Sunday, December 8, 2013

A city where no city should be

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 When Edward Abbey wrote:
"There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free open generous spacing between plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be."
He was writing about greedy cities that hog for themselves the water of rivers and streams that nature would share with the land.

Bombay Beach, on the other hand, is a miserable paradox; a desert city drowned in waters too foul and stinking to sustain life.

Bombay Beach was once a paradise; a resort playground by the beautiful Salton Sea. Retirees bought lots and mobile home sites hoping to spend their lives sport fishing and water-skiing beneath the bright California sun.

A real estate development below sea level, on the shores of a saline lake created by accident, on top of the San Andreas fault. What could possibly go wrong?

The Salton Sea is an endorheic basin - enclosed, with no outflow or drainage. Fed by rain and agricultural run-off, its fluctuating level is moderated only by evaporation, seepage, or overflowing its shallow banks. With time, salinity rises, also toxicity from pesticides and fertilizer runoff. Algae blooms kill fish whose desiccated corpses litter the beach and poison feeding birds. The blinding white sands are pulverized skeletons.

Seasonal flooding brings this toxic slop into the streets of Bombay Beach, and by the 1980s, residents had abandoned half the town to the water, building a makeshift dike to keep it out.

You can see Bombay Beach from highway 111, and a marker shows you the road that leads to town. It was lunchtime and we had already scouted our destination - the Ski Inn, Bombay Beach's only tourist attraction.

When you pull up, the parking lot may be full or it may be empty. When we arrived, there were a cluster of motorcycles, a few SUVs, a very old VW "Baja Bug" beetle, and a couple of battered golf carts.

The Ski Inn is the tallest building in town - the only two-story building. We pushed past the doors and after the bright sun outside, the bar-room seemed dark and crowded. Every bar-stool was occupied, and more customers were clustered around a high table in front of the bar, too.

It wasn't hard to tell who were regulars and who were tourists. The regulars bantered with one another across the room.  One man stepped up to a woman at the bar and planted a long kiss on her mouth, while next to them another man flailed at the air, saying, "Cut it out, cut it out! None a that stuff in here!"  The kiss broke and the couple laughed uproariously.

Over to the side, the motorcyclists, wearing their colorful sports gear, lined up to place their orders, so we fell in behind them. When it was our turn we ordered two cheeseburgers and a couple of Fat Tire drafts.

Draft beer is served in a quaint mug shaped like a mason jar.

The interior of the Ski Inn is wallpapered with dollar bills, each one inscripted with names, artwork, or other cryptic legends. The bartender helpfully provides a Sharpie and a roll of Scotch tape. You provide the dollar.

Before our burgers came, a couple of seats opened up at the bar, so we took them, hoping to talk with the bartender, an elderly man named Wendell.  In the kitchen, two women about the same age as Wendell prepared the food and brought it out to customers.

Wendell called some of the regulars "snowbirds" who came south to spend winter at the Fountain of Youth Spa and RV park nearby.  Other folks came through from the road. The dollar bill custom had been going on for about fifteen years, maybe; he couldn't call it his retirement savings because he was already retired. Bombay Beach wasn't a bad town, he said, it was quiet and there were some good folks there.

Our burgers and fries arrived. They were undistinguished, but it fed the hunger. The rush subsided. A middle-aged blonde who was helping behind the bar grabbed a longneck Bud and came around the front and sat down next to a bearded guy nursing a tall Jack and Coke on the rocks.

The afternoon sun slanted through the window and we realized time was passing. Another beer would have been good, but we had to find Salvation Mountain before sunset.

 We told Wendell we'd be back. Bombay Beach will still be there, at least a little while longer.


Jen on the Edge said...

What an interesting day trip. I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to walk on a beach made of the bones of dead fish. Was it crunchy?

Glennis said...

Crunchy and stinky!