Bon Voyage… Salton Sea

G.C. Stiehl | Citizen LA

There were countless stories; some wrapped in elaborate conspiracies ignited by untimely death while others existed as simple tales of wild parties passed down to a younger generation. The Salton Sea seemed to have it all; an amazing body of water, an isolated location, celebrities, bars, and accommodating locals…so what went wrong?

The Salton Sea’s current existence is due a breach in an Imperial Valley dike in 1905 which caused the Colorado River to run into the once empty Salton Sink. It took over 1.5 years to control the flow into the basin yet not before submerging the town of Salton, track from the Southern Pacific Railroad and an expanse of Cahuilla Indian land. This incident, however, is not uncommon, as the Colorado River has been periodically spilling water into this basin for about 3 million years (that’s longer that most of us have been alive.)

The Salton Sea sits in an endorheic basin (a closed drainage basin) that retains water and allows no outflow to other bodies of water such as rivers or oceans. This lack of drainage has caused the salinity to rise to levels higher than seawater. Combined with pesticide-rich farmland run-off, highly polluted water from the New River and human neglect, the current incarnation of the Salton basin doesn’t stand a chance. The damage is extensive. Dead fish wash up on the shore by the hundreds. Water fowl are exposed to avian botulism, cholera and Newcastle (the disease not the beer.) But one of the real tragedies here is that a choice California party spot is in jeopardy.

Known as “Palm Springs-by-the-Sea” the coastline of the Salton Sea was at one time dotted with restaurants and nightclubs. In the 50’s the sea’s fish population exploded, with it came sport-fishing, speedboat racing and debauchery. From Dean Martin, to Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys, this body of water played host to many a swanky booze-bash. The residents of Salton Sea Beach still hold an annual Luau loaded with spicy meatballs, squirt guns and a kiddie pool; the same kiddie pool that Brian Wilson puked in over 40 years ago!


As an impulse day-trip in July, the Salton Sea seemed completely unreasonable. As a weekend-getaway, it seemed suicidal. No calls answered at local motels, nothing but bad-news from recent media coverage, and according to the prognosis was: death. So why would anyone visit a sweltering endorheic basin in the summer?

For one, the Salton Sea has been the backdrop for two recent films: the first, a documentary entitled “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea;” the second, a feature starring Val Kilmer entitled “Salton Sea.” Neither, however, truly captured the feeling of standing on front of a blast furnace.

Another reason is that no one we knew had ever been there. For all we knew it was a Hollywood fabrication or another government conspiracy like the “landing on the moon”, which is still hotly debated by those who have never been.

Ecological tribulation aside, there must have been something that brought the Cahuilla Indians to this mysterious place and centuries later beckoned the Hollywood elite. The very fact that this was once touted as the “California Riviera” was enough to get Citizen LA out there for a peek.

So where is this slice of paradise past? The Salton Sea is not very difficult to find. Granted you probably won’t simply run into it, but it’s definitely not hard to miss if you are heading south on Route 86 towards Hell. (Ok. We were told by the locals that it gets cooler in the winter, but in the middle of July it’s ungodly hot.) Make a right on Ave 62, then a quick left on Route 111 if you wanna head to North Shore Beach or stay on 86S if you prefer Salton City. Total time from LA to the Sea: roughly 2.5 hours…if you’re sober.

Five hours later we made it to the edge of sea.

Rick and I didn’t quite comprehend the severity of the situation until we stepped out of the car at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club at 6PM. The now defunct celebrity playground on the once idyllic seashores of the infamous lake was in shambles. Pigeons were crapping everywhere. Flies were feasting on our bodies. But it was that round thing in the sky that was dishing out the worst of it…to quote Eugene Morris Jerome, “Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot.”

The layout of the Yacht Club was stellar; it wasn’t difficult to imagine the outdoor patio area sporting Tiki torches, a live band, a swanky cocktail waitress and a conga line. Cut to forty years later and old age has transformed this den of carnal desires from yacht club to rehab center to nursing home to music video set to makeshift skate park to pigeon sanctuary. Though there’s talk of a $3.5 million renovation to convert it to a visitor center, once complete, would anyone outside of the Imperial Valley really care? If the visitor center had a bar, we definitely would!

Down the road about 20 minutes is Bombay Beach. As we drove through the town’s main street it was clear that most everyone was indoors. Were we the only lunatics out on a joy ride? Nope. Minutes after reaching the water’s edge a red faced man on an ATV roared up to us. He warned us of the perils of driving in the sand and of the giant bats that ran off with his chickens. When asked who he was, the man responded, “oh, just a local drunk.”

The scene was mesmerizing. At our feet swirled bits of shells and sand and bones in amazing patterns, with no visible sign of human intervention. As though a giant divine rake had come down from the heavens to tend its Zen garden. For a moment, the sea and sky blended into one continuous wash of color, a one dimensional plane broken only by a few wooden pylons. It reminded me of the misty river behind the Taj Mahal.

Inland, just yards from the sea were half-sunk buildings and rusty twisted trailers covered in salt; unfortunate victims of repeated flooding. The entire landscape was caught in a serenely magical state of entropy, like the movement of a car crash slowed down to an imperceptible rate of change wherein beauty overtakes horror. Though the heat and humidity was unbearable, it was almost impossible to put down the camera.

30 minutes later we made our way to the booze. One of only a handful of bars surrounding the entire lake, the Ski Inn was a refreshing oasis where the locals were interesting and the beer flowed for only 2 bucks! Upon entering we were looked over…ribbed a bit…then completely accepted.

“Oh you’re from a magazine?”

“Yes. And we’re here to drink, everything.”

The woman behind the counter, the lovely Paulette Frazier, was nothing but delightful. She quickly poured us a life-saving ice cold beer.

The local boys that peppered the bar were more than happy to share their views on the past, present and future of the Salton Sea. Apparently the death of the sea was shrouded in conspiracy, of sorts. The “cast” in this ecological drama included Sunny Bono, the U.S. government, the Indians, Mexico, farmers, tourists, celebrities and the media. Everyone played a part in the lake’s destruction and everyone was now responsible to “fix it”. (Sounds good…just don’t raise the price of the beer.)

The next morning we headed out to Salton City on the west side of the lake. Though more developed, the damage from the polluted waters was equally noticeable. Laying at the edge of the boat launch were hundreds of dead fish. Natural cycle or not, the death of a sea is hard to stomach.

With no respite from the heat, the files and the depressing scene, we had absolutely no choice but to head to Capt’n Jim’s Cocktails. Inside, Barbara Eggers (Capt’n Jim’s girl) manned the air-conditioned sanctuary. Kind and adorable, this lady knew how to pour a drink. But by this time the heat had really gotten to us, and we threw in the white flag. Minutes later, we headed back to LA.

For years the Sonoran Desert has in Southern California has witnessed the re-birth of an amazing body of water. At the onset of the 20th century, this cycle of re-creation was re-engaged and with it came life, abundance and hope. Forty years later, the one time marine paradise maybe an ecological ticking time-bomb but the hope still remains.

As for the journey…there was no method to this madness, just madness. We knew that that the expedition to find the lost civilization of Atlanton (the sister party-city of Atlantis) would be riddled with mystery, adventure and possible danger. We were not disappointed.

For at sunset, where the sea meets the desert, and the sky is wide, exists a little slice of post-apocalyptic Dali-esque heaven…and it’s called the Salton Sea.