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Photograph: Rozette Rago

Have a drink at the Ski Inn, a bar 223 feet below sea level at the Salton Sea

Written by
Rozette Rago

The Salton Sea has been called a "post-apocalyptic wasteland," a "looming disaster" and "purgatory," among other things. It's true that the environmental issues of the area haven't been addressed sufficiently and that it may soon be too late for anyone to do anything about it. However, deep within an area that has somewhat been caricatured is a community of about 400 people living and pining for what used to be a beautiful place.

Many of the area's settlers are retirees who used to vacation as children with their families back when the Salton Sea was still pegged as something like what Palm Springs is to us now. Some of the residents are families with very young children. They are all very vocal advocates of saving the lake and think of events like Coachella as an opportunity to bring people in. They interact openly and warmly with visitors, talking about the golden days of the town.

At the center of it all is the Ski Inn, one of two bars in Bombay Beach that serves a full menu of bar food. It was named after water skiing, a popular activity at the Salton Sea during the 1950s. Owned by 88-year-old Wendall Southworth and 84-year-old Jane Southworth, the husband and wife also work as bartender, cook and server. Wendall has turned into a pretty well-known figure in the community; It is not unusual to find tourists walking in and asking him for pictures, which he happily smiles for. 

Wendall opens the bar every morning at 6:50 with regular patrons already waiting for him in the parking lot.
Wendall was a mobile home transporter before he retired to Riverside in the '90s. His friends who owned the Ski Inn at the time ran into some financial troubles and needed help. He decided to step up and take over the bar with his wife.
The bar's walls, ceiling and furniture are covered in dollar and foreign bills.
About 10 years ago, someone asked to put a dollar bill on the wall and the owners said yes. Now, they have colored pens and tape ready for whomever wants to partake in the tradition.
The regulars who live in Bombay Beach usually come in twice or so a day for a couple of drinks. They talk to Wendall about everything—new purchases, annoying neighbors, fishing memories—and he always listens.
There are also the travelers who wander in. They either find out about the bar through the many documentaries about the Salton Sea or just simply driving by. I met Maria, pictured above sitting in the outdoor patio, who was on a road trip from San Francisco by herself. She was camping at Joshua Tree and had heard about the bar on TV.
Sharon, the owners' daughter-in-law, comes in at 4pm to take over bartending duties so Wendall can go home and rest.
There's a bulletin board with notices about someone's birthday party, a funeral and several news items about the Salton Sea. The regular fixtures at The Ski Inn often find themselves in deep discussions about the failures of the local government in advocating for a revival of the Salton Sea. They keep track of who's done what and so on.
Come dinnertime, the crowd is a little different with kids coming to play pool or just hang out, creating a more family restaurant vibe.
I met newlyweds Ponzer and Elisha who brought their friends with them for their honeymoon weekend. They have been coming to the area together for many years and stay at properties owned by their parents since the '50s or '60s. New construction is no longer permitted at the Salton Sea due to its position right on the San Andreas fault line.
Drinks at the Ski Inn are significantly cheaper with $2.50 beers and $4 shots.
Josh, who is part of the newlywed's wedding party, was at the bar early morning having Bloody Mary's before breakfast. He soon returned to continue the party, which eventually led to a nap on the bench outside.
After many rounds of drinks, the newlyweds decide to take the party home.
Wendall holds up a framed photo of what the Ski Inn used to look like. They have put the Ski Inn up for sale a few years ago. They are eager to retire and hand the business over to someone willing to keep it going. "You wanna buy it?" he asked me on my last day at the bar. For less than $200,000, you could be the proud owner of a Bombay Beach landmark.

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