Surviving the Oasis of the Salton Sea

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A huge inland Sea, 35 miles long, 15 miles across and home to a bewildering array of wildlife, the Salton Sea serves as a major part of a desert ecosystem, a shrinking community of long-time residents and is critical to the survival of hundreds of species of birds.

Located in the deserts of California, between the Mohave and Sonoran Deserts, almost 2/3 of all migratory birds heading south from Canada to the Pacific Ocean stop off at the Salton Sea, despite it’s rising Salinity, despite the dead fish, they love it still for what it was and what it always could be again.

The people who call the Salton Sea home have a similar sentiment and recently, I visited the retirement IMG_0693community of Bombay Beach, having read about and seen on tv, the stalwart veterans of this area and wanted to find out first hand why they stay.

What kind of neighborhood connections have they established and why, kinda like certain area of Yonkers, have they not completely abandoned ship in search of greener pastures.

The Salton Sea is not about appreciating the present in my view, but rather appreciating its past and its future.  I love that about this place, I mean where else can you go where the past and future out weigh the present?

A quick history lesson if you will…The Salton “Sink”, to which the Salton Sea resides inside of,  is 280ft below sea level, it used to be a part of the Gulf of California, then the area filled in over time with nutrient rich soil and clay, deposited over millions of years by the Colorado River.

Enter the mighty Colorado River once again, to use the words of Jaime Foxx or Tyler Perry or Ice T, “dis bitch is crazy!” The river is by far, one of the most powerful in the world and over time prevailed, changing her course to the north and by doing so, she dug a new channel, from the Salton sink, right down to the Gulf of California.  A Lake was formed named Lake Cahuilla, in the same Salton Sink, to which the Salton Sea resides today.

But again, remember, dis bitch is crazy and once again, the river shifted over time, flowed in a more southerly direction and for the second time in history, the lake dried up completely in the Salton Sink, goodbye Lake Cahuilla!images

After the gold rush took hold in California in the mid 1850s, people flocked through this area and by the turn of the century, many people tried to make a go of it, digging canals and attempting to make the area an agricultural paradise, but again, dis bitch is crazy and the Colorado had a mind of her own.

She flooded the canals that the men had toiled in the hot desert sun to dig and with so much rich silt in the river, the canals clogged up and were no longer functional, then, unexpectedly in 1903, the river flowed at an unprecedented record high level, flooding the canals forever and the entire basin, creating, at least for a time, the Salton Sea.

It was estimated initially that the Sea would once again dry up in less than 20 years, but it never did, sort of.  The sea is in fact, getting smaller by the day and even more alarming than the Salton Sea disappearing are the massive fish die offs that began occurring in the 1950s through the present day.

The area surrounding the Salton in the 1950s was on the verge of experiencing a boom, a resort oasis in the desert, Palm Springs, but with water and people flocked to the area, building up small vacation and retirement communities along the banks of the Sea, retirement communities like Bombay Beach.

But, the plan was flawed from the very beginning.  With no direct access to fresh water, issues arose quickly. As I mentioned earlier, periodic fish die offs that totalled in the millions began washing ashore, beached Tilapia anyone?  Then in 1983, the mighty Colorado once again had a mind of her own and flooded the entire area and sea front homes, essentially killing off the dream of a desert paradise forever.

It’s definitely a hardscrabble scene these days in Bombay Beach, the last community still holding on to the dreams of the Salton Sea. No resorts, no young ladies in bikini’s…nothing.  But there is an attraction nonetheless. A magnetic pull that in my opinion, must be experienced and cannot be fully comprehended simply by watching videos, photographs or even this crummy article.

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It’s in the faces and words of the locals and having gotten to meet about a dozen of them during my time in Bombay Beach, I really got a sense of what this neighborhood and community is all about.  For some, the past cannot be reconciled and they are simply hellbent on staying put, and will probably breathe their last breath on the shores of the Salton Sea.

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For others, they want to get out but can’t, having gone all in on a dream of a desert paradise years ago, life for them these days is not the golden dream of retirement they had reared in their imaginations decades ago.

