Little boys sit in school and frequently dream of adventure and heroic deeds. In high school the visions are of fast cars, pretty girls and the game-winning touchdown. Grown men, if they're lucky, can also dream. In our minds, things become possible that have never been or could never be. And so it was with Jack Horton.
The year was 1968. Horton and his wife, Gretchen, felt shackled with their existing skiing conditions. As members of the Golden West Ski Club in Long Beach, California, they felt their ski site left much to be desired. The state's public waterways were crowded and uncontrollable. Near-perfect water could be found along the Colorado River - about four hours to the east.
Two steps beyond frustrated, the Hortons committed themselves to a search. Not for water, but for land.
Between Los Angeles (where Jack, a physician, maintained his medical practice) and the Colorado River lay the desolation known as the Mojave Desert. Sage brush, rock formations and road runners covered the landscape. But at the midway point on historic Route 66, Horton found a gas station, a bar and a grocery store hiding in the sand. This was the "town" of Newberry Springs. In the theater of his mind, Horton saw something you could only call ludicrous at the time: a lake long enough for slalom, wide enough for safe skiing and gently sloped to eliminate backwash and provide smooth water. Was the hot California sun getting the best of him?
"I believed from the beginning it could be done," Horton says. Then, pausing to reflect, he adds, "I just never anticipated all the obstacles."
A trailblazer bears the brunt of obstacles. Others watch, see if he's getting anywhere, then jump in line. So it was with the development of Horton Lakes. Skiers came from all corners to see the result of Horton's desert dream - pristine ponds carved out of the desert floor. They came. They skied. They duplicated.
Horton estimates there are now 500 lakes around the world that have roots in his original design. Most peculiar is where you'll find the highest concentration of those man-made lakes. There are 10 in a town where the population has topped off at 900. Where travelers heading east won't run into a gas station for 100 miles. Where the average annual rainfall is 4 inches. The man-made-lake capital of the world is where illusions originally became hard reality: Newberry Springs.
Horton Lakes, with two lakes, begot Wet Set (one), which begot Sundown (two), and somewhere along the line Great Lakes (two), Cheyenne (one) and Silver Dunes (two) emerged from the sand. All are thriving. But the irony still boggles the mind. Why the desert?
It's not surprising that land in the desert can be purchased for peanuts. But the main benefit of building lakes out here lies beneath the surface: water. The natural elements have proven to be a bonanza.
"The underground Mojave River provided one important piece of the dreamer's puzzle," says Mike Hays of Newberry's Cheyenne.
Still, for every solution there seems to be a problem. The water is plentiful and free. But there's the matter of getting to it. The monthly expense of pumping water can run up a mortgage-size electric bill for lake owners. The joke is that the evaporation during summer is so high, when a skier throws up a wall of spray only half of the water comes down. Lake owners typically pump 700 gallons of water per minute, 10 hours per day.
The summers that are filled with one blue-sky day after another even have a downside. At sunset the winds come pouring over the mountains with a vengeance. From March to May, gusts commonly reach 60 mph. In another example of how Jack Horton sews magic from practical ideas, he used those winds to solve the water-pumping dilemma by building a wind turbine.
Next was the question of how to keep the lakes from becoming whirlpools during the occasional blowout. And what about the unbearable summer days when temperatures reached 120 degrees? Two strikes, one answer: trees. Shade and wind protection would turn a hostile environment of relentless heat and rough water into skiing paradise.
OK, so you have all this vegetation growing at a chess player's pace with barely more than a few droplets of rain throughout the year. What to do about that? Nothing. A man with the patience to create lake castles from sand could certainly wait for seedlings to mature. Through wind, searing heat and remote location, Horton refused to see anything but a water-skiing paradise. Where most would be overwhelmed, he overcame. Today, along the western edge of all the sites in Newberry Springs except Silver Dunes, visitors find cottonwoods, poplars and tamaracks guarding against the enemy from the west.
"We're just waiting for the trees to grow," says Silver Dunes owner Jeff Gaastra. Every weekend, Gaastra and his wife, Cynthia, drive from Los Angeles to work and ski on their project. They and their fellow owners are discovering the meaning of determination and resiliency. After hosting its first tournament recently, Silver Dunes earned a nickname only time will remove: "Windy Dunes."
Then there's the unwanted plant life. Gary Adams and friends at Great Lakes have spent up to $12,000 in weed control. To ensure excellent boat wake quality, the lakes are designed to be only 5-6 feet deep. Unfortunately, this allows the sun to penetrate and stimulate an underwater green belt. The Adamses managed to halt the growth by accident while taking care of another problem. Seems water was leaking through the lake bottom, so the level was dropped to reline the banks with clay. The lake got so milky that the weeds were stunted. Horton had a different solution. He raised catfish in his lakes, preventing undesirable vegetation and making some cash in the process.
Successful as the Newberry Springs fraternity has been at wrestling nature, another group of adversaries has surfaced in the form of county government. The zoning, conditional use permits, fire, septic, utility, road and fence requirements that Horton probably handled in one trip to nearby Barstow 29 years ago now take many months and many dollars. Arguably, winds and weeds have made more sporting foes than councils and task forces.
Arm a man with a dream, throw some inconveniences his way and watch him march through them without a hitch in stride. There have been enough of those men over the years so there's no shortage of stories that mirror Jack Horton's original motive.
Frank Harrison, who co-founded Wet Set Village as the first residential water-skiing community, was a river skier before becoming "obsessed with our dream." Today he runs an air conditioning business on the L.A. side of the mountains during the week and spends long weekends on his creation.
At the age of 37, Ken Seebold of Cheyenne Lake took up water skiing and life in the desert after undergoing open-heart surgery. His former lifestyle generated intense levels of stress from dealing with government contracts and long work weeks. Seebold now works three days a week as a tool and dye maker and spends four days at the lake with his wife, Gail, who finds no shortage of riding space for her horses.
Ruth and Corky Robinson developed their skiing expertise on Lake Mead, but soon found themselves thirsting for smooth water and controlled conditions. They found both at Great Lakes, where they spend weekends pulling their grandchildren on tubes.
When he turned 30, Rob Muhlitner fell in love with water skiing, and five years later he fell in love with the desert. His passion for the sport and need for a peaceful existence led him to Sundown No. 2. While most skiers drive at least two hours from their permanent addresses to spend time in dreamland, Muhlitner is one of the few who lives in this remote community full-time.
But just as the trees change every year, so do the skiin
g families of the desert. John Reed, who concocted the biggest project of them all (Sundown No. 1 and No. 2 and Cheyenne), has new interests that have taken him elsewhere. Harrison's original partners at Wet Set, Lance Renfrow and Walt Cook, are gone. In their places are new families that won't have to imagine dirt being moved or trees growing. But the stories still trickle down.
To this day, Jack Horton's story continues to evolve. His four children are off on their own adventures, but they frequently bring their kids to see the lake that Grandpa built. He's always around somewhere.
In 1990, after building his dream home that looks down the slalom course, Jack left his practice in L.A. Today he serves as Newberry's country doctor, treating patients in his home. Between ski rides, he might only see 10 patients a week. They might have to wait while he coaches a student at his ski school. Sometimes he's off in the pistachio orchard pruning trees. Half the patients will probably never pay. The other half will leave eggs, chickens or pigs. Horton doesn't mind. He has executed a trade in lifestyles that suits him perfectly: traffic jams, professional pressures and lousy skiing conditions for desert simplicity and perfect water. It was an easy choice, a real dream come true.
David Benzel might as well live in Newberry Springs. In researching this article, he skied all 10 of the town's man-made lakes in two days.