Bombay Beach

There is a war in northern Mexico. Right now you should pretend it ain’t so.

Mexico is not a “failed state.” Old Mexico is no more failed than Iraq, Afghanistan or the United States. Hell, only about six thousand people died in this alleged war last year. The United States is only going to give Mexico $400 million this year to fight it.

How can you call that a war? Call it an “unpleasantness.”

I am not trying to preach at you, I want you to know. I have been trying really hard, myself, to embrace the audacity of pretending, lately. Think my way to success. Visualize my new reality. All that crap. Ask myself what Donald Trump would do if he was wearing my boots.

Profit Opportunity

I have been trying to think of the Mexican war…excuse me, the Mexican unpleasantness as a profit opportunity. It shouldn’t be too hard. I am already an entrepreneur. I just need to think big.

I am sick of being a nobody. I do not want to smuggle in a gun here and there.

Not that I would ever actually sell a gun across the border, I have to say. Because, you know, that would be just plain wrong. That dirty business of giving the Mexican middle class the means to defend themselves is just immoral and filthy. I could never do that. Not me. The moral thing to do is to just let all those school teachers and store clerks die like sheep.

No Laws Were Broken In The Writing Of This Piece

Besides, trust me, the upside of smuggling guns-if you are cautious, and small time and don’t get greedy-is about four hundred bucks a month. At least, that is what I have heard from people I have met in bars. I never learned any of their names. I could never describe them because the bars were dark. And, I was drunk. But, I am pretty sure that is what they said.

Also, I know the downside of smuggling pistolas across the border is about three years in a Mexican jail. I am getting too old for that

So, what I came up with is I think maybe I should try to start the next Blackwater. I am pretty sure I can find a couple hundred guys who would have no problem shooting up the border for eight or ten grand a month. And also, as opposed to smuggling in a little automatic here and there, running a mercenary army is honest work and noble and true.

Dear George

I just do not yet know how to get that government contract. I am stumped. That has always been my weakness with everything. Every time I think I might get my foot in a door somebody tells me to step back.

I wrote former President Bush. I know, I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I figured what do I have to lose. I offered to make him a silent partner if he could just connect me to the right people but so far he has not written back.

I have to do something, though. Hell, I always just sort of assumed I would be dead by now. But I am not. And, the really tragic part of that is I never did win the Super Lotto Plus.

Consequently I have been reduced to brainstorming, visualizing, all that. I have not been selling hardware or anything like that. I have just been brainstorming. The way I brainstorm is that, on the rare days when it has not been raining in Los Angeles, I have been riding down to various border towns looking for profit opportunities. You know, towns such as you might find in the greater Yuma, Arizona metropolitan area.

Travel The Back Roads

The quickest way to Yuma from my house runs down the San Andreas fault, along the Salton Sea. The obvious choice is to take Route 86 and then pick up Interstate 8. But, it is a little quieter and lonelier if you hug the fault line and go down Route 111 then pick up Route 78. I am pretty sure La Migra isn’t running Predators over the 111.

So, last week I went down to Yuma and I didn’t do anything. I just like Mexican water is what it is. And, then when I came back it was still early in the day. It was just me, the bike and the wind.

The bike sounds like a World War II fighter plane. Some people say their bikes roar but mine always just sort of drones. And, the wind is telling me something I am too ignorant to understand. One second the wind sounds like a whispering lynch mob and the next second the wind is a ghost telling me secrets in a language I will never know.

Wah was hot sos lop wuh wuh is is is.

It is still cold at eighty miles an hour but suddenly it is Spring. I have hardly been pelted with bugs in months but now my jacket is collecting a whole new set of grey spots. I see more birds than I have for awhile. My face is getting sunburned pretty bad and somewhere out there I know there have to be coyote pups.

Let’s Go Wheeee

There is a stretch of dips and rises on the 111 north of Brawley. I don’t know what I thought. I don’t know why I do what I do half the time.

