Salton Sea, California
Forgotten but not Gone…Yet
Water skiers buzzed by shorelines as they waved to onlookers from rich blue waters in California’s Coachella Valley. Meanwhile, picnics by the plenty were had under palm trees as vacationers and seasonal folks enjoyed all that could be offered in this Southern California paradise.
This was what was advertised to attract tourists to the Salton Sea in the mid-to-later 1900s. The Salton Sea was formed in the early 1900s when an especially wet year resulted in the flooding of the Colorado River. The Salton Sea was about 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, covering around 343 square miles.
Was because the Salton Sea has been continually evaporating. The advertisements I’d watched on television were part of a documentary on the area. Times have changed a lot since those ads since the businesses that once catered to tourists are now shuttered and the water that people once enjoyed for recreation is not as attractive as it once was. The ads were an extreme contrast to the dusty shorelines and sparsely populated area that is the current Salton Sea area.
Due to the extreme salt levels in the water, fish have dwindled significantly and today even birds’ numbers are reducing by staggering amounts.
The thought of seeing a place that once thrived and now is not is highly intriguing, especially since this echoes what has happened in many towns in Michigan—except for the saltwater of course.
Highway 111 Will Take You There
An opportunity to see the Salton Sea area for a half day presented itself and I, of course, jumped at the chance. Driving along Highway 111 south of Palm Springs signs of civilization began to diminish with each passing mile. Finally, there it was. The Sea presented itself as a mirage of sorts as heatwaves rippled from the surrounding sands.
Stopping at the Salton Sea was surreal. There were fish in the mud cracks along old bicycles, also in the mud cracks. In the distance was a small community of people called Bombay Beach.
To live in such a seemingly-inhospitable place—off the grid almost—seems difficult to imagine. The more time I spent there though, I began to appreciate a beauty; the quiet, solitude and openness of it all began to make sense.
Being in a place of such abandoned also seemed to introduce a sense of artistic freedom and carefree spirit that would be unfounded anywhere else. This is a community of people who don’t need to impress or attract. This is a community that is here for a personal reason, and they seem to have adapted well.
Each lot in Bombay Beach served as a seemingly sandy canvas of a yard for residents to create; the streets were sand and the waterfront homes were looking at more sand every day as the shoreline of the Salton Sea recedes. I’ve read that the population of Bombay Beach was anywhere from 295 to 400; so we’ll call it an even 300.
Nearby, the abandoned automobile service garage of Felix Auto Repair showed the signs of once providing gas and service to motorists, but was no more.
The Salton Sea is shrinking all the time, and with it the people too, I imagine. It’s up there with one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited. There’s a vibe that conjures images of post-apocalyptic lawlessness but that vibe is laid to rest when one sees the creativity and art displayed in the area. It’s a hard-scrabble land that doesn’t seem forgiving but in the community that is there, it would appear there is a bond; the bond of a place once glorious for water, and now, possibly…hopefully, glorious for all that is not water.
Tech Notes: For this photo excursion, my only camera was the Canon 1V, a supremely-capable 35mm film machine; Kodak Portra 160 was my emulsion of choice. The sun was going to be high during the time I was there so there was no need for a faster film.