The Salton Sea. It’s a poetic name for a place that is neither poetic nor a sea.
The landlocked body of water in the California desert is actually the state’s largest lake, a saline-filled depression in the earth with a higher salt level than the Pacific Ocean and a story that reads more like science fiction than geology. In just a little over a hundred years, the Salton Sea transformed itself from accidental creation to resort destination to environmental hazard to ghost town.
It takes about three hours to reach the Salton Sea from San Diego. Herb and I leave the house early, hoping to arrive at the Visitor Center by 10 a.m. We head northeast toward Palm Springs and California’s popular desert resort towns, traveling on Interstates 15 and 10 past rather uninspiring scenery and typical highway exits for gas and fast food. But when we turn south on Highway 111, the view dramatically changes, and we find ourselves on a two-lane road lined with railroad tracks on the east side and dusty brush-filled desert on the west.
Shortly before reaching the Salton Sea, the scruffy brown desert turns into farmland, like the The Wizard of Oz changing from black-and-white into a burst of color. We pass fields of luscious green lettuce and forest-like rows of spectacular-looking date palm trees. It turns out that this part of California’s Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley produces more dates than anywhere in the U.S.
A Little Salton Sea History
We turn off the road at the Visitors Center, a modest red brick building run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. A friendly volunteer offers to show us a ten-minute film about the Salton Sea’s history, but cautions that it was made in 2017, when the sea was still used for some level of recreation. “You will see kayaks,” she told us. “And you will see where the water level used to be.”
The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when floodwater from the Colorado River broke through a nearby irrigation canal and poured into a formerly dry lakebed called the Salton Basin. The canal was repaired, but the sea remained, an “endorheic” body of water having no outflow to a river or ocean and losing water only through evaporation or seepage into the ground. At 15 miles wide and 35 miles long, the Salton Sea was an impressive sight that continued to thrive from Colorado River water runoff used by local farmers for irrigation.
The area’s wetlands became a key stop for birds migrating from Alaska to Patagonia on the “Pacific Flyway” route. And in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Salton Sea became a popular destination for people – a recreational area offering watersports, boating and fishing. Neighborhoods of vacation homes, shops, marinas, and nightclubs sprang up along Bombay Beach, a spot where Frank Sinatra famously performed.
But in the 1970s, the Salton Sea began shrinking, revealing a muddy sea floor contaminated with pesticides from the agricultural run-off. Toxic chemicals from the sea floor created a harmful powdery dust that spread through the air. Fish and birds died. Salinity levels rose to dangerous levels. The vacation destination disappeared, leaving behind a ghost town of its former self.
Back on Highway 111, we drive about 20 miles south along the Salton Sea coast to Bombay Beach. At 223 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest community in the United States. Although about 200 people live here, the place has the aura of a ghost town, a shell of its glory days as a resort destination.
The town is laid out on a four-by-eight grid, with 1st through 4th Streets and Avenues A through H. There are abandoned houses and trailers, broken and boarded windows and yards brimming with discarded items of every imaginable sort. And every block or so, there is art. Somewhere along the way in its rise-and-fall past, Bombay Beach has become a place for eclectic, eccentric artists to showcase their creativity.
We drive a few blocks to the beach, where art installations continue to dot the landscape. Several cars have made a makeshift parking lot on the sand, and we decide to park there as well. I had created a sort of scavenger hunt list of installations I’d hoped to find, not having any idea how spread out they would be. We walk along the beach, taking photos and taking in the scenery. I can’t help thinking what a grand place this must have been.
It’s almost noon when we return to the car. We decide to push on to our next stop before taking a lunch break. Our destination is Salvation Mountain, the main attraction in an “off the grid” desert community called Slab City. We travel 20 miles south on Highway 111 and turn onto Main Street in the town of Niland, passing empty graffiti-covered structures, a food market and what looks like an abandoned bank building complete with ionic-style columns and a wrap-around portico.
Niland’s Main Street becomes Beal Road, a desolate stretch of cracked, worn and bumpy desert pavement, neglected for who-knows how many years. We pass an ironically-located tire repair shop, a power sub-station and a haphazard collection of makeshift tents and structures, driving about five miles until the mountain comes into view.
Salvation Mountain was created by a local resident named Leonard Knight “as a tribute to God and his gift to the world.” Built on a hillside using adobe bricks, discarded materials and thousands of gallons of paint, Salvation Mountain became Knight’s life’s work as well as his home. He slept in a pick-up truck at the base of the mountain, embracing a life in this community with no running water and no electricity. He died in 2016, and today his mountain is staffed by volunteers.
The Lowest Bar in the Western Hemisphere
We retrace our route back to Bombay Beach for a lunch stop at Ski Inn, a place that lays claim to the title of “lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere.” It’s a lively spot, a sort of dive-bar-cum-tourist-destination. The first thing you notice are the dollar bills that cover just about every imaginable surface. As the story is told, the tradition began in the 1950s when vacationers would write their names on dollar bills and attach them to the walls.
We order at the bar – cash only – opting for burgers with a side of fries and potato salad. The bartender says it will take 45 minutes, which seems unusually long, given the availability of tables. We’re quite hungry, but we willingly agree, giving each other a look that says, “When will we have another chance to eat at the lowest bar in the Western Hemisphere?”
We settle into a red vinyl booth reminiscent of another time and place. I find myself thinking that I should be reaching to the wall to flip through song titles on one of those mini juke boxes that once came with a booth like this. There’s also a patio out back with red umbrella-shaded tables, but we prefer to take in the atmosphere inside. The juke box is going strong, conversations are humming and customers keeps streaming in.
The 45-minute wait turns out to be well over an hour and fifteen minutes. Herb tries to figure out the why of the long wait. This isn’t a typical place where a burger is thrown on the grill when it’s ordered, he says, convinced that the cook prepares one complete order before moving on to the next. Herb may be right. But I also have the feeling that people who travel to Bombay Beach do not rush.
And neither, it seems, should we.