Maybe I am depressed because nobody will give me a little ten or fifteen million dollar government contract. Maybe I do not like all the grey in the sky. It is just me and the droning airplane and the jabbering ghosts. The ghosts are not telling me anything they haven’t already told me a thousand times.

For whatever reason, I get a little frisky when I get into those dips. They are not much.

I take the first one and nothing happens. I twist my right wrist back and when I find the second dip I feel a little thrill. I separate from the seat, pitch a little forward, drop back down and I feel younger. I feel bullet proof.

No air, though. So, when I see the third dip coming I open the throttle all the way. Still no air. I just start to lose control of the bike.

Mistake Was Made

I don’t know what happened. I never do. Maybe the back wheel came up while the front wheel stayed down. Maybe I hit something I never saw. Maybe I just can’t ride worth a damn. That is a definite possibility.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I thought I was going to die.

Now, let me just say that it is the glory and the curse of small time nobodies like me that none of us are afraid to die. I know that kind of talk makes some people uneasy. All I can say, if you are one of those people, is I have thought I was finished enough times that I have to count with at least all my fingers and toes and I have not died yet. Familiarity breeds contempt.

But almost dying does not happen to me often enough that I ever remember from time to time what it is actually like. Not that I would ever have time to remember anything when those moments come.

Refusing To Die

The minute I think, “What a horseshit way to go,” my mind just shuts right down and my body takes over. My body refuses to believe it will ever die and this last time, last week, the instant I imagine I am about to go down at a hundred miles an hour my body starts doing things I do not know how to do.

Or, maybe it is the bike that saves me. The bike always just wants to stay up and run straight and the front end wobble goes right away.

By the time I am thinking again I have my hand off the throttle and I am leaning back and I have the clutch in. My eyes are wide open. I see everything and it is all happening, as everybody always says, real slow. What I knew that I could put into words is probably too silly to say but I will go ahead and say it all anyway. I had to pee. My left wrist really hurt. I was out of breath. I was trembling so hard I had to let the clutch out and take my hands off the bars. And, I was thirsty. I don’t know about you but almost dying always makes me thirsty.

I wanted a beer. And, fortunately I knew a place. I always know a place. A few miles farther on I turned left and sedately putted into a failed place that refuses to die.

A Little Desert History

What is left of Bombay Beach now sits about a mile inland from what remains of a great salt lake called the Salton Sea. This was the northern shore of the Sea of Cortez 15 million years ago. The first white men to show up called this low spot in the desert “The Sink.” And, when the Southern Pacific Railroad built a line through here in 1876 a fine capitalist venture called the New Liverpool Salt Company opened a railroad stop.

They called their station the Salton Station and the name stuck. A few years later, a group of idealists decided there was nothing America couldn’t do and so they set out to make the desert bloom. Actually they weren’t all idealists.

There used to be money in desert land. In 1892 a real estate speculator named Charles Rockwood started the California Development Company. By 1902 he had a canal built near a couple of arroyos called the New River and the Alamo River. The canal brought Colorado River water up from Mexico

Twelve years later the Imperial Valley, between San Diego and Yuma, was on its way to becoming one of the richest farmlands in the country. Twelve thousand people were using 700 miles of canals to irrigate 77,000 acres of land and the equation seemed simple. More water equaled more arable land which equaled more crops which equaled more money. Teddy Roosevelt was President. Anything was possible.

The Flood

The only problem was that the Colorado carries so much red mud that by 1905 the canals had begun to silt up. That Spring, Rockwood started digging a new canal into the Salton Sink from just south of Yuma. And then there was a flood.

In the old days, before everybody had a straw in it, the Colorado used to flood and this time the river overflowed Rockwood’s canal and cut a new channel 400 yards wide. Farmers using dynamite, tens of thousands of sandbags, pile drivers and dredges managed to save the border towns of Calexico and Mexicali. But all the farms and ranches in the Salton sink were soon lost.

Eventually the Southern Pacific stepped in and took charge when the flood began to threaten the rail line. They ran a spur out to the Colorado and hired virtually every man, woman and child in the Maricopa, Yuma, Pima and Papago Indian tribes. The Indians wove huge mats out of brush and steel cables. They anchored the mats in the flood with pile drivers and then the railroad dumped whole train loads of dirt and gravel into the breach. The idea was for the mats to hold the dirt and rocks.

