Title: The Spa
Work: Text & images
Location: Published in Caliper Journal (#9)
Date: 2021

The first time I came here, I had to do away with a number of things that I used to find great comfort in. I tried to picture myself back then, jostling about in the back of Howie’s miraculously shiny Chevrolet. Me in the throes of various withdrawals as we rattled down his dead straight road. My fingers scrambling along the cream leather interior in search of a handhold.

The asphalt marked a momentary break in the near-endless sandy flats. To the East, the desert was contained by the horizon’s grey peaks; to the West, the sand met directly with a cloudless sky. In between there was sand, there were rocks, and now a road, but - as far as I could tell - that was it. What had compelled Howie to choose this place I could not understand, yet he was so assured of his purpose, so fixed in his resolve, that I had no choice but to go with him. I would have been nervous then but filled with the same resolve that’s brought me back here today.

It’s a place of healing, Howie had told us. Nearing the compound, the palms came into view. Not nearly as many as there once were, but the place was still an oasis of sorts. Then the smell of sulphur. A little closer and I could start to hear the trickle of fountains. He had told us each respectively that he saw something unique in us. He’d tell us he needed us as much as we needed him.     We each received our own personalised remedy. It was the waters that made the real difference though. The healing properties of the spring water had made Howie choose this place. Something in the clay that made it unlike anywhere else on Earth. He’d filed a mining claim on the land, some twelve thousand acres. It’s what’s below the surface that counts, Howie said.

He knew everything, that man: he was a doctor, a chemist, a philosopher, and a radio evangelist. But, as he’d always remind us, he was above all a child of God, just like the rest of us. And thank God that we found each other. For many, many people, myself included, it was thanks to Howie and his sanctuary that we made it through. Unlike most who had come out here, Howie wanted to share what he’d discovered with others. He was by no means the first to discover the place, of course; various groups had frequented this area for millennia. Howie was simply the first to market it, the first to draw people here from across the country and the globe.

Today, wooden fragments of the once pristine entry gate littered both sides of the road. The salt and sand that I’d fastidiously helped to keep at bay had for the last decades been left to accumulate. I parked the car, taking a moment to collect my thoughts before stepping out into the dust. The smaller, gravel road extended out perpendicular to the first. Along it, squat, white buildings still stood - their colonial-style detailing having given way to the winds and sun. Remnants of plaster and stucco now commingled with the dust that swirled across the compound. On the other side of the road, beyond the palms, the square lake glistened. In the centre of its dark surface, the life-sustaining waters continued to bubble forth from a simple stone fountain. I continued along the gravel road. The main hall still looked sturdy, with Howie’s quarters to the left of it and the dormitory to the right. Further along was the ramshackle old spa house - now missing its roof and one of its walls.

One day, whilst out tending to the acacias beyond the spa house, I noticed a fast-growing speck on the horizon. The only car that looked at home on that road was Howie’s, but he wouldn’t be leaving for town until later in the week. Whoever was hurtling towards us was someone from outside.

It was a reporter from the local paper who had come to visit. He had wanted to see what went on here, and Howie obliged him graciously. Whilst showing the reporter around the compound, Howie held his hands clasped behind his back. I used to think it looked presidential or sagely, but later decided it seemed a little forced. We’d had reporters come before but the rest had each fallen under Howie’s spell. What made this one memorable was that he wasn’t convinced; he started to get bold. He had wanted to know where the miracles happened. And Howie answered him plainly, “They happen in this room here.”

It was a simple room in the spa house. Low, thin-framed windows displayed the rugged beauty of the plains. Porcelain basins lined the walls; baby-blue tiles lined the floor. The reporter demanded to see some evidence, some proof.

“All I can show you is where the miracles happen, not the miracles themselves. You would have to stay here with us, spend time in the waters, eat what we eat... Our miracles take time, you see.” Then he got to quoting scripture: “Hebrews 11: ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ If you aren’t willing to believe then you will find yourself standing in a modest concrete room in some out of the way patch of parched earth, and yet for the faithful, ours is the most enriching, plentiful, loving home they’ve ever had.” The reporter, though visibly unsatisfied, finally let up. Once he’d driven away, Howie’s charming smile evaporated. Normally the picture of gregariousness and charm, our leader had become noticeably disturbed. He didn’t anger or fuss; he simply remained silent. That night, he ate his dinner in his study.

As I stood in that same spa room, with the sun radiating onto my scalp, I struggled to conjure up the sense of reverence that I’d once felt here. Both the wall that framed the window and the window that framed the view now lay in pieces upon the blue-tiled floor. Of the two remaining basins, one was still attached to the wall and the other, cracked and grimy, lay inside the empty spa. I walked behind the spa house toward the cross-shaped pool, comforted by the familiar crunch of gravel underfoot. Having never previously exposed its tiers, the bare pool caught me by surprise.

Seeing that dusty blue void made me question the lake for the first time. Howie had gotten people out here to dig that thing. A border of rocks marked the water’s edge. Back then, I think we presumed it was all sandstone, but now the porous rock was white with salt, and what must have been concrete remained smooth and unchanged. What I now recognised as the contrivances of the site did little to detract from its harsh charm.

This had been a refuge for so many. Generations had gone through here, had bathed their children in the same restorative waters in which they had grown up. Some, like me, had been brought here, whilst others had heard Howie on the radio and brought themselves. What each of us shared was a need to refer to something beyond ourselves. If this was home, Howie was our father. And like any father, sometimes he was stern. He used to say that if you’re not willing to do the good work for a million years, then don’t do it at all. This place was meant to last for eternity; if our home appeared timeless, so would our faith. I now found myself thinking of the ancient civilisations. I thought about the Third Reich - about their Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Another building built to stand tall for eternity. In some way the taps, the rusted bolts, even the broken toilets scattered around the compound, they felt like ancient relics.

What was it that had made the air here vibrate? If Howie were here now, standing amongst the rubble, sermonising to the geckos and the flies, what atmosphere would surround him? H e’d be dressed to the nines as he always was. His ruddy face would be poking out of a starched white shirt, threatening to break into a sweat, but never quite doing so.

He could have done his work anywhere; in that, I have no doubt. If he had managed to appeal to me when I was strung out and stranded on the strip, then he could work his magic anywhere. But it was here that he was his most transfixing. The yellowed palms rustled as I walked back towards the car. Howie was long gone now and so were his acolytes, but the buildings still remained and the waters still bubbled forth. I got in and made my way back along Howie’s road. No matter how history remembers him, I know I owe him everything. I turned on the radio to find someone selling the latest health food trend. How sorely I wished it were him.

‘The Spa’ is a fictional narrative based on the Zzyzx Mineral Spring and Healing Centre, a place established by Curtis Howe Springer in the Mojave Desert.