Opinion | An Idyll on the Shores of a Toxic Lake

Opinion | An Idyll on the Shores of a Toxic Lake

There are two ways to experience the town of Bombay Beach, Calif., as a visitor: gawk at the spectacle or fall into the vortex. Thousands of tourists cruise through each year, often without getting out of their cars to see decaying art installations left over from an annual mid-March gathering of artists, photographers and documentarians known jokingly as the Bombay Beach Biennale. When I went to the town for the first time in 2021, I was looking for salvation in this weird desert town on the Salton Sea south of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. I dropped in, felt vibes and left with stories. I stared at the eccentric large-scale art, posted photos on Instagram of ruin porn and a hot pink sign on the beach that said, “If you’re stuck, call Kim.” I posed in front of a mountain of painted televisions, swung on a swing over the edge of the lake’s retreating shoreline and explored the half-buried, rusted-out cars that make up an abandoned ersatz drive-in movie theater. On that trip, it felt as if I were inside a “Mad Max” simulation, but I was only scratching the surface of the town.

I returned in December to try to understand why Bombay Beach remains so compelling, especially as extreme weather — heat, hurricanes and drought — and pollution wreak ever more intense havoc on it. Summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, tremors from the San Andreas Fault strike regularly, bomb testing from nearby military facilities can be heard and felt, and the air is so toxic from pesticide use, exhaust fumes, factory emissions and dust rising from the retreating Salton Sea that one study showed asthma rates among children in the region are three times the national average. By the end of the decade, the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland body of water, at about 325 square miles, may lose three-quarters of its volume; in the past 20 years, the sea’s surface area has shrunk about 38 square miles.

But people who live in Bombay Beach stay because the town offers a tight-knit community in the midst of catastrophe. Though its residents contend with environmental adversity on a daily basis, they’re also demonstrating how to navigate the uncertain future we all face — neglect, the fight for scarce resources, destruction of home, the feeling of having no place to go. They are an example of how people can survive wild climate frontiers together.

The 250 or so town residents live in the low desert on the east shore of the Salton Sea, which formed in 1905 when the then-flush Colorado River spilled into a depression, creating a freshwater lake that became increasingly saline. There used to be fish — mullet and carp, then tilapia. In the 1950s and ’60s, the area was marketed as a tourist destination and was advertised as Palm Springs by the Sea. More tourists visited Bombay Beach than Yosemite. There were yacht clubs, boat races and water skiing. It became a celebrity magnet: Frank Sinatra hung out there; so did the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher.

Eventually, as agricultural runoff kept accumulating in a body of water with no drainage, it became toxic and created a lake with salinity that is now 50 percent greater than that of the ocean. In the 1980s, dead fish washed up on the sand, car ruins rusted in the sun, tires rotted on the shore. Tourism vanished. But some in the community hung on. One way to define Bombay Beach is through environmental disaster, but another way is as an example of how to live through disaster and how to live in general.

Candace Youngberg, a town council member and a bartender at the Ski Inn, remembers a very different Bombay Beach. When she was growing up in the 1980s, she’d ride bikes with neighborhood children and run from yard to yard in a pack because there were no fences. But over time, the town changed. With each passing year, she watched necessities disappear. Now there’s no gas station, no laundromat, no hardware store. Fresh produce is hard to come by. A trailer that was devoted to medical care shut down. In 2021, 60.9 percent of Bombay Beach residents lived below the poverty line, compared with the national average of 12.6 percent.

As painful as it was to witness the town of her youth disappear and as deep as the problems there go, Ms. Youngberg admits that adversity bonded those who stayed. She wanted to return Bombay Beach to the version of the town she remembered, to recreate a beautiful place to live year-round, not just in winter, not just during the art season, not just for the tourists posing in front of wreckage. She wanted people to see the homes, the town, the community that once thrived thrive again. With the art came attention and the potential for more resources. She got on the Bombay Beach Community Services District, a town council, and started to work toward improvements like fixing the roads and planting trees to improve air quality.

It might just be that Bombay Beach is a small town, but when I visited last winter, there was something that felt more collaborative, as though everybody’s lives and business and projects overlapped. I’m not sure the community that’s there now started out as intentional, but when fragmented groups of people come together as custodians of an enigmatic space, responsible for protecting it and one another, community is inevitable. Plus, there’s only one place to socialize, one place to gossip, one place to dance out anxiety and only about two-thirds of a square mile to wander. Whether you like it or not, your neighbors are your people — a town in its purest form.

