The Metamorphosis of Zzyzx

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Salt Flat

As those who stop know, the exit leads to the former Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa that has evolved into the Desert Studies Center, a scientific field station in the eastern Mojave Desert.

The center is 170 miles by car from the Fullerton campus, and a gateway to opportunities for the students, researchers and scientists who travel here to study geology, archeology, paleontology, climatology, astronomy, the flowers and animals of the desert and the area's intriguing natural history.

The initial surprise for first-time visitors is that the Zzyzx Road exit travels just a quarter-mile on pavement, then abruptly morphs into a washboard-gravel road. The surprise is not the moderate jostling of the car on gravel, but the view from the driver's side. The desert is all around. But to the left side, the view is a vast, flat expanse with the Old Dad Mountains looming in the background. The ground is snow white to the base of the mountains.

It's the white, salt-encrusted bed of Soda Dry Lake, a winter-like scene that persists even when the thermometer hits 120 degrees, as the road hugs the edge of the dry lake.

After bumping along the gravel road for about four miles, visitors stumble upon the second surprise - stubby palm trees and a series of low stucco buildings intersected by streets with colorful names such as the "Boulevard of Dreams." In the midst of this unlikely complex in this improbable setting is Lake Tunedae, the home of the Mojave Tui Chub, a tiny fish on the state's endangered list; remnants of a large outdoor bath in the shape of a cross; a large solar panel installation and various outbuildings. Near the lakeshore is the hull of a decaying launch that grows rustier by the year. Mud hens, also known as coots, frolic along the shores.

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