Hope and Desolation in the Ghost Town: Bodie State Historic Park
I didn't like history classes back in school. Things we read in textbooks didn't seem relevant to me at that time, and I definitely didn't enjoy memorizing names of long defunct monarchs or dynasties. Furthermore, many episodes in history were worse than horror movies.
My perspective changed when I moved to Europe in my early twenties, especially after attending several London Walks. History came alive right in front of my face and under my footsteps. Suddenly, ghosts of the past haunted the modern city and whispered tales untold. History became fascinating and relatable, especially after a pint or two during a pub walk. I was hooked and went on several more walks on different topics, it was like wearing special-vision goggles and seeing stories behind walls. I've since become a history junkie and compulsively do my history reading homework before and after visiting places.
During our recent trip to the Eastern Sierra, we were able to visit a piece of frozen history. Bodie, one of the best preserved western ghost towns, sits on a plateau in the eastern Sierra Nevada at an altitude of 8,379 ft/2,554 m on the frontier of California and Nevada. This gold rush era boom town prospered and declined within just a few decades. At its heyday, Bodie's mines were churning out incredible amounts of gold, and the town supported a population of around 10,000 people. Once the gold was gone, people started moving away, and finally in the 1940s, the entire town was abandoned and became a ghost town.
Visiting Bodie is like stepping inside an illustrated history book. The buildings, furniture, and objects are authentic in a state of "arrested decay". By walking around town, you get a true sense of the place. Within minutes of entering this ghost town, time becomes warped, and you'll start to "see" old residents walking beside you and hear them tell some vivid stories.
If your kids don't like history, I think a trip to Bodie should spark some interest. Bodie is a wild-west gold rush town in a remote corner with tough climate conditions. To get there takes some driving through mountains and dirt roads, but it's an experience that's worth the detour.
What we see today in Bodie is just a portion of the old town, as many houses burned down in several fires. During the gold rush, this town attracted a host of diverse characters, and it was known to be a rather violent place where drunken quarrels, stabbing, shooting, and robberies were common sights. The "bad men from Bodie" became a legend known across the country.
Perhaps it was the remoteness, perhaps it was the tough conditions, people just didn't get along well. Interestingly, these very different people who fought hard at each other are seen today as one unity of people in one slice of history. The noises are gone, the ghost town is now eerily silent and peaceful.
Today, this well-preserved ghost town is a dream for photographers. The local microclimate is dry, therefore guaranteeing a highly saturated blue sky most times of the year (except for winter when there are snow storms). The yellow grass has taken over and formed a nice, thick carpet in the town. Most visitors walk around the town in silent awe. History seems very present.
We walked around different neighborhoods. There were some big houses and some not-so-big ones. Some had big porches and nice furniture inside, some looked narrow and barren. I couldn't help but imagine what sort of people inhabited these houses. Did they share the same values? Was building a sustainable town their common goal or did they all come for quick profits and separate agendas? Did they help each other?
Regardless of their original colors, the houses have long lost their paints, and now the whole town is unified by shades of brown of the underlying timber. The metal parts have rusted away, the ceilings have crumbled, and the curtains have been shredded to ghostly silhouettes.
We then headed to Main Street. Bodie was once a boom town, people came with high hopes and imagined great riches. As people gathered, businesses sprung up. There used to be countless saloons and commerces that catered to the gold miners. Later on, when the ladies arrived (who probably also catered to the miners), many other service business opportunities arose. No matter how much competition there was, they were all stuck in this town together.
As more people arrived and families formed, the Methodist Church was erected. The once lawless Bodie started to have higher moral grounds. The hopes that drew people to Bodie developed faith: faith for an enduring settlement, faith for a better future, faith in something that would stand the test of time... faith in an ever-flowing supply of gold?
The old stamping mill used to be the single most important employer of the whole town. At its prime, the mill was spewing out gold like there was no tomorrow. In just a few decades, the gold was depleted, and with the death blow of WWII's war production order that shut down all non-essential gold mines, Bodie's last residents left the town and their hopes behind.
If there was less violence and more cooperation, would the town have survived after the depletion of gold?
At the little museum on Main Street, we got a more detailed glimpse into the lives of past Bodie residents. How did they entertain kids? What treasured objects did they bring from their homelands?
How did they deal with the constant struggle in the frontier life? How did they deal with harsh winters? What did they do in face of the constant violence in town?
There were glass bottles of all forms and shapes. The message in the bottles depend on your own perspective. Perhaps they contained ways to forget. Perhaps they contained liquids of cleansing rituals. Whether their contents were mild or hard, today the bottles are lined up in harmony.
We peeked inside one particular house and tried to imagine the day-to-day life of the family that lived there. There was a bed by the main door, perhaps a wary father spending sleepless nights guarding the entrance to the house? In what seemed like a washroom, there was a crib with a bottle next to it. What was the story there?
Because of the remote location of Bodie and the difficulty of moving back then, many moved away without taking their furniture. Like the hopes that the settlers brought with them, the furniture was simply left behind.
We closed the door behind us and concluded our visit to Bodie. It was an interesting walk into history because it prompted us to ask more questions, about the past, and in many ways about the present. The answers? Only time will tell with honesty.
After all, ghost towns were once full of life.
How to Get There
Here's the map to Bodie. Don't hesitate to save it to your Google Maps.