Desert Southwest

Trailer at Bombay Beach, California

Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea

Kayaking the Salton Sea to
broken-down and beautiful Bombay Beach.

Ashort time from now, the sun will rise, and the sky will burn red just off the shore of Bombay Beach, California. I am two-hundred and twenty-eight feet below sea-level, paddling by headlight from an abandoned harbor on the Salton Sea. Although I understand that the color of the sea is green, I cannot yet see it.

Certainly I can feel the weight of the salt-inundated water on my paddle. This sea, the largest inland body of water in California, and certainly one of the largest inland seas in the Americas, did not exist a century ago. It was 1905, and farmers had been irrigating crops in California's Imperial Valley by circumventing canals out of the Colorado River. But floodgates clogged, irrigation routes broke, and in two years, the salton sink had become a sea, albeit an accidental one.

Landowners were angry and confused. Apparently, the snakes were also unhappy about losing their land, and their retreat to higher ground caused land to be filled with 'hundreds of 'em.' The smell is rancid; not that clean smell plumes of fish-stink rising from the sea.

Dead Fish

The beaches of the Salton Sea are often made of miles of bones from fish and birds Photographed near Bombay Beach.

When I land on the beach, the boat makes a harsh scraping. This beach is made from the spines of dead tilapia; some fish-heads still have flesh. Others, near the shore, are still alive, but barely. By now, the thin line of white pre-dawn allows me to see my way up off the shore. Some time ago, my landlord spotted me walking out the door. He looked both ways and whispered,

"Hey, I got something to show you." He walked me into the back room of his apartment.

"They're six feet tall," I said. "Yup." "But you just planted them three weeks ago?"


"So what exactly are you going to do with six foot hemp plants?" "Give them to my family. You know I don't smoke marijuana anymore."

Of course I knew that. Landlord was raised the son of a mining expeditioneer, who taught him how to scout in the mountains of Canada. By age twenty, Landlord was leading gold expeditions in West Africa, a prospect that would allow him to retire at age twenty-three, and merited two cases of malaria.

Derelict Buildings in Bombay Beach

Abandoned hardware store in the flooded section of Bombay Beach, California.

His days in Africa caused him a heart condition that led to occasional heart attacks. A forced lifestyle change had given him a reconsideration of what to do with his life. He said, "I can grow anything. I learned from hemp, but see, this is all hydroponics. No soil, just water and nutrients. It's a very complicated process. I want to do this for the rest of my life."

"Grow hemp?"

"No, actually I'm going to do aquaculture. I just bought a trailer downtown. I'm going to put tanks in there and raise tilapia."

"Tilapia? You're nuts." Tilapia, the so-called Nile Perch, is a dirty fish, a brackish bottom-feeder from the Northern Nile. Despite African origins, tilapia is known as a Southeastern-Asian standard, and with growing Asian populations on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada, a market is developing.

I told him, "Tilapia is already being farmed in Arizona. It's one of the cheapest imports from Asia. And besides, it's a disgusting fish!" I have landed at Bombay Beach, coincidentally this has recently been cited as the exact spot as a primary suspect for California's next great faultline. I am at the center of the apocolypse, only it gets worse.

There are thousands of birds here, perched on a number of vacant buildings. Although it is true that this area has become a sanctuary for migrating birds, the pelicans and egrets and seagulls do not fly when I approach. They are sick, many of them. Dying perhaps. Birds in the Salton Basin routinely go through bouts of cholera and botulism.

I am treading through a thick salted crust. Since evaporation is the Salton Sea's only outlet for water, low sea levels mean excess salt. Where there is no salt, there is water and mud, and decaying mobile homes. It wasn't the suspected earthquake that pushed the old Bombay Beach Trailer Park underwater, but rare tropical storms in 1976 and 1977. What was once a booming trailer park community, sank. Now, the half-submerged skeleton is a strange backdrop to the fluttering birds and the tinkle-tinkle of fish bones lapping in the waves.

Before I lived in a trailer park myself, the only resident I knew was a policeman, a gunsmith, and a gentleman. In the cities, it's become hip to rip on trailer parks. But these are the same people with million dollar track-homes, golf courses and McDonald's wrappers on the back-seat floor of their sedan. The difference between trailer trash and blue-suit trash is not of degree, but of self-perception. Nevertheless, I couldn't help to think that this place was better off the way it is now. There is something frightful in temporariness; in plastic materials, bright aluminum and man sculpting nature to rid it of its wildness and beauty.


Bombay Beach Signs

Sign for the Ski Inn on Avenue A. The only bar in Bombay Beach.

Like the long forgotten golf course in the foothills, brown and receding into the desert, nature has a way of having better taste than man. There was something oddly poetic in the beauty of decay. I saw a blue truck coming down the road not far from here. It seemed the grounded portion of the trailer park was deserted - at least this time of year, so I thought I'd take a look.

The truck slowed at my presense, and a bald man and his scruffy wife grinned at me and drove on. While I was walking down the main street of Bombay Beach, I noticed the blue truck had stopped, and the couple was watching the sunrise. I had taken a recent interest in the development of mobile home parks in the west.

The documentary epic book Rancho Mirage followed the history of families who moved west with the prospect of cheap land and freedom. The shores of the Salton Sea had already begun to lose value after the short boom. Arabesque hotels and golf-courses, swimming pools and booming harbors that once shined here are now boarded and broken.

Bombay Beach

Flooded site at Bombay Beach

There are few environmental travesties as obvious proof of man's imminent ability to change things as that of inland water. Today, for example, the Aral Sea, between Kazakstan and Aberbaijan, was once the fourth largest inland sea in the world, and has now become a salt-inundated flat, in effect the same type of irrigation schemes which formed the Salton Sea destroyed the Aral Sea. Today one-hundred thousand seashore jobs are replaced by cancer, anemia and tuberculosis.

The Colorado River itself, after years of abuse, is now already dry before it can release into the Sea of Cortez. After paddling to the truck, I decided to take a walk through a date palm grove, and settle for a date palm shake along the road. The couple in the blue truck passed by the road. They saw me and grinned. The date shack was closed, but I met a date-picker, who offered to fill my cup with cold water. I took a sip, and then pointed to the Salton Sea, "This doesn't come out of there, does it?"