It did not work the first time. Then it failed again. Roosevelt brought the catastrophe in front of Congress and Congress quickly did exactly what it usually does. But not even many, mighty Congressional speeches could stop the flood.

God Steps In

Eventually God stepped in. The new channel silted up in 1907. What was left in the Salton Sink was a 380 square mile, 37 foot deep freshwater lake.

Experts said it would dry up in no time. It did not. What they called the Salton Sea remained stabile for almost 70 years., almost a lifetime, and people got used to it. Agricultural runoff stabilized the lake. The surface rose about a foot every winter and dropped back the same amount every summer. Gradually the Sea turned salty.

As Los Angeles grew the Sea grew became a resort; a desert Riviera; a vacation destination.

1950s Paradise

The State of California made it a fishing hole. The California Department of Fish and Game tried to introduce striped bass into the Salton Sea in 1929 and failed. In 1934 they tried Salmon and that didn’t work. In 1948 they tried anchovies. In the 50s they tried pompano, halibut, perch, bonefish, grunion, sardines, clams, mussels, oysters, crabs, shrimp, corvina and croakers. The corvina took.

Birds came for the fish. Almost 400 species of birds roosted around the Salton Sea.

The Sea might have been America’s greatest victory over nature. Old photographs from the late 60s show happy families frolicking on tan, sandy beaches. People moved here, built a golf course, retired here, built vacation homes here. The desert did not just bloom. The desert became a kind of paradise.

Then in the decade after Vietnam, just like everything else in America, the Salton Sea started to go bad. Nature refused to concede defeat.

Nature Always Wins

Because of the agricultural runoff and leeching from the old salt beds the Salton Sea became 25 percent saltier than the Pacific. Then, because of global warming or more efficient irrigation-it depends on who you ask-the lake that had stayed the same size for a lifetime began to shrink. Boat docks were stranded. Marinas closed. The Salton Sea ceased to be a resort. Nobody went there to water ski.

Then the birds started to die. Toxic algae blooms, pesticide laden runoffs, avian cholera, Newcastle Disease and botulism killed hundreds of thousands of pelicans, gulls, grebes, cormorants, herons, ducks and geese. For awhile, local authorities ran an incinerator 24 hours a day, seven days a week, burning the bird corpses. Then there were more corpses than they could burn.

By 1980, the Salton Sea was a place people escaped. Baja California, fifty miles to the south, became the place where American manufacturing jobs escaped. And as Baja prospered, millions of gallons of raw sewage, industrial waste and pesticides from Mexico began to flow up the New and the Alamo rivers into the Salton Sea.

Then the fish started to die and wash up on shore. At irregular intervals the state would bulldoze the rotting carcasses under.

The catastrophe caught the attention of Congress for about a minute in the 1990s. The late Sonny Bono, the one time husband of Cher, one time Mayor of Palm Springs and one time Congressman from the Salton Sea cared about the salt lake and he became its champion.

But, this time Congress hardly even bothered to make speeches. Washington decided it would be just too expensive to try to do anything. “Nature” was allowed to take her course. In 2009, the Sea is not quite dead yet.

The Last Bar

Me either. Although, I am still shaking a little when I pull off the highway. There actually used to be a beach here but now it is gone. It doesn’t smell too bad. It only stinks here when the wind comes out of the west.

There were 366 people left in Bombay Beach when they took the last census. About eighty of them are gone now. Probably, half the houses are abandoned. Some are still homes to people who can’t give up.

For whatever reasons they do not give up and they live in little, mostly neat, 1950s bungalows: Little houses painted ocean blue and white; or designed to look like cabin cruisers; sometimes with neat little, green lawns. I ride past three teenagers standing on a corner and I swear I hear them singing a Beach Boys song. A man watering his lawn waves at me and I wave back.

