The winds, warm and sometimes powerful, seem to whisper secrets as they exhale mighty gusts across the Salton Sea. This really is No Man’s Land. Such a haunted allegory this area does weave: creation, destruction, Mother Nature’s fickle impermanence, hope, loss and dreams… always dreams. This arid land, scorched by the unflinching desert sun, an hour southeast of Palm Springs, was once a shining celebrity, dressed in the finest clothing and dripping with adulation. It is now a barren wasteland, isolated, but not entirely forgotten.
The story starts cataclysmically, as many important legends are wont to begin. The State of California was young, and largely unsettled, when in 1905 heavy rains ravaged a dam on the Colorado River which had been channelled to provide much needed irrigation to the rich farmlands of the Imperial Valley. The result was strange, amazing and unexpected. The unstoppable flood waters, which gushed for nearly two years, created an enormous man-made lake upon the sun-baked desert pavement, more than 200 feet below sea-level, long caked with evaporated salt, crystalized from an ancient wash. This new, blue expanse stretched 35 miles long and 15 miles wide and was now the largest inland body of water in California. Though deceivingly shallow, at a maximum depth of only 51 feet, this new idyllic gift of nature was christened the Salton Sea, a twist on its previous incarnation as the Salton Sink. A massive freshwater lake, it was stocked with fish and as early as the 1920s evolved into a popular vacation destination for all kinds of water sports. It became a major stopover for migrating birds, attracted to the newly settled-in fish, permanently altering deeply established ecological patterns.
But, as we learn with each passing year, nothing ever stays the same. Change comes drifting, unescapable and omnipresent, much like the warm winds passing over this uneasy sea. This desert landscape, weary with wisdom, struggle and glory, has seen it all. By the 1950s the Salton Sea was practically trendy; a hot resort spot for Hollywood hipsters, the idle rich and family vacations. This was the place to see and be seen, with swanky hotels, beach and yacht clubs, restaurants and celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Jerry Lewis. Glamour was the word of the day during the 1950s through 1960s in this neck of the woods. To own a beach house here was the height of status. But alterations in the landscape, mostly imperceptible to the martini drinking, sun bathing, chain smoking vacationers, were already in motion. The sea was slowly, and then rapidly adapting from a fresh water content to a quite salty one. Saline levels were on the rise, due to mineral content in runoff and dehydration from the unescapable sun. The evaporation of the lake was kept in check by the addition of drain water from local farms, which also happened to be full of non-evaporative fertilizers and pesticides. This new, potent stew was too much for the originally stocked silver salmon and striped bass, causing them to die off. However, fishing was such a popular attraction here that the California Department of Fish and Game knew it was in their best interest to replace them with sturdy salt water varieties. Still, as the salt content got higher and higher, it was the invasive Tilapia that fully established themselves by the early 1970s, foreshadowing even more change to come.
The 1970s were a turning point for many social changes, but for the Salton Sea these years signaled the end of a Golden Era. In 1976 the Baja California Peninsula was hit hard by tropical cyclone Kathleen, leaving the Imperial Valley inundated with extreme rainfall and monumental flooding. The Salton Sea rose to record levels, spilling over its edges and destroying vacation homes, tourist spots and an entire 116-mile coastal perimeter of hope. Afterward, there was not much time for recovery, less than a year later Hurricane Doreen followed, far more powerful and destructive than her predecessor. What remained were the skeletal phantoms of a faded utopia; the American dream rusting, rotten, decayed under the brutal glare of the California sun. Gone were those looking for weekend escapism, for this was far too much reality. The hardy few that chose to stay were the real survivors.
Exactly 40 years after the floods receded, the region looks much the same as when it was abandoned. In towns such as Bombay Beach, located on the lake’s eastern shore, there is an eerie and unnatural stillness and a smell of indescribable decay, a combination of sulphur, dead fish and desolation. Homes are cracked open to the elements, with broken windows, missing doors and sometimes entire walls crumbled to dust. Spray painted and graffitied, it is a post-apocalyptic vision often only seen in movies. Inside each residence is a view to a world that once existed, sometimes full of torn and soiled furniture or fragments of dishes in a kitchen cupboard, but always full of disintegrating drywall, jagged glass and the loneliness of a stranger’s memories. Despite the ruination, there are hints of faded elegance in a glimpse of shredded gingham drapes, the well-thought-out design of Colonial inspired wallpaper or the still beautiful angles of mid-century wood beamed ceilings. Going in and out of these houses feels invasive and liberating at the same time. It is as if time is standing still, providing a troubled snapshot into a ghostly past.
At the only bar and restaurant in town, the Ski Inn, opened in 1957 and named for a once popular pastime here at Salton Sea, water-skiing, the Bombay Beach locals will spin tales of optimism. Though the salinity of the water has become so high that it is now 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean, causing even massive numbers of the Tilapia to die off, they will tell you that swimming is safe here and that the highly salted water is a curative that will soften the skin. They frown at the idea that eating fish caught in the lake might be dangerous. To them, against all circumstantial evidence, this area is still a paradise. The Ski Inn, at 227 feet below sea level, has the distinction of being the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere and is a friendly, inviting spot to grab a juicy burger or some crispy fish & chips, challenge a local to a game of pool and to hear intriguing stories of life’s hardships and victories while digesting it all over an ice cold beer. The locals will also give directions to the best lookout spot in town, a high berm next to the beach. This allows newcomers to gain a proper perspective of the Salton Sea, its mysteries and its miseries.
Down by the water, the rancid smell becomes stronger. The lake is calmly still, the only movement broken by a few birds in flight, which environmentalists warn could lose their habitat as the lake evaporates, the sea becomes a stronger mix of pollutants and the fish continue to die off. An old, rotted boat floats near the shore, while a ripped out car seat and long-lost patio furniture litters the beach. My first steps on the sand seem normal, until suddenly, about 20 yards from the water’s edge, the beach becomes brittle and crunchy, it feels much like walking on a thin crust of ice, breaking through the fragile veneer with each footstep. It is the evaporated salt combined with a fine, but concentrated amount of dead fish bones. Though I had seen photos of thousands of decaying fish carcasses washed upon Salton Sea beaches, these finely ground bones were the only evidence of this today. I got to within 6-feet of the water’s edge before my next step cracked the brittle surface, sinking my foot 8-inches deep into a foul-smelling, sticky sludge of a murky colored brown. After extracting my mud-covered food, I turned back toward town, deciding once more to look at ruins before I lost the light. The pull to return to this place, so ravaged, so vulnerable, but so endowed with gritty strength is undeniable. Salton Sea is haunted by spectres both real and imagined. It possesses a dangerous kind of beauty that will take more than one visit to fully grasp.