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On the road in "Sharemerica": Last dispatch from the Salton Sea

Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media, along with the places he visits. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. This installment, Bryan's final from California’s Salton Sea, finds him in the watering hole that's the town's social center.

 

“This is the Last of the Mohicans, last of the frontier,” said a man who called himself “Jack,” apparently dodging ex-wives and the FBI and unwilling to use his real name. He was with two other salty sons of the desert, in for a beverage or seven on a lazy Wednesday afternoon. Jack had tales to tell, far too many for here. But the gist was that of all the great things and places that had come and gone in the Salton Sea, this was the very last place there was. And he was right. If you were thirsty for alcohol and company, it was Capt’n Jim’s or nothing, unless you trekked up to the VFW or much further north to the casino.

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I can’t even be sure how I’d heard of Capt’n Jim’s before I got here. But it seemed like a place that had potential. If there was a center left to the town, I hoped it would be here.

From the hand-painted sign to the guardian figure at the door, it already had my full attention. The bar was close to Alamo Restaurant, the only sit-down place left in town, and The West Shores Market, which is the only local grocery store and (critically) liquor shop for a lot of miles. It was the last bit of outpost left.

Ginny Mae was holding down the bar and was extremely personable and fast with the draught handle. Top-notch in fact. I liked this place already, modest in scale and humble, it seemed quintessential small-town America. She knew the desert rats well and helped me navigate the social protocol of the place. Jack related a few tales of days gone by, having been an off-and-on seasonal resident of the Sea since the 1960s. The tale he wove made me very sad that I had missed the glory days. “This used to be like Palm Springs … now it’s just terrible.” But he acknowledged that the place still had its charms, despite the fade from glory.

When the desert rats decamped, I was the sole customer left. Ginny (pronounced “Jenny” in case you pop in) told me a little about the place and that she had “come with it.” I had not known that the bar had recently been sold. It seemed like I had missed the putative local cultural historian by mere months — the Jim of Jim’s. As luck would have it, though, the new owner, Kamper, was sitting right behind me, doing some work getting the California lottery machine set up. And he was happy to chat.

The locals definitely carry the bar, he said, but snowbirds, Canadians and off-roaders are a big part of the customer base, too, on a seasonal basis. Business was a little soft, but that was, he said, par for the course this time of year. When I asked why he got into the bar business, he told me the prior owner had been trying to sell for some time but couldn’t. Kamper and his partner decided to give it a go, because the risk was that the bar would close down otherwise, and they didn’t want that. It would have left a big hole in the community.

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The place had been cleaned up, painted and rearranged since May, with something of a pirate theme. It was definitely pretty cool and had a really good vibe. But I was saddened to have missed the old-school decor by less than six months. But it turned out Kamper had tried to keep as much as he could and there was a big thick photo album they’d put together. It was the surviving pictures of the old bar and its patrons. I got to leaf through it, and it was clear that this hadn’t just been a bar. This had been, and still was, the social hub of the town. Vegas locals would feel not a bit out of place in those photos of the glory days. Costume parties, birthdays, holidays with some pretty outrageous behavior and NSFW moments. There had been a lot fun for a lot of years. And despite the decor change, you could still feel the good times in the room. Kamper said that the walls had been covered with photos, some so old that they had just crumbled when they tried to take them down.

I spent the whole afternoon at Capt’n Jim’s, as I had hoped to meet other locals dropping in. But after Kamper mentioned he’d had a mountain lion in his backyard recently, walking around in the dark seemed like not a good idea. So I said my thanks and goodbyes.

One thing Ginny mentioned in passing, and it wasn’t clear to me at the time, was who was in the sole photo still up in the place. “That’s David,” she said “he just passed away ... so sad.” As it turned out, less than a month before. David had apparently been helping to run the place for a lot of years with his dad, Jim Eggers. And that name, David Eggers, becomes the unexpected bridge connecting to the next set of Sharemerica stories — in San Diego.

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Ginny Mae, who came with the place.

Kamper, the new owner

The regular crowd's shuffled in