The good burghers of this southern California town could not have foreseen its future when they planted the palm tree and erected the sign informing drivers on Highway 111 of their arrival at Bombay Beach, then a small fishing village on the Salton Sea.
To say the town has seen better days is like noting that Chernobyl has fallen off a bit since the nuclear meltdown. The Salton Sea, beside which Bombay Beach now rests almost in peace, is itself a result of man meddling with nature. The desert valley was known as the Salton Sink before the Colorado River breached its levees in 1905 filling it with water for two years while engineers worked to staunch the flow. It became California’s largest lake at 15 miles wide by 35 miles long, depending on when the measurements took place. It’s been shrinking for decades.
Things looked rosy in the aftermath of the big flood as birds flocked to the life sustaining waters and fish flourished in the former desert. By the 1950s, tourists joined the wildlife, recognizing the man-made lake as a great spot to fish, swim, moor their boats and golf at the Bombay Beach Marina and Country Club. The town had five eating and drinking establishments. Life at the lake in the desert was good.
Fast forward to 2016. With no outlet to purge its water, almost zero local rainfall to freshen things up and continuing waste water runoff from nearby agricultural land, the lake has festered into an ecological disaster with higher salinity than the ocean. Too high to support most marine life. To avoid possible lawsuits, agricultural interests bought the marinas and closed them down. Unable to survive in the toxic salty mix, the fish died; their rotting bodies and sun-bleached skeletons line the cracked mud shoreline, adding a pungent aroma to the apocalyptic landscape.
Rising lake levels in the 70s and 80s caused by excessive runoff from Imperial Valley farms combined with higher than normal seasonal storm runoffs to flood the below-sea-level town site. Tourists stopped coming and the restaurants closed, leaving only a small convenience store, a forlorn legion and the Ski Inn bar to service those brave souls who stuck it out behind newly erected berms. Interspersed amongst the rusting hulks, broken windows and burned out ruins of vacation dreams gone bad, are well-kept double wide’s with carefully tended yards and a sprinkling of modern RVs parked behind chain link fences on gravel lots. Remaining residents commute around town on golf carts while dogs of varying sizes and breeds run free in the streets.
Local residents Wendall and Jane Southland interrupted their retirement to take over the Ski Inn in 1994 after an investment meant to help out friends went south. The bar is for sale but to date there have been no takers. The weathered sign out front proclaims it to be the lowest elevation drinking establishment (227 feet below sea level) in the Western Hemisphere. Now in his eighties, Wendall works the bar 9 hours a day, seven days a week while his wife prepares and serves home-cooked meals to a steady stream of young curiosity seekers and snowbirds, many of whom venture in from nearby RV spa resorts positioned on mineral springs far enough away from the Salton Sea to avoid its odoriferous ambiance. Wendall happily keeps the beer flowing until 2 a.m. on nights when the trade warrants.
Despite its dreary surroundings among the streets of broken dreams, the atmosphere in the Ski Inn is not downtrodden. On the occasion of the Meandering Maloney’s Saturday afternoon visit, three different groups of 20-somethings stop in for a beer and a bite. The bar’s walls and ceiling are papered with signed and dated dollar bills from visitors who arrive at Bombay Beach from all points on the globe.
Wendall explains the tradition started in 2000 when a young visitor from Newport Beach, in town to look over his ramshackle inheritance, asked to put up a signed dollar bill behind the bar. Like monetary moss, the bills have spread to the walls, door and ceilings, even up the sides of the juke box, which offers a selection of suitably soulful road songs at three for a dollar. The bar is a favourite of Hollywood directors, and on one recent occasion three film crews shot footage on the same day. Wendell informs us there was a crew shooting the day before we arrive.
He is pragmatic when it comes to the future of Bombay Beach. He confides that a new marina in the works at the Salton State Recreation Area could be the first step to rejuvenating the area. The couple bought their first small trailer here in the 70s as a vacation home. After they moved permanently to the Salton Sea in the summer of 1990, the temperature hovered at 127 degrees Fahrenheit for the first four days, and he admits to thinking about heading right back to the relative coolness of Riverside, California. He recalls happier times when retirees in town roamed the surrounding desert in convoys of 20 ATVs.
The Bombay Beach population was pegged at 295 in the 2010 census, down from 366 in 2000. Wendall reckons there are 176 residents today, then perhaps remembering some recent passing’s, he reconsiders and downsizes his estimate to the low 170s.