost. California State University took over and Rob Fulton a biology student at the time answered a call to come out and repair some of the intact buildings. Springer's preaching chapel was one of them, repair it in the name of Science.
FULTON: This is where church services would be held and now we have converted it to a classroom as you can see it is rather low ceilings and poor acoustics in here and I think that is so that Curtis could stand up here with his booming voice and really have a presence in here.
PLASKON: Now, 19 years later, Fulton is the Manager of the Zzyzx Desert Research Center. It serves 6-7 thousand scientists every year as a kind of out-door laboratory for students like 20- year old Catherine Wood. She's come all the way from the University of Sheffield in Northern England on her own dime because environmental study centers like this are rare. She explains why most people don't care about them.
WOOD: The majority of people only care about people which is kind of a selfish view but people aren't really willing to come out and study things that aren't really going to benefit them. So going out and studying the sand dunes, seeing how big it is and how tall it isn't really seen as a priority.
PLASKON: Not seen as a priority, she says, despite the fact that as humans consume limited ground water sand dunes expand and can swallow up houses. Nonetheless, a center like this to intensely study and teach about the environment is a priority in Clark County. Zzyzx is being used in the planning stage for a 20 million dollar facility called the Red Rock Desert Learning Center located just outside Las Vegas at Oliver Ranch near Blue Diamond. Zzyzx is a good model because it is off the power grid and students reside there for short periods of time. But while Zzyzx serves university students, the proposed Red Rock center will serve 5th graders. Loretta Asay, Clark County School District Science Coordinator, says the idea is the same; students will study the real environment.
ASAY: At the science school it will be a wonderful opportunity for them to actually live in the middle of those for a couple of days and learn about them on a large scale it will be a wonderful extension of a teacher showing them pictures in a classroom. They can actually be out and looking at it and walking around in it and drawing pictures of it.
PLASKON: She hopes that the Red Rock Learning Center will serve nearly 20-thousand students a year. Fulton, of the Zzyzx Desert Studies Center is looking forward to the trickle down effect of the environment on those students.
FULTON: To the extent it would encourage their interest in the natural environment, particularly the arid lands like the Mojave Desert eco system then we may see a spin off of that as they become advanced students and become interested in the area.
PLASKON: But there's one problem. Unlike Zzyzx, the Red Rock Learning Center isn't planned in an oasis, posing the critical challenge of where to get water for kids to study and live there. So the first groundbreaking scientific analysis at the proposed Red Rock site will explore ground water. United States Geological Survey scientist will dig wells near Blue Diamond. The analysis won't be complete for up to a year.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9, KNPR