Oct 132011
Authors: Carla Rivera McClatchy-Tribune

LOS ANGELES — Darkness cloaked the desert, pierced only by a canopy of stars that provided a glittering backdrop for 20 college students treading cautiously over the cracked, dry landscape. But a soft hiss stopped them in their tracks.

Mudassar Haq heard the rattlesnake and shouted to alert the others as classmate Thomas Parker shined a flashlight on a large sidewinder slithering away under a tuft of salt grass.

“I immediately knew what it was, that’s something you don’t think twice about,” said Haq, 20, a Cal State Fullerton junior. “My instinct was to run.”

But neither student did. Their calm response allowed for an unexpectedly close look at a staple of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. “This is an unusual treat,” Fullerton associate biology professor William Hoese told the group. “We’re going to give it room.”

The biology students were spending a recent weekend with 40 classmates and two professors at Cal State’s Desert Studies Center, a 1,200-acre field station in the Mojave that is one of the world’s few desert research facilities.

The center, 60 miles east of Barstow near Soda Springs, has a colorful past as a 1940s-era health spa founded by Curtis Howe Springer, a radio evangelist. Springer built dormitories, created mineral baths in the shape of a cross and sold potions he claimed would cure everything from hair loss to cancer.

He named the resort Zzyzx, so it would be “the last word in health,” as he put it. But he had set up his business on federal land without authorization and it was confiscated in 1974, although the sign for Zzyzx Road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas still puzzles motorists on Interstate 15. A man-made oasis, the site is now part of the 1.6 million-acre federally owned Mojave National Preserve.

The Cal State facility is run by a consortium of seven campuses and managed mainly by Cal State Fullerton.

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