Strange Geographies: Bombay Beach


Bombay Beach may be the most famously depressing place in California; the poster child for the post-apocalypse. On the edge of the dying Salton Sea, an enormous body of water half the size of Rhode Island and so salty and polluted that by 2030 no fish will be able to survive in it, there is a town. There are several towns, actually, along the Salton's 70+ miles of rancid coastline, but the most in tact, the most iconically awful, is Bombay Beach.

It's a 10-by-10-block square of squat houses and mobile homes that was somebody's idea of paradise back when the town was incorporated in 1929. A beachy getaway 150 miles from the Pacific, it was supposed to be Palm Springs with water -- but decades of hyper-saline farm runoff and other problems turned the sea into a nightmare; plagued by fish and bird die-offs and outbreaks of botulism that leave its banks littered with corpses and its beaches smelling like hell, all but the hardiest tourists and investors had fled the scene by the late 60s. Even worse, the Salton began to overflow its banks, flooding the bottom part of town repeatedly. The remains of dozens of trailers and houses that couldn't be saved still sit rotting, half-buried in salty mud, along what used to be the town's most prized few blocks of real estate.

I've visited Bombay Beach a few times now, and was lucky to catch it in a dry period, when all the flooded parts had dried into a moonscape of salted mud, and again right after a big rain, when I could see the flooding that had ruined part of town and continues to tax residents' patience today. For instance, here's the trailer pictured above last year, after months of drought conditions:

trailer dry
trailer dry /

But a few weeks ago, there were whole blocks of town underwater. This is 5th Street.

flooded street
flooded street /

They built a dike awhile back, meant to keep the worst of the flooding on the side of town that had already been destroyed, and while it kind of works, it's not perfect. The purr of gasoline generators echoed all along the empty streets, as these pumps did their best to empty water into the other side of the dike.

IMG_5903 /

The other side of the dike was a watery wasteland, and made it obvious why people had abandoned this part of town in the first place.

glove /
ironing board
ironing board /
trailer /
inside trailer
inside trailer /


IMG_5875 /


dry shack
dry shack /

Further back from the dike and the ruined parts of town, it's hard to tell which houses have been abandoned and which have not. For instance, after a bit of investigation vis-a-vis people walking around, cars in driveways, functioning newspaper delivery services, etc., I discovered that the house on the left of frame was abandoned, but the house on the right -- yeah, the one with "the hills have eyes" spray-painted on it and its windows semi-boarded-up -- was not.

the hills have eyes
the hills have eyes /

Part of the reason for semi-boarded windows, I think, is insulation; temperatures can reach 115 degrees in the summer -- we're in the middle of the desert here, with one of the lowest elevations in the United States -- and people tend to hunker down in their houses with the A/C on and venture outside only when absolutely necessary.

mud house
mud house /
no parking
no parking /

Another fun fact about Bombay Beach: it's located right alongside one of the most volatile sections of the San Andreas fault. Last year, a "swarm" of minor earthquakes was recorded centering around Bombay Beach. In a TV movie back in the 90s called The Big One, the foreshock that came right before the quake that destroys LA is centered in Bombay Beach. So it's entirely possible that this ruined town might one day be famous as the place where the earthquake that ruined the rest of Southern California began.

Speaking of the beach, here's what it looks like. That's not sand, by the way -- it's the pulverized bones of millions of fish.

dead fish
dead fish /

Not that the town doesn't have its charming spots. The "fireside lounge" seems to be Bombay Beach's answer to a town square: two-dozen metal folding chairs arranged around a fire pit. And it's for sale!

fireside lounge
fireside lounge /

Somewhat further afield, I discovered this trailer mired in mud. It seems pretty clear that whoever was hauling it got stuck and abandoned their cargo. When I ventured too close, I found out the hard way what it was they'd been hauling -- dozens of still-active beehives, humming with bees who were mightily pissed off to have been left in the middle of nowhere, 100 miles from the nearest flower.

bees /

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