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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Getting Steamed

Tecopa's hot springs have long been a winter draw for hundreds of senior citizens. Now, the town has a plan to pump up its image and the regulars are less than enthusiastic.

January 18, 1998|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TECOPA, Calif. — They say the water here works magic, and here's the proof of it: Phyllis Erickson's teenage daughter vacationed here for a whole month and not once did she miss her telephone.

That has to make a true believer out of anyone who dares dispute the calming powers of the Tecopa hot springs, which burble out of the ground at a toasty 104 degrees.

The silky spring water is said to soothe arthritis, ease sore bones and just plain relax folks. One thing's for sure, though: It has turned Tecopa into a most unlikely vacation spot.

It is hard to imagine any place quite like this--a town so remote and so undeveloped that nonetheless manages to attract hundreds of vacationers who return year after year.

Perched on the edge of Death Valley National Park, on the far eastern border of California, Tecopa looks rather like a construction site, surrounded by huge heaps of dirt and gravel, some with crosses stuck on top. The terrain is hardscrabble desert. The only garden in sight is a rock garden--rows of jagged rocks planted in the dirt like a giant set of teeth.

There's a general store and a coin laundry, but that's about it; just a few dozen people live here year-round. The nearest community of any size is 30 miles away. (That would be Pahrump, Nev., home to one stoplight and five brothels.)

"Driving past [Tecopa], it wouldn't attract you," Inyo County administrator Rene Mendez acknowledged.

Yet each winter, several hundred cold-weather refugees, most of them senior citizens from the frozen Midwest, make a community out of this desert outpost. Their RVs clumped together for company, they hold dances and talent shows, play cards and dominoes--and, of course, soak in the therapeutic waters.

"People ask me what I find to do out here, and I tell them there's more to do here than anywhere else," said 75-year-old Lynn Franklin, who spends six months a year in Tecopa and six in Northern California. "There are a lot of good people here."

A lot to Franklin, perhaps.

But not nearly enough for the Inyo County officials who run the hot springs and a no-frills RV park across the street. The rates are so low--the baths are free and an RV spot costs just $110 a month--that county Supervisor Michael Dorame calls Tecopa "a money pit."

He is not quite ready to give up on the place, though.

No, Dorame hopes to pump up Tecopa by wooing a new breed of tourists. The seniors are welcome to stay for the winter, he says, but he wants to make Tecopa a hip weekend getaway too--perhaps a romantic spot for honeymooners, or a mini-spa for hikers aching from treks through nearby Death Valley. It might not ever measure up to Palm Springs, but Dorame is convinced that folks from Las Vegas will one day weary of "all that glitzy stuff" and "look west to Tecopa" for vacations. That is, if he can find someone with money to invest in the place.

"I see a diamond in the rough," he said.

Dorame estimates that buffing Tecopa's image to diamond--or at least zirconium--status will require an investment of up to $1 million. Inyo County does not have that kind of cash. So Dorame has proposed privatizing the hot springs. The county has not yet invited bids, but Dorame hopes to get the project moving within the next few months.

He acknowledges--heck, he's hoping--that privatization would bring changes. Prices would almost certainly rise. And Dorame predicts that a private owner might abandon the county's single-sex, nude-only communal tubs in favor of private coed baths.

The prospect infuriates some longtime Tecopa devotees, who see no place for their likes in this posh new vision of the springs. As one elderly woman splashing in a group tub put it: "If all of L.A. comes here, what will we do?"

Some Tecopa loyalists concede that their winter haven could do with an overhaul. Over the years, many of them have stored up gripes about things that need fixing: The shower's always crowded. The electrical power is inadequate. There are no sewer hookups in the county's RV park.

Still, this is home, for the winter at least. And many retirees seem to like the idea of roughing it for a few months in a scruffy scrap of desert--without TVs, without telephones, and most certainly without weekend tourists.

"We're happy with this place the way it is," 77-year-old Charlotte Townsend of Idaho declared, to general approval at her card table.

"There's nothing like it," agreed Nevada resident Doug Baldry, 67, who has spent the past six winters here.

With no movie theaters or restaurants to distract them, the snowbirds learn to rely on one another for companionship and entertainment.

They can hike, stargaze, explore old mines or scour the hills for opal. A few local attractions beckon too, such as the nearby Shoshone Museum, which boasts a complete mammoth skeleton (granted, it's in a box now, but it will go on display as soon as a large enough room is constructed).

Mostly, though, folks here simply hang out, enjoying the quiet companionship.

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