I wrote a version of this post several days ago, before I went to this Place of Healing, before I walked along the Boulevard of Dreams. After the visit, I deleted most of what I had written…and began again.
Yes, I began again when I made the right turn off I-15 and took the road to Zzyzx. I was taking a drive that thousands of people took, from the mid-1940’s until 1974. Me? I was going to write about arriving at a ghost town of a health spa, a place of healing. I was going to describe how I felt the need to wash away the sins of my youth and expunge the guilt of my impure and sin-laden thoughts. I am Irish and raised a Catholic…I carried my guilt like a biker’s tattoo. I find the idea of “cleansing” of body and soul, an interesting concept. The ritual of washing away impurities and rebirth is a very ancient practice. The Christians have Baptism and the River Jordan. The Hindu have the Ganges River. The Native American’s have the sweat lodge. The Jewish people, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, gather for the Tashlich, and symbolically cast pieces of bread into flowing water to atone for transgressions. As a former teacher, I simply erased the chalk board to begin something new.
But, my problems were not the kind that would draw me to this mecca in the emptiness of the Mojave Desert, to be cured of my aliments by a supposed man of God, a self-described healer.
Preachers and healers, hucksters and quacks, gurus, life guides and snake-oil salesmen have fascinated me for a long time. I sometimes wish I lived in the days of Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson. I wanted to hear the real Bible-thumpers who, sweating and strutting on a wooden stage under a circus tent, would tell me that Satan had my soul and my impure thoughts would send my soul to bake and fry for all time.
I accepted this guilt/burden for many years. But, I never fully understood, until I was well into middle age, that instead of being a path to freedom, those kinds of beliefs can keep you from growing in countless ways.
After a bumpy ride along a blinding white salt flat called Soda Lake, I saw the palms a few miles away. This was Zzyzx. This was my destination.
This location, in the heart of the Mojave Desert has been providing water for travelers for over a thousand years. The indigenous people would stop here on their journey across the desert to fill their gourds and rest. One Chemehuevi woman is thought to be buried here.
But something troubled me. I was merely a tourist here. I arrived with a notebook and two digital cameras. I did not arrive the way that most people did, for several decades, clutching a Bible in their hands and a prayer in their hearts…and a tumor or a case of TB or nervous exhaustion or a void where their soul used to be.
I needed to rethink the reason for my pilgrimage. I needed to get inside the mindset of a true believer…a true sufferer…a desperate human being hoping to get mind and body repaired. I didn’t want to be a mere tourist…I wanted to feel the dread of fear and the elation of hope that the pilgrims of the mid-century, had experienced.
I had to get imaginative…I had to get creative…I had to invite into my heart and mind, the suffering of thousands.
These were the real people who came, praying for their own lives or the lives of a loved one. For many, I’m sure that making the journey to this health resort with the strange name, was their last hope for a cure or a blessing from the founder, Curtis Howe Springer.
He named his establishment Zzyzx Mineral Springs. Why Zzyzx? The story is that he chose the name because it would be the last word on a list of geographical destinations. Is it the last word in the average dictionary? Not in my copy of Merriam-Webster. The last word in my book is zygote.
They heard Springers voice on the AM radio station, broadcasting out of Mexico with 50,000 watts of power. The sick and the lame could hear him in Los Angeles. You could hear him in Chicago. You could even hear his reassuring voice in Bangor, Maine.
The main avenue leading to the bath houses, cabins, meeting room, dining hall was the Boulevard of Dreams. I stood at the base of the sign and began the walk, past the old pond that once had a spraying fountain. Now, the fountain was a mere pile of rocks.
[The Pond with the broken fountain]
[The Boulevard of Dreams]
I let my mind drift back to 1953, or 1959, or the year I was born, 1947. I put myself in the mind of a pilgrim seeking a cure. Maybe my mother was seriously ill, perhaps my wife had a growth in her breast, possibly my father returned from the war in Europe with a changed mind. I began to feel the power of hope. What lay ahead of me, the baths, the healing waters, the relaxation…the great white plain of Soda Lake, blinding in its glare from the Mojave sun…what lay ahead of me would save me or someone I did not want to lose to the shadow of death.
[One of the many original apartments…now in ruins]
Hidden behind a grove of palm trees was the original bathhouse. Everything was empty…cracked and broken cement and peeling adobe. I stood over the individual “tubs” where the ill could soak themselves in the briny solution of desert minerals.
[The old mineral baths]
I poked about the old buildings. Some structures have been restored and are now part of a Desert Studies facility of the University of California. A few students strolled past us and went onto the parking lot, got into a black Taurus, and drove away. Now, Mariam and I were the only people in the area. I stopped at an old table on the Boulevard and looked up at the old bell tower. I assume this once rang to call the patients and guests to prayer or a meeting or to a meal.
[The bell tower. Original part of the structure..??]
Were we really the only presence here? I began to feel that we were not totally alone. I felt that the ghosts of patients and preachers, children and adults, the sane and the insane, were walking among the palms alongside us.
No, we were not alone here. Too much energy, pain, prayer, hope, loss, death, disease, promises, disappointments, grief and joy dwelt along the Boulevard of Dreams.
We drove away, leaving the little settlement to the rightful residents…the spirits of those who came with only a plea for life.