I Went to California's Post-Apocalyptic Beach Town

By Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake by volume, exists entirely by accident. 

It was created in the early 1900s after a heavy rain caused the Colorado River to burst through the banks of an irrigation canal, sending millions of gallons of water into a previously dried out lake bed in the California desert. 


A screenshot from an early Salton Sea promotional film (via)

Initially, the new, giant, inland sea was a blessing. 

In the 50s and 60s, it was a booming tourist attraction. Marketed as a "miracle in the desert," it became Palm Springs but with beaches. It would regularly attract over half a million visitors annually.

Yacht clubs sprang up on the shores, people flocked to fish and waterski, and stars like the Beach Boys and Sonny Bono would visit to drive speedboats and swim. 

Property was so in demand that real estate agents would fly people up in light aircraft and sell them property from the air without ever landing to view it. 

But it wouldn't last. 

The sea quickly became something of an ecological nightmare soup. The Salton Sea is surrounded by nearly half a million acres of agricultural land, and water from this land runs off into the sea, taking with it salt and fertilizers and pesticides. By the 70s, the water was becoming too hostile to sustain much of any kind of life, and the shoreline became littered with thousands and thousands of dead fish. 

The dead fish, combined with rotting algal blooms, made the water smell so bad that nobody wanted to go anywhere near it.

The Beach Boys left. Sonny Bono left. Everyone else left, and the Salton Sea fell into misery. 

I visited the Salton Sea last weekend to take a look at its current state. 

If you were just driving past on Highway 111, you could be forgiven for thinking it's still a nice place. The weather is pleasant, the beaches are white, and flocks of birds glide along the blue surface of the water. 

But, unfortunately, the Salton Sea is "a total Monet." As you climb out of your car and get close, it becomes a big old mess. 

The water is a murky brown—it only appears blue because it reflects the desert sky. The white beaches, it turns out, are white because they're made up of the pulverized bones of millions of dead fish. The birds probably aren't doing too well, either. Avian botulism is a persistent problem in the Salton Sea, killing off thousands of birds each year. 

And then the smell hits you. Holy fuck, the smell. It's like a fish market at the end of a long summer day. Only instead of keeping the fish on ice, this fish market keeps them on piles of diarrhea. 

I decided to visit the few things in the area that still exist and would qualify as attractions.

First I went to the "world famous" International Banana Museum. Like most things in America that claim to be "world famous," they seem to have little understanding of what the words "world" and "famous" mean.

Their official website doesn't list hours of operation (or much of anything, really), so I just showed up hoping for the best. 

The museum was closed. I spoke to the girl working in the store next door and she told me her uncle ran the museum. "I don't know if it will be open today," she told me. "We saw him heading off with some bananas, so I think he's probably out on business. He kind of just shows up and opens it whenever he wants."

Next, I tried to visit the Salton Sea History Museum, which, as the name suggests, is a museum dedicated to the history of the Salton Sea. Their website also doesn't list operating hours, so, again, I just went along and hoped for the best. 

After driving for quite some time down a dirt road, I got to the point where my GPS said the Salton Sea History Museum should be. There was nothing there but a locked gate and a man fishing in a creek with his two sons.

I tried calling the museum to see if they were open/exist, but nobody answered. 

As I was leaving, I asked the fisherman if he'd caught anything. He told me, "there's no fish here. I just do this to get my sons out of the house."

Next, I headed to the town of Bombay Beach, the most developed place on the shores of the Salton Sea. 

Like the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach was once a pretty nice place.

But then the sea started to burst its banks, regularly flooding large parts of the town. In the 80s, it became apparent that nothing could be done about it, so officials built a dike around half of the town and just let the sea take what it wanted.

Because of this, the shore is littered with dilapidated structures, falling apart as they sink into the ground. 

The half of the town located on the dry side of the dike is doing slightly better. But "better," in this case, doesn't really amount to much.

It's still definitely the most apocalypse-y place I've ever seen in real life. 

Of the town that hasn't sunk into the ground, about a third of it is abandoned. 

It seems like people left in a hurry. Most of the abandoned houses still have the previous owner's possessions in them. 

Judging by the packaging on the food that's still in the cupboards, people bailed circa the early 90s. 

Given its proximity to Los Angeles and its aesthetically pleasant levels of urban decay, it should come as no surprise that urban explorers, Flickr users, and documentary makers have been flocking to Bombay Beach to take pictures of it. 

I stopped for lunch in the Ski Inn, the town's only bar, where I had a grilled cheese, fries, and salad. The grilled cheese tasted exactly like the fries, which tasted exactly like the salad. Literally every dish on my plate tasted exactly like accidentally swallowing bath water. 

As I was eating, some young documentary makers were filming the locals. "Do you mind if I get a shot of you smoking outside?" one of them asked a weather-beaten old local man. "The light is just really great out here."

Grief-documenters are so commonplace in Bombay Beach that, when I bought a bottle of water from the shop down the street, the owner, immediately recognizing me as an outsider, asked, "are you here making a documentary?"

Inexplicably, there are two stores in Bombay Beach. They both sell a pretty much identical range of things—groceries, house supplies, etc.—and are located just a few hundred feet apart. In a town with a population of under 300, I can't imagine either of them are doing too well. 

The older of the two shops had products on display that seemed to have sat unsold for at least 20 years. There was a "Have a Nice Cruise!" card with a picture of a boat on the front. I opened it up, and there was a dead moth crushed inside. If I were a deeper person, it would've felt poignant. 

Directly opposite Bombay Beach, 50 miles by road on the west coast of the Salton Sea is the town of Salton City. It seems to be doing a bit better than Bombay Beach. There are some houses there that I would go as far as describing as "nice."

But, again, "better" doesn't really mean much out here. No matter how nice a house is here, it's still a nice house sitting on a beach made of death. 

Depressingly, things seem likely to only get worse for the Salton Sea. 

In March of last year, the California Supreme Court voted to uphold a 2003 water transfer deal in the area.

The deal, intended to reduce dependence on the Colorado River as a source of water, will take millions of gallons of water from the sea and give it to the suburbs.

Which might not sound like a terrible tragedy, given that the sea is maybe the bleakest body of water in the entire country. But taking away the water would expose the lake bed. Which, obviously, is covered in some pretty horrible stuff. According to the BBC, if the sea dries out (which seems pretty likely) it will unleash "clouds of toxic dust across Southern California." Taking a little bit of the Salton Sea to some four million people. 

So that's something to look forward to.

@JLCT

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