Bet on it: This road is all the rage

Zzyzx is more than just an Interstate 15 exit with a funny name. It has a unique history.

SHARE Bet on it: This road is all the rage
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Rob Miech

LAS VEGAS — Had the quack acted quicker, the zany—labeled road might have become immortal.

In February 1946, singer-songwriter Bobby Troup wouldn’t have missed a Zzyzx Road as he and wife Cynthia culminated a 10-day adventure from Pennsylvania.

Past Chicago, where Route 66 began, she cooed in his ear, Get your kicks on Route 66. Eureka! He outlined lyrics during the trek, in which they’d brush by the Zzyzx sphere.

Troup polished his ditty, Nat King Cole recorded “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” in August 1946 and it became an American standard.

Zzyzx might have landed in its timeless rhythm, but there were no signs yet.

Bernie Fratto, host of Fox Sports Radio’s -national weekend overnight sports-betting show, has passed Exit 239, Zzyzx Road, at least 40 times.

“That many consonants, you don’t know if you’re looking at an eye chart or the name of a Russian hockey player. Eventually, you just say, What is this?”

Fratto recalled recently my years-ago excavation of that funky off-ramp for a magazine article and recommended a re-telling, as did longtime Vegas bookmaker Dave Sharapan.

“We’ve driven by it so many times over the years,” Sharapan says of his three daughters and wife. “Someone always says, How do you say that? Once, we stopped to take pics. A landmark.”

ROAD TO VEGAS

Tens of thousands of people have driven to Vegas, from Southern California, for celebrations and fireworks as the year flips tonight at midnight.

Bet that many noted Zzyzx Road, seven miles before Baker, California, 100 from Vegas. The Strip, green felt and sportsbooks just seem closer when that landmark is reached.

Fratto says, “Hit that sign and think, Are we there yet?”

It first pulled me, and four San Diego State fraternity brothers, into its vortex in the fall of 1985. We had sardined into a pea-green Ford Pinto. Zzyzx was a convenient, ahem, rest area.

It descends east. Utter desolation. We toasted future windfalls. Zzyzx became a ritual stopover. Never could I have fathomed a compound of a dozen buildings back there, 4½ miles away, around a big hill, at the end of the partly paved potholed lane.

The American Medical Association called Curtis Howe Springer “the King of Quacks.” In Chicago, he dodged AMA and Better Business Bureau officials.

He evaded Eastern authorities and first traipsed into the Zzyzx area in August 1944, 18 months before the Troups. He bused in skid-row labor from L.A., peddled elixirs, and a big yellow Zzyzx arrow eventually pointed to it.

Evicted by the government in 1974, Springer, at 88, died in Las Vegas in 1985.

Seven Cal State institutions took control of the compound as a Desert Studies Center, completely obscured from Interstate 15 by palm trees.

And in 1979, Cal State Fullerton student Robert Fulton answered an ad to refurbish the premises. He’d remain as proprietor for the rest of his life. The de facto Zzyzxpert.

I visited him seven times over four years, each trip lasting three-plus hours.

“I remember Bobby Troup!” he told me. “Get your kicks at Zzyzx!”

MORE VOWELS, PLEASE

Rye-six, Fulton said when I first met him. Sounds like RYE-six. ZYE-zix.

Howe professed it to be the last word in medicine, but he might have swiped the name from an entomologist whose 1930s northeastern lectures included the Chilean sand wasp Zyzzyx chilensis.

In 1984, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved Zzyzx as a place name. Soda Springs became Zzyzx, California, its population often one — Fulton.

He maintained the compound’s electrical grid, diesel and propane generators, backup batteries, visitors’ schedules, everything. He oversaw the installation of 280 solar panels.

Archaeologists, astronomers, biologists, geographers, geologists and explorers turned the DSC into a world-renowned laboratory.

The beauty of the ugly, John C. Van Dyke famously wrote about the desert in 1901. That’s Zzyzx. It deserves a book.

In 2003, Zippy creator Bill Griffith drew a three-panel cartoon of his protagonist hitch-hiking at the off-ramp. The driver asks, Where are you going? Zippy says, “Anywhere with a lot more vowels!”

“SYZYGY” read the car’s license plate.

On one trip, I found a white Chinook R350 in its berm. Joe and Marilyn Constance, an elderly couple, wintered in Mexico when they weren’t touring the U.S. Joe told me, “We’re curious. Thought we’d see what’s here.”

CalTrans estimates that more than a million vehicles a month pass Zzyzx. Like some, curiosity steered the Constances off the highway. I guided them one step deeper, on a Fulton tour that fascinated them.

On the eve of the publication of that extensive article in June 2018, Fulton plunged 100 feet to his death off Highway 243 in the San Jacinto mountains. He was 63.

His body was found near his smashed olive-drab Toyota FJ Cruiser, with the -“ZY6DUDE” license plate.

ODE TO FULTON

During my final visit with Fulton, he questioned his legacy and resented Zzyzx for what it had exacted from him. A tweaked disc in his back made him unable to sit still for 10 seconds, but he tried being positive.

He wanted to believe that Springer did help people, that he wasn’t a huckster. Besides, without Springer, Fulton said, Zzyzx wouldn’t exist.

Let this, then, serve as a Fulton tribute.

“The whole idea of Zzyzx … it’s become a legendary mythology,” he told me. “It’s got a life of its own, magical and mystical. And it’s all valid.”

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