At over two hundred feet below sea level, without any diving apparatus, not even wearing a swimsuit, what's a man to do?
Me, I stopped and watched the birds -- seagulls, lapwings, some kind of swifts. Wrote two postcards to people in Bombay, which I simply had to do. Spoke to a woman who runs a store and a man who is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Community Center. Took a photograph of a young couple and their pitbull, she leaning her head against his shoulder. Wandered amid a Dali-like scene of long-abandoned structures.
All of which you can do too, in Bombay Beach. (Now you know why I had to write those postcards). Sunbaked town on the shore of the Salton Sea, a large inland lake in southern California, 200-something feet below sea level. I mean, I saw this name on the map and I knew I had to visit.
And while there, I asked person after person, why the name? Only the girl with the pitbull offered an answer: "It was bombed in the war."
Really? Which war?
"You know, the World War. Air Force used to bomb this place."
I look around incredulously. Bombed? The town looks like it has seen better days and probably will never see them again, but bombed? And why? I turn back to her, but with a toss of her long blond hair, she, boyfriend and dog have resumed their stroll.
Frank at the community center, 81 years old and a stud in his left ear, is happy to talk about the town. It was developed by a real estate man just after the war, as a fishing resort. Had a marina too. He laid out the street grid, built the first few houses, and sold them. It was a "nice community", says Frank wistfully, for years. "I learned to waterski out there!"
Then the Salton Sea rose, flooding an entire section of the town. Those residents had to leave, and later a dike was built. Now the Sea level has fallen, and the town is trying to recover -- "but it's too late for us", says Frank, still wistful. Apparently the lake is polluted and so does not attract the watersport enthusiasts any more. Though the town is considering various measures to clean it up, a population of a few hundred seems like no kind of base to raise the funds to do something as massive as that.
The community center has a poster for the movie "The Salton Sea". Also four boards with names listed on small brown plaques, all titled "In Memory of our Friends."
Outside and beyond the dike, it gets surreal. Beams and tyres and assorted other junk stuck in seriously salt-encrusted mud, some still identifiable as once-houses. There's an abandoned trailer, I think, and inside a rusting, crumbling oven. Hanging from the beam of another structure is the shell of some rectangular electronic device, wires and chips dangling in the breeze.
And with this as a backdrop, a young couple and their pitbull.
Bombay Beach. Yes, I had to visit.