Like most February days in southern California, it’s sunny and near 80 degrees. My boyfriend and I, both being very fair, have smeared a thick layer of SPF 50 onto our exposed skin. We have decided to forgo a fancy dinner for Valentine’s Day and instead camp in the remote desert near Joshua Tree National Park. Every other couple from L.A. has apparently decided to do this too, and the park feels an awful lot like Disneyland.
Escaping the throngs of people, we take off on a barren backcountry road toward the Imperial Valley’s Salton Sea. Clint is driving because his car is a stick, and I don’t know how to drive anything but an automatic.
The Salton Sea is a bit of a mirage. Naturally, this rift valley lake has come in and out of existence for thousands of years. The most recent regeneration, however, was a manmade accident. In the early 1900s engineers built canals to connect the Colorado River to the valley. The river swelled and unstoppable water flowed into the valley for two years. What was left became the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake.
At the beginning, the sea brought a lot of money to the area. Movie stars visited and went waterskiing. Something I would never do today. The lake never had a natural tributary or outlet, and now it just keeps getting dryer and saltier. Sometimes water flows in, but a lot of it is agricultural runoff and full of chemicals. The sea is lined with what looks like white sand beaches, but upon closer inspection I realize it isn’t sand, but pulverized fish bones and barnacles. There are dead fish everywhere and more than once do I wretch my hand out of Clint’s to give the decaying fish parts more space. I regret wearing open-toed sandals to the waterfront.
Fifteen miles down the beach from the state recreation area’s picnic tables and visitor center is Bombay Beach, a town of 300 that takes up less than a square mile. Past a rundown bar that claim’s to be North America’s lowest place to get a drink is a small convenience store. I buy a can of Coke, while Clint gets an ice cream bar from the freezer. As we sit in the car, doors open, people watching, it seems that ogling tourists like us are only thing keeping the place in business.
We’ve stopped at Bombay Beach because of the promise of destruction. Bombay used to be, by all accounts, a hip place in the 1950s and 1960s, with night clubs and attractive people. Then the clubs closed and the sea got saltier. In the late 1970s the Salton Sea swelled with water from a passing hurricane. At the time there wasn’t a berm on the water’s edge, and America’s lowest town flooded.
The interesting thing, the thing that draws me to Bombay beach, is that the people living on the water’s edge just left. Occupied homes, with cars and yippy dogs in the yard sit next to places that have been gutted by water.
It’s the normality of the place that is haunting. Cans of creamed corn still sit in the cupboard of a house with half a fence and a permanently open front door. There’s a suitcase strewn across the floor, like someone started packing but instead gave up and left everything. One home has a newspaper from the 1980s sitting on the ground, untouched. Clint comments on the headline about basketball. I don’t really know who he’s talking about, but I can appreciate the idea that we found our own, strange time capsule here.
We wander through the homes, like other visitors, being careful to leave this perfect bit of destruction just as we found it. A museum dedicated to a shrinking sea and town.
Looking over the water from Bombay beach, the lake looks peaceful and serene. There’s a constant mist that settles over the water, obscuring the mountains in the distance. There used to be a handful of different types of fish in the lake but now the only species that can survive in the saline waters is tilapia; Hundreds of thousands of them teaming in a sea less than half the size of the Great Salt Lake.
It seems strange to me that humans have carried sea creatures into a valley that just over a hundred years ago could barely support terrestrial life, let alone marine life. At some point not even the tilapia will survive and I wonder how many more of the seaside dwellers will stick around too.
Over the years there have been efforts to save the Salton Sea, but the future of the lake is still unclear. If the sea is allowed to dry up, I often wonder what future archaeologists will think, finding this tilapia graveyard in the middle of the desert, ringed by long-gone settlements. Would they think we had reached too far trying to bring life into a mostly inhospitable place? Would they know that for every person eking a living out along the shore, there were thousands more willing to drive hours to come and look upon our fellow man’s destruction and bad luck?
I was so excited to visit the Salton Sea, but at the end of the long, hot day I was just as excited to drive back to Los Angeles and be packed in with my fellow city dwellers like the tilapia in their ever shrinking waters.