This is the undying dream of California, the ghost of California. This is the California that could never fail. This is California before California became famous for “freeways” with toll booths, rationed opportunities and gangsta rap.

The sun is warm and shining when I get to a little café called the Ski Inn.

Stop Here Best Food Ice Cold Drinks.

It is the only bar in town. It is the only restaurant for miles. It is barely noon so I can back the bike into a spot in the gravel near the front door. A few seconds after I walk in two people get up and leave. I don’t take it personally.

Cold Drink


“Draft?” The bartender is big, dark and laconic. He doesn’t waste energy smiling. The back of the bar is decorated with signs.

Nothing happens here. But that’s not what you hear here.

We don’t give credit. Don’t even ask.

“Bud draft?”

The bartender gives me eight ounces of beer in a cold, heavy glass. He sets it down gently. He takes my money gently. The cash register doesn’t make a sound. My bar stool is broken. I move over one. There are five kinds of rum and one kind of scotch.

Tourists come here from the East Coast and Europe. Some of them come here to laugh. It is such a scream all of this.

As Seen On TV

A celebrity chef named Anthony Bourdain stopped in this bar a couple of years ago. He got his laughs and he put them on television. Then Bombay Beach became a small part of a small chapter of the Anthony Bourdain story.

Bourdain took the angle that he was visiting a primitive tribe. They were so primitive they seemed to have no idea how important he was. That was part of the joke he told on cable TV.

But, of course they knew who he was. They have satellite dishes even here.

Today in this bar a pretty woman on satellite TV is trying to terrify everybody about the ruined economy but they do not seem to be as terrified in Bombay Beach as they might be in some other place. Bombay Beach is way past being afraid it might die.

Embarrassing Myself Again

I stare at the TV like a moron until I have to turn away. I glance at five or six people watching and listening and I laugh out loud like an idiot. Nobody knows why I am laughing except me.

When I laugh I avoid spitting beer all over the bar. I manage to just spit beer down the front of my flannel shirt. The place goes silent. Everybody knows I am an idiot. Everybody knows I am from the outside world. I might as well be a celebrity chef or a European.

I politely make myself invisible until another pair of tourists walk in and sit down at a table behind me. Two people glance at them. Six people don’t bother. Then the bar comes back to life.

Fish Assholes

The bartender looks cockeyed at my glass. I think maybe I can belong here yet. I nod toward a stack of brown and white cans a few feet down the bar to my left. “How much are the cans of fish assholes?”

“Two dollars.” I put my money down.

He grabs a can. “That for here or to go?”

“I’ll take it with me.” The money disappears.

This is a tourist dive and a locals hangout. Big patches of the wall and ceiling are covered with souvenir dollar bills. All the bills are signed. “Jack was here.” Some of them are dated. “Tom Beverly, April 1995.” “Tony. Best wishes. 2008.”

Nobody Says Goodbye

I finish my beer and go outside. Nobody misses me. I finish my laugh before I ride away. Nobody cares.

I wasn’t trying to laugh at anybody. The only reason I laughed was because I suddenly understood why all the tourists come here-me and the Europeans and the celebrities. We don’t come for the fish assholes, tempting though they may seem. We don’t even come for the beer or the blue sky.

We come to see our future. And, I have seen enough for one day, between this lost dream and my mortality. So I get back on my bike and I ride slowly back to el lay. And, this time I am extra careful to try not to die.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Bombay Beach”

  1. Woodstock Says:

    One of your best pieces,and a personal favorite. It’s ironic to me that it gets so little attention. I am grateful that you do this for yourself Don. If you were doing it just for us you’d probably have quit a long time ago.Thanks.

  2. Rebel Says:

    Dear Sorcerer,

    Thank you. Old story.


  3. Sorcerer745 Says:

    great story rebel your a hell of a writer

  4. rc Says:

    Let’s Go Wheeee + Mistake Was Made + Refusing to die = priceless

    great stuff, rc

  5. Anna Seton Says:

    great story – evocative – went to bombay beach once…lots of fish bones! hey, really dig your writing

Leave a Reply