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Hiking: Mojave Desert

Getting Sidetracked Into the Quirky

February 02, 1997|JOHN McKINNEY

If the East Mojave Desert could speak, what stories it would tell! Tales of Indians and Spanish explorers, trappers and trailblazers, pioneers and gold miners, cattle ranchers and restless spirits.

This desert has been crossed by an incredibly varied assortment of men and women. Native Americans began the procession more than 10,000 years ago.

Getting to know the new 1.4 million-acre Mojave National Preserve and the surrounding desert means exploring several stunning landscapes. And it means getting a sense of the past, because the landscape of the imagination might be the most important one of all.

The East Mojave's colorful history comes to life in a trio of intriguing places off Interstate 15 between Barstow and the Nevada state line. Next time you're motoring from Southern California to Las Vegas, get off the highway and take the time to explore these sights right off the road.

Remember, it's all matter of perspective: One person's interminable stretch of highway is another's road to adventure.

Camp Cady: This former army outpost embraces the Mojave River floodplain where desert willow, cottonwoods and tamarisk flourish. The land is owned and maintained by the California State Department of Fish and Game. The agency plans to develop nature trails, but hiking and bird-watching requires a bit of improvisation for now.

Camp Cady was once the westernmost string of tiny military forts established during the 1860s to protect westbound settlers and travelers. The post has been reduced to a crumbled corner of rocks chinked with mud nestled in a stand of willow trees.

A turn-of-the-century Greek immigrant, movie theater magnate Alexander Pantages (of the Hollywood Pantages Theater) built a thoroughbred ranch and stable at this site. You can just imagine the sight of these pampered animals being put through their paces in this out-of-the-way place.

A hike through the Mojave River floodplain reveals evidence that people lived throughout this area not so long ago: A ramshackle lean-to here, a thatched willow hut there, rusted-out abandoned vehicles and even a boat or two. Yes, boats. The Mojave River not so long ago had enough water to permit rowboats and motorboats to patrol this territory that in places resembles the setting for the classic movie "African Queen."

The resident bird population, along with the seasonal migratory short-term residents makes this a prime bird-watching area. On your one-mile or so walk on sandy roads along the Mojave River, you may spot hawks, quail, owls and several other species. Frogs and mud turtles inhabit the ponds.

Fish and Game staffers here are responsible for this 2,000-acre site, and for studying the bighorn sheep in nearby mountains.

Access: From Interstate 15, about 20 miles northeast of Barstow, exit on Harvard Road. Head south 2.7 miles to Mojave Trail. Turn east (left) on this dirt road and drive two miles to the signed entrance for Camp Cady. Turn north (left) and drive half a mile to the parking area.

Zzyzx/Soda Springs: Formerly a Cavalry outpost and later a health resort run by the late radio evangelist Curtis Springer, Soda Springs today is occupied by the California Desert Studies Center, a field station of the California State University, which was established in 1976 in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The self-contained, energy-efficient facilities include classrooms, science labs, a complete kitchen and dormitory space.

Conceived as a research facility for use by university faculty and students, the center has evolved into an educational retreat for those interested in all facets of desert study. The public can sign up for classes through the Office of Extended Education, California State University, San Bernardino.

Promising health to thousands of visitors and financial supporters, Springer built the Zzyzx (pronounced "zeye-zix") Mineral Springs and Health Resort in the middle of the East Mojave. When Springer and his wife Helen arrived at Soda Springs in 1944, they described it as a "mosquito swamp" and built a self-contained town unlike anything else in the desert.

A labor force recruited from L.A.'s Skid Row--each man was paid $10 per week--built the resort's extensive facilities. A 60-room hotel called The Castle, a dining hall, indoor baths and a large swimming pool shaped in the form of a cross were among the original projects. Springer broadcast his daily religious programs from the radio station and conducted services at Zzyzx Community Church.

The main road in the complex was named "Boulevard of Dreams," and for many years it was a fitting title. For 30 years, believers, health-seekers and the curious flocked to Zzyzx, lured by Springer's promises and products.

Although the self-proclaimed "old-time medicine man" never attached a fee to his services or herbal concoctions, the donations poured in. "Health Is Wealth," he reminded the faithful.

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