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The main hang out in Bombay Beach is the Ski Inn, a roadside bar and grill that easily attracts all the locals just about every day, since it not only serves as the lime light/ red light/ and or gas light district of the town, but also is the only eatery in town. Sounds like the Monopoly guy would be very proud of the Ski Inn.

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The owner told me that despite the sea not only disappearing before their eyes every day and despite the government regulations that now prohibit the use of the sea by the residents, people find their own ways to get by, even if it is with a little help from their friends, Jim Bean and Jack Daniels. The inside of the place is pretty nice though and they have the good sense of serving their beer in frozen mugs, a desert necessity in my opinion.

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Many beers are on tap and the walls of this place, like many places in the southwest are lined with dollar bills.  No, strippers are NOT allowed in this establishment.

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Looks like they have a set up for a buffet or fish fry Friday.

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All I could think about however, while I sat alone at the bar at 11am like a curmudgeon old man was what lay outside the windows, the ghosts of time gone by and what the scene out the windows may have looked like 40-50 years ago. Residents and vacationers in sandals and swimsuits, hauling their boogie boards and whatnot down to the water’s edge, paradise.

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Speaking of 40-50 years ago, dunno if these are functional as they do have a modern grill in the back but I liked the antiques nonetheless.  For a look at more antiques, click here!

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Outside of the Ski Inn, the reality of life hits you in the face like Ike Turner and you realize, fast, that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

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Many houses simply lay abandoned, like this one, where the window is still busted out from gods knows when but the air conditioner seems intact.

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You could easily have a gun fight at noon in these parts.  This is what the noontime scene looks like in Bombay Beach.  No resorts, no towel boys, no casinos, no nothing…nothing but dreams of what might have been.

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I came across a few kids who didn’t want to be photographed but I thought to myself, man, imagine growing up here.  This is like Slobom/Mulfred Gardens and name your blighted area of Yonkers, all rolled into one.  Or is it?  I mean, The Salton Sea is much more picturesque then the Yonkers part of the Hudson, with shining mountains and bright blue skies.  Also the crime rate here is next to nothing, Yonkers sure cannot say that.

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Of all the residents gripes, the biggest one by far was the fact that in the 2000’s and even part of the 1990’s, the government began closing off beach access to the residents, saying that the salt levels, mercury and other harmful bi-products of the now almost radioactive Salton Sea were harmful enough so that they did not deem it safe for residents.  So here’s a typical Government ruling…you can’t use the Sea anymore, but but but…we will still need your tax money.

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So, the residents of Bombay Beach now pay taxes on a Sea they cannot use.  Not even long walks on the Beach are allowed.  Dating profiles in this area are suffering immensely.

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Welcome to the Post Office, no lines.

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They do have a gleaming new Cell tower in the middle of town…good for connectivity, bad for sterilization.

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As I mentioned earlier, the Sea sits below sea level and you really do feel it.  The sun blazes on you like a night-watchman’s flashlight and you feel like you are stewing in a giant caldron of some sort of Witch’s brew.

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In the end, I made my way to the Beach anyhow…screw the government!  It’s nice and despite the foul odor and questionable aquatic life that are still swimming around in the Sea, you can instantly see why the dream of this place was envisioned so vividly.

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I guess like Yonkers, Bombay Beach also has a sense of neighborhood and sentimentality.  For many who read this blog, the Yonkers of the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s is the only one they ever see in the their minds and will ever see.

I think the same can be said for the current hold overs of Bombay Beach, for them, the beach IS open and even if they can no longer put their feet in the water, the sea still greets them nonetheless every morning, shimmering in the desert sun and happy to add joy to the already beautiful landscape of the California Desert.

It’s a damn worthy and admirable thing in my heart and mind to love a place so much so that you are willing to fight for it and cling to it with all your might until the powers that be rip it away from you.  Many love their hometown as they would love a person and whether it is Yonkers or Bombay Beach, this love runs deep.

—Josh

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