After exploring the general area surrounding the Salton Sea, I stopped at one of its former jewels, Bombay Beach, a near-ghost town that was once a booming retirement center and lakefront resort town. Bombay Beach has been featured on numerous shows and documentaries, so it seemed like a good place to mingle with the locals and take in the atmosphere of the area.
I turned down a neglected side street and started driving toward the water, passing the odd inhabited structure sprinkled between abandoned homes and trailers. Not really knowing what to expect, I parked my car near an opening in a levee and walked up a slight incline. Here, I found a beach littered with ruins of boats and homes half-buried under mud and sand due to flooding caused by the unpredictability of the Salton Sea’s water levels. I started taking photos until I was greeted by two other photographers.
Them: Hey there, why don’t you park your car up here with ours.
Them: You do know this is notorious gang territory, don’t you?
With that, I became a bit unsettled, wrapped up my excursion, and left one of the poorest and, now, most dangerous towns in America in my small Mercedes, completely alone with adrenaline rushing. Still, I felt uneasy about how the day ended. Once I arrived back in Palm Desert, I flipped open my computer and started googling terms like “Bombay Beach gang”. I quickly determined that the photographers were completely ill-informed, and I immediately decided to return and finish what I started.
The next day, I pulled back up to the same area and continued snapping photographs of the ruins. Within a few minutes, a teenager and young boy pulled up in a golf cart and enthusiastically welcomed me to town. I flashed them a quick gang sign to let them know I was cool -Not really- They then started wading in the polluted water of the Salton Sea.
The ruins included everything from televisions and computer monitors to baby toys and measuring cups: artifacts from family homes crumbling like the dreams and hopes these people once had for their new lives right on the shore of the “miraculous” Salton Sea. Stuff that has long been neglected and overlooked, much like Bombay Beach itself.
Walking amongst the decay made me want to know more. I wanted to know if these people stayed behind, if they now lived less than a block away over the berm where I had parked my car the day before. Or, if they somehow managed to escape Bombay Beach and make something of their lives elsewhere.
As I stood amongst this odd testament to greed and promises built on poor environmental research, I decided to take it all further than I usually take my day travels; I decided to hang out for awhile and interview some locals to get their perspectives on the area. Mostly, I selfishly wanted to know why they continue to stay in such a bleak, seemingly futureless area. And, that’s exactly what I did. I also made some friends along the way.