Three hours from San Diego, east of the Anza-Borrego desert, lies the Salton Sea. When stopped by border patrol on our first drive out to the sea, the officer seemed surprised by our destination.
“You know Bombay Beach isn’t a real beach, right?” he responded.
In some ways, he was right. The Salton Sea is a relatively new feature of the Imperial Valley desert, having formed during a flood of the Colorado River in 1905.
Touted as the “Californian Riviera,” it flourished as a resort until increasing salinity and retreating waters killed off the fish populations and destroyed tourism. Marinas, boat clubs and holiday homes were left abandoned, and some of these salt-encrusted structures still stand as vacant ruins along Bombay Beach, on the east shore of the sea.
Bombay Beach is a surreal place. As with any surviving settlement at the site of disaster, it’s not always obvious which areas of town are still inhabited and which have been left to the mercy of the sun and winds.
We drive through a grid of residences, looking for a respectful place to park. Other than a single blaring radio, the streets are silent: no barking dogs, no revving cars, no laughter. A solitary resident ambles past us on a golf cart – the nearest gas station is many miles away, so locals use more convenient transport to get around – and seems as curious of us as we are of him.
After parking by a burnt-out garage with ominous graffiti warning “the hills have eyes,” we walk a block to the beach. It’s an apocalyptic wasteland of discarded trailers half-submerged in salty sand, skeletal homes bleached by the sun and lonely water towers that drip and rust.
We pass broken fridges, a blinded TV, a discarded desktop computer, a bathtub planted in the ground. Deep footprints track previous explorers like ancient man. A reservoir of bright pink water, presumably colored by the strange chemical content, bobs with bloated tires and a few scraggly pelicans. Definitely not your typical weekend outing.
Further along the shore we find a beach of fish skeletons. Thousands of clean-picked bones and empty eye sockets mark the tide line. A few gulls pick over the debris, but there's nothing left to scavenge. The air smells of rot and decline.
And yet, just a little way further along the sea, the scenery changes completely; the water is deep blue and clear. Herons stand sedately at the shore. Lush palms have returned, and renovations are starting again.
From vantage points like this, it's easy to imagine the Salton Sea in its heyday and understand why floods of tourists braved the unforgiving desert for its dazzling, peaceful waters.
Of course, no trip to the Imperial Valley would be complete without stopping by the phenomenal Salvation Mountain for a chat with lovely Leonard, but that’s another story…