When I was there, I walked the streets with Denia Nealy, an artist who goes by Czar, and my friend Brenda Ann Kenneally, a photographer and writer, who would shout names, and people would instantly emerge. A stranger offered a handful of Tater Tots to Czar and me in a gesture that felt emblematic: Of course a complete stranger on an electric unicycle would cruise by and share nourishment. I was given a butterfly on a stick, which I carried around like a magic wand because that seemed appropriate and necessary. I was told that if I saw a screaming woman walking down the street with a shiv in her hand, not to worry and not to make eye contact and she’d leave me alone; it was just Stabby. There was talk of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on the beach, the weekly church sermon led by Jack the preacher (who is also a plumber), a potluck lasagna gathering.

Last year Ms. Kenneally created a trash fashion show/photo series for the Biennale in which she created couture designs out of trash collected from the beach, enlisted regulars in town to model the outfits, then photographed them. (She exhibited a similar series at this year’s festival as well.) The work was a way to showcase the people and the place. Jonathan Hart, a fireworks specialist who slept on the beach, posed like a gladiator; a woman who normally rode through town with a stuffed Kermit the Frog toy strapped to her bike was wrapped in a clear tarp and crown, looking like royalty emerging from the Salton Sea. The environment was harsh, the poses striking. Each frame straddled the line between glamour and destruction but also showcased a community’s pride in survival. Residents were undaunted by the armor of refuse; in fact, it made them stronger. The detritus, what outsiders might think of as garbage, became gorgeous. The landscape that is often described as apocalyptic became ethereal and magical. And that’s because it is.

On my second day, we went down to the docks at noon, and I found myself sitting on a floral mustard couch watching half a dozen or so people taking turns riding Jet Skis into the sun. The sun was hot, even though it was the cool season. Time felt elastic. Mr. Hart told me that he and some friends had fixed up the water scooters to give everyone in town the chance to blow off some steam, to smile a little. It had been a rough couple of months in the region. In preparation for Hurricane Hilary, which hit Mexico and the southwestern United States last August, 26 volunteers made 200 sandbags and delivered them door to door. Neighbors helped secure as many structures as possible.

Most media outlets reported that the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm because that’s the weather system that hit Los Angeles, but it was close to a hurricane in Bombay Beach, with winds hitting 60 miles per hour, and most properties were surrounded by water. Roofs collapsed or blew away entirely. “When faced with something like that, they were like, ‘Boom, we’re on it,’” Ms. Youngberg told me. They were together in disaster and in celebrating survival.

It reminded me of the writer Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” which considers the upside to catastrophe. She finds that people rise to the occasion and oftentimes do it with joy because disaster and survival leave a wake of purposefulness, consequential work and community. Disasters require radical acts of imagination and interaction. It seemed that because Bombay Beach lived hard, surviving climate catastrophes like extreme weather on top of everyday extremes, it celebrated even harder. It seemed that in Bombay Beach there’s enough to celebrate if you just get through the day, gaze at the night sky and do it all again in the morning.

A lot of the residents who live there now arrived with trauma. Living there is its own trauma. But somehow the combination creates a place of care and physical and emotional presence. People experience life intensely, as one. It’s a town that is isolated, but in spite of a loneliness epidemic, it doesn’t seem so lonely to be there. I felt unexpected joy in what, from everything I’d read from afar, was a place that might as well have been sinking into the earth. I felt so safe and so happy that if we had sunk into the earth together, it wouldn’t have felt like such a bad way to go.

On my last night in Bombay Beach, I went to the Ski Inn, a bar that serves as the center of all social activity. I’d been in town for only two days, and yet it felt as if I’d been to the Ski Inn a million times, as if I already knew everyone and they knew me. A band was playing, we danced and drank, and I forgot about the 8 p.m. kitchen cutoff. The chef apologized, but he’d been working since 11:45 a.m. and had already cleaned the grill and fryer. He’d saved one mac and cheese for the bartender, and when she heard I hadn’t eaten, she offered to split it with me, not wanting me to go hungry or leave without having tried the mac and cheese.

Bombay Beach is a weird place. And this was an especially weird feeling. I had been instantly welcomed into the fold of community and cared for, even though I was a stranger in a very strange land.

I realized I didn’t want to leave. There were lessons there — how to live with joy and purpose in the face of certain catastrophe, how to exist in the present without the ever presence of doom. Next time, I thought, I’d stay longer, maybe forever, and actually ride a Jet Ski.

Jaime Lowe is a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan and the author of, most recently, “Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires.” Nicholas Albrecht is a photographer based in Oakland, Calif. His first monograph, “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand,” was the culmination of a multiyear project made while living on the shores of the Salton Sea.

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