Their Eyes were Watching Us
Hi, I’m Sasha - and I lived and traveled in an RV for 2 and a half years. I’m really glad you’re here.
This is the excerpt of a longer piece I’m working on regarding the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach, and Tourism as Voyeurism, and you can find a separate excerpt here. You can expect to see these integrated into a larger piece later on down the road.
We have named our watchers.
Saturday morning, I crept onto the front porch and leaned on the railing to watch them, afraid if they noticed my existence that they would quickly flee. But they were already watching me, had been, as soon as I opened the door. I noticed it because their heads turned slightly, but not as though they had been startled. Had they been watching me for some length of time? Watching as I poured my first cup of coffee, and then the second. Watching me through my kitchen window, then my living room window as I scrolled my phone. Had they waited to see if they would need to run across the fields when I exited?
Our named watchers are the four deer that I see from time to time lingering in the field across from us. And it turns out, as much as I watch them, they’re watching me.
When I was 14, my sister and I were t-boned in her old red BMW in Bend, Oregon. Passersby gawked as we sat on the side of the road outside a 7-eleven waiting for our dad to pick us up, waiting for the cops, waiting for the tow truck. It was a major intersection in Bend, and I was humiliated even though it was the fault of someone running a red light. I vowed then to never stare at an accident, at a scene, at a place where cops were parked. No rubbernecking. If I couldn’t help, I moved on.
But I’ve had times while traveling that a little centipede in my belly crept into my veins, and told me, “you’re rubbernecking on life.” In my travels, I had become the voyeur.
When I stepped onto the beach of the Salton Sea sometime in November 2018, I did not step on sand or dirt or mud. That light crunchiness? It was shells. The entire beach is made up of shells, and it was otherworldly. The sheer size of The Salton Sea is often under-represented, and it’s easy to think at first glance that it’s just a typical lake. The surface is about double that of lake Tahoe. Well. It was. It’s difficult to pinpoint its exact size largely because it is continually shrinking - like much of California’s surface water.
The closest town to the Salton Sea is Bombay Beach. From 1990, the town decreased from nearly a thousand residents to fewer than 400 today. I wanted to see it, so I drove there on a sulfur-scented November afternoon.
Every second house was uninhabited and in complete disarray. Burnt out, graffitied, broken windows, abandoned vehicles. But some homes had tiny mowed lawns that were so green they could have been spray-painted. Tiny houses with fresh pastel paint. Old people sitting in front of TVs behind their white picket fenced yards: houses plopped down between the abandoned homes. And I wondered - where did these people go? And why did some stay?
It is post-apocalyptic, but people live here. This is people’s lives.
I could go into the reasons why people continue to live there, or discuss the 70% reduction of the population over the last 20 years, or probe into the poverty-level income of these inhabitants. But that’s not what this is about.
If you want, you can google Bombay Beach. An Instagram haven, the community has no rarity of pictures. But I did not take a single picture that day of that town. I drove in and drove out, my heart slowly sinking in my chest. My shoulder sunk lower in my chair. I was the voyeur of these people. This was not Instagram, not social media. People who had put faith in Bombay Beach being the next San Diego or Palm Springs. People had put their life savings into living here, at some point, in the fifties or sixties or even seventies. And I watched them.
At that moment, I was a rubbernecker.
This was no highway accident, but I was peeping into these people’s houses expecting what? To be entertained? And maybe some of those people liked tourists, like the idea that their house is part of a strangely semi-abandoned semi-tourist-trap weird place for road trippers to come to gawk at. Maybe.
So I took some pictures of the installation art outside the town and called it a day. I drove back to the motorhome.
Without me anticipating it, my life became very voyeuristic early on in my travels. I had become the watcher. I could not help but wonder who was sitting in these Bombay Beach homes, watching me.
Thanks for traveling with me,