About three hours inland from the southern California coast, just 20 minutes south of the location of the famous Coachella festival, is an eerie abandoned resort town on the Salton Sea. After hearing that most of the part-time residents got up and left in the 1970s, abandoning their homes and belongings there, I knew I had to go. There’s something fascinating about abandoned places, knowing the wrecks you’re standing in used to be full of life, before they looked like this:
After a three-hour drive and a lot of Jake Bugg on the soundtrack (‘Trouble Town’ describes pretty much half the towns you encounter in the deserts of California), I passed Coachella and headed down alongside the sea, taking the east route south. The first view of the sea is a little unreal. After miles and miles of dusty roads the view outside my right-hand window went from barren scrubland, to rows of crops, and then suddenly to shimmering, still water against a backdrop of purple mountains. I can see why it was a draw as a resort town; it definitely looked beautiful, though perhaps it smelled less so.
One of the initial reasons for abandonment was the increasing salinity in the sea due to runoff, and as a result, tens of thousands of dead fish showing up on the shores. Major floods in the late 1970s didn’t help matters either. I was lucky enough to go in December, when supposedly the lower temperatures eliminate much of the dead fish smell. I pulled off towards the right on one of the campgrounds, and actually saw a couple of trailers parked there with campers. As I made my way down towards the water, I realized I was stepping on ground up fish bones. Well that’s an interesting alternative to sand. Though the desertion made even more sense now, as it was unlikely families would want to visit a resort town where little Timmy could make a sand castle out of tilapia skeletons.
After admiring the view, which was really quite arresting, with the cloudy mountains mirrored in the water (I briefly wondered if high salinity and dead fish somehow lead to more reflective surfaces), I decided to get back in my car and head further on down to Bombay Beach.
Twenty minutes later, I pass a sign reading “Bombay Beach”, with icons underneath indicating food, gas, and lodging was available. This, coupled with large signs on the highway previously pointing the way to the “Salton Sea State Recreation Area“, gave me the impression that the state of California had somehow overlooked what this place had become. I thought mini-sample of the post-apocalypse described it a hell of a lot better than ‘State Recreation Area’. A mesmerizing place, to be sure, but not one I would associate with seaside recreation. I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by revealing I found nothing approaching food and lodging in the town. Unless you count this:
Heading into Bombay Beach, I got my first shock as I realized people actually still lived here. Not many, to be sure, but when I passed an old man out for a walk with his nurse among the rust and decay around me, I had to double check in my rearview mirror to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I parked and got out to look around the town.
Sure enough, for every ten or fifteen abandoned trailer homes and modest ranchhouses, there was one home with tall chainlink fences and huge ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Was this a serious problem? I had an image of travelers accidentally wandering in to explore occupied homes, only to be shortly chased out afterwards at gunpoint. I decided keeping a good distance here was probably for the best. Any people who decide to fervently cling on to their homes in the face of sea flooding, abandonment, and dead fish smell, were not people I wanted to get on the wrong side of. Also, I had spotted one too many love letters to meth graffitied on some abandoned buildings.
Still, there is something absolutely surreal about Bombay Beach I have never experienced before. The weird discrepancy between the all-American mid-century wholesome cheeriness of some of the buildings (old-school mailboxes under signs proclaiming ‘We are the Millers!’), and their eerie state of decay, made for a jarring experience. Antique cars sat rusted and unused, in front of buildings that once contained smiling families on holiday.
As I got back into my car, I decided to cross the dirt dike running along the the edge of Bombay Beach to get a look at the sea again. When I got to the other side, I realized I was in the part of Bombay Beach affected by the floods. Only wooden poles were left of the former homes. The sun started to set and the clouds had merged with the haze hanging over the lake. As captivating as the sight was, the only image my mind could call up was a chain-wielding murderer creeping along somewhere behind me. After some time, I took one last look, got into my car, and started the three-hour journey home.
If you would like to check out some really incredible photos from the Salton Sea, Lost America has a great collection over at their site.