Driving north on Highway 111, up the east side of the Imperial Valley, it’s hard to tell if the first glimpse of the Salton Sea is real or just a desert mirage. There is nothing in the empty landscape to give an impression of size or distance — only a silver, shimmering mist against a backdrop of hazy blue mountains.
Just eighty years ago, before the Salton Sea existed, that landscape looked much the same, except that the shimmering mist truly was a mirage, a vaporous illusion, a ghost of ancient Lake Cahuilla, which once filled the entire basin from mountain range to mountain range before it completely evaporated.
To the human observer, there’s something disturbing about the landscape of the Salton Sink — a gut-level reaction warning us that this is not a place meant for man, or even life. The rocky, alkaline soil is so sterile that none but the most tortured-looking plants can tolerate it.
The 120-degree summer sun has baked everything on the surface of the ground until even the rocks look shriveled. In winter, fifty-mile-per-hour winds blast the bleak landscape with waves of sand, and rain falls in torrents that rip trees out of the ground and rearrange whole mountains of gravel. Along the shoreline of the black and ugly sea, there are long windrows, four and five feet high, of dead fish blown onto the shore, and mingled with their already putrid stench is a belch of sulfurous gas bubbling up from underwater hot springs.
From the window of an air-conditioned automobile, the place looks like a catastrophe so grotesque it’s almost nauseating. But then, just when it seems certain that no living thing — human, inhuman, or otherworldly — could ever survive in such an unfortunate place, there on the horizon appears the happy little town of Bombay Beach, squatting in the sun-bleached mud flats beside the sea, with its forest of TV antennas hopefully probing the desert sky for news of some other life on the planet.
The hamlet of Bombay Beach lies between a dying sea to the west and a military bombing range to the east. As they say in the real estate trade, “Location is everything.’’ Some residents of Bombay Beach claim the town owes its exotic name to the once-popular local custom of taking lawn chairs down to the beach at night and watching the navy jets bomb the already rugged Chocolate Mountains into the rubble of some earlier epoch of geological time. “Most beautiful thing you ever saw,’’ one local swore. “More entertaining than TV.”
Bombay Beach consists of ten mud-crusted streets (five running north and south, and five running east and west), perhaps fifty ramshackle homes, a grocery store, a marina, a motel, a fire station, and three bars. That’s roughly one bar for every thirty-three permanent residents of the town. There is no gas station, which, along with the advanced age of many of the town’s residents, contributes to the popularity of electric golf carts in town. “It also makes the trip home from the bar a lot safer, too,” one local citizen advised. “Probably eighty-five percent of the people in this town are alcoholics, or ex-alcoholics, which is one reason they’re here. This is the kind of town where a drunk can do no wrong.”
Almost every house in Bombay Beach seems to have begun as a trailer. Then, through a series of additions and extensions, the trailer acquired a sleeping porch, a storage shed, a second and third trailer, and finally a tarpaper roof covering the entire homestead. It takes time to love Bombay Beach enough to want to live there. The lifestyle of its residents, and the dwellings they have adapted to that lifestyle, demonstrate the slow evolution of their love.
“Almost everybody here started out as a weekender,” said Ray Vernimme, an ex-Orange County resident, now retired from the military, as he sat in the cool luxury of his screened back porch. He’s a baby-faced man in his middle years, rather young for being retired. “They first come out to go fishing at the sea. Then they buy a trailer and haul it back and forth. Next they buy a lot here in town, park the trailer on it, and drive out every weekend. Eventually they can’t stand the rat race and the freeways anymore, so they just move out to stay.” Ray and his wife describe themselves as “three-year permanent residents of Bombay Beach, but twenty-year weekenders.” They live on his pension, eat lots of fish from the sea, and scavenge the agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley for produce left by the farmers to rot. “I can go to the packing house and buy a pickup load of onions for five dollars,” he said. “You know how many onions will fit in the back of a pickup? I give most of them away, and other people in town' give us what they scavenge. That’s one reason it doesn’t cost much to live here. A lot of people in this town live on less than $500 a month.”
This town is proof that there’s no place on God’s earth so ugly that somebody won’t love it,” one slightly inebriated resident swore from the bar stool of the Ski-Inn, a bar and restaurant that also serves as something like the town hall of Bombay Beach. Its name is a misnomer, since nobody has ever skied into the Ski-Inn. Not only is it several hundred feet from the water’s edge, but nobody dares water-ski at Bombay Beach anymore since the Imperial County health department warned the public not to have skin contact with the water because of sewage and chemical pollutants.
Every day at noon a group of World War II-age men gather at the Ski-Inn to watch the afternoon cartoons on TV. “This place might not be paradise to everybody,” one of them said, “and thank God for that. If everybody from the cities decided to move out here, Bombay Beach would be just as screwed up as the rest